Mandela and the Power of Learning
Nelson Mandela is a hero to me. He embodied core qualities of a beautifully, fully-lived life: courage, hope, compassion, and clarity. And I’ve often thought that the essence of his power as a human being lay in his ability to be totally present: to take each day, each moment, as something new to be experienced, to be fully understood and turned to best advantage. In other words, Mandela was a great learner. Then, recently, I read a quote of his:
“I never lose. I win or learn.”
– Nelson Mandela
Such simple, universal advice. Let yourself reflect on this for a moment. Think about the last time you “lost.” That you didn’t win something professional you really wanted, like a promotion or a new job. Or something personal – a sports competition or someone’s agreement or support.
To be able to learn rather than lose in these situations is real learning, learning that can change your life. Too often, when we talk about learning, we mean something pale and insubstantial: “I read lots of articles,” “I took a class that was interesting.” But real learning is muscular and vital – it comes right up to your inability, your mistake, or your failure and looks it in the face and says: What did I not know here? Why didn’t that work? How do I need to change? Real learning is courageous and hopeful. Real learning requires being compassionate toward yourself and clear about both your strengths and weaknesses.
When we lose something we really want, at work or at play, our immediate tendency is to look away – to avoid really seeing our “defeat,” because we think it will be too demoralizing or embarrassing. I learned this 40 years ago from Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame: when most people hit a bad shot in tennis, they don’t stay focused on what actually happened, so they can correct it next time. They literally look away, and either start making mental excuses for themselves (“my racket needs restringing,” “the sun was in my eyes”) or mentally beating themselves up (“I’m an idiot to have missed that shot,” “I’ll never be any good”).
This is losing vs. learning.
So. Next time something doesn’t go well for you: a client declines your proposal; your best friend thinks your new idea is crazy; you don’t get that job you really wanted…
Instead of looking away and losing, be courageous and clear. Look at the situation, look at yourself. Ask, What could I have done differently? or What can I learn to do differently going forward? And be compassionate and hopeful, too – don’t berate yourself, don’t predict permanent failure. Really try to understand what you can take away from this situation that will help you succeed the next time a similar situation arises. And then figure out how to make those changes in your behavior or your mindset, or both.