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Hi. I'm a Unix Administrator, mathematics enthusiast, and amateur philosopher. This is where I rant about that which upsets me, laugh about that which amuses me, and jabber about that which holds my interest most: Unix.
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The "doh!" recursion

Posted 12-02-2009 at 12:25 PM by rocket357

It's been said that learning from other's mistakes is truly the "divine" way to learn, as you don't have to experience the pain of the mistake firsthand. While I agree with this to an extent, I also believe that nothing can take the place of firsthand experience. A wise man once told me that you learn more in 10 minutes of playing guitar in front of a crowd than you do in 10 hours of playing guitar in your bedroom (thanks, RS). The difference? When you're playing for a crowd, there is no safety net. You are at the mercy of the crowd. When you play in your bedroom, who cares if you miss that A#?

Firsthand learning is a recursive process. I don't mean "programmer's recursion", I mean truly interactive you learn, the lesson adjusts, simultaneously as the lesson adjusts, you learn. It's more "realtime" than "I've learned the information on page 12, so I will now turn to page 13".

Like any recursion, adjustments made on one side of the interaction can have unintended consequences for both sides. Look at disease prevention...every year people go get flu shots because they don't want to get the flu. Flu strains that are susceptible to vaccines die off, causing the remaining population of flu virii to increase in percentage of non-susceptible strains. Now our vaccines don't work...we've managed to kill off susceptible flu strains that compete with non-susceptible ones and we've left ourselves with the truly nasty strains. Oops? Not quite what we had in mind.

Same goes for learning new computer systems or commands. Wonder what "nohup sudo rm -rf / >/dev/null 2>&1 &" does to a Unix system? Run it! (DISCLAIMER: I'm giving advice on the basis that you learn best when in "oh damn" mode. DON'T RUN THAT COMMAND unless you are comfortable with reinstalling your entire machine and have the time to accomplish such). Sure, there's usually cleanup to perform and sometimes the lesson stings, but that's the best part! Oh, and make sure you are able to start over from scratch if need be. Virtual machines are a blessing in this respect...

Now, I do have to revert back to reality briefly...I would advise against firsthand lessons that tend to be deeply life-altering or fatal, as usually the experience you gain isn't worth much if you're dead or stuck in an institution. I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to get hooked on heroin "just to experience it". To quote my loving wife "Get some common sense...jeez!". Both forms of learning have their place.

See, when you learn a lesson by observing someone else, you miss out on the driving "voltage" that motivates you to act miss out on the emotional association you'd otherwise gain from experiencing the lesson firsthand. Association is a powerful attaches **meaning** to otherwise meaningless data. A lesson you learn via observation lacks meaning and therefore takes mental effort to recall, whereas a lesson learned firsthand has the association (some activity leads to an emotion that motivates you to act) that causes a stricter response than simple recall. If you've never touched a stove burner turned to "high", but you were told not to do it, you likely would not be as cautious about it as someone who burned the snot out of themselves on the same burner. You never truly appreciate life lessons unless you learn them firsthand...but not all lessons can or should be learned firsthand. For those that can, however, firsthand learning is powerful.

Firsthand learning is fun stuff. Sure, there are plenty of "doh!" moments, and sometimes it *really* does hurt...but if you want divine learning, go smack your thumb with a hammer. I guarantee the lesson learned won't be easily forgotten.
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  1. Old Comment
    ++ i learned most things on my own mistakes =)
    i can say it was great. but, yes, painful.
    Posted 12-02-2009 at 03:13 PM by Web31337 Web31337 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    I believe it was Winston Churchill who said "I'm always ready to learn but I dislike being taught"

    (not an exact quote)
    Posted 12-02-2009 at 06:05 PM by lwasserm lwasserm is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Good post. It's very true.
    Posted 12-06-2009 at 09:30 AM by ofaring ofaring is offline


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