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Life Sentence

How many rolls of wallpaper do I need?

Steve, a friend of mine, decided that he wanted to redecorate his lounge, and wondered how many rolls of wallpaper he would need. Then he remembered that his neighbour Andy had recently redecorated his lounge and since their houses were of a similar design and layout he asked Andy how many rolls he had bought.  Andy said he bought 5 rolls of wallpaper, so Steve went off to the DIY store and purchased 5 rolls too.  When he had finished redecorating he found that had a roll left over entirely untouched.  Steve went to check with Andy, who nodded and replied: “Yes, I had one roll left too.”

Now maybe that’s not a true story, but it often seems so typical of the conversation that we could have had, even sometimes a conversation we could have had with ourselves, or at least I find that I do.  I could have learned from an experience, yet too often I find myself making the same mistake again, and again!

“Experience enables you to recognise a mistake when you make it again.”

~ Earl Wilson

I’ll be going to a 90th birthday celebration in a couple of weeks time, and everyone who’s been invited has been asked to prepare some pictures to be used on the day to make a memory wall.  As we were looking through some old images we came across so many of life’s experiences that we had forgotten about.  Most of them were of happy times shared with family and friends, and some were tinged with sadness where they showed some people and pets that were no longer in our lives.  

This exercise has brought back many memories, some that had been entirely forgotten and some were tinged with some sad recollections, but most are of happy occasions that were enjoyed.  It can be a really worthwhile exercise to choose to introduce some regular times of reflection into the cadence of our lives.  As we approach the end of this year and approach the start of a new year it is a great opportunity to look back over the past year before we start to look forward to what we would like to experience in the new year.

There is an interesting exercise in personal reflection, although it can be a somewhat challenging.  That is to consider my eulogy before it’s needed.  One thing in life I know is certain: that life is fatal, and no-one gets out alive!  So what will people say about me at my funeral?  Why not spend a little while thinking about the legacy we would like to leave in time to make sure that we intentionally leave the legacy we would like.  I call it the double-decker bus test.  What if I were to be run over by a double-decker bus today – what would people say about me?  What sentence would people say to summarise my life?   What would be my life sentence?

What is my Life Sentence?  What would I like it to be?

As we consider the answer to this question, maybe we need to explore what life has been teaching us and learn from our life experiences so that we don’t buy too many rolls of wallpaper.  John Maxwell writes about this in Leadership Gold and suggests that we consider six thoughts:

Although I have an engineering degree and my dad was a vehicle mechanic, much of the workings of my car remain a mystery to me.  One thing I know for sure though, is that if there is a problem with the car then I can take it along to my local garage and they’ll know what to do about it to make it run correctly again.  I don’t understand how it works, but I do understand how to get it fixed.

When we have a bad experience it can be painful and sometimes costly, however we can choose how we respond to the experience going forward.  I have heard some people say: “I did that once and I’ll never do that again, ever.”  However by choosing to avoid a similar situation entirely means that we have simply learned to avoid the situation, not how to deal with the situation successfully.  It is often through the trying and failing, and trying again in the light of the experience that the most productive and successful discoveries are made.

If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on that hot stove again.  In fact, that cat won’t sit on a cold stove either.

~ Mark Twain

When I had been working at my first job for a few years, I came to notice something in some of the colleagues around me.  What I discovered was that was that some of my colleagues had been in the job for 10 years, had 10 years of experience, and they were very skilled.  Others had been in the job for 10 years but seemed to have had just one year’s experience, repeated 10 times.

The coin of experience has two sides – the testimony and the test.  They and inseparable and both come together as part of the same package.  However the lesson learned from the test is an optional extra, available only on careful reflection of the experience.  

Everyone wants the testimony, few want the test.

An experience completed without the lesson learned is an opportunity wasted.  We can be just like the child who seems more interested in the box and the wrapping than the carefully selected gift inside.  We can become so absorbed with the brightly coloured paper, the decorative bows that adorn the outside, or the construction of the box that contains the gift that we lose the beauty of the gift contained within.  it is only by evaluating the experiences that we encounter that we can truly experience the full value of each gift that we encounter along life’s journey.

“Don’t just learn something from every experience.  Learn something positive.”

~ Allen Neuharth

Building a habit where we make it a regular practice to reflect intentionally on life’s experiences can seem time consuming when life is so full of new experiences to pursue.  Some people like to experience every new thrill, and some people prefer to avoid new experiences wherever possible.  Then there are some people who walk slowly but intentionally through life, and these are often the people who are able to extract every ounce of wisdom from each experience they encounter.  It’s up to each of us to make that choice.

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.