Current AffairsPeopleReflectionJanuary 22, 20182Mandela 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.



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