There’s something unfortunate about the notion of “trial and error” or even of “trial and correction”. When things don’t work out nicely or as we hope, that doesn’t mean we have done something wrong or even that what we have done needs to be corrected. It simply means that we have to try again, with a different approach, to see if things work out more happily. If so, great! Go with it. If not, make an adjustment and try again. That’s the way life works. We try, and try again, in our search for a happy trek. Intrigued by the distinction? Read on to find the tools for creativity, happiness, and perseverance.
So I watched a pretty scary movie this past week: Regarding Henry. It is a 1991 American film drama starring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening about an ambitious, hard-driving, callous, and narcissistic New York attorney whose work has become an obsession to the point of making him do whatever it takes, including bending the truth and being unethical at times, to win cases and be successful.
Unlike my own brain trauma, this man’s brain trauma starts out with a gun-shot wound to the head. He should well have died on the spot; instead, he lives only to find himself waking up, some time later, in a hospital with no memory of who he is, how he got he there, what he does for a living, or even of the people in his life. He doesn’t know his wife or daughter and he can’t do even the most basic of daily functions. He is totally dependent upon his family and hospital staff to tell him that story and to take care of those matters.
The rest of the movie is devoted to his recovery. Talk about a brilliant job of acting! The movie and Harrison Ford captured so many aspects of my own experience with brain trauma that it was at once terrifying, enlightening, and encouraging. It moved me to tears. If you haven’t seen the movie, I encourage you to do so. I’m sure I will watch it several more times and that it will continue to be a part of my healing journey.
One thing the movie drove home to me was the point of this week’s Provision and a message that I have heard multiple times a day from my wife since I was woken up from my own medically-induced coma: this illness hasn’t ruined our lives; this illness is, for now, a part our life. I haven’t done something wrong, made a mistake, or somehow fallen into a trap of my own undoing. I have, in my case, suffered an inflammation of the brain that has become the next stage of what my friends, family, and I are dealing with. At times, this has led to tenderhearted moments; at other times, this has led to tough and traumatic moments. But at least it has led to moments.
I would have ruined our lives in the most final sense of the word if I had died when I had that first seizure on August 30, 2012 and fell down a flight of stairs. If that had happened, “our lives” would have been “over” in the most ultimate sense of the word. Instead, I changed our lives in unexpected and mysterious ways that we are still unraveling and unwrapping. There are mysteries to behold here and, even though I would never wish this on anyone and even though there are many ways in which I do not like those mysteries, I at least have the opportunity to see where they take me from here rather than to be lying cold in the ground, as a corpse, with no consciousness and no opportunities at all.
That’s why my wife tells me that she is glad I survived. She would rather go through this trauma with me than go through life without me. Given how tough this has been, that’s an amazing affirmation. As I have written before, she has been a saint through all of this. She always responds, “I’m not a saint, I’m a wife.” But not every wife can do what she has done: to nurture me patiently back to life, one faltering and, at times, backsliding step at a time. That was so hard and terrifying, especially for her, who was fully alike, awake, and aware, as I woke up from my coma and have gone through my days ever since with so many memory problems, including moments of having no memories at all as to what has happened to me in the recent past.
As my doctor-daughter, who has been intimately involved in my case ever since, likes to say about the recovery of my brain’s ability to remember and learn things, “It’s a process.” But what exactly is that process, or, for that matter, any learning process? Too often it gets described in terms of “trial and error”. If things don’t work out the way we want or the way they “should” (whatever that means) we think we have committed a mistake or an error that we need learn from and fix.
But thinking of learning as a matter of recovering from mistakes and errors is a kind of thinking that leads us down a rabbit hole of self-judgment, guilt, and constipation. Instead of generating movement and learning, such thinking gets us stuck in negative emotions and nothing moves in positive directions. We end up focused more on our obvious mix-ups and limitations than our natural brilliance, the very elements that give us the ability to live in the first place. And when that happens, we do not become all that, or even much of, what we were meant to be.
The notion of “trial and correction” suffers from some of the same problems. It implies that we have done something wrong, something that needs to be “corrected”, and that there is usually one right way to do things. On occasion, of course, there are right ways to do things because there are natural laws. There is, for example, a right way to breathe: in and out. If we fail to do that, we won’t be doing much of anything else. But most of life is a matter of finding our own unique way, rather than of finding the right way, and that is the message of this Provision: “Trial & Adjustment”.
That is also the message of coaching in any context, whether in life, in schools, or in any arena of human endeavor: first, that we all have unique abilities and, second, that those abilities can be enhanced through a process of experimentation. Scientists don’t go into the laboratory with an answer; they go into the laboratory with a hypothesis: if this happens then that will happen. They test their hypotheses through trial and adjustment. They conduct multiple experiments, changing variables and conditions, until things seem to start adding up in ways that make sense.
But that’s not the end of the story; the conclusion of one experiment simply leads to another hypothesis and another set of experiments. On the process goes, over and over again, as a continuous process of life-long learning: trial and adjustment until we learn the lessons we have to learn and like the results we tend to get. That’s when it’s time to move on to the next experiment which, often, builds on the last experiment. On and on the learning process goes, until life itself comes to an end.
In many respects, the coach approach to life and work takes the same point of view and follows the same process. Coaches talk with our clients, whether as individuals working on their own goals or in organizational contexts, such as schools, working on organizational goals, and then we assist them to develop a series of experiments from which they can learn, grow, and develop. Trial and adjustment – not error or correction – is the coach approach to life and work.
I would encourage you to take that same approach in your own life and work. Eliminate ideas of right and wrong. There is no “one right way” to do things. There is only the way that works best for you, for those you love, and for the larger communities to which you are related.
That contextual sense of love is important when it comes to “Trial & Adjustment”. The experiments we conduct, if conducted selfishly and in isolation from those we love and the larger communities to which we are related, may generate learning but they will not generate the kind of learning that adds positive value to life and work. The point of “Trial & Adjustment” is to make life better for one and all, not just for us as isolated individuals. Indeed, isolated individuals have bad lives by definition. Even religious hermits live in a context; people know they’re out there and provide various forms of support. They, too, live in a context.
To focus selfishly on making things better is to go right back to the main character in Regarding Henry. He was the epitome, at the start of the movie, of a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical, and hard-driving business person. But he couldn’t stay there if he wanted to live, grow, and love. He had to adjust in order to grow into the fullness of the person he was meant to be. Unfortunately, it took a gun-shot wound to the head in order for him to realize that truth; but realize that truth he did and, when the realization came, the transformation led to a brilliant personality in thought, word, and deed.
Somehow, on a gut level, I have the sense that my own trauma – which is different but no less dramatic than that of the main character in Regarding Henry – is also generating a valuable and positive transformation. Unlike Henry, I was a good and ethical guy before this all happened, but I am a better and more compassionate person now. That’s a good thing for me, for my family, and for the work I have yet to do in this world. I will continue to try things and make adjustments because that is how I am: I believe in the power and possibility of lifelong learning.
I would encourage you to adopt the same stance. Don’t be set in your ways. Don’t expect to be the same person in ten years that you are today. Expect to learn and grow in wonderful and dramatic ways, especially when you take a lead role in the process. Learning by accident certainly happens; but learning by design is more satisfying and fulfilling. Set your sights, try new things, and see what you take away from the process.
Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time you embarked upon an intentional learning process? How might adopting a stance of “Trial & Adjustment” assist you on the trek of life? Who could be your partner on the journey? How could you get started today?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Wow! You are such a blessing to so many of us, Bob! Thank you! Take care; Godspeed healing upon you!
Your writing brightens my life, brings tears to my eyes and makes me feel so blessed to have you in my life! Thank you for this week’s provision! I love it and I love you and Megan so very much!
You might enjoy sharing this story with your readers, because it speaks to the assumptions we make and the ways in which they can make or break our day. The story certainly made me think about the assumptions I make and the ways in which they impact my own life and my way of being with others in the world. I encourage you to think about your own assumptions as well:
“A woman was out shopping one day and decided to stop for a cup of coffee. She bought a bag of cookies, put them into her purse, and then entered a coffee shop. All the tables were filled, except for one at which a man sat reading a newspaper. Seating herself in the opposite chair, she opened her purse, took out a magazine, and began reading.
After a while, she looked up and reached for a cookie, only to see the man across from her also taking a cookie. She glared at him; he smiled at her, and she resumed her reading.
Moments later she reached for another cookie, just as the man also took one. Now feeling quite angry, she stared at the one remaining cookie-whereupon the man reached over, broke the cookie in half and offered her a piece. She grabbed it and stuffed it into her mouth as the man smiled at her again, rose, and left.
The woman was really steaming as she angrily opened her purse, her coffee break now ruined, and put her magazine away. And there was her bag of cookies, unopened. All along she’d unknowingly been helping herself to the cookies belonging to the man she had shared the table with.”
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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