This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.
I never thought I could fix a broken vacuum cleaner.
Before the days of the internet and YouTube, when any household item broke, the choice was either to take it to a repair shop or replace it. And as a young college graduate just getting into the workforce, neither option was something I could easily afford. Vacuuming, I decided, was something I would simply have to do without.
For a few months everything was fine. But when I eventually began to see my footprints in the dust covering the carpet in my small dumpy apartment, I figured it was time to do something.
Despite being lucky enough to have received a great education, my human and organizational development degree from Vanderbilt did me little good when it came to fixing anything that involved electricity or more than one moving part. I had learned a lot about psychology and management, but nothing about doing household repairs.
So, being more frugal than efficient, I decided that instead of spending money on replacing and repairing it, I was better off signing up for a class to learn how to fix it myself. I figured many things would break over my life, and it would be a better investment to just learn once and for all how to fix them.
That’s when everything changed for me.
Walking into my first Electrical Engineering 101 night class at Nashville State Technical College (also known as “Nashville Tech”) the vibe was different than the lectures I’d experienced before. There was a group of about 10 students ranging in age from 17 to 70 sitting around a table. A guy walked in with a tool belt and name tag sewn on to his uniform shirt who looked like he was on his way home from work.
And as it turned it he was. Our teacher Herb was a licensed electrician who by day made repairs in people’s homes and by night taught a class at Nashville Tech. When someone asked if they should address him as “professor” he said, “Nah. Just call me Herb.”
Herb explained that we would learn by doing. He said he didn’t believe in textbooks, papers, final exams, or even grades. He asked us to bring in any broken electrical appliances that we had at home and that we would work together as a group to troubleshoot and fix them. And in the process, we would learn all we needed to know about how electricity works.
One lady brought in her old TV that wouldn’t turn on. Someone else brought in a broken light fixture. And yes, I brought in my dead vacuum cleaner to contribute to our makeshift lab.
Three weeks later Herb had the entire class using our multimeters, pliers, and screwdrivers to fix everything from toaster ovens to clock radios. Although there were some minor shocks and a few puffs of smoke that appeared along the way, the more things we fixed the more we learned.
By the end of the semester, not only had I learned a lot about how electronics work, but I discovered that learning by doing was much more effective than learning in the more traditional ways I’d been exposed to before. With no textbooks and no lectures, Herb’s style of experiential learning was eye opening for me. It gave me the confidence to see that despite not studying tech or business in college, I could learn simply by doing.
In business, just as with electronics, learning by doing is not without risk. Lessons that are learned through trial and error can sometimes come with some hard knocks (or minor shocks.) But looking back, it’s an approach that can give you access to a life-long education.
So, as it turns out, I now know how to fix a vacuum cleaner. Now I just have to get my kids to use it.
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba. A Nashville custom software development and IT support company. Visit www.atiba.com or www.atibanetworkservices.com for more info.