In As You Like It, Shakespeare declared “all the world’s a stage.” Actually, if we are to reach our full potential, all the world’s a classroom. Our triumphs and especially our failures provide wonderful opportunities to learn and grow when we are open to what they can teach us. It’s as if all the pain in the butt moments, all our moments of despair, all our moments of longing and frustration are in reality our personal curriculum. If we pay attention, we emerge wiser and stronger.
How do we turn those challenges into opportunities for growth? Doug Silsbee, in his workshops on resilience and in his book PresenceBased Coaching, calls learning from life “self generation” and offers four components of this process that I believe provide an excellent roadmap.
The first component is observation. Observation is simply paying attention to what is happening to us and around us without trying to explain it. This is not easy because our minds automatically make some kind of meaning of our experience. It’s very difficult for me to simply notice when a car cuts me off in a parking lot without making a lot of negative judgments about that @#%*@! driver, much less notice the sudden tightness in my chest, my more rapid breathing, my fear and anger. But that’s what observation is and its power is that when we step outside ourselves and observe what is happening we actually detach ourselves from the situation. We see it much more clearly. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have identified in their research that this ability to observe is characteristic of a higher level of adult development—that by learning to observe in this way, we actually expand our ability to deal with complexity.
Learning to observe often takes a series of steps. That is, we are first able to observe ourselves in past experiences, as in “wow, I really got angry at Al when he asked questions about my proposal. I thought he was trying to make me look bad.” But the more we practice observing, the more we are able to see the pattern of our habits and the more likely we will catch ourselves in the moment. Sam may notice that every time someone questions an idea he’s excited about, he gets tense and strikes back in some way. This is the second component, realization. It’s when you can see the pattern or habit and you recognize you have a choice about how to behave in the future. You wake up to the real possibility of change—and you recognize you have the power to do it.
The third component, reorganization, is trying out the new behavior, even though it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Sam takes five deep breaths and says something like “thanks for that question. Let me think about that” and then follows up later when he’s more calm. Stabilization can actually be a series of small shifts in behavior that ultimately add up to a new, more productive way of responding.
The fourth component, stabilization, is practicing the new behavior over and over until it becomes habitual and you no longer have to think about it. It requires lots of conscious practice to become unconsciously competent. But habits do change and over time we can become as comfortable and automatic with the new behavior as we were with the old.
Coaches often use this process to support their clients’ development. But self generation doesn’t require a coach. It requires learning new habits of being and of learning that anyone, over time, can master.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership and professional development. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.