‘Learn the Hard Way’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on March 3, 2023

Did you hear someone use the phrase ‘learn the hard way’? What does this mean? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

‘Learn the hard way’ is an idiom that implies discovering something that you need to know through unfortunate experiences or mistakes. The idea is that you could ‘learn the easy way’ by taking the good advice of others, or you could ‘learn the hard way’ and gain valuable information through the experience of misfortune.

What Does 'Learn the Hard Way' Mean?

‘Learn the hard’ way is an idiom that means to discover what you need to know by making mistakes or through experience. If you’ve ever discovered something or learned something through personal experience, particularly if that experience was painful, difficult, or unpleasant, it means that you ‘learned the hard way.’

To put it simply, ‘learning the hard way’ means that you gain new insight and knowledge by experiencing the consequences of making mistakes. The implication is that the lesson could have been learned ‘the easy way,’ i.e., learning from the mistakes and experiences of other people. At the same time, ‘learning the hard way’ isn’t that uncommon because, as another expression goes, experience is the best teacher.

Where Does 'Learn the Hard Way' Come From?

Though it’s not precisely clear where the idiom ‘learn the hard way’ comes from, we can use the Google Books Ngram Viewer to gather some clues. It appears that both ‘learn the hard way’ and ‘learning the hard way’ were practically unused phrases until the 1930s. Usage of both phrases increased until about the 1950s before decreasing again. Around the 1990s, the phrases became more popular once again.

Interestingly, it appears that the increasing usage of ‘learn the hard way’ coincides with the Second World War. In the 1942 publication Domestic Commerce– Volume 30, we find the phrase used in relation to international commercial relationships during the first half of the 20th century:

“As we look toward business in the post-war world, we must be sure that the lessons we are learning the hard way today, concerning our international commercial relationships, will be remembered when we come to plan the peace. We did not have the practical application of our “have not” condition to study after the first World War. We did not accept the ideas of those who tried to teach us our international responsibilities. And today, we are paying a terrific price– in blood, effort, materials, and wealth– for neglecting those lessons."

In a 1944 edition of Army Talk, we find the term used in reference to the war itself:

“So we have spent the last four years learning the hard way. Three hundred billion dollars. Three hundred thousand dead. That is the hard way.”

For a more light-hearted example, ‘learning the hard way’ also appears in a 1946 edition of Life magazine:

“When you bang your shin on a chair in a dark room– you’ve located the chair. But that’s learning the hard way.”

Finally, let’s look at an example of the phrase in Common Human Needs: An Interpretation for Staff in Public Assistance Agencies, which was published in 1945:

“Immediate attempts to orient the worker for adequate performance utilize the compelling need to learn which workers tend to have in the initial stages, when they are feeling anxious and somewhat helpless; neglect to provide well-selected introductory content for workers new to the agency repeatedly has put workers in the position of groping aimlessly to find what they need to know; needless errors of omission and commission then destine them to learning the hard way and may increase their discouragement.”

Examples of 'Learn the Hard Way' In Sentences

How would you use the phrase ‘learn the hard way’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples:

  • “Starting my own business has been an incredible journey so far. There are a lot of things that I had to learn the hard way, but it’s all been worth it.”
  • “I can tell that Jimmy has been up to no good recently. I’ve been trying to help him, but I’m afraid he’s just going to have to learn the hard way.”
  • He and I have been through a lot together. We’ve really had to learn the hard way just how much of a strain it can put on a relationship to live in different time zones.”
  • Amateurs always show up cocky and overconfident and then learn the hard way that there is a lot they still don’t know.”
  • “I’m not interested in learning the hard way. Please just tell me what I need to know so I can do this efficiently.”
  • “He was so looking forward to talking with you. I guess he’s going to have to learn the hard way that you’re completely unreliable.”
  • “Every time I make a plan to go hiking, the weather takes a turn for the worse, and I have to reschedule. I guess I’m learning the hard way that you have to be adaptable.”
  • “I can tell she’s tired of learning lessons the hard way. Her entire demeanor has changed, and she appears willing to actually listen to my advice.”

Quotes About ‘Learning the Hard Way’

‘Learning the hard way’ is a common expression, which means that many famous people have used the phrase. Here are some quotes from thinkers, celebrities, writers, and more that either explicitly use the phrase ‘learn the hard way’ or convey a similar message.

“One way to learn to do something right is to do something wrong. Failure must teach us, or surely success will not reward us.”

– Jim Rohn

“In life, you learn lessons. And sometimes you learn them the hard way. Sometimes you learn them too late.”

– Taylor Swift

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end.”

– Gilda Radner

“Just be you. I've learned the hard way and in the end, some people are just so full of hate that no matter what you say or do, they'll always have something to say.”

– Megan Fox

“The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

– J. R. R. Tolkien

“One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn't pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself.”

– Lucille Ball

“Being thrown into the fire and getting the thing turned around in a hurry made it more difficult. Things have been done the hard way. I think you learn better when things are done the hard way.”

– John Elway

Other Ways to Say 'Learn the Hard Way'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'learn the hard way'? Here are some options:

  • Live and learn
  • Learn from one’s mistakes
  • Learn from experience

Final Thoughts About ‘Learn the Hard Way’

‘Learning the hard way’ is a great phrase to use when you’re describing the act of gaining knowledge and information by making mistakes and having experiences. For example, if you warned someone that the roads were bad and they shouldn’t drive, but they chose to do so anyway, you might say that they ‘learned the hard way’ when their car got stuck in the snow.

Are you ready to learn more English idioms? Make sure you check out our idioms blogs for idiomatic phrases, expressions, proverbs, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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