WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic
"The Tao which can be explained is not the eternal Tao."
"Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."
Morpheus, The Matrix
"Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."

Sometimes, the Trickster Mentor or Zen Survivor has a lesson to teach the younger folks for which words won't do -- only by setting them up to discover it themselves will it take. In some cases, it is because the lesson won't make enough of an impression if explained; either they have to go through it themselves, or they have to put it into their own words before it really registers. In other cases (especially involving mystical teachings) it is something that literally can't be spoken at all, at least not in any manner that won't sound like an Ice Cream Koan to anyone who hasn't experienced it. A form of Taught By Experience.

Differs from Figure It Out Yourself in that in that trope the 'student' knows that they need some important information and the 'mentor' blatantly refuses to give it, while in this one, the student is usually oblivious to the fact that a lesson is being given at all until the moment of illumination.

See also: It Was with You All Along which is this with a Fetch Quest attached.

Examples of The Only Way They Will Learn include:


  • Ender from Ender's Game is put under a series of trials by his seemingly negligent adult supervisors in order to balance his kindness with ruthlessness, making him unafraid to kill when a crucial decision must be made -- he ends up (unintentionally) killing two people to complete his main training. Mazer Rackham then ruthlessly punishes him in physical combat until he learns to let go of his instinctive mercy.
  • In The Dresden Files, Harry's lessons for Molly Carpenter, a reforming Warlock, involve this. He tells his cop buddy Murph that she's the kind of person you "have to keep knocking on her ass" because "If I don't, if I let her recover her balance before she gets smart enough to figure out why she should be doing things instead of just how to do them, or if she can do them, she'll start doing the 'right' thing again. She'll break the Laws again, and they'll kill her."
    • Another example shows up when he first takes her on: he throws a miniature sun at her face and screams at her to make him stop it.
    • Once Molly finally does learn those lessons, signified by a bracelet he'd had her wearing breaking, Harry explains that his own mentor put him through much the same thing.

Live Action TV

  • On Arrested Development, extreme examples to "teach them a lesson" are present from the first episode, where Maeby conspires to teach her parents a lesson about being away from family by making out with her cousin and claiming she didn't know. Later in the series, it would be revealed that the Bluth kids have an aversion to being taught "lessons" in this fashion from their father using a One Armed Man who would lose his prosthetic arm in gruesome ways resulting from their actions.
  • One episode of Dead Like Me has Dolores Herbig have an employee fake a heart attack so she can teach the Happy Time employees a lesson about using the defibrillators to make grilled cheese.


  • The Karate Kid introduced this lesson technique with Wax On, Wax Off as the assigned task was menial but resulted in valuable muscle memory.
  • As the quote above says, The Matrix (in the film of the same name) can only be understood through direct experience (or so it is claimed; one wonders if this means that the film's audience is getting short-changed somehow).
    • I doubt it. If someone told you that your reality was an illusion, would you believe them or demand proof? It's a lot easier when you're viewing the fictional reality of someone else. Neo must be shown; we can be told.
      • He could, however, have been more straightforward in his largely-irrelevant buildup.
      • Where's the fun in that?
    • Later in the film, Morpheus sets Neo up for the "grand illumination" form of this in order to make him realize that he is The One.
    • Maybe Morpheus was talking about the movie. So the audience sees it, they understand it. (Or maybe not.)
    • What about what the Oracle did to get Neo to get him to realize he's the One?
  • Double Subverted in All About Eve. Karen deliberates on her plan to help Margo to get over herself. She finishes with "there's not even a reason why I shouldn't tell her," then, as she picks up the phone, adds, "in time." Subverted again, when it turns out Karen is the one with her head up her ass.

Video Games

  • In Knights of the Old Republic, the Jedi masters actually let a Jedi fall to The Dark Side in order to teach her the dangers of letting her emotions control her. They send the player character to redeem her, in order to teach him the same lesson.
    • As might be expected from a game with a Karma Meter, you can subvert this trope by taunting her for her weakness, mercilessly killing her and then continue your path down The Dark Side merrily kicking puppies along the way.
    • And Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II.
      • Kreia defines this trope. There's even a scene on Nar Shadda, where you can choose to help a person in debt or not. Either way, she berates you and shows what happens for the worse, in an attempt to show you how far reaching your actions are. This is relevant because basically her whole motive for setting the events in KOTOR II into action is based on this philosophy.
  • Valve accidentally revealed the "Meet The Spy" video for Team Fortress 2 before it's official unveiling - and subsequently added a "Valve Corporate Achievement" for "Failing to understand what 'Private' means on YouTube." The heading for it was "It's the only way we'll learn."
  • Case number four of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Justice For All has very clear undertones of this, when you think about Edgeworth's awareness and motivations regarding the case.


  • Naruto's teachers love this method like Naruto loves ramen.
    • Kakashi's first challenge is to seize two bells from his person. Fail to get a bell, fail the test, yet there are three students. The lesson is to ignore the built-in incentive for competition and work as a team. (Later we learn that this method is a strange, sadistic tradition amongst the Hogake-trained line.) They fail to realize this and are punished by only two of them eating lunch while the other watchs (guess who), which was another test of character. They give Naruto food despite the rules and pass.
    • Jiraiya gets impatient teaching Naruto how to release chakra. So he pushes Naruto into a deep canyon so that he releases his chakra in a panicked rush. Yes... That is truly the ONLY way Naruto could learn it.
    • Ebisu wants to teach Naruto to walk on water, and gives a decent explaination how... but thinks it best that Naruto's practice water be boiling hot. Training From Hell excused with it's The Only Way They Will Learn.
    • Recently, when sages tried to explain the fusion of different types of energy into the body, Naruto was at a loss. So one of the sages literally gave an Ice Cream Koan.

 Gamakichi: It's like how ice cream is even better when you add mint to the chocolate and vanilla swirl.

Papa: That's even harder to understand!!

Naruto: Oh! I get it!

Gamakichi: Hehehe... That's just how Naruto is...

  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, Izumi Curtis leaves Ed and Al, then just kids, to survive a month on an island without using alchemy because, apparently, that's The Only Way They Will Learn what her philosophy means. However, when they explain in short what they've learned, she laughs at them, suggesting she may have been just testing their determination to train under her. Worth noting is that she had her husband's apprentice on the island as well, wearing a monstrous mask and wielding a stick, just to up the ante... and also to keep an eye on them should anything seriously bad happen.
    • Played with in Izumi's own training in an omake. She was put in the same situation, learned a slightly different lesson...only to discover she trained under the WRONG TEACHER! The alchemy teacher was next door, she got the survivalist! One quick beatdown later, she is on her unique path...

Western Animation

  • In Justice League Unlimited, Wildcat has become such an adrenaline addict and rage case that he's joined an underground fighting ring, and it's just a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt. Green Arrow arranges a bout and then fakes his own death in the ring at Wildcat's hands, forcing Wildcat to face "My God, What Have I Done?" before it happens for real.
  • This applies to the Cutie Mark Crusaders from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic. they have not yet realized that they can't force their cutie marks to appear and need some kind of epiphany. but from an in-universe prospective, they WILL learn this lesson because every pony eventually gets a mark. Also, their friend, Twist, already went through this and had said epiphany needed to get her cutie mark.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.