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  • Writer's picturekristen lessig schenerlein


Experience is defined as (the process of getting) knowledge or skill from doing, seeing, or feeling things. In short, experience and knowledge are gained through living. This includes our early years or upbringing, our relationships with friends/family, our formal/informal education, and in all cases the "mistakes" or "failures" in between. The reality, as a human being, is that any and all of our experiences in life are most significantly impacted by our perceptions of them. In fact, that is the human experience, isn't it? To learn and grow from our experiences versus perceiving them as a shortcoming or setback. In reflection we may realize that our perceptions of experiences are rooted in a desire for perfection, an unattainable mission for ourselves and in others.

Like everyone, my early life experiences were the result of decisions that the adults in my life made. As I grew older and my brain developed to be able to make comparisons to the lives of those around me, specifically friends, I likely (at the time) judged my life experiences to be a bit more challenging than others. It is only looking back now as an adult that regardless of the difficulties in my early years, I know that those life experiences impacted who I am today. They were the early breeding ground for my resiliency. This resiliency has been a key aspect of my leadership success for the past 17 years.

In addition to my resiliency, my career success was also a result of my experience. I had not set out on a path of obtaining a business or nonprofit management degree in college. I was actually pursuing a degree in Physical Therapy. It was the twists and turns, the life experiences that led me to found a nonprofit organization where I served as Executive Director for nearly 10 years. It was through this experience that I was thrust into leadership, leading a team, leading in service, and leading within a community. I had to be open to learn what a P&L was and how to read to build a budget, how to fundraise for that budget, how to partner, how to recruit staff, volunteers, participants... how to market...and the list goes on. I had to be open to all the experiences as I did not have the educational background, each experience educated me. Everything from having worked in restaurants during college to having a degree in therapy and working in clinical settings, even playing team sports throughout my life have shaped my life experiences.

There are a few key factors that determine our ability to gain knowledge from our experiences in life. One key factor is our ability to reflect on past experiences and ask ourselves "What can I learn from this?" This process of reflection allows us the opportunity to shift our perception of an experience, even if it is after the fact. This could be a strategy for us at the end of each day. Not simply looking at our "to do" list to see how many items were checked off but to truly assess our experiences on that day in an effort to learn and grow, hopefully ensuring we do a little bit better tomorrow...maybe navigating the challenges of the day. Another factor is our ability to explore and get curious, going deeper into an experience asking ourselves "What knowledge can I gain from this so that the payoff will be greater than what it is costing me right now?" This question alone shifts our perception in the moment from that of "this is bad" as it relates to an experience, to this is an opportunity for me to learn and grow personally, professionally, or perhaps both.

In both instances described above, there was a bit of a "pause." A pause between an external stimuli (life event/experience) and our response to it. This includes most importantly the meaning we assign to any experience.

Have you ever found yourself going down the negative "rabbit hole" when something goes differently than you had hoped or expected? Maybe you begin linking this "bad thing" with another thing and now you have created an entire story about your experiences. Maybe this has caused you to define this moment in time (potentially a temporary setback) as a permanent challenge. As a result, judgment has limited your life experience. This potentially robs us of the life we desire, the life we are truly meant to live. And why does this happen? Because we have decided to attach a meaning to a life experience. We allow the experience to define us rather than using it as a means to inform us as we evolve.

“We need other human beings in order to be human." ~ Desmond Tutu

In effect, our experiences in life are what allow us to evolve as human beings. It is through this process of evolving that we can transform ourselves and the world around us. We as a species are ever changing and life itself is constantly in motion. That is a guarantee we MUST accept, especially after the past few years. It is our attachment to this idea of an ideal state or a predictable life that can cause us to become stuck, to suffer, to cycle through negative thoughts. If things do not go our way, we often do not take the opportunity to "pause", to explore or get curious, in an effort to learn and grow from the "setback", we may be conditioned to shut down and close off from that possibility.

It is our resiliency in life that allows us to ride the waves of life's experiences (or maybe if you are more inclined to a sailing analogy, so in that case it is our resiliency that ensures we adjust our sails along the way). Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. (boy, I have been called to do this one too many times!)

After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—that are critical to how we bounce back from challenges or setbacks. These 3 P's also have the potential to stunt your growth from life experiences. In fact, they are critical to the meaning we assign to an experience in life as being negative. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the "negative" events in our lives. There are three P’s, all of which are essential to building your resilient self.

  1. Personalization- The belief that we are at fault. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.

  2. Pervasiveness- The belief that an event will affect all areas of your life. Everything is awful. There’s no place to run or hide from the all-consuming sadness. One setback will spread to all aspects of your life.

  3. Permanence- The belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. It never does. This P is most commonly observed by everyone who has seen a loss of a close life.

This shifting in our perception of life experiences as maybe "good or bad" and essentially assigning a meaning to them, frees us to embrace all aspects of life. To LIVE FULLY knowing that whatever life brings our way, we can and will handle it. Some may just need a bit more time to navigate with a slighter longer "pause" however, you can and will shift your mindset.

“Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for living a full life." ~ Sophia Loren

What would you go after in life right now if you knew that any setback or failure you may experience in taking this new action will only allow for greater growth as a human being? Maybe it is going after that Master's Degree (like me to study under Martin Seligman noted above:)...or maybe you always wanted to learn to surf, or have you dreamed of starting your own business, or imagine yourself getting on stage to speak to a large audience at a TEDX event? Whatever it is...the emotions of fear, anxiety, stress, etc. are only temporary and they are certainly not the only emotions you have access to. Shifting yourself into the joy, the excitement, the curiosity of the potential for new experiences allows you to embrace the unknown. To be fearless, not fearful.

Thinking about where you are today in life and reflecting on the journey to get here, my guess is that not every chapter was scripted. In fact, many of the twists and turns in life or the doors that closed are the exact points in time where we may have been forced to pause and take stock in what was happening in and around us. We have the power to take that pause ourselves though if we do not, it is almost guaranteed that life itself will create the pause eventually. Not sure about you, but I have found I prefer to be in the driver's seat in my life. In doing so, I not only have the ability to take action that is in alignment with my values, I am also able to take that action with confidence that I have considered the impact of my decision on others around me. We are all interconnected in some way. Being true to ourselves and our life experiences is of utmost importance however, we have a responsibility to ensure (to the best of our ability) that our choices do not adversely affect someone else's life experiences. As a mother, this is a key check point for me as I navigate my own "decision tree."

For me, creating a practice of reflection, pausing, and responding throughout an individual day has supported me in building the healthy habits needed to adopt this type of process to embrace all my life experiences. Committing to building my daily mental fitness practice has ensured I have had the capacity to withstand whatever life throws my way (and no, I am human...I do not always like it at first, trust me but I know the research shows that it is a choice to stay in negative emotions, I ride the wave of chemical response for the 90 seconds and then pause). This is my commitment to myself and my inner-work each day. It is not something that anyone else is responsible for doing for me. My experiences in life are mine, as yours are yours, as is either of our attachment to those life experiences. This is our life to live and we only get one shot! So go out and LIVE IT fiercely!

" Growth and Transformation cannot be delegated” ~Lewis Mumford

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