Experiential learning is learning by doing and reflecting.
If that means nothing to you, I felt the same way until 7 years ago.
That’s when I suddenly found myself on a dimly lit stage, sharing a much-too-personal story to 50 coworkers. It was a story about my journey to writing a story. In fact, it was a story about how I had failed to write one.
Here’s how you can design a learning journey that allows you to embrace failure and learn faster.
Find calm amongst the chaos of change
It’s like one of those after-school extracurricular activities, but for adults.
Our agency had partnered up with the Experience Institute to offer “an experience-based learning program”. When I first caught wind of it, mental barriers came crashing down like cinder blocks in Mario Kart.
I’m not going to do this for 2 months. It’s going to be so awkward. What if my project sucks? What if I can’t finish it? What if everyone else makes fun of me?
As the deadline came closer, a close colleague started egging me on. She was an alum, and the experience helped jumpstart her side hustle in photography. My curiosity finally reached its boiling point. What was this, and how much could 6 weeks change anyways?
We met inside a small classroom, expecting a lecture.
A mysterious young woman and a balding man entered. They asked us odd questions about our childhood goals, ambitions, and dreams. What made us tick.
It was polarizing at first, but the discomfort slowly started to melt away.
Because they didn’t present answers. Instead, they gave us a process with constraints. An approach to creating our own learning journeys.
“Change is the end result of all true learning” — Leo Buscaglia
Trust the process over perfection
The troops looked exhausted. I’m pretty sure some folks quit.
A few weeks later, a small group of survivors huddled into a slightly larger space after a long workday. The same dynamic duo stood at the front, grinning. They saw us coming a mile away and had a plan for jumpstarting the collective morale.
Post-its, markers, pizza, and wine appeared.
The mission was to come up with a specific, time-bound project that involved learning something new. I hadn’t done that since college…or maybe high school? Reflecting back, however, it was quite simple. We:
- Wrote down what we wanted to do
- Came up with reasons why we wanted to do it
- Visualized the outcome or result
- Took inventory of our skillset
- Jotted down a list of others who could keep us accountable
- Thought through any barriers or challenges
- Took action
- Documented the journey
- Shared our findings
- Learned something
During our initial meeting, we started brainstorming the “why, where, what, and how”. That’s when my concept was born.
I decided to write a short story about an adult dealing with mental illness, written from the perspectives of both the patient and caregiver. The purpose was to cast a spotlight on how mental health issues impact everyone.
To show that none of us are ever alone.
At first, my mind jumped to all sorts of abstract undertakings, like developing an animated film. Or producing a play. Or both. A moment of wisdom in my head said “keep it simple, stupid”.
Some humbling thoughts later, I did a quick skills inventory to determine what I was good at. Turns out, not much. But at least I enjoyed writing. So it was decided. I was going to publish a short story. Or so I thought.
Draw inspiration from your surroundings
It didn’t occur to me that I had never done anything like this before.
Ghostwriting for clients was one thing, but taking a third-person narrative voice and writing dialogue? It was time to call the big guns.
A creative director at our agency, Derek, seemed like a good place to start.
I cornered him after work one day. In under half an hour, he set me down the path of least resistance and greatest return. After listening to me stumble through the vision for my project, he grabbed a piece of paper and drew a bubble at the center. Three words.
Main idea: depression.
An array of circles and dots began to connect from there. Characters, key events, and scenes began to emerge out of thin air.
Self-doubt kicked in.
I confided to Derek a deep concern about being confined to the shackles of reality since this story was actually very personal and real to me. He responded by citing the wise words of Mark Twain.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” - Mark Twain
That’s when I felt empowered to lay out the truth. Others could have been through a similar experience and would want to feel heard.
Also, a few creative liberties could be taken along the way if needed. This wasn’t an autobiography. It was a short story.
Shape and share your adventure
Serendipity, for the win.
Derek also pointed me in the direction of a local comic book store in Chicago called Quimby’s.
I walked in the next day and instantly became a kid again. There were beautiful covers and odd comics everywhere.
After checking out an aggressive amount of books, the kid in me grew old. It was time for a bearded researcher and writer to emerge from the shadows.
Flipping through a series of random comics from cover to cover, I was shocked by nightmare drawings depicting disease, death, and destruction. People come up with some incredibly creative stuff after going through horrible times.
That’s when I discovered that I wasn’t alone, and found inspiration to begin.
There was a story here and it was worth telling. A Google Doc filled up, the word count read 687 words. Our deadline for the storytelling event inched closer. Three weeks till I present this to my coworkers.
I turned my attention to rehearsing the story about writing a short story. This was probably the hardest part. It felt uncomfortable, like ripping off a band-aid or sitting in an ice bath. But it helped me find peace in the past.
The story became less jarring with each repetition, as the rough edges rearranged themselves neatly into a narrative. I was lucky enough to have a friend record me as we kept iterating.
Before I knew it, I was at the front of the room of 50 coworkers. My 15 minutes had ended. The short story went unfinished. But that day I learned more about learning and myself.
The years that followed brought me to Medium and helped me rediscover the joy of writing. An old draft of the short story lies idle in an abandoned Google Drive folder.
No better time to pick up the pieces and try again.
Here’s what I learned:
- Build a structured, bite-sized approach to learning and testing ideas
- Write everything down, visualize outcomes, and track your progress
- Search for inspiration everywhere and ask for help
- Record yourself and practice in public to accelerate your rate of feedback.
- Share your story with others. It’ll feel uncomfortable but it’s worth it. Why? Because your story could help someone else who needs it. Your words could unlock a new perspective for others.