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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Appreciating Our Life's Lessons

  Dr. Paul. D. Houston
  Dr. Paul D. Houston
Founding Partner

Have you ever been stuck in traffic, caught behind someone going way too slow when you are running way too late? Exasperating, isn’t it? Well, next time that happens ask yourself, “What lesson am I supposed to learn from this?” What is that little old dude in the great big car trying to teach me? Did I leave home too late? Did I not plan ahead? Why does this always seem to happen to me, and what is it about me that makes it happen? These kinds of events are called a life lesson. Trust me, they are all around us.

As a career educator, I have been thinking about learning most of my adult life. But I started thinking about it much earlier than that. Like you, I spent a lot of years in school as a student. My career was a rather checkered one. As a young child, I was considered to be a slow learner. I didn’t learn to read until third grade; my schoolwork was a big hot mess. As I grew older the school thought I might be an underachiever because I was still a terrible student but my test scores were good. Then, when I made it to high school and figured out this thing called “school” and my work improved, they decided I was gifted! I was the same student but the labels had changed. Let me suggest that most of us, when it comes to our life lessons, are often slow learners, sometimes underachievers, and occasionally we show signs of giftedness. If you think about life as one long slog in third grade (with no time off for recess or summer vacation), then understanding life lessons is easier. And it’s important to remember that when it comes to life, graduation isn’t a commencement—it’s terminal.

One of the most interesting things about the lessons that life teaches us is that, as opposed to school, where we are taught lessons and then tested on them, in life the test comes first and then the lesson. In education we’re fond of discussing so-called “high-stakes testing,” but life is really just one long high-stakes examination, and we always have to learn the hard way. No test-prep classes or tutorials are available—you just go out there and get smacked around and then you have to try to discern what the whole exercise was all about! Not only that, but some times the stakes are really high. You can lose jobs, loves, money, and friendships when you make the wrong choices. Then all you can do is give yourself a good, hard slap on the head and create a powerful intention not to do that again. Of course, if you do end up doing that again (whatever that may be), you’ll be in for another lesson at least as painful as the first one.

Now I have serious issues with corporal punishment, but I must admit that life is often one long series of butt whippings. My experience is that our unique life lessons are rarely gentle and no matter how much homework we do, we will not be prepared for what is coming.

So why, then, should we even talk about our unique life lessons? I think it’s because so many people don’t have the slightest idea what is happening or that any kind of a lesson is even occurring. Years ago I learned about a visual characteristic known as a “scotoma,” which means a blind spot. For many of us, life is one long, uninterrupted scotoma. It has been said that we should never live an unexamined life, but far too often we live our life in a semi-catatonic state. We don’t examine anything. Shoot, we hardly notice what’s going on around us!

If you don’t know you’re getting lessons, then you’re certainly not going to learn from them. If you’re clued into the fact that you are merely a slow learner in the school of life, you might actually move toward being gifted at some point.

Another important thing to know about our life lessons is that they are unique. My lessons are my lessons and your lessons are your lessons. I might notice and appreciate your lessons and you mine, but they are only intended for the recipient. In that regard, life has done something quite wonderful—it has offered each and every one of us individualized and personalized learning. And while there are no tutorials to assist us in our learning, there are plenty of tutors; we are in this school together even though we are learning different things. Perhaps one lesson we all share is the need for compassion because those around us are always are experiencing life’s tough love.

We also need to understand that the hardest and harshest lessons are the most important ones. We can learn from our successes, but we can learn even more from our failures. When things don’t work, the lesson is right there for our understanding. We just have to wake up from our coma and learn from it. One of the most important traits for a leader is to learn to be reflective. Great leaders learn from what is going on by stopping and thinking about it. So should we all. One of my favorite movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a hilarious story about a high school kid who takes a day off from school to enjoy life. Near the end of the movie Ferris observes, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” The biggest life lesson for each of us is not to miss life while we are living it.

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