I believe in the life changing power of personal experience. It is not enough to learn facts through reading textbooks. There are things that cannot be learned except by direct contact and immersion in the experience.
I began playing with the idea when my parents started taking me out of school to travel abroad. We would go to exotic destinations like West Africa, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon, just to name a few. In the process of traveling, I would have to take my school assignments with me. However, it soon became clear that I was learning more from observing and interacting with different peoples and places than from my math and science homework. Someone can study the implications of poverty at a major university, but he will never understand it until he walks the dirt roads of Ghana and sees the pain and suffering all around him. Being present enables full comprehension of whatever is under observation, recognizing that no other form of learning is equivalent. But more than that, such experiences have the power to transform one’s personality. The minute I returned home from Africa, I rounded up all of my old clothes and used school supplies, packed them up and shipped them to a village of Africans. Their struggle for sustenance cannot be conceived without experience, especially in a culture where people live vicariously through means such as MySpace.com. A book or a picture will never come close to capturing the elation a person feels when they see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. It will never inspire someone to try new things or seek unique experiences like standing there in person will. Personal experiences are both enlightening and character building.
I try to remember that this philosophy does not need to be exclusively applied to large-scale events, but should be taken into consideration with respect to everyday emotions and mundane occurrences. Consider the act of playing football for example. Watching football on television and reading about it in the newspaper can help one understand the rules of the sport, but until one has played the game its other influences are intangible. Finding out how to work hard and practice to achieve perfect results, developing a group dynamic and close friendships, and learning what it means to be a teammate are all lessons only learned by stepping onto a grass field wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. I think no one can possibly hope to know what it is to be a player unless they are a player themselves.
I believe that a seven-year-old kid who trips on his shoelaces and falls on his face never forgets to tie his sneakers again. Even though his parents told him it would happen, he didn’t take the advice to heart until he had the experience of cleaning the gravel off of his cheek. It is moments like these, not the books we read or the movies we watch, that shape who we are and who we will become.
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