Monday, May 30, 2011

Interpersonal Pearl: Defend your opinions to others if you can, but if you can’t, perhaps it’s not a sensible opinion to hold. (contributed by Andre Gous)

About thirty years ago, I used to have strong opinions—I still do—but when I acted on them and someone questioned these actions, I would not defend my opinions. Instead, I felt helpless anger. The woman I was married to at the time observed that I tended to have well-pondered reasons, but that I lacked the courage and eloquence to articulate them. She urged me to become proficient at verbally defending the rationales behind my decisions and actions.

Her advice changed my life. Nowadays I speak out in defense of my ideas, though “defense” is not really how it feels any more. I have the right to live by my own best judgment. If someone doesn’t like how I think, that’s his issue, not mine. If someone doesn’t understand my rationale and if he asks nicely, then I’m willing to educate him as to my premises. However, if there’s potential value to me and if I trust the other person’s insight and experience, then I’m especially enthused to offer my rationale to someone else for critical analysis and the opportunity to discover a flaw in my thinking. Regardless of the reason for the discussion, I no longer feel like I’m under attack, even if it might seem that way to an observer. I try to be, and tend to be, calm and logical as I explain my point of view.

The best role model for this approach was my father. I am no longer a Christian, but when I was, I was a Bible-thumping enthusiast, aggressively out to save the souls of the world, including my father’s. I began my father’s intended salvation process with a question about his world view. This was essentially a set up for me to demolish his opinion so I could offer my own views on how he should think. However, my father’s explanation of how he viewed the world and his place in it completely took the wind out of my sails. It was so calmly reasoned and indisputably logical that I could think of nothing of value to add.

I walked away from that conversation puzzled, and I did a lot more thinking. As I sit here today and ponder that event, I realize how his calm tone, his reasoned approach, and his confidence made it a non-debate and helped me to learn how to better express my own opinions and values.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Inside

Detecting that you have identified a new life lesson is just the first step. The lesson is of little use until you figure out what it means and what its implications are for your life. It takes a while to internalize life lessons so they become part of your automatic thinking and behaviors. It takes time for each lesson to become a habit, such that you can follow its guidance without having to consciously stop and think about it in each relevant situation.

Until you have internalized a life lesson, you might have to remind yourself to consciously scan your memory to see if you’ve acquired some appropriate guidance to apply in a particular situation. Once taken to heart, however, it should pop to mind almost automatically. For instance, I internalized a lesson from Stephen Covey’s fine book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is “Put first things first.” Now, whenever I’m faced with a daunting task list, I always ask myself which tasks are important versus not so important, and which ones are urgent versus not so urgent. This quick analysis helps me decide on a plan of action. I’m not even consciously aware that I’m prioritizing my workload. That’s a real example of internalization, when you realize “this is just how I operate” as opposed to following a checklist or procedure to get something done. It takes some time for a good practice to become a steady habit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom and Your State of Mind

A few months ago, I was talking to my friend Kyle about the book I had just written, Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. I described how, at various times in my past, I picked up on a particular sentence someone spoke to me that I found especially insightful and remembered it for the rest of my life. Kyle said that I must have had a question in my mind that the conversation resolved for me. That is, I was already looking for an answer to something that was bugging me, which is why I found that particular comment meaningful at that particular time.

I don’t entirely agree with Kyle on this. True, that does happen occasionally. I can remember times when I was discussing some topic with a friend or teacher, and that person made a salient observation that struck home and clarified the matter for me. There was the time I was talking to a college professor and another student about a teaching issue I was struggling with, as I described in Chapter 35, “Knowledge Is Not Zero-Sum.” One of the comments that came out of that conversation gave me just the understanding I needed. So that’s a good example of what Kyle was talking about.

But I don’t think that it’s always necessary to be walking around with specific questions in mind, seeking the perfect pearl of wisdom for that moment’s issue. Often, the pearls I’ve accumulated just dropped into my lap. I wasn’t wrestling with an issue or being particularly introspective. I just heard or saw something that made me ponder and provided some valuable understanding.

The key is to be alert to possible learning opportunities wherever you find them. Keep your life-lesson antenna operating at all times and contemplate whatever it detects. That way you can collect pearls that just happened to wash onshore by your feet without having to open a lot of oysters to look for them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Everyone has pearls of wisdom worth sharing.

Some people tell me they don’t have any pearls of wisdom; they don’t remember any lessons from eye-opening conversations or seminal experiences from their lives. I suspect they’re not giving themselves enough credit. Certain people are perhaps more conscious of the kinds of small encounters that I describe in Pearls from Sand. I’m pretty good at collecting such experiences and remembering them, often with startling clarity, years later. Nonetheless, I believe that most people do have a treasure trove of life lessons at their disposal. I also believe that many of these lessons are broadly applicable to others, even though each individual likely learned them in a unique way.

I recently discussed this issue with a highly intelligent and well-educated friend I’ll call Cheryl. She claimed to have no pearls of wisdom worth sharing. But Cheryl had a life-changing experience about six years ago. When she was forty-one, Cheryl suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly destructive. Since then, she has become the poster child for “what to do after a scary cardiac event.” Cheryl lost a lot of weight, she permanently changed her eating habits, and she still exercises vigorously six times a week.

Not everyone who undergoes such a frightening experience takes the message to heart (get it?) the way Cheryl did by altering her lifestyle dramatically and, I suspect, for the rest of her life. Maybe the pearl of wisdom here is simple and obvious, something like: “Take good care of your heart; it’s the only one you have.” But I find Cheryl’s story compelling and inspirational. She showed that it is indeed possible to change your life significantly in response to a serious health scare. I’m proud of Cheryl for doing all the right things after her heart attack so early in life. She probably has the healthiest heart in the West now.

Even if you aren’t aware of it, I’ll bet that you, too, have acquired some meaningful life lessons over the years. I’ll also bet that if you think carefully, you can remember who spoke a significant sentence to you once upon a time, or an experience that led to an insight that is still useful to you today. Let me know what you come up with.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Where did your pearls of wisdom come from?

Who did you learn most of your life lessons from? A parent, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, an author? How did they communicate these lessons to you? How receptive to their messages were you at the time? Sometimes the most significant lessons don’t arise from where we might expect.

Of course, we learn a lot from our parents, especially at an early age. By adolescence, though, when we could probably benefit the most from a parent’s experience and wisdom, many people aren’t very receptive. I sure wasn’t. Teenagers often think they already know everything they need to know. They think their parents can impart almost nothing that’s relevant to today’s youth (no matter what era “today” refers to). It’s an understandable type of rebellion, but it’s unfortunate if this typical adolescent attitude interferes with picking up valuable lessons from folks who have been around the block a few times.

Leaders and authority figures are valuable sources of information, although what they teach you can’t always be neatly encapsulated in a “pearl of wisdom.” I remember one college professor who was very influential in my life as a teacher, mentor, and friend. I respected and liked him a great deal, and we stayed in touch for years after I graduated. I learned a lot from this professor. However, thinking back, I can’t remember any particularly powerful sentence he ever spoke to me or any specific life lesson that he imparted. I find this surprising because this professor clearly had a significant impact on me. Concisely stated pearls of wisdom aren’t the only important types of knowledge we acquire, even if they are the things I recall most readily and rely on most frequently.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where Life Lessons Come From

Life lessons can come from your friends, from role models such as parents, teachers, or other authority figures, and from everyday experiences. Sometimes you deduce your own life lessons, through observation, through trial and error, through successes and failures. You might glean an insightful lesson from a book or article you read, or from a presentation you attend.

Life lessons are all around us, but you have to be alert to them and receptive to the message. I have my life-lesson antenna up at all times. If I hear something during an ordinary conversation that really resonates and makes me think, there’s probably a message in there. Sometimes I don’t appreciate the significance of the lesson until later, after I’ve had time to reflect on the experience or conversation and its implications.

You aren’t likely to pick up many useful pearls of wisdom unless you go beneath the surface of a conversation or experience and think deeply about how it can help you be a better person, interact more constructively with others, and feel more fulfilled or contented. Pearls of wisdom are there for the picking. If you simply collect the pearls as you encounter them, you will accumulate a rich set of life lessons that will help guide your behaviors, decisions, and feelings throughout your life.