The way you choose to interpret your experiences determines the way you live your life.
There is an old parable about a boy who was so discouraged by his experiences in school he told his grandfather he wanted to quit. His grandfather filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first, he placed carrots, in the second he placed eggs and the last he placed ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil, without saying a word. In about twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup. Turning to the boy, he asked, "Tell me, what do you see?" "Carrots, eggs, and coffee," the boy replied.
Then he asked the boy to feel the carrots, which he did and noted that they were soft and mushy. His grandfather then asked him to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the boy observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked the boy to sip the coffee. He smiled as he tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. The boy asked, "I don't understand. What does this mean, if anything?"
His grandfather laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity--boiling water--but each had reacted differently. "Which are you?" the grandfather asked. "When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the coffee bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable."
The moral of the parable is that it is not the experience that matters. What matters is how you interpret and react to the experience. We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that give them meaning. Your interpretations of your experiences shape your beliefs and theories about the world which, in turn, influence the way you live your life. The grandfather’s lesson is that when you can’t change your circumstances, you change yourself.
We automatically interpret all of our experiences without realizing it. Are they good experiences, bad ones, what do they mean and so on? We do this without much thought, if any, to what the interpretations mean. For instance, if someone bumps into you, you wonder why. The event of her bumping into you is neutral in itself. It has no meaning. It's your interpretation of the bumping that gives it meaning, and this meaning shapes your perception of the experience.
You may interpret the "bump" as an accident or you may feel you are of such little consequence that you're deliberately unnoticed and bumped around by others. You may fault the architect for the design of the sidewalks or you may feel you are at fault for not being more attentive of others. You may interpret the bump as a deliberate example of feminist aggressiveness, or you may even interpret the bump as her way of flirting with you. Your interpretation of the experience determines your perception.
Think for a moment about Abraham Lincoln who is considered by many the greatest president in the history of the U.S. He could not choose his parents, the immediate circumstances of his upbringing, or the historical epoch of his birth. Modern day psychologists would label his parents as dysfunctional and abusive. He was mocked and ridiculed by his school classmates because he was awkward and gangly and his clothes never fit properly. At age 22, he failed in business, he ran for the state legislature and was defeated, and he tried to start another business and failed again. At age 26, he was rejected by a woman he loved and had a nervous breakdown. At age 33, he married a woman who was found to be mentally unstable, and once more was defeated for Congress. At age 37, he was finally elected to Congress but at age 39 he was once again defeated. He subsequently campaigned for and was defeated for the senate, vice presidency, and again for the senate. At age 51 he was elected president of the U.S.
Lincoln was not born with a positive "can do" attitude. On the contrary, his life is testimony that a positive attitude toward one's experiences takes considerable effort and practice. Lincoln learned to expect difficulties, and, so was not traumatized and defeated when faced with problems but viewed them as part of the natural course of events. Lincoln learned the harder one works to sustain a positive interpretation, the more one appreciates life.
Lincoln did not choose his experiences of failure and defeat, but he did choose how to respond. He realized that he was not reacting to an event but to how he interpreted the event. His life is testimony to the uniquely human potential to turn defeats into triumphs and to turn ones predicament into a human achievement. For those events that were not up to him, it was his own attitude that determined their influence on him. When he was no longer able to change a situation, he changed himself.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Learn more here.