The Art of Reflection

How to learn from experience.

Brandon Gustafson
SkillUp Ed
5 min readJan 12, 2021


Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

In my 11th-grade literature class, I remember another student sharing that when she got home after school she would just sit and think for 30 minutes. I couldn’t fathom why someone would deliberately ‘waste’ 30 minutes of their day just sitting and thinking.

In high school and college, I was always ‘go go go.’ My to-do list was always packed. Whenever I found time to think, I was focused on how to get better grades, not on the pursuit of deeper understanding.

Now in my post-grad life, I’m not asked many thought-provoking questions. There is plenty to do at work, but the primary focus is on getting the job done and executing tasks quickly. Deep learning becomes an accidental occurrence, rather than a deliberate process.

In the absence of formal education, you have to take initiative and become intentional about learning. To self-educate you have to learn how to make sense of your experiences and think for yourself.

The key to unlocking deeper learning and understanding is reflection. Reflecting on experiences and uncovering meaning is an essential part of learning. However, being told to go sit and reflect isn’t helpful if you don’t know what to do. The first step is to learn what reflection means.

“A defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience.” — Jack Mezirow, American sociologist

What is reflection?

Reflection is an introspective, iterative process that transforms your self-knowledge: how and what you think.

Reflection is an opportunity to slow down and consciously contemplate. You need to give your mind time to think through things and digest information. How will you know if you are headed in the right direction if you never stop to think?

Reflection helps you internalize information by connecting your current experiences and observations with your prior knowledge. Bridging gaps in your understanding leads to deeper learning, new insights, and broader perspectives. This helps guide your thinking in the future and allows you to apply what you learned to new contexts.

Geil Browning, Ph.D., the founder and CEO of Emergenetics International said,

“Reflection is a deeper form of learning that allows us to retain every aspect of any experience, be it personal or professional — why something took place, what the impact was, whether it should happen again — as opposed to just remembering that it happened. It’s about tapping into every aspect of the experience, clarifying our thinking, and honing in on what really matters to us.”

Think of your prior knowledge as scaffolding that enables you to reach higher levels of understanding. This scaffolding serves as a foundation and support to help you attain knowledge that was previously out of reach.

How to Reflect

Reflection can be a transformative process, but you won’t make any progress if you do not know where to start.

Reflection is a deliberate analysis of your observations and experiences. Giving yourself the time and space to reflect will help you more thoughtfully evaluate your experiences than if you were in a hurry.

Here are some capabilities that will help you reflect more effectively:

Curiosity and openness — Reflection is about introspection, learning, and discovering new insights. A fixed mindset of resistance will hold you back from attaining new knowledge. You have to cultivate your curiosity and be open to learning, otherwise, reflection won’t help you.

Objective observation — Learning how to step back and look at your thoughts, as if you were an outside observer, can give you clarity and a broader perspective. An outside observer can more easily separate themselves from feelings and emotions that may cloud your judgment.

Thoughtful questioning — The quality of your questions will largely determine the quality of the output from your reflection. If you ask the wrong questions, your reflection may not lead to the insight you seek. Also, do not blindly accept an explanation you came up with when analyzing a situation or experience. Your conclusion may be flawed, so be sure to think critically about the answers to your questions and evaluate their merit.

Stages of Reflection

Reflection is an iterative process of analysis, composed of a few essential stages. Working through each of these stages will help guide you towards greater understanding and insight.

  1. What happened?
  2. Why does this matter?
  3. What are the next steps?

What happened?Describe the situation. Set the stage and answer the ‘what, where, when, and who’ questions. Think about how you felt during the experience. Try to identify your feelings during the experience as well, as this may help with evaluating the situation later.

Why does this matter?Analyze the situation. Now that you have set the stage, try to make sense of why things happened as they did. Try to answer the question, ‘So what?’. Also, critically review the situation and look for insights. How might things have gone differently? What could you have changed?

What are the next steps?Prepare for how you would handle a similar situation in the future. What will you do differently next time, if anything? The point of this stage is to learn from your analysis. Depending on the context of your reflection, this could be a deeper understanding of a topic, a broader perspective, or an improved way of doing something.

Suggestions for reflection

While the general stages of reflection serve as a guide, how you choose to reflect is up to you. Reflection can be a quiet, solitary, and pensive experience, but there are other ways to work through your thoughts as well. Here are some suggestions for how you can approach reflection:

Quiet thinking — It is difficult to reflect and learn if your mind is racing and wandering about. Setting aside time to think in quiet, or meditate, can give you the time you need to contemplate what you learned from an experience. This is a time to engage in self-talk and ask yourself questions. You could do this while sitting at home, out on a walk, or any place you find comfortable.

Discussions — If you feel yourself spinning when trying to think through a situation in your head, consider talking it through with someone else. They can help take an external view, ask you questions, and work through the reflective process with you.

Journaling — Thoughts can sometimes feel like a jumbled mess in your head. They can feel fleeting and turn from crystal clear to fuzzy in an instant. Writing things down can give substance to your thoughts and allow you to more clearly separate the experience from your analysis. Try writing down what you learned from an experience or record process steps so you can see them laid out in front of you.

Reflection is a useful tool for deeper learning and self-discovery. Without it, life becomes a series of isolated events, with no connected meaning. Do not forgo the opportunity to learn from your experiences. There is richness to be found in reflection.

“We had the experience, but missed the meaning.” — T.S. Eliot


  1. The stages of reflection are based on the Graham Gibbs Reflective Cycle Model



Brandon Gustafson
SkillUp Ed

Hi I’m Brandon! I am the author of Hard Wired: A Practical Guide to Training Your Mind and a startup founder. I love reading, movies, gaming, startups, & more!