“People never learn anything by being told,
they have to find out for themselves.”
— Paulo Coelho
Today marks the five-year anniversary of a close friend’s unexpected passing. This morning I caught myself reflecting on that dreary morning when I received the news, and how several colleagues and acquaintances whom I barely knew came up to me over the subsequent hours and gave me a pat on the back, a hug, or a genuine “I’m sorry.”
In the midst of my sorrow I now realize this tragic loss taught me three important things. First, the worst things can happen to the best people for no obvious reason at all. Second, most people, even the ones you don’t think care, are genuinely good people who do care. And finally, just as it is difficult to see all the opportunities life gives you until you’re looking back, it is virtually impossible to fully understand certain life circumstances until they actually happen to you.
It’s a variation of this final point that I want to explore further today – seven important life lessons almost everyone learns the hard way, eventually.
1. The people you lose remain a part of you.
Someday you will be faced with the reality of loss. And as life goes on, days rolling into nights, it will become clear that you never really stop missing someone special who’s gone, you just learn to live around the gaping hole of their absence.
When you lose someone you can’t imagine living without, your heart breaks wide open, and the bad news is you never completely get over the loss. You will never forget them. However, in a backwards way, this is also the good news. They will live on in the warmth of your broken heart that doesn’t fully heal back up, and you will continue to grow and experience life, even with your wound. It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character.
2. The pursuit of happiness is about finding meaning.
Pursuing happiness is not at all the same as being happy, which is a fleeting feeling dependent on momentary circumstances. If the sun is shining, by all means bask in it. Happy times are great and often fun-filled, but happy times pass, because time passes. This is something we rarely grasp at first.
The lifelong pursuit of happiness, on the other hand, is more elusive; it’s not based on a particular outcome. What you are really pursuing is meaning – living a meaningful life. It starts with your “why.” (Why are you doing what you’re doing with your life?) When your “why” is meaningful, you are pursuing happiness. There will be times when things go so wrong that you barely feel alive. And there will also be times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a lifeless existence for eighty years on someone else’s terms. The pursuit isn’t all or nothing; it’s all AND nothing, with ups and downs and worthwhile lessons along the way.
In other words, happiness comes most easily when you know what you’re doing, believe in what you’re doing, and love what you’re doing (and who you’re doing it with), regardless of how things turn out. (Read The Happiness Hypothesis.)
3. Seeking validation from others invalidates YOU.
Has the fear of rejection held you back? Have you ever been so fearful of what others might think or say about you that it kept you from taking positive action? I bet you’re shaking your head, “yes.”
It’s time to change your mindset…
Today, the only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday. Prove yourself to yourself, not others. You are GOOD enough, SMART enough, FINE enough, and STRONG enough. You don’t need other people to validate you; you are already valuable.
If someone says “no” to you, or if someone says something negative about you, that doesn’t change anything about YOU. The words and opinions of others have no real bearing on your worth. Certainly it can be helpful and desirable to make a good impression in certain situations, yet it’s not the end of the world when you are faced with rejection.
It’s great to receive positive feedback, but it simply doesn’t always happen. That’s OK though, because you know where you’re headed and you know your true worth does not depend on the judgment of others. When you set out to make a true difference in life, there will be those who disagree with you, those who ignore you, and those who flat out reject your ideas and efforts. Look beyond them, step confidently forward, do what must be done, and let them think what they will.
4. Regret hurts far worse than fear.
When we give in to our fears, we have a harder time looking at ourselves in the mirror. Sadly, very few of us escape learning this lesson firsthand. If you have already experienced this a time or two, you know what you need to do.
It is only when we risk losing that we truly open the possibility to win. Whether it is quitting your job to build a business, running a marathon, or traveling to unknown parts of the world, any worthy endeavor requires risk, struggle and sacrifice. Some of these things may even terrify you, but ask yourself if these fears are stronger than the most powerful of fears, the fear of a wasted life?
If you’ve never lost your mind, you’ve never followed your heart. It’s better to look back on life and say, “I can’t believe I did that,” than to look back and say, “I wish I did that.” Don’t let time pass you by like a hand waving from a train you desperately want to be on. Don’t spend the rest of your life thinking about why you didn’t do what you can do right now. Live your life. Take risks. Feel passion. Discover love. Run free. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Passion and Growth” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
5. Life is too unpredictable for rigid expectations.
When you stop predicting and expecting things to be a certain way, you can appreciate them for what they are. Ultimately you will realize that life’s greatest gifts are rarely wrapped the way you expected.
With a positive attitude and an open mind, you will find that life isn’t necessarily any easier or harder than you thought it was going to be; it’s just that “the easy” and “the hard” aren’t exactly the way you had anticipated, and don’t always occur when you expect them to. This isn’t a bad thing; it makes life interesting.
Ninety-nine percent of the time life delivers the experiences that are most helpful for your personal growth. How do you know it’s the experience you need? Because it’s the experience you’re having. The only question is: Will you embrace it and grow, or fight it and fade?
The key, of course, is to accept that not everything is meant to be. When things don’t turn out how you expected, you have to seriously sit down with yourself and come to grips with the fact that you were wrong about it all along. It was just an illusion that never really was what you thought it was. It’s one of the most difficult realizations to accept, to realize that you feel a sense of loss, even though you never really had what you thought you had in the first place.
6. When you try to run away, you end up running in place.
“Don’t think about eating that chocolate donut!” What are you thinking about now? Eating that chocolate donut, right? When you focus on not thinking about something, you end up thinking about it.
The same philosophy holds true when it comes to freeing your mind from a negative past experience. By persistently trying to move away from what you didn’t like and don’t want, you are forced to think about it so much that you end up carrying it’s weight along with you. But if you instead choose to focus your energy on moving toward something you do like and do want, you naturally leave the negative weight behind as you progress forward.
Bottom line: Running away from your problems is a race you’ll never win. Move TOWARDS something instead of AWAY. Rather than trying to eliminate the negative, focus on creating something positive that just happens to replace the negative. (Read The Road Less Traveled.)
7. Unanticipated hardships are inevitable and helpful.
Nobody in this world is going to blindside you and hit you as hard as life will. Sometimes life will beat you to the ground and try to keep you there if you let it. But it’s not about how hard life can hit you, it’s about how hard you can be hit while continuing to move forward. That’s what true strength is, and that’s what winning the game of life is all about.
When you have a lot to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and take a step forward instead, you are growing stronger. Work through your struggles and hardships. Even when it feels like things are falling apart, they’re not. Take control of your emotions before they take control of you. Everything will fall into place eventually. Until then, learn what you can, laugh often, live for the moments, and know that it’s all worthwhile in the end.
Gandhi once said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” I love this quote. There’s no doubt that every day is a gift, and the gift is an opportunity to live, to learn, and to grow.
Be a student of life. Indulge in it and absorb all the knowledge you can, while you can. You may have to loose some things to gain some things, and you may have to learn some things the hard way. That’s OK. All experiences are necessary. The purpose of your life is to live it in full, to partake in it to the utmost, to reach out with an open mind and an honest heart for the newest and richest experience being offered.
What would you add to this list? What important life lessons have you learned the hard way? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with the community.
Photo by: Sam LLic