‘In the School of Hard Knocks’: Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 25, 2024

Have you ever heard the expression 'in the school of hard knocks' and wondered what it means? You're not alone! But don't worry; in this article, we'll break down the meaning of this popular idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it.

If you just want to know what it means, here's the short version:

  • When someone says they learned something 'in the school of hard knocks, they mean they didn't receive any formal education around it; they just acquired it through life experience.

What Does 'In the School of Hard Knocks' Mean?

'In the school of hard knocks' is an idiomatic expression that refers to the education or learning one gains from difficult experiences or challenges in life, especially those involving hardships, adversity, or tough situations.

  • Instead of learning through formal education or training, someone who has been 'in the school of hard knocks' has acquired knowledge and skills through practical, often tricky, real-life experiences. 

It isn't an actual school; as with all idioms, this saying shouldn't be interpreted literally. It's just a figure of speech.

  • You can use it to respond to someone calling out your lack of formal education, to show them that you can't learn everything at school.
  • It's often used to highlight the practical wisdom and resilience that can come from facing difficult situations.

For example, you might say,

She didn't go to business school, but she learned the ins and outs of running a company in the school of hard knocks.

This idiom uses the word 'knock,' which is synonymous with a blow, strike, or setback.

You might say:

Getting fired from my job really knocked my confidence.

Another famous saying that means the same thing is 'university of life.' You might have heard it before. You can use it in all the same contexts.

Where Does 'In the School of Hard Knocks' Come From?

The origin of the expression "school of hard knocks" is a bit unclear, and it doesn't have a specific, well-documented origin. However, it is believed to be of American origin and has been used since at least the early 20th century.

  • The phrase is likely symbolic of the tough, real-world experiences that can serve as a harsh teacher, imparting practical lessons and skills through adversity.

James Anthony Froude is said to have used it in his book Short Studies on Great Subjects, sometime between 1867 and 1882, when he said:

The school of hard knocks. Experience teaches slowly, and at the cost of mistakes.

 However, I could not verify this information. Another often quoted source is in the 1870 book The Men Who Advertise with the following passage:

... his misfortunes were largely owing to the inexperience of youth. Trained, however, in the school of hard knocks, he now had learned the theory of success.

While the exact origin may be uncertain, the phrase has become a widely recognized and commonly used idiomatic expression in English.

Fun fact! In 1947, Jim Comstock founded "The University of Hard Knock," an honorary but official organization with the goal of recognizing people who had become very successful despite not attending official educational institutions. It kept running for more than 60 years until it dissolved in 2014.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it:

After facing bankruptcy and rebuilding his business from scratch, John earned his success in the school of hard knocks.

She didn't have a formal culinary education, but her amazing cooking skills were honed in the school of hard knocks, working long hours in various kitchens.

Mark's success (which he earned at the school of hard knocks) became the target of envy among his peers who had chosen safer, more conventional paths.

His expertise in car repairs didn't come from a manual but from years of fixing broken-down vehicles in the school of hard knocks.

Instead of pursuing a traditional acting education, she entered the entertainment industry through the school of hard knocks, auditioning and learning on the job.

The coach's strategies weren't learned from textbooks but developed on the field in the school of hard knocks, facing diverse opponents and challenges.

Growing up in a tough neighborhood, she gained street smarts and survival skills in the school of hard knocks.

The author's writing style was refined not in writing workshops but in the school of hard knocks, where rejection and perseverance were the best teachers.

She was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and nor did she receive any formal education. She learned everything she knows at the school of hard knock and is now a successful TV show host.

The politician's ability to connect with people came from his experiences in the school of hard knocks, engaging with constituents and understanding their concerns. 

Other Ways to Say 'Have a Ball'

There are plenty of other ways to say you picked up your skills through life experience. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases. Some of them are other examples of idioms.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they learned something in the school of hard knock, it means they picked it up through life experience; usually via difficult or unpleasant experiences.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!      

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.