Any Fool Can Learn By Experience

All too often we follow the news as a kind of spectator sport—enjoying the misfortunes of others. Not only is this in bad taste, it’s a wasted opportunity. What we should do when we see others run into trouble (besides helping) is to learn from their example.

Bismarck famously observed that while any fool can learn by experience, he preferred to learn from the experience of others. It’s a great line and one worthy of the Stoics. See the mistakes that other people make with their money, with their ill-formed judgements, when they give way to temptation or avarice and let it be a reminder not to do the same.

There is something else though, that we should learn to see when other people get tragedies of, and not of, their own making. We should, as the Stoics say, see how easily it can be us. Seneca would say, for instance, that if you see someone lose all their money when an investment goes South, don’t simply note to avoid that investment. Instead, you should think: Fortune is planning the same thing for me. “You will fall upon me confident and heedless,” Seneca says we should be able to say, “It is true you struck someone else, but you aimed at me.”

This isn’t to make you feel like a marked man or to create paranoia. It’s to prepare you. The people who think bad stuff can’t happen to them? Invariably that’s who bad stuff happens to…and whom it devastates the most. So learn from the experiences of these naive, ignorant people. And perhaps you can limit the damage (or at least the surprise) when something happens to you.

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