“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy
Learning from Life
I took a trip to Costa Rica one time with my wife and some of our best friends. We rented an SUV and paid the full insurance (which I cannot recommend enough when traveling to Costa Rica). We decided one day to try and find a waterfall that we had been told was not only beautiful but a fun place to swim and play. The property manager of the bungalow we were staying in drew us a map. When I say drew, I mean like drew trees, tractors, possibly even a stick figure dog to help us get from where we were to the waterfall. I am sure you know where this is going, we got seriously lost in the jungle. I also want to clarify, I mean legit, monkey running beside your car, toucans flying around, jungle-book like jungle. We didn’t find the trees from the map, we never saw the tractor, we saw several dogs but we didn’t know if they were the right one or not. What’s crazy is that while we were driving we were on and off paved roads and into the woods. We wound up driving our Jeep to a river thinking that we were on the right path at one point. We assumed that we had to drive across the river, surely it couldn’t be that deep. As we kept inching across the water got higher and higher until the car was half way under the river water and we panicked and backed up and out of the river. The car stunk for the rest of the trip, lost its roof rack on that drive, and was eventually returned to the rental lot with a lot of shame.
Life can feel a bit like that drive, complicated, underwater, and in need for full cover insurance. You will find yourself in situations that you feel completely unprepared for and completely confused by. There are also rarely do-overs in life, we make decisions, like trying to drive through a river, and we have to live with the outcome. As leaders or those desiring to grow as leaders, we have to learn the value in education. Education prepares us for situations before we go through them. You don’t have to naturally be gifted as a leader if you are a learner. You can be a better leader and an effective leader by being a learner.
The L’Amour Principal
Louis L’Amour is one of the most significant American authors. He has written 89 novels and 14 short stories that are almost all still in print today. He has defined a genre of literature in a way that few authors can say that they single-handedly have prolifically worked and influenced. He is the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the North Dakota Roughrider Award, and an honorary Ph.D. from Jamestown College. The amazing thing about this writer and voice for our nation is that he was a driven self-learner. He was able to learn from those around him as well as exploring life to learn. His grandfather shared stories of his adventures as a soldier in the Civil and Indian Wars. He had two uncles that worked as a ranch hand and an itinerate cowboy where he got a lot of his insight into the Western world that he prolifically wrote about. Their stories pressed Louis to live life looking for adventure and opportunity. He traveled the country on trains, was a sailor, amateur boxer, miner, ranch hand, and worked several odd jobs. He met unique individuals that he listened to and pressed with questions to learn more. When faced with difficult situations, he mined life for more education instead of just surviving or getting through. His website shares the story that when he was 15, he had to drop out of school and travel to the West with his family, working jobs due to the financial hardships they were facing. Instead of complaining, folding, or having an excuse, he charged into life with a desire for anything he could get from it. His pursuit of life and learning gave him his voice and legacy.
An autodidact is a self-taught person. They see life as one giant education. It’s not that they love school per say, but they love learning because they see the value in everything and the power of information. You don’t have to stumble through life learning from bruises if you’re willing to learn from others. You can prepare yourself for those situations that shake us all if you are living as a learner. We cannot avoid life but we can wisely attack it. Let me share a few quick ideas on how you can live, learn, and grow to lead.
1. Develop a Better Attitude
I think the biggest difference in those who succeed and those who just get by is attitude. I know it’s corny but the statement that your attitude determines your altitude is so true. You have to approach life with a desire to get the most out of it. I want to do more than just make it through to crawl in the bed at the end of the day. I want to really live. I want to learn something. I want to accomplish something. Attitude changes everything. The way you look at a situation determines how you go through it and what you expect out of it. I learned this with college. I could look at each class as something to get through or something to grow through. Each class was a bit different but when I approached them as opportunities and not obstacles, I significantly got more out of them, put more into them, and grew as a result of them. It really is a choice every day to live or survive. You may need to ask yourself right now how you’re perceiving life. Is it a gracious gift from God to you? Will you live in that awesome opportunity and make the most of every breath or will you waste the magic of the moment with an arrogant attitude? He may not do more than make you smile but I love Richard Simmons. He says, “No tricks, gimmicks, special pills, special potions, special equipment. All it takes is desire and will.” I don’t think he’s just talking about fitness and sweating to the oldies, but I think he is talking about life. There’s no way to have a better life than to embrace the one you have and actually live it. Change your attitude so you can learn more from life.
2. Talk to People
I learned a long time ago that if I will take a few minutes and ask a few questions of someone, I will eventually find out that we have something in common. It could be a family or friend connection, it could be a love of sports, it could be that we both love coffee or have been to a foreign country that we both loved. The ability to connect with people is such a gift and blessing. When you connect with people you can begin to learn not only about their lives but from their lives. Everyone has been through some interesting experiences, some hard days, and some joyous moments that you can learn from without living through them yourself. It could be something as simple as how they had a car accident in the snow and learned to not brake but just take their foot off of the accelerator and to turn into the spin not out of it. That experience they went through would prepare you if you ever found yourself there. It could be anything; an autodidact will not only listen to others but also learns how to ask questions to get more and more specific information from the person they are talking to. It’s working to personally learn what they did and how they processed the situation. The lessons you can glean from people you talk to, biographies you read, and documentaries you watch can be more valuable for you and your journey ahead of you than any formal education could provide. Talk to people and learn from them.
3. Travel the World
I met people in college at Dallas Baptist University that had never traveled outside of Texas. It blew my mind because I think one of the greatest blessings in my life was getting to travel and see Israel, Egypt, Russia, Algeria, Tunisia, Greece, France, Germany, Turkey, Cuba, Argentina, Costa Rica, England, Mexico, etc… Seeing the world has given me a perspective that books cannot convey. I thought I knew what communism and propaganda were from history classes growing up until I went to Cuba and firsthand saw them and learned about their impact on the individuals under them. I thought I knew beauty until I went to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia and could stare at a Van Gogh and see his works in person. I thought I knew what poverty was until I want to Haiti and spent a week in the villages learning from some of the most beautiful and loving people how life can be with nothing. I thought I knew hospitality until I went to the Ukraine and ate friendship bread and laughed with people I had never met before or seen since. Traveling exposes you to the world beyond your world. It gives us American’s something older than 250 years. In fact, some things are significantly older, like the gigantic stones that form the base of the temple mount in Jerusalem. There is an education that comes with traveling that teaches you experientially and visually what no class can. Travel the world and learn from their history, culture, and beauty.
4. Look for the Lesson
Given the number of things that can happen to you in any day, it’s vital that we all learn to find the lessons in life and apply them. My dad used to tell me all the time that if a mistake led to a lesson that it wasn’t a mistake. I’m talking about intentionally growing each day. How can you learn from something you observed or something you heard or something you did? I am experiencing this most in life right now as a parent. I will either have bad day or a great day and in both situations, I am asking myself what made the difference. It could be that I was tired or stressed and I snapped at one of my kids. It could be that I set everything down and just played with them or indulged one of their games for a few minutes and saw joy on their faces. I want to be a better dad. I want to be their biggest encourager. I want them to know that they always have someone who believes in them, wants to listen to them, and would give anything for them. That takes reviewing my days and adjusting for my tomorrows. This is a serious discipline of reflection and assessment. It’s easier to just keep moving or ignore the past honestly, but when I sit down and reflect, or better, ask my wife or a friend to reflect with me, I genuinely grow and become a better father, husband, friend, and leader in the process. Not reflecting on your life will mean that you will repeat mistakes, painful moments, and regrets instead of moving forward with wisdom. Learn to look for the lessons life gives you and apply them.
5. Teach Others
Lastly, teach as much as you can. Teaching is one of the things I know I was made to do, but I have found that when I teach something to someone else it not only reinforces it in my life but gives me a whole new outlook on the subject. God always has a unique way of connecting ideas when I teach as well. Things that were seemingly unconnected before somehow find a way to connect. Teaching stretches your mind, your mouth, and your heart. It’s all about caring for the other person, sharing from what you know and have thought while experientially processing ideas. This could be as formal as a classroom or as informal as a conversation over a meal. Sharing your experiences and wisdom helps you process your life, connect ideas to applications, and helps you learn how someone else processes what you’ve been through. Learn to share with others and you’ll find that you won’t just grow through what you go through but you will grow into community as you all go through life.
Leaders are learners. It’s that simple. Leaders, like L’Amour, have learned to take every moment and absorb as much as they can from it so that they can not only enjoy life to the fullest but so they can be prepared for whatever life throws at them next. You cannot avoid life but you can get better at living. That comes from not wasting a single moment or opportunity to learn something. What will you learn today?