What did you learn today?—a habit that will change your life

For years I asked my grandson “What did you do today?” I now ask “What did you learn today?” He doesn’t always have a ready answer but he’s beginning to adopt the new mindset. When he does answer, it’s usually something like the “80 moons of Jupiter”, or a new phrase in Spanish. I accept those answers but I’m pressing him to also notice what’s he’s learning about himself, others, and life in general. Recently he answered, “I learned that a few of my classmates aren’t very kind.” Now that’s a good lesson to learn. 

I’ve asked my staff to write down, every day, something they have learned. At the beginning of our weekly staff meetings we take a few minutes to share what we have learned the previous week.

Life is full of valuable lessons but we won’t notice them or learn from them unless we train ourselves to spot them, write them down, and talk about them. Relative to “spot them,” please read my post titled Frequency Illusion —we notice things that are top-of-mind, so make learning something every day a priority. Relative to “write them down,” thoughts are codified and easier to remember when we write them down. When I have a significant thought but don’t write it down, it’s gone by the end of the day. Our thoughts are also solidified by sharing them with others. Recruit someone with whom you can share what you’ve learned and reciprocate by listening to what they have learned. 

Dawson Trotman taught, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and fingertips.” 

If you’re truly engaged in life there will always be lessons to learn—every day. We can learn from others (why did Liz Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister of England last only 44 days?), from our own experiences (I recently hired an attorney to write our will but didn’t get a price estimate before we started; bad mistake), from reading (I learned a lot last week from reading Why We Argue (And How We Should) by Aikin and Talisse, from listening to podcasts, and through intentional conversation with others.

Every day, be aware of learning moments, slow down when you experience one, record it in a journal, and process it with a friend. This can be a life-changing, life-enhancing habit.

So…what did you learn today?

Don’t judge someone by their worst moment or their worst trait

Look again at the picture at the top of this post. What do you see?

Most of us see a black dot. We overlook the white space and focus on the one, small dot.

Now think of the entire picture as representing a person’s life—it symbolizes the essence and totality of who a person is and what he has done—and the black dot denotes his worst moment or worst trait. Just as our eyes are drawn to the black dot, we often tend to focus on the “black dot” in people’s lives, discounting all their positive attributes. We often judge others based on a single issue.

But we shouldn’t form our opinion of someone based on their worst moment (she had an affair; he got fired from a job; he blew up during a staff meeting.) or their worst trait (he’s always tardy; she’s financially imprudent; she’s vain about her clothes.) While our observations may be accurate, it’s unfair to focus exclusively on them and emphasize them.    

There are two main reasons why we shouldn’t judge others.

1. It’s difficult to truly understand why people act the way they do. 

Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” It’s that difficult. Every person has a story; there’s a reason behind who they are and what they’ve done, but we’re usually not privy to that information. 

Imagine walking through the woods and you see a dog. It looks cute and friendly so you approach the dog to pet it. Suddenly it snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems very cute and now you’re both afraid and angry. Then, the wind blows away the leaves on the ground and you see that the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You realize it became aggressive because of its pain and suffering.

We’ve heard the adage, “Never judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” It’s good advice—try to see life from another person’s perspective—and it essentially eliminates judging others because it’s impossible to truly experience someone else’s life. You can’t “walk in someone’s shoes” for a few feet much less a mile. The moral is: Don’t judge.

2. All of us need grace.

Someone has suggested: Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.

In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Then he tells an anecdote to explain why: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The key word in the story is hypocrite. 

Jesus is exposing a blind, ignorant, hypocritical, self-righteous judging that overlooks one’s own faults and focuses on the sins of others. His anecdote is intentionally extreme and a bit humorous: There are two dudes working in a woodshop. One guy looks at the other guy and says with a mixture of disdain and contempt, and with a smirk, “You nincompoop, you’ve got some sawdust in your eye. Come here and I’ll help you with that problem.” All the while he’s got a two-by-four sticking out of his own eye.

I think it’s part of the dark side of our human nature: It’s easy for us to see other people’s faults but we’re blinded to our own. 

Of course, there’s a need for balance relative to recognizing and responding to right and wrong. In society and in our personal relationships, we need reasonable and fair laws, expectations, and boundaries, and sensible responses to violators. I’m not going to address that important topic here because it may distract from my main point. 

Referring back to the picture at the top of this post, instead of obsessing on the black dot (people’s foibles), let’s train ourselves to do the opposite—focus on people’s best moments and their best attributes. And hopefully they will extend to us the same grace. 

Was it okay for me to tell a scary story at my grandson’s birthday party?

Several weeks ago we hosted my grandson’s eighth birthday part at the Lakehouse. Ben and four of his friends were in boy-Nirvana: treehouse, fishing, dogs, soccer, pizza, sleeping bags, looking at Venus and Jupiter through a telescope, etc.

The first evening I put a large blanket in the field, invited the boys and my son-in-law to lay on their backs and gaze at the stars. I asked, “There may be boys on another planet that are looking at our star right now. If they asked you ‘what is it like to live on Earth, what would be your answer?’ Invigorating conversation ensued. 

Then I announced that I had a scary story to tell. Excitement peaked. I made up a story about a two-headed coyote that had lived in the area for over 200 years. It had recently been sighted. As I told the story my voice became progressively quieter, and then I screamed. Everyone came off the blanket a few inches. Two of the boys said, “That’s not scary; tell us a really scary story.” Everyone was laughing, except for one boy, who started crying. Touchingly, the other boys offered him succor – “It’s just make believe…it’s ok, we’re all together…” His response was (through sobs), “That story will be stuck inside my head for the rest of my life.”

It took a maternal touch to defuse the moment (thanks, Lauren), and all was well by the time we went to bed (me in the doghouse).

Here’s what I learned.

Isn’t it interesting how individuals react differently to the same stimulus. Five boys heard the story; four loved it and wanted more and one was shaken. So before I speak, I need to evaluate what I’m about to say and consider how it will impact all those who hear. This is an aspect of emotional intelligence—sensing how my words and actions will affect the lives of others. For instance, humor is a tricky thing to negotiate: tell a joke to 100 people and 98 will think it’s clever and uplifting but two may be offended.

But our carefulness can be taken to an unnecessary extreme: if we’re overly cautious and too sensitive, our speech may become bland and boring and/or we just won’t say much. No matter what you say or do, someone will be bothered by it. There is a balance to achieve.

So, I ask you my readers, “Was it okay for me to tell a scary story at my grandson’s birthday party?”

Sometimes, take a “chill pill.”

Sometimes, I trip over inconsequential issues. I obsess about issues that won’t matter six months from now, or even six hours from now. When this happens, I need to take a “chill-pill” and drop it.

Figuratively or literally, carry some “chill pills” with you. Figuratively, when you need to settle down, just imagine putting a pill in your mouth. Literally, keep a small packet of breath mints in your pocket and use them when needed for halitosis, but also pop one in your mouth when you need to relax and ease up on an issue (the placebo effect may genuinely help).

We also need to learn the indispensable coping skill called “drop it.” Imagine holding something in your hand, perhaps a pencil. Now uncurl your fingers and drop it on the floor; as an act of your will, let it go. Sometimes,  when I catch myself  needlesly obsessed about something I’ll  “drop it” metaphorically—in my mind I’ll imagine my hand releasing the pencil. If an issue is harder to dislodge I’ll hold up a clenched fist and physically release the grip. If I’m deeply entrenched in an issue, I may literally hold an object in my hand and drop it on the floor.      

Here are some situations when we ought to swallow a chill-pill.

      • When the issue is settled; it’s not going to change. When the pilot says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having mechanical problems so we’ll have to switch to another plane,” relax, take a deep breath, and let go of your frustration. You can’t change the situation.
      • When I have little or no control over a situation. When my young grandson has a meltdown, all I can do is try to minimize the damage. There’s no sense in getting upset and impatient—he’s a child.
      • When I’m inordinately emotionally peaked. Perhaps I can influence a situation but in order to do so productively, I need to decrease my emotional fervor and become more rational. 
      • When contemplating an issue over time will give me greater clarity. Often, my first reaction to a situation is not my best, but when I allow myself to think through a situation, I arrive at a better conclusion. Instead of reacting immediately, I need to take a chill-pill and delay my reaction until a later time.    

When was the last time you needed to drop something, but didn’t?