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"A learning experience is one that tells you, 'You know that thing you just did? Don't do that.'"

Some people learn by reading. Some people learn by observation. Some people learn off the telly. And then there are those who just have to grab the electric fence...

The human mind is an interesting thing. When we put our hand on a hot burner or put a penny in a lightsocket, what's left of us tends to not want to do that anymore. We learn from our mistakes.

Characters in a story usually begin their journey with little actual experience in the real world. Somewhere along the way, they figure out how to manage. There is usually something either said or implied that being in a constant life or death situation has forced them to find some way to survive. By default, they usually become damn good at it.

When the time for action has come, the time for preparation has passed. Sometimes your Training From Hell is not enough. Other times you have no training whatsoever. This is often how someone Took a Level In Badass. Some are so good at this that they are Awesome By Analysis and become an Instant Expert. Maybe, somewhere along the line, they learned Mortal Kombat.

This is a staple of MacGyvering, the devices they make work because they have to. The Crazy Prepared person is either this way because of past experience, or because they want to avoid the bruises associated with it. And this is implied with a person who has Seen It All -- they have experienced it personally.

Truth in Television: want to learn German, live in Germany. Want to learn Japanese, go to Japan. Hard work is still needed to get to a well rounded skill level you need, because there's no guarantee that learning by experience will cover every critical area. Worse, you might pick up bad habits that those with proper training are taught to avoid. And on the other side, the pure academic approach doesn't account for the "street smarts" and variations not found in the classroom. Let's just say there is a good reason why a leader needs to know what it is like at ground zero.

In Video Games, especially RPGs, this is what they are trying to replicate with Experience Points, especially in the more complicated leveling methods where performing an action repeatedly gives you more points to allocate to that skill area.

See also the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. Compare/contrast Hard Work Hardly Works, The Only Way They Will Learn, Sink or Swim Mentor, and Wax On, Wax Off.

Examples of Taught By Experience include:


Anime and Manga

  • Mugen from Samurai Champloo has a bizarre fighting style. Jin (who is a classically trained samurai) even notes how his style is completely impractical, yet is one of the few men Jin could not kill easily. Mugen made mention that he grew up in very violent conditions, (living in a prison colony and being a prisoner himself) which forced him to figure out that style on his own. It works for him.
    • In the final two parter, the two two face off against Kariya. Mugan goes first and Kariya notes that while his movement make his swordplay unpredictable it leaves too many openings that a trained swordsman can easily get through. Adding that Mugan need to learn to adapt more in certain conditions. In the final battle he takes this to heart which allows him to off Umanosuke by using his scythe against him.
  • A foundation of Dragonball Z. Doing some Training From Hell so that My Kung Fu Is Stronger Than Yours often leads into a Determinator moment. As Goku once said to Gohan, "Power comes when there is a reason. Create your reason."
  • Spirited Away uses this in the classic gentle Studio Ghibli way. Chihiro has to fend for herself. She has friends, but the story is about how she grows during the process.
  • The first season of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was a fairly ridiculous case: Nanoha became a mage when she was handed her Empathic Weapon and defeated the first Monster of the Week. She does this after school, and without any training, she's stronger than another talented mage that had been training for his entire life within a week. Then within a few weeks, she's an elite A rank mage firing a Wave Motion Gun from her staff. The manga actually provided a Hand Wave that she used said weapon to go through Training From Hell at all hours of the day.
  • In Pokémon, Ash doesn't get anything right in the first story arc (Indigo league), often getting his badges after losing the first gym battle and having to help out the gym in some fashion later on. As the series progresses, he gradually gets sharper and more creative with his methods, both in training and battling his Pokémon ("Use Pikachu" and "If that doesn't work, use more Pikachu" won't solve all of his problems).
    • Ironic as he kept using Pikachu on Team Rocket, despite them using something that's shock proof (which they've done since, what, the fifth time he faced them? Out of Over Nine Thousand?) As Meowth pointed out in one episode, "You'd think he'd learn by now".
  • Vagabond is about how Miyamoto Musashi goes from a naturally gifted hothead to a true Badass after he gains experience, being humbled before overcoming the challenge; when he's going to fight all of the remaining Yoshioka, he actually thanks them (silently and by himself with a silent prayer) for giving him the past year to learn, develop and grow.
  • Generally, most of the cast in Mahou Sensei Negima opt for Training From Hell (with the occasional Awesome By Analysis). The former private soldier Mana Tatsumiya, on the other hand, thanks to a youth spent in combat, can boast the skills and instincts above what the rest of the warrior-heavy class have managed, befitting a mercenary of her ability. Evangeline also counts, having learned to use magic and her vampiric abilities at age ten, then going from there.
"Surviving for hundreds of years ain't just for show, you know."
—Chachazero
    • Don't forget Jack Rakan, who's pretty much invincible because he's fought for so long that there are only a handful of people who could pose a threat to him.
    • After Negi's and Rakan's match, some of the fans started quarreling about who was better. A fight broke out. Onlookers started betting on the outcome. The draw had the highest stake.
  • Parodied in Ranma ½, where Genma wanted to teach Ranma the legendary Cat Fu martial arts style. Being unfamiliar with its methods, he decided to wrap Ranma in bacon and sausage and throw him into a bin filled with starving cats. Ranma learned nothing (at least at first) and in fact gained a crippling phobia of cats because of it. It was later shown that he did learn Cat Fu, but has to go into a psychotic break-down from his cat phobia to reach it unconsciously.
    • On a funny note, it didn't teach Genma anything, as he tried to "cure" Ranma's phobia by throwing him in the bin again (this time with sardines).
  • Guts of Berserk has spent his entire life fighting from childhood on. While his training as a mercenary from childhood made him quite the badass against any human he met, the skills that he acquired in Demon Slaying were born out of pure experience, desperation and survival instinct, his first experience being with Zodd, then with Wyald after Griffith's rescue, and then with a whole mess of monsters from hell out to eat him alive during the Eclipse.
  • In Katekyo Hitman Reborn, the entire point of setting up Shoichi Irie as the main enemy of the Future Arc, and having the Vongola storm Merone Base was so that they would gain more strength in order to defeat the true Big Bad, Byakuran.
  • Yuu from Holyland does this most of the time fighting on the street. Sometimes he has to be manually taught by others, but mostly he figures it out by this. For example, he used what he learned fighting a judoka to know what to look out for against another grappler and started using more kicks after he found that he was damaging his hand from over-reliance on his fists.
  • In Happy Yarou Wedding, Kazuki thinks he can wipe the floor with Yuuhi, but Yuuhi is quick to point out that he's never been in a real fist fight before. Yuuhi may not be trained in martial arts, but his experience gives him the edge over Kazuki.


Film

  • Cast Away is a great demonstration of this. A pudgy Tom Hanks struggled for a while figuring out how to hunt for food, gather water, and build a fire. After a large Time Skip, you see him slimmed down and very efficient at all of those, in addition to making his own rope.
  • Platoon has Charlie Sheen's character develop from a shell shocked recruit fresh from basic training into a capable soldier...unfortunately.
  • Star Wars: Luke Skywalker's advancement in The Force can be attributed to this. Without the classic training of the monk-like Jedi, he learned by improvisation and sometimes hard lessons.
  • Iron Man had Stark forgo the thorough safety inspection on his Mark II suit because he wanted to use this trope. The lessons he learned from were used as a Chekhov's Gun later on.
    • Whereas Stane can't hit the broad side of a barn once his targeting computers are... "disabled".

 Stark: "Oooh, this looks important!" (rrriip)

      • To say nothing of the "icing problem".

 Stane: "Icing problem?" (suit goes ka-put)

Stark: "Might want to look into it!"

    • Carried into The Avengers. After the electrical discharges from Whiplash's weapons were able to disable his suit in Iron Man II, Tony has upgraded his suit further to absorb excess electrical energy, which he can then channel into his repulsors. He uses this feature against Thor.
  • Despite having "teaching machines" they could use, in Battlefield Earth the humans decided to just learn to fly jets through experience. And they do it well enough to actually pose a reasonable challenge to the Psyclos.
  • The Elite Squad (aka Tropa de Elite) combined this with Training From Hell: The latter half of a room-clearing obstacle course is actually a part of a real slum with real assault-rifle-toting criminals.
  • Batman Begins uses this entirely as its main story. Bruce went through the training, and when he came to forming the mantle of "Batman", it was from picking up his mistakes. After getting a military combat suit, he found that he needed something to soften a fall, which leads to the glider-cape. After getting gased by the Scarecrow, even though he was now innoculated against the effects, he was fully aware of what Crane was going to do. As Alfred used as a Call Back quote from Bruce's father, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."
    • The Dark Knight continues with this, as Bruce found the original Batman suit not holding up to the demands he was putting into it. He commissioned a new suit that addressed various limitations he found, such as a limited range of motion including the inability to turn his head.
  • Implied in the movie Sahara. Dirk and Al MacGyvering a boat to explode (Long Story), with a quick explanation that despite them calling it "The Panama Maneuver," they were actually in Nicaragua. After the boat explodes, an amazed side character asks the duo how they got it to work right the first time. Dirk sheepishly admits that it didn't work the first time...
  • The movie Apollo 13, while the ill-fated crew was stuck in space, they needed to temporarily move from the command module to the lunar module--and the carbon dioxide filters in the two modules were incompatible. Mission Control took a handful of its best people, stuck them in a room, and gave them all the spare parts the crew had available:

 Technician: We gotta find a way to make this [filter 1 fit into the hole for this [filter 2] using nothing but that.]


Literature

  • The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden's magical (and regular) arsenal changes between books from his observations of what works and what doesn't. After getting his left hand burnt into uselessness because his shield spell stops matter and kinetic energy but not heat, he devises a new shield that stops just about everything (including heat, light, electricity, most sorts of magic, etc). After seeing Elaine's taser-chain trick in White Night, he comes up for his own version for when fire magic isn't such a good idea.
    • Oh, and teaching his apprentice how to do magic gives him a LOT of ideas. And there's his upgraded 'knock people around' ring...
    • He also stopped using his wind spell, ventas servitas, after the first few books. According to the author, this is because while wind is flashy and impressive, force magic (his forzare spell) is much more effective and versatile in almost any situation.
  • In the Eisenhorn books, after the title character binds Cherubael, he finds that it keeps running wild at the worst possible times. Eventually, he triple-binds it, deeming the subsequent loss in power acceptable for the greater docility forced on it.
  • Scourge from Warrior Cats was thrown out onto the streets and learned this way. It led to him becoming a brutal killer with no remorse.


Live Action TV

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This, along with a heaping helping of natural talent, is subliminally given as the reason why Willow went from a newbie in magic to becoming the worlds most powerful witch in the space of four years.
    • Wesley from Angel defines his Took a Level In Badass from this trope. His first appearance on Buffy had him as an arrogant rookie from the "Watchers" academy (which wasn't too much different than what Giles was in the first season). By the third season of Angel he grew a permanent five day beard and while not as strong as The Hero, he was a fairly badass smart guy.
    • Gunn, also from Angel, learned this way before we even met him. He led an urban vampire hunting team made up entirely of local gangs. He had apparently been doing it for years and has had a relatively high life expectation compared to the better funded Watchers council and even the various Slayers.
      • Arguably, Buffy herself. She goes from having trouble with 2-3 vampires in Season 1, to killing 20 at once with a giant stake in Season 5.
  • Power Rangers lives upon this trope. Don't believe me? Two Words. Red Rookie.
  • Scrubs has this throughout its entire run, but most notably in the first episode where J.D. is afraid to even touch a patient. Dr. Cox became his unwilling mentor when he dropped the cold truth on him and forced him to get the job done.

  "Four years of pre-med, four years of med school, and tons of unpaid loans have made me realize one thing... I don't know jack."

  • Doctor Who: Interestingly enough, even the centuries-old Doctor.
  • Inverted with a character on House. An applicant for House's diagnostic team was revealed to not have actually gone to med school. He worked as a janitor at the college and audited every class multiple times, and so had a large understanding of the textbooks and medical theory. But he never actually worked with patients or was actually trained to do certain procedures, not to mention didn't even have a medical license. Sneaking around that limitation is what led to House figuring out his secret.
    • That's not what leads to House firing him, though. He liked the guy. It's just that the janitor had the same ideas as House and thought pretty much along the same lines. And that is not what House wants in an assistant.
    • The whole "janitor as doctor" thing is likely a callback to an earlier episode where House tries to pass a janitor as a doctor to a patient.
    • It could even be a call back to House's own origin where he once observed a hospital janitor in Japan who, while being a social minority and despised for it, was deferred to by his social better because he was so knowledgeable about medicine he garnered their respect. It' unlikely the man every attended a medical school, leaving the trope as the most likely explanation of his expertise.
  • Stargate SG-1 had elements of this, very much in the style of the Apollo 13 accident. Characters would come across a problem, spend a whole episode dealing with it, and then end with them saying, 'Okay, now we don't let that in the future.' For example, invisible aliens took control of the Stargate, because they'd found out the passwords by spying on the base. At the end of the episode, hand scans were put into the protocol. This adaptability was a major reason humanity became very powerful very quickly.


Stand Up Comedy

  • This seems to be a theme in Christopher Titus's work.


Tabletop Games

  • Any game based on strategy. You can read all the "How to Play Chess" books you want, but you'll never really understand the game until you actually play it and get your butt kicked repeatedly.
  • Unknown Armies allows players to put a free point into a skill on a matched roll.
  • Continuum's skill system is explicitly built on this, with points accruing each time the skill is rolled if players don't decide to take a short cut
  • Sykers in Deadlands: Hell on Earth took years to train Before The End, with new Psychic Powers being added to a Super Soldier's repertoire once every year or so, on average. It's possible for Player Characters to become sykers much more quickly, to say nothing of adding new abilities. What's the difference? Experience. Keeping your melon intact while the horrors of the Apocalypse are breathing down your neck teaches you damn good. Or you die. Either way, you'll have learned something!
  • When making a unit in Brikwars, you have to find out what does and doesn't work. Your unit may have a Fatal Flaw that you didn't think about until someone exploits it (ie having a creature that can replicate itself every turn at the cost of defense, then getting set on fire and dying in the first round). It takes several games to really know how to utilize your Cost of Production points.
  • It's an unofficial but often-suggested rule in The World of Darkness games that you can only spend experience points on skills or abilities you either used in the sessions that got you the points or put some foundation work in on (for new abilities), or which you have at least been using frequently. (Pretty much all games suggest either that or require you to burn time training between adventures -- how often this is enforced varies from group to group though.)
  • Happens a lot with experimental equipment in Paranoia. Just because you have security clearance to test the equipment doesn't mean you have security clearance to read the instructions.


Video Games

  • Every RPG ever. Full stop. In some point-buy systems you can get smarter by kicking ass.
    • And conversely in some you can learn how to be kick-assier by reading books.
  • The Quest For Glory series both subverts and plays this one straight. In the first game, you get to define the abilities your character starts with, and each class has specific skills that can or cannot be used. The only way to increase skill in something is to use that skill (which makes sense: you get better at climbing by climbing stuff, better at swordplay by swinging your sword and so on). The subversion comes later in the series, starting with the third game, where the Thief character can be taught the acrobatics skill and immediately becomes proficient in it within seconds (though not necessarily good at it, that takes practice). In the fourth game, Fighter and Paladin characters can read a book and instantly learn how to climb. Mages subvert this from the first game: finding a magic scroll and reading it instantly imparts the spell to the mage, although it is at a low skill level. At least half of every game in the series (there are five) is spent just practicing your skills.
    • The skill level system itself is very vague. Having 10 points in Weapon Use means you can use your weapon, but you'll miss a lot, whereas having 100 points (in the first game, at least) means you'll rarely miss...but you'll still miss occasionally. Generally speaking, it's possible to complete the game with low skill levels (depending on the skill and the character, of course), but certainly not recommended. Getting that Last Lousy Point in a particular game can also be a frustrating experience, since skills level up slower as they reach the Level Cap. Quest for Glory 5 completely subverts the skill system, however: as long as you're the right class, you can do anything in which you have skill. The numerical values mean very little.
  • In the first Devil May Cry (not so much the sequels), files are kept on every enemy encountered, and descriptions of their attacks as well. For every new attack you witness, another section is added, usually with an explanation on how to stop/avoid it. Oh, and by the way, there are files on BOSSES, too...well, except the last one. Shame...
  • In Monster Hunter, there are no Experience Points to speak of... the experience belongs to the player. An experienced player with horrible newbie gear can and will be more successful than a newbie with great gear.
  • Much like Monster Hunter above, Demons Souls and Dark Souls drill the players not just how to fight, but remember enemy placement, trap placement, enemy aggression range, weapon moveset, etc. An experienced player can tell what another players' rough stats are from what he/she equips and then deduce what needs to be done to counter it, usually in order of seconds. There are more than enough anecdotes of seasoned players zipping through the game in a fraction of the time they required to do it the first time around.
  • A case of a boss who does this in-game: Mr Freeze in Batman: Arkham City seems at first like a typical "impervious unless attacked in a certain way, but never learns to cover that weakness" sort of boss. Turns out he isn't; each sneaky trick Batman can use on him will only work once because he will alter his attack pattern to cover that particular weakness, forcing the player to do the same: "I can adapt my strategies, Batman. Can you?"


Web Comics

  • The Order of the Stick prequel book "On The Origin Of PCs" deconstructs this trope by showing what happens if you take it too literally. Vaarsuvius, the future party wizard, is lamenting how his ascent to power is taking too long. Her friend Haley, the future rogue, tells him that if she wants to get more powerful, he should just become an adventurer. V brushes this off, saying that killing monsters isn't going to teach her more about magic and the workings of the universe. Haley points out that she recently killed a bunch of kobolds during an adventure, and when she got back to town she was better at picking locks.

 V: Next you'll tell me that cleaning your kitchen improved your Decipher Script ranking.

Haley: Hey, it might! You haven't seen some of the things growing in my kitchen; I wouldn't put language skills past them.


Web Original

  • The Dimensional Guardians from the web fiction serial Dimension Heroes are more or less bumbling fools when they first stumble upon their Guardian powers, but gradually learn to control them as they fight, to the point that they're able to take down a dark force that threatens their very dimension.
  • In Demonic Symphony this is given as a reason for Derek’s continued survival
  • The whole point of Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe is to teach new mutants how to control and use their powers, and defend themselves, even if they don't want to be superheroes or supervillains. Even a mage as powerful as Fey has to learn control, and all those spells. And PK bricks like Lancer have to learn how not to wreck everything they touch.


Western Animation

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: The entire show covers a little under one year, yet Aang learned three other bending practices, Sokka became a skilled passable swordsman, Zuko increases his firebending and Katara has become a virtual waterbending goddess. Sozin's comet gives them added incentive. On another note, this is the reason Toph learned metalbending - because she really wanted to get out of a metal box.)
  • The Batman: The Animated Series movie Mask of the Phantasm had Bruce perform his first night as a vigilante in black clothes and a ski mask, yelling out police commands. He had all the training and gadgetry, but didn't really understand Batman's foundation of fear and intimidation. This is what leads him to being one of the the staple of Crazy Prepared. This aspect of the movie was a homage to Batman: Year One, which used essentially the same thing.
    • Batman Beyond sees Bruce's then-protege Terry go through a long process to learn how to properly be Batman. Early on he is dependent on his batsuit to survive; later episodes sees him learning from the constant hazards to the point that he's perfectly capable without it.
  • Subverted by Ed in Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy with his inability to grasp the concept of a fridge light despite a whole night of experiments:
    • Ed: Hello light...Hello light...Hello light...
      • In fairness, his was the question of whether the light turns off when you shut the door. It's just that his "experiment" (opening and closing the door) had no way of working and he was too stupid to devise something else.
  • Superman: The Animated Series had Superman learn to adapt to various situations, such as getting a suit that was proof against kryptonite and skin contact for when that was necessary, or come back at an electric-powered villain coated in rubber.
  • In the first sesion of Danny Phantom the title character has little control of his powers and has trouble taking on the weakest of his enemies. After three sesions of fighting, he is able to hold his own against the ghost gods.


Real Life

  • Steve Irwin aka the Crocodile Hunter learned most of what he knew about wildlife, especially crocodiles and snakes, from his father and from working with and growing up around them in his family's wildlife park from a very young age.
  • Bruce Lee developed the philosphy-labled-martial-art Jeet Kune Do specifically under the idea of using your personal preferences over set forms and attacks. It is more of a training method. He believed that you should do what you feel is most comfortable and that if an opponent knows the set fighting style you have been taught, they have an advantage. In fact, for this reason supposedly there was at least one aspect that he deliberately never taught correctly.
    • One of his instructors, Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker, was fond of teaching with this trope and even used it on Lee. One time when Lee was practicing a stance, Parker insisted the stance didn't work and showed him by repeatedly knocking him over with a wooden board saying if his stance worked, the board would not knock him over. Lee quickly let Parker show him an alternate stance to use.
  • The British Navy in the 18th and early 19th centuries put men off the streets aboard its ships of war and left it up to the officers to train them for sailing and combat. Likewise, midshipmen went aboard as children and were taught the requisite mathematics, navigation, and seamanship required to see them past their promotional exams by senior officers or, if they were unlucky, a schoolmaster or chaplain of some description.
  • This is also why licensing for certain trades, including electricians, plumbers, and HVACers (at least commonly in the USA), requires one not only to pass a fairly lengthy test, but to have an already licensed master electrician, plumber, or HVACer vouch that you've had 2 years of apprenticeship working on the job under them. There're some things you can only learn by making that mistake on the job and having someone more experienced there to explain what went wrong/help you straighten out the mess/call the ambulance.
  • All those commercials you see on TV for culinary schools that say, "Become a chef?" Yeah, about that... all chefs started as cooks. A cook must spend several years actually working the trade, including at least some of those years actually running the restaurant (or at least the kitchen of the restaurant) you're working in. Until then, you're nothing but a line-cook with a degree.
    • And to all those non-culinary types out there, yes, there is a tangible difference between a cook and a chef.
    • And, to be honest, the degree is just a tool to get one's foot in the door. If you've had the aforementioned experience and spent several of those years of experience being taught by a working chef, you can skip the degree.
  • Adam Savage's mantra: "failure is always an option", which he explains as meaning that even a failure is data that we can learn from.
  • Why every middle- or highly-placed job demands a certain number of years of experience in a relevant field.
  • Quentin Tarantino never went to film school - everything he learned came from making a film with his friends when he worked at a film archive, as well as watching the crap out of his favourite films.
  • The famous Edison quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
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