I’m 65 now, and I find myself looking back so often that people beg me to get out of the past.
I’ve found much happiness in life, and I've had my share of disappointments. I’ve learned hard lessons about myself and I still am still learning today. I try my best to make awareness and continuous learning part of the fabric of life.
I want to share five of the teaching moments I've had that I try to keep in the forefront of life.
— Getting better starts on the inside. Until I was 31 years old I lived in the world of "if only.” If only I had gone to this school, majored in this, grown up rich, gotten the right breaks, been more appreciated, my life would be better.
The problem was always them.
At 31, I crashed emotionally. I sought professional help and found other resources to learn from. I soon learned the problem was not them. It was me and my expectations.
I figured out that I would struggle until I was better on the inside and I could only take others as far as I was willing to take myself.
This came home to me when I was working in an alcoholism and drug addiction treatment center. As is the case at every treatment center, the whole family is treated because addiction is a family illness.
I met the daughter of one of our patients, a single mom and her child’s father out of their lives. This woman was struggling in many ways, even blaming herself for her mother’s drinking. I knew a female guidance counselor at her daughter’s high school who had shared with me that she herself had grown up in an alcoholic home. I thought the guidance counselor would be a perfect person to talk to the daughter of our patient.
I called her and asked. The guidance counselor paused. She apologized. She said she could not talk to this woman because she had not yet addressed her own issues.
For 30 years, this story has stuck with me. It’s hard to take another person farther than you take yourself.
— Things take so much longer than I thought they would or should. Steven Covey's book The Seven Essential Habits of Highly Effective People was very important in my development. Covey says start with the end in mind and work backward. This made a light bulb go on for me. I was often unrealistic when it came to how much time each step would take. No wonder I was always feeling rushed at the end of a project. No wonder I was stressed and too often late.
This carries over to pretty much everything in the workplace, especially creating consistency and predictability.
Be realistic on how much time things take.
—There is no finish line in learning. There are always things to learn. I guess I assumed that someday, I would know enough. That’s just not true. There is always more to learn, and when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Your job is to remain teachable.
In 1983, I was in a community meeting in Wisconsin and a man who sat next to me had a cold. He spent most of the meeting wiping his nose, coughing and fidgeting. I found it almost impossible to pay attention.
After the meeting, another man came up to me and asked me how I liked the meeting.
“It was a waste of time due to the fellow next to me,” I told him.
“That's too bad. You could have learned a lot from him,” he replied. My look must have shown my confusion.
“God put someone next to you to teach you patience and tolerance,” he said. “And you missed the opportunity.”
I have never forgotten that message. We can learn in all circumstances. Be the best student you can be.
— Be careful to not see ghosts. Don’t assume or project things that may not be there. In Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements, one of the agreements is not to assume. It leads to a happier life. Assuming for me creates projecting, which means I respond too quickly, wrongly or act when I should not act at all. Pause first, and before jumping to a conclusion, make sure I share my perception with people I trust. Have a few people you can share things with and ask them if you’re seeing ghosts.
— We are imperfect people working with imperfect people so often things will not be perfect. I heard someone say that they want justice for others and forgiveness for themselves. While it may make me feel a bit better noticing the defects in others, I should remember that when you point one finger out, three fingers point inward.
Dr. John Gruenloh pointed this out to me. He was my boss as the director of special education in south central Wisconsin. One of my co-workers was on my nerves. I made an appointment with Dr. Gruenloh with my list of things to let him know why this co-worker was a problem. After completing my list, he looked at me and said, “people tend to notice in others the same characteristics they have themselves.”
Dagger to the heart. Point made.
Be aware that you may be noticing in others things that you may also have yourself. Keep your self-awareness mirror clean and in front of you at all times.
There are many more lessons and tactics, but these five have taken time to learn. I still am a work in progress. Some days I do better than others.
Be kind to others including yourself. We all are on this journey called life.