A litany of life lessons, just one at a time

1 Thing Learned

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned …”

It’s a phrase that makes you want run, right?

Typically, those words are followed by someone’s hard-won wisdom. The kind of advice the giver is determined to share, regardless of how heavily the receiver sighs or rolls her eyes. Translation: “I’m going to tell you what I learned, whether you asked for it or not.”

But what if you did ask? What if you could ping an old friend, a new client, a trusted mentor, a far-away relative, a casual acquaintance and say, “Hey, what’s one thing—just one thing—you’ve learned that might be a useful lesson to me, too?”

I did exactly that this week. And if you’ll hang with me here, you’ll get the benefit of some truly insightful “one things” learned.

But first, let me tell you why I ventured down this path in the first place.

When Jill and I started leading Story Mode workshops, we asked participants to fill out evaluation surveys. Of course. That’s what you do. Rate this. Score that. Anything else we should know?

We always got positive marks and usually a few lovely verbatim comments. But we didn’t get truly useful input. Plus, filling out a survey pretty much killed the joyful buzz we had just created with our workshop.

So, we stopped doing those surveys. Instead, we started asking two questions that really mattered:

  • What’s one thing you learned from this experience?
  • What’s one thing you will try because of what you learned?

These questions matter to us and to our clients. From the responses, Jill and I learn about our impact: we find out exactly what people are taking away from an encounter with Story Mode. And our workshop participants wind up with a super-concise summary and action plan: here’s this new thing I learned, and here’s what I’m going to do with it.

We’re emphatic about the notion of one thing. Because narrowing down a big experience (or even a small one) to just one thing is a good way to find focus and purpose, and because it helps us remember what we’ve done.

I’m on a bit of a learning jag these days. So, while sipping whiskey a few nights ago, I wondered how I might use this notion of “one thing” to learn some lessons from my own life experience. First, I brainstormed a list of 39 experiences, then went back and noted just one thing I’d learned from each one. For example, one thing I learned:

  • Loading the dishwasher: Everything cannot go in the front.
  • Buzzing my hair down to a quarter-inch: You really don’t need all that extra stuff on top (which is also true for much of what we write).
  • Growing up as a farmer’s daughter: There is always work to be done, and you need your rest to keep up with it. (My dad took a post-lunch nap every day in a rocking chair in front of the TV.)

Scanning my own list, I felt accomplished. But I wanted more. So, the next day I scrolled through my contact list and invited several people to give me the benefit of their life lessons.

Here’s just a small sample of what they told me:

Joe, Bicycle Mechanic, Craftsman in Miniature:

“Maintenance is less stressful than replacement. A lesson learned by wrenching on bikes and recently getting my teeth cleaned after twenty years of no visits to the dentist.”

Monica, Clergywoman:

“Through divorce, job losses, and living in this pandemic, I have learned that life is about improvisation and I can make beautiful music.”

Deb, Consultant & Gardening Guru:

“One thing I’ve learned about gardening: it’s a process and mistakes are easily remedied.”

Chris, VP of Sales & Marketing:

“Breaking your back sucks! I have broken my back twice. Once very severely and came very close to being paralyzed. Life is hard and it’s meant to be. Hardships are an opportunity. You have the opportunity to overcome your own hardships and emerge a better version of yourself, but only if you make the choice to look at it as an opportunity.”

Kurt, IT Consultant & Rockstar:

“Being a musician isn’t all applause and sex. There is a lot of heavy lifting too.”

Heather, Middle School Art Teacher:

“Not everyone wants an A. This makes me sad in some way. Yet I’m also okay with it, because I believe everyone will go on to be and do what they were meant to be and do.”

Sarah, Artist:

“For many years I had been a stay-at-home mom with my special needs daughter, and I was now going through a divorce. Encountering that blank space on forms—the one that asks your occupation—confirmed my lost identity and the search for the authentic person I was struggling to become. Writing ‘homemaker’ did not feel true, so I began to put ‘artist’ instead, which I am. It was very profound. Writing that small word changed the perception I had of myself and how I represented myself to the world. When making decisions in life, being, feeling, and sounding authentic is a guide that can’t steer you wrong.”

Raksanna, Performing Artist & Spiritual Being Having a Physical Experience:

“As a teacher, I’ve learned the power of believing in your students can give them the courage to make miracles happen.”

Sean, Attorney & Solo Father:

“In high school, I worked a job to pay the bills at home, not for spending cash. I learned to appreciate what I have because I worked for it myself. That’s why my college and law school diplomas hang in my bedroom. They are reminders of what I did to get to where I am.”

Gaby, World Traveler with a Well-Stocked Backpack:

“Backpacking South America, I learned that even for the most ‘free spirited’ of travelers, basic research like checking the requirements for exit/entry to the countries you’re going to is important. Unless of course you want to be stranded at the airport in Colombia because you are denied entry to Peru.”

What’s one thing you’ve learned that’s worth sharing?

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