It seems to me there are two skills we must adopt if we are to harness the power of learning into our lives - Reflection and Acceptance.
I think that any negative experience we have, large or small, usually comes with a lesson. If we can be reflective enough to seek out this lesson there is a twofold benefit.
We grow and improve, and reduce the chances of the negative experience re-occurring.
The simple decision to focus on the fact that we have learnt/are learning a lesson creates a silver lining to our cloud. It eases the pain.
A simple example:
I once felt great stress because I was running behind schedule. I was sitting in heavy London traffic, and was going to be late for a drum practice session at Brockley Studios.
As I sat there crawling through traffic, I reflected on why I’d found myself in this position.
I was late because I had got up late. I had got up late because I had woken up in a bad mood. I had woken up in a bad mood because I had gone to bed in a bad mood. Perhaps if I had calmed myself down by reading, listening to some music, or talked to someone, I would have gone to bed with a more peaceful state of mind, and so arisen thus.
The lesson I learnt from this experience was this: They say that if you win the morning you win the day. Reflecting on this experience I learnt that you have a much better chance of winning the morning if you win the night before.
And so, to tie this back to the two opening bullets:
I have grown and improved. I now make sure that as far as I can, I go to bed with a peaceful state of mind.
By choosing to focus on the positive fact that I had learnt a lesson through this experience, I was able to reduce my stress levels, and accept, no; embrace, the situation I found myself in and be grateful for it.
While this is a short-term example, I think the principles within it can be applied to deeper and more sustained periods of unhappiness.
The truth is that unless you are an utter zen master of the happiness gig, for most of us it is an experience that tends to drift in and out of our lives at varying levels of intensity. And consequently so is unhappiness.
Resisting the unhappiness just makes it stronger. So let’s accept it. Welcome it. And more than that, I think we can get excited about it. We can look at bad times as plot development in the movie of our lives.
If you are going through a difficult time, I think it’s likely that you are learning something. Reflect on your situation and seek out the lesson within it. If the lesson isn't immediately apparent - that’s ok - just know that you will eventually come back stronger, and let knowledge of this be a silver lining to put round your cloud.
Accepting that we are on a constant and never-ending journey of learning can be hugely powerful for 3 principal reasons.
1) We are kinder to ourselves when things go badly
The best example I can give to articulate this is the effect this perspective has had on my drum teaching.
If a lesson didn’t go so well, I used to feel guilty for taking money off someone when I felt I should have approached it in a different way, and would greatly doubt my ability as a teacher.
But I now accept that I’m on a constant and never-ending journey of learning. Every moment I teach I am becoming a better teacher. As long as I reflect on what I feel I could have done better and try to implement it in the future, I have no reason to feel guilty and no reason to beat myself up about it.
2) We are more likely to seek out knowledge
I recently realised that for much of my life I have had a fear of learning. I would subconsciously avoid information because if I learnt something new I would feel foolish and guilty for not having applied it earlier. A kind of ignorance is bliss approach.
Referring back to my teaching again, this attitude stopped me from seeking advice.
Speaking to more experienced teachers would often open my eyes to all the things I’d be doing “wrong” up to that point. And I would feel guilty for having taken money off all the people I’d taught before learning this.
So I would avoid such encounters. As long as I stayed in my blissful little bubble of ignorance I need feel no guilt. Ridiculous really.
But once again; in accepting that I am on this constant and never-ending journey of learning, I no longer have this fear. I now seek out advice and new approaches wherever I can.
3) We are more likely to adopt a “growth mindset”
A growth mindset is the attitude that our brains are malleable; that we can always adapt and improve and learn. It dispels the myth of talent and promotes the power of practice, which is well expressed in “Bounce” by Matthew Syed.
Below is a quote from Angel Investor Naval Ravikant, taken from an interview on my favourite podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show.”
“There are many skills and gifts that people have in life and if you learn how to learn that is the ultimate skill. You can learn how to be healthy. You can learn how to be fit. You can learn how to be happy. You can learn how to have good relationships. You can learn how to be successful. These are all things that can be learned. So if you can learn it’s a trump card, it’s an ace, it’s a joker, it’s a wild card - you can trade it for any other skill.”
Embracing the power of learning stops us from adopting a “fixed mindset” - the “that’s just how I am” mentality. This gives us great optimism for how we can grow and improve in all areas of our life.
So reflect and accept. To use the cliché - “everything happens for a reason.” If things aren’t going so well, work out why. Find the positive lesson in the situation.
Accept that we are all imperfect and always will be.
The journey of learning be a topsy-turvy ride but when we stop resisting it we start to open our eyes to the gold that lines the path.