With every life experience, your relationships, your achievements, and your failures are all open to interpretation. One of the most unique life experiences we have as human beings is the ability to pause between stimulus and response. And the quality of our lives is determined by the decisions we make in the space between stimulus and response.
The most important decision you’ll make about every life experience is the meaning you assign to it.
We’re masterful at making meaning out of life experiences, transforming facts into fiction and confusing fiction with truth.
All of us have problems and issues. In almost all cases, they’re temporary, but they get so infested in us that we think they’re permanent. We’re not out of money, we become poor. We’re not experiencing a health challenge, we become sick. And we continue to turn temporary things to permanent ones that keep us from living the life we want to live. – Greg Hartle
Few things are more detrimental to the quality of our lives than seeing what’s temporary as permanent. We let our past define us rather than inform our future. This doesn’t mean it’s not going to hurt when someone breaks your heart, that it won’t suck to fail at something you care about, or that you won’t feel grief over your losses. It just means we have a choice about what we will make all of it mean.
1. The Life Experience of Rejection
A couple of years ago, I had a break up that made a mess of my head. On New Year’s Day, I got a text from this person saying that regardless of where life had taken us, I had been one of the highlights of her year. But, I chose to make that break up mean that I was undesirable, unlovable, and unwanted. I completely ignored the fact that that she’d actually said something really nice about me and created a series of debilitating internal narratives that diminished my self-worth.
When we experience romantic rejection, our default narrative is to assume that something is wrong with us. We’re not good enough, smart enough, but that we are deficient in some way. In his book Models, Mark Manson said, “I see all rejection as a form of incompatibility.” The first default narrative diminishes your power and stunts your growth. But, this second option increases your power and accelerates your growth.
When we experience professional rejection, whether that’s a publisher who passes on our book, a company who chooses not offer us a job, or a person who doesn’t want our product, we make the mistake of assuming that the rejection is of us, and not of our work. We end up with a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset and limit our professional potential.
Twenty-seven publishers turned down Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek. Tim could have easily concluded that he wasn’t cut out to be an author. But he didn’t, and it’s likely that now all the publishers who passed on his books are kicking themselves for passing on what has been one of the most profitable publishing investments in the book industry.
Rumor has it that almost 100 venture capitalists passed on Google. When Larry and Sergei went to Yahoo, they were told that if their technology was good, they should just start their own company. If they had interpreted that to mean their technology wasn’t good enough to sell, it would have cost them a billion dollars.
How you interpret rejection will determine whether it informs you or defines you.
2. The Life Experience of Failure
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Failure is an inevitable part of every risk you take. First, you take a step, then you fall, then you get back up, then you take another step, and fall. Eventually, you learn to walk and then you learn to fly.
After 10 years of surfing, there are still days when I get in the water and eat shit on a wave. There are still blog posts that don’t resonate with my readers and still projects that don’t live up to my expectations. But I’ve never made that mean that I should stop surfing, stop writing, or never attempt to write another book or work on a creative project. There are 2 potential stories contained in every failure:
- I suck
- What did I learn from this?
The first causes us to contract, the second causes us to expand. The second allows us to transform adversity into options.
The launch of my recent book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. After weeks of wallowing in self-pity over it, I realize that was going to let this help me sell more books. Then I started to see that the book was spreading organically from one reader to another.
- It had become recommended reading for a group of school teachers in South Carolina.
- Somebody sent it as an anonymous gift to a professional photographer.
Self-pity in the midst of failure blinded me to the possibilities on the other side of it. Tina Seelig encourages her students to create a resume of their failures. Here’s mine. When you create a resume of your failures, you’re able to separate yourself from the life experience and choose a more powerful meaning for them.
3. The Life Experience of Adversity
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A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an article by Chris Wilson about the books that saved his life in prison.
While he was in prison, Chris didn’t just read books. He became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and is currently learning Mandarin. I went to Berkeley, hardly read any books while I was there, and didn’t become fluent in any language. Chris did more in prison than I did in college. I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his new book The Master Plan, and to say that he’s experienced adversity would be putting it lightly. But one thing is clear from his story: He’s exemplary of the fact that even your most adverse circumstances can give you colors to paint with.
Adversity is what enables us to develop grit and resilience. You develop a tolerance for pain only by going through it. As your threshold for pain increases, your capacity to take on the greater challenges does as well.
The 3 P’s That Stunt Our Growth from Life Experience
“After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery,” said Adam Grant in The Option B, the book he co-wrote with Sheryl Sandberg.
- Personalization- the belief that we are at fault
- Pervasiveness- the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life
- Permanence- the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever
If someone has ever broken up with you, you’ve likely gone through the experience of replaying every moment of the relationship in excruciating detail that is worth an Oscar-nominated screenplay and searching for the one thing you could have said or done differently to change the outcome. That’s personalization.
If you experience a financial challenge, that could turn into the belief that you’ll never able to buy a house, get married, etc, etc. It’s something I couldn’t help but think myself over the last few weeks as I’ve been watching my sister get closer and closer to her wedding day. That’s pervasiveness.
If you’ve been fired from a job, lost a parent, or had your heart broken you might think that you’re never going to be happy again and life will always suck. That’s permanence.
Making Meaning out Life Experiences
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There’s probably nothing that makes this concept more eye opening than writing down just the facts of a story. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use an absurd example.
- Fact: The sun is out today.
- Story 1: I fucking hate how hot it is.
- Story 2: I’m Indian and have a vitamin D deficiency, so it’s just what I need.
Two people are both experiencing the sun being out. But they both have different interpretations of the experience. The fact is the objective experience. The story is our subjective interpretation.
Next time something terrible happens, write down the facts. Then write down the story you’re telling yourself about the facts. You’ll find more meaning in a life experience.
Being able to separate the facts from the story doesn’t mean you’re going to be immune to pain. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to see tragic experiences through rose-colored glasses. It just allows you to have a more objective view on your experiences.
Write About Your Life Experience
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In good times and bad times, in moments of grief and moments of joy, writing has been the anchor in my life. It changed my life in ways I could have never imagined.
Writing allows you to reflect on every experience, pause between stimulus and response, and decide what you’ll make that experience mean. It can even pull you out of an emotional funk.
Writing makes it much easier to have a more objective perspective on everything that happens to you. As Dani Shapiro says in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,“I believe you can learn everything you need to learn about life from an ongoing attempt to write.”
Writing is one of the most powerful tools you have for making meaning out of life experiences.
Search for the Value in the Experience
My dad has always abided by a simple philosophy that whatever happens, it’s for your own good. The result of living by this philosophy is a man who has aged so well that my friend Gareth said, “Your dad is like the Indian Benjamin Button.” Every experience, good or bad, can be valuable for our growth.
In 2008, all of the friends I was studying abroad with in Brazil ended up going home early because they ran out of money. We were all supposed to spend New Year’s Eve together. Because they were all gone, I ended up taking a surf lesson, which forever changed my life.
My friend Gareth failed with 3 businesses in a row. He learned something valuable from each failure. And the most recent business he started has taken off. If you want to automate your workflow and save a shitload of time, go check him out.
Valuable experiences aren’t always pleasant. More often than not, they’re painful. But if we search for the value, they end being beneficial instead of detrimental.
Make a Shift from Selfishness to Selflessness
Sometime last week, I was talking to an author on the Unmistakable Creative who had a life long battle with depression. But after shifting his perspective from selfishness to selflessness, he’s never had a depressive episode.
When the meaning we assign to our experiences is debilitating, it’s because our perspective is rooted in selfishness. Think back to the whole miserable narrative of breakups:
- What did I do wrong?
- What could I have done differently?
- What’s wrong with me?
Self-obsession makes us miserable and causes us to assign toxic meanings to every experience in our lives.
Accepting Life as It
In all of our lives there are things we can control and ones we can’t. And we suffer when we try to control the uncontrollable. Everything you fight has power over and everything you accept doesn’t. By accepting life as it is, you stop resisting. And you stop swimming against the current
How you interpret something will determine if it’s one of your best experiences in life, whether it informs your future or define its, whether it holds you back or helps you move forward.
You may not have a choice over how a life experiences turns out. But when it comes to making meaning out life experiences do you do have a choice. What will you choose to make it mean?