“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” —
American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey
Early on in life, I bought into the old saw about those not learning history being doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, I did not think to apply this to my own personal history until much, much later. And as soon as I did, things got better.
But, much as with acting, my best results always come when I (1) apply the tools of reflection with (2) good intent and (3) total honesty. So let’s break down what we mean by each of these three things.
1. Applying the tools of reflection.
There are as many ways to do this as there are people, but each boils down to creating some kind of list, and then spending some kind of quiet, focused time reviewing it.
I’ve shared many methodologies for reviewing and reflecting in previous columns, especially at the end of the year, which is a natural time for review. This is not to say I’m a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. To me, resolutions feel grim and somewhat willful, whereas the kinds of visions that arise from careful, measured reflection are more value-based and organic.
I’ve included a list of previous “review” columns at the end of this one, so if you’re looking for some structure, you can browse through them and see what strikes your fancy. For now, I’ll just say that my favorite tool comes from an excellent, extremely thorough system called Your Best Year Yet, though I’m sure it’s included in many other systems as well. To begin, at the top of one piece of paper, write “Accomplishments” and on another write “Disappointments.” Then, make as exhaustive a list as you can for each one. Under “Accomplishments,” list all of the things, large and small, you are proud of; things that went well, things that you’d love to repeat. Under “Disappointments,” list all of the things you blew; things that didn’t go your way, things that you never, ever want to repeat.
Now that you can see what you’ve done in the past, it’s time to change how you’re going to proceed.
2. Approaching the exercise with good intent.
While it is normal to want nice things for oneself, it is not, I have found, very helpful to want those things to the exclusion of all else. And yes, I have actually found this out by trial and error. Because over the years, I’ve approached change with a number of intentions that were, shall we say, less than noble? I wanted success to glorify myself, or worse, to put down others. I wanted money mostly to be able to do an end run around problems. In other words, I was using achievements like a drug, to give me highs and put distance between me and my real feelings.
The result? While I managed to rack up a not-unimpressive number of accomplishments over the years, I found that, at best, the attendant rushes of pleasure were evanescent. And, like any drug, I needed more and more while getting less and less of a high.
Whether you are a religious person, a spiritual person, or a full-on skeptic (and some of my best exes are skeptics), it can’t hurt to want betterment of self and circumstances to also be for the betterment of others and their circumstances. And, in my own experience, it really helps. So does this last item, possibly most of all.
3. Exercising rigorous honesty.
It still amazes me how many years in a row certain things had to turn up on the “Disappointments” list before I was willing to look at them, not to mention acknowledge the pattern of them, with eyes truly open. But after years of plugging away, I don’t think meaningful change can happen without total honesty. (This should not be confused with brutal honesty, which I don’t believe in at all. Kindness has always worked better for me than cruelty.)
I don’t know what it will take for you to be honest with yourself about your disappointments. For me, even with the help of many good friends and excellent therapists, it takes getting pretty beaten up by my failures to get honest about what isn’t working in my life. I guess I’m just not a quitter (insert ironic smiley emoji here).
The good news is that every time I’ve been able to really face up to what’s not working, meaningful change starts happening immediately. Something I will try to keep top-of-mind as I head into my own bright, beautiful new year.
Thank you for another wonderful year of Act Smart! columns. Here’s to success and fulfillment for you and for the good of us all in 2016!
Links to previous end-of-year-strategy columns:
- What worked this year (2014)
- Clearing the way for a better new year (2013)
- Leaving room for growth (2012)
- Getting a jump on next year (2011)
- Five things to put in place for a great new year (2010)
- What to do on your winter vacation (2009)
- What have you done for you lately? (2008)