“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“There are no regrets in life, just lessons.”

— Jennifer Aniston

“Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

“My greatest life lessons have not come from any achievements I have attained but rather from the failures, heartaches, and setbacks that I have experienced.”

— Dr. Marshall Hennington

“Any disaster is a learning process.”

— Julia Child

“The learning process continues until the day you die.”

— Kirk Douglas

“Things can change. Life is all a learning process.”

— Mike Tyson

“The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.”

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Never stop learning, because life never stops teaching.”

— Unknown

How often have you heard that “… life is a learning process.” Life is certainly a “process” but the learning part is largely optional. And uncommon. How many people do you believe actually learn much of anything from life? My observations over a lifetime tell me that most don’t like to learn this way. Most prefer learning from a teacher. What can living itself teach us, anyway?

You don’t need a teacher to learn some vitally important lessons. Living itself teaches. Learning is what you do in response to your lessons from living. You can always learn something. So often the hard way. Lifelong hard-way learning. You can’t avoid the lessons from living, but only the learning part.

Life doesn’t teach you in retrospect

The Ladders.com career advice site has a shortlist of things that the writer thought should have been learned “from life” but that the writer seems to have missed: “10 important life lessons we are often taught too late”:

“Life is a continuous learning experience. Throughout our lives we keep rising and falling, picking up important lessons along the way. Some of these lessons come from experience, yet there are others that we learn watching others or reading in books for example.”

“No matter how much we learn from the books there is a significant difference between practical and theoretical experience. Furthermore, there are many life lessons that we simply cannot learn until we face certain situations in our life. Most people would say that there are some lessons that come too late, catching us off-guard and unprepared.”

“The following list unveils some of the most important lessons in life that people learn the hard way.”

“1. Walk your own path
2. Don’t hesitate when you should act
3. Experience what you have learned
4. Good things don’t come easy
5. Never fail to try more
6. Take care of your health early
7. Make every moment count
8. Live and let live
9. Be flexible with your goals
10. For every action, there’s an equal opposite reaction”

Don’t know about you, but this list does not seem to me to be something that living might teach. It’s more like something that one who has lived and is looking back to see what might have been missed from learning in whatever manner.

Life gives all of us learning opportunities

Life and living (aka responding) present many learning opportunities and vital lessons without question, for everyone. The real question though is whether we take advantage of these opportunities to learn in real-time, or we simply miss them – or worse yet, ignore them. Unlike a human teacher, life doesn’t encourage or force us to learn anything. It just provides a continuing stream of learning opportunities. Also known as life.

These learning opportunities arrive not so much from out of the blue but more often from what happens when we do things. They flow from our response to whatever our world just did or is doing.

Life in this sense is a series of experiments. Every day, we do things, often unaware, that prompt a reaction from our own world. This world will usually include people but it can include almost anything.

An example: Suppose I have a scheduled staff meeting Zoom call that I absolutely want to skip. So many of these I find useless and mostly annoying. I have more productive ways to use my time. So, I blow it off using one of my lamer excuses and spend the time thinking about what use I could better put this time toward.

The world responds: Turns out that I missed an extremely important call and that my absence was a serious breach. Shortly thereafter, I received an urgent call from my boss to find out what happened to me. Pretty clear that this was a bad move on my part, and that I am likely to pay for it in some fairly harsh manner. Boss seemed very unhappy and unforgiving.

What is the life lesson here? Maybe that I felt free to blow off a virtual meeting on little more than a passing whim or feeling, without considering the potential consequences. I demonstrated that I didn’t really care about outcomes. I may well have initiated the process of my reassignment or even removal. Do I really care, or is this a message to myself that maybe it is time to move on to something new?

Probably not a great example but the point is not the unhappy boss or potential consequences thereof but instead the clear demonstration to myself that I didn’t truly care. That I should actually be looking for work that strongly engages me.

Not a happy boss, but do I really care?
Not a happy boss, but do I really care?

Life doesn’t really care whether I learn or not

Life is not a sentient being but simply a set of situation elements that follow from something I did or didn’t do. If I regard it as a learning opportunity and seek out the lesson conscientiously, then that is entirely my choice. The lesson may also depend on how I analyze what is happening so that I may draw out several different lessons based on how I view things.

The key here is that I chose to seek a potential lesson in this situation. No teacher urging or forcing me. I didn’t simply conclude that my boss is a jerk (which he may very well be) and continue without any further retrospection or action.

Learning from living is a choice that we all have. Often a hard choice.

How do I figure out when life is “trying to teach me something”?

We obviously can’t spend time analyzing every situation that we encounter each day. What tells us to dig into a particular one?

Speaking personally on this, my approach would be to rely heavily on “gut feel”. Intuition. A feeling that something isn’t quite right, or that my response was somehow inappropriate.

What if my intuition is wrong and that there is actually nothing to learn from whatever just happened?

This of course is learning. I have just tested my intuition and possibly learned something about when it works and when it does not. You can’t calibrate or test your intuition without such intentional applications. I may have to do this many times over many different situations to find out when and where my intuition is valid.

What an important life lesson!

In the example above, suppose that my boss called a while later and apologized for giving me a hard time over what I may have missed. What if my boss demonstrated a real understanding of such situations and gave me a great deal of praise about my overall performance?

In this case, my intuition test would have been shown to be wrong – or maybe not. It may still be that I am feeling that it is time to move on despite my boss’s apology and praise (and probably also concern over potentially losing a solid performer).

The lesson from this hypothetical situation is, I think, that you really need to test your intuition or gut-feeling regularly. Or maybe not?

I am not confident enough in my intuition to try this

For folks who have never really tried to rely on their intuition or gut-feeling for anything important, there may well be a serious concern about actually doing this. They could in fact have no idea about how one goes about such a mysterious activity. Of course, most people do experience intuitive senses routinely but then quite a few, and perhaps most, dismiss or ignore such often-vague internal inputs.

Learning is a choice. In general, no one forces us to learn – at least to learn from our ongoing life experiences. Life just happens. Learning does not, since it usually  involves some serious effort. And so many of us really don’t want to learn unless we are forced to by a teacher or other authority.

I prefer to let whatever happens, happen

Ah, the fatalist. I don’t need any intuitive guidance. I prefer to let whatever happens, actually happen, and then to live as best I can with whatever happens. I am okay with whatever happens. Mostly. Well, especially for good happenings.

This rather cavalier viewpoint is a bit, shall we say, beside the point. You often have to let happen whatever is going to happen regardless, especially when you have little or no control over such, in order to be able to assess the outcome intuitively. Tough to do if nothing noticeable has happened yet, yes?

Refining this a tad, you probably want to try to control anything you can where the happening appears to be something adverse or even quite nasty. If you don’t know or can’t “see” this sort of outcome occurring, then you just have to wait for things to roll out as they will.

It may well be that most of life for the majority of us just happens, without any real warning or visibility. This does not mean that we wouldn’t respond if we had some advance notice but simply that we mostly won’t know enough about how best to respond – or learn – until post-event or post-situation.

Some things that happen in life are ongoing situations, not events

It is probably worth noting at this point that life seems to happen in two different modes. The first is an event that occurs and has little or no subsequent impacts. For example, I might get fired or laid off without any advance notice – along with many of my coworkers. The second mode is a situation that persists in its impacts. Think about getting a major promotion to a position for which you feel very unprepared or even poorly qualified. You will almost certainly be responding to this situation for some extended period.

The life lesson in losing your job is likely to be different for each one of us. I may have been thinking of moving on for some time and this event just forces me to deal with it now. Or it may be a complete surprise and disaster for any number of reasons. Life lesson in this case may have to do with building resilience and options as a part of my work life going forward.

A scary promotion situation also will nearly always have very different life lessons for each person. While one may see this situation as a great way to learn something new in terms of work and skills, another may simply choose to cautiously muddle along and hope for the best. Neither response may necessarily lead explicitly to any learning unless the person involved actively reflects on possible causes, dangers, or opportunities.

Falling in love at first sight does happen

This one I know about personally because it happened to me. Completely out of the blue. I knew that she was the one when I first met her. No thinking involved. Just a deep sense that this was right. Love lasted almost 60 years before death separated us. Temporarily.

Here is a long-term situation that can play out in so many different ways. Initial feelings may fade away, as so often happens when some aspect of the realities of relationships becomes apparent. Or, the event may blossom into something truly magical and long-lasting. Life lesson here? Not so far as I can see, unless it is that you have to take the chance – be courageous – and follow your intuition when it is strong.

One of the hardest lessons in life is letting go

For nearly all of us, this one can be a real beast. We tend to get strongly attached to things, people, and situations. Not intentionally in many cases, but it just turns out that way. Pride? Stubbornness? Courage?

Attachments can be good and bad, as we all know. Persistence in an endeavor can lead to success, but it can also turn out catastrophically. How does “life” teach us whether and when to let go?

Simple answer – in my view and based on much personal hard-way experience – is that you can rarely tell whether-and-when with any real confidence. You may decide to hang in until something forces you to let go. Or, you may decide to let go and “cut your losses”, and then learn the hard way later that this was a bad move. You only learn by deciding to hang in or to let go. Life lessons will be different in each case.

I really don’t think that it is possible in general to learn the whether-and-when of letting go. Situations and stakes differ. People differ. A great amount of careful thought and analysis may have no real effect on the outcome either way.

Is there no hope here? Well, yes – I believe there is. Back to our old friend intuition or gut-feel. How this works is nearly always a mystery but it really does work. Intuition testing seems vital, as noted earlier. Making a life-changing decision based on an untested gut-feeling may well work out rather badly.

Sometimes you just have to let go and live with whatever happens. Maybe a sunrise even.
Sometimes you just have to let go and live with whatever happens. Maybe a sunrise even.

There are no easy-way life lessons

Hard-way lessons come with pain, sometimes a great deal of pain. The pain is what makes them potentially teaching. No pain, no gain, as they say.

A post from quite a while back looked at this hard-way learning approach. It argued, among other things, that practice making tough decisions can help a great deal. It is typically painful but you really can and do learn effectively.

The most important lessons available from most of our lives seem to be painful, hard-way lessons. These come along, like it or not, and it is our choice as to whether we take advantage of the learning opportunity presented. Almost nobody enjoys pain but it is often the best path to important learning.

Lessons don’t just come from mistakes but from successes as well

Failures can cause pain but so can successes. Success is simply the happy outcome, while the process of getting there can be excruciatingly painful. Learning anything from this is optional, as always.

Think about the stereotypical hard-charging executive who drives for the top and eventually gets there. Huge efforts and many sacrifices required over the years but the outcome payoff as CEO is well worth it. Great gain from great pain. Is that the lesson that comes from such a process?

The CEO’s that I have encountered were mostly not retrospective in a life-learning sense. They did what had to be done to succeed and they were very good at doing whatever this entailed. The life lesson, if they thought about it at all, was simply about doing what it took to get there. Beyond that, nothing much was learned, based on my coaching and consulting work with them.

Most were divorced or had various family troubles. No surprise. Their jobs came first and the family had to live (albeit affluently) with the situation. That was the deal. Family members may well have learned some important lessons from all of this but I never got close enough to any of them to gain such confidences. Very clearly though, even from a distance, many were visibly hurting.

So, major career success that came with pain for pretty much everyone involved. What might have been learned?

One of the better CEO’s that I worked with discovered after years of becoming and operating as a CEO, being a strong boss, that what he really enjoyed was business-building. New things, challenges, and people. That was where his heart was. Problem here was that his old CEO-self persisted and dominated, making him ultimately ineffective as a business-builder. He retired before he really got anywhere with this lightly-learned life lesson.

Learning about yourself

One thing that life is very good at is presenting opportunities to learn about oneself. How each of us deals with these depends on who we are inside. We may prefer to avoid such experiences, or to treat them lightly and briefly or not at all. Others may find themselves mentally crushed by a particularly nasty life lesson, learning nothing because of the struggles of simply surviving and recovering.

Some people treat life as an adventure in the sense of being mostly open to new experiences. Responses are thoughtfully evolved, often through a sequence of tests or experiments. Learning may be an underlying purpose or occasionally a top priority. These kinds of people use life as a way both to learn about themselves – strengths, gaps, limitations, imagination – and to develop skills for dealing productively with each and any new situation.

Some use their life experiences as an external source of direction and purpose. They become in effect what their life teaches. Their life is learning.

Bottom line:

Life is certainly a “process”, but the learning part is largely optional. And uncommon. Many people actually don’t learn much of anything from life. My observations over a lifetime tell me that most don’t like to learn this way – actively, retrospectively – which is so often the hard way. Most prefer learning from a teacher, but the most important lessons require our active participation in the learning part of this process.

“How you approach life says a lot about who you are. There are some who are content to passively coast through, hoping they land where they need to be and know what to do when the time comes. Then there are others, who make active choices to understand who they are and what they want, and set the goals that will keep them moving in the right direction. But a big part of having a successful life, is learning how to cope with the lessons that life has to teach us.”

“1. Make yourself necessary and you will always be needed. If you want to feel successful, learn to create, innovate or design something other people can use and need.

2. Your thoughts are like boomerangs. What you pass along to others is what will come back to you.

3. You are more defined by what comes out of your mouth than what goes in it. The way you speak and the things you say have power. Speech gives us the power to create or destroy.

4. The journey of your success will always begin with the small step of taking a chance. In business, in relationships, and in life, it all begins with a small step grounded in a desire to be better and do better.

5. Your education is never complete. Determine to live fully and continually learn. Prepare for what life has to teach by being open to the lessons in everything you do and experience.

6. Don’t allow the voice of your fears to be louder than the other voices in your head. Make sure the voice of reason, the voice of belief, the voice of confidence are all strong enough to drown it out.

7. A good reputation is more valuable than money. Your reputation is built on the foundation of your character; it entails the words you speak and the actions you take. Take care of your character above all other things and your reputation will take care of itself.

8. You never really lose until you stop trying. The words I can’t never accomplish anything. I’ll try, on the other hand, can perform wonders. Until you try you don’t know what you can do.”

“Learning through life experiences itself is the best way to learn, since, otherwise, it would not be our learning, but that of those who lived the experience. Only through the experiences, accepting errors and failures, we can draw our own conclusions to move forward.”

“Learning is to advance and grow, without anything or anyone stopping us, avoiding difficulties and obstacles, reflecting on failures and overcoming them. To live is to experience, and this is part of our human essence, and of our instinct of curiosity.”

“Significant learning and learning by discovery. Learning by discovery is that which is developed by discovering the world by oneself and always based on one’s own experience. On the other hand, meaningful learning is that which is acquired based on the knowledge already acquired, since the new takes on meaning and meaning when related to the knowledge we already have.”

“For this, to learn, we have to explore, discover, fail and hit. That is, on many occasions, we will learn by trial and error until we find the path to success. From very young we learn more from our own experiences than from adult advice.”

“Because by living our own experience, we internalize it in a meaningful and profound way. Thus, although this will take us more time and effort, without any doubt, we will keep it for the rest of our lives since most of these learnings will remain in our memory accompanied by their respective emotional imprint.”

A thorn of experience is worth more than a forest of warnings.” — James Russell Lowell