Learning by Osmosis

When I was a kid, there was a comic going around of a student napping on a pile of books. The punchline was that he was trying to learn by osmosis. If only it were that simple, right? Not that books make the best pillows, but think of all the books you could draw knowledge from this way.

While osmosis may not really work that way, drawing knowledge from something you haven’t actually experienced can. That sounded a little weird, didn’t it? It’s okay, because it’s something you’ve probably engaged in without ever realizing it.

Think back to your school days. (If that’s too far back or too painful, you can think back to the last time you watched someone play a video game or went through some sort of hands on training.) More than likely, you hoped you would never be the first person to try something. You wanted to see how other people handled the hands-on so you could see what worked and what didn’t work for them. If you were really lucky, you’d be near the end, and could see everybody’s else’s struggles before you had to step up.

While you were grateful to look less foolish than those who went before you, what you really did was learn vicariously through everyone else’s experience. Every time someone made a mistake, you thought about what you would have done to avoid that error or you watched to see if maybe something useful was overlooked in the hopes you would remember to be more mindful when you got your chance.

That’s the catch. You have to be mindful as you watch. You have to think about what worked for the person you’re watching, what didn’t, and asking yourself critical questions that will help you process what you’re seeing. And you’ve done it already. You’ve done it most of your life; you’ve just internalized it.


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