Every single thing that has ever happened in your life is preparing you for a moment that is yet to come.

Jennifer’s voice was tentative. Absent was the ‘Take no prisoners’ energy I had found so inspiring over the ten years I had known her. She loved her work and how her CEO role kept her in the lime light. She quickly shared the intensity of the day when the private-equity investors fired her. She had delivered seven years of strong financial results. Then the company hit two choppy quarters and the investors’ limited patience ran out.

I could relate. Twenty years earlier I was sitting across from the Chairman of the Board in an unscheduled meeting as he said, “Brian, there is much you have done as our CEO that has been positive…” I was toast. Jennifer was not afforded any positive acknowledgement in her send-off and the fog had yet to lift in her world. All I could say was, “Gaining wisdom is usually a painful experience.”

I wanted Jennifer to integrate her pain and use it to tap into a latent wisdom that I knew would not only shrink her blind spot and round out her leadership capability, but would also lead her to an elusive sense of peace and fulfillment.

Wisdom and Leadership Maturity

fast-track-to-wisdomWise leaders have gained perspective and have good judgment. They value discernment more than analysis and can balance rigidity with knowing when it’s time to let go of an unquestioned belief. The wise leader sees the big picture and understands the limitation of either/or thinking.

Wise leaders shift from logging hours on nonessential tasks to becoming strategic leaders with vision. They also understand that real success is not measured in dollars and that attaining real wealth is an internal experience.

The Starting Gate to Wisdom

Acquiring wisdom is something we ought to seek but getting it is often a painful process, thus, most of us resist it. Wisdom and pain are intertwined because you will gain it through one or more of the following types of experiences:

  1. You Face Death – a health scare or reflections on aging and mortality that resets your priorities.
  2. You Experience Suffering – physical or emotional pain, a divorce you didn’t initiate, the grieving that comes when your kids are leaving the house, your changing physical looks or abilities, a financial loss or uncertain future.
  3. You Lose Control or Experience Public Humiliation – a visible firing or failure; an unexpected, intractable legal battle that drains you; a business decline or job loss that rattles your confidence.

The good news is you are destined to get wiser; the bad news is it’s going to hurt. The even better news is that you have a choice about how you experience anything. You get to choose if you become wise or angry. Whether you stay open and vulnerable or closed and fearful or bitter.

Harvesting Wisdom

Not long ago, my wife and I thought about moving out of a neighborhood we’ve lived in for 17 years. My vision and goal to start a new chapter were crystal clear but I felt stuck, too frightened to execute. I then recalled a huge financial hit I took years earlier. My wife had trusted my judgment and I made an all-in and risky investment and things went south.

I started to connect the dots. Regardless of how long it had been since I made the bad investment, I had not forgiven myself for what had happened. I couldn’t take steps to move because I knew that if things didn’t turn out perfectly I would once again hold the outcome against myself. I wanted to move but I had robbed myself of resourcefulness and a sense of adventure because I was too busy carrying guilt and shame to harvest the wisdom from my earlier experience.

We learn little from success and ease, especially as we get older. Life naturally builds roadblocks that we can’t think, work or spend our way through. The roadblocks are designed to help us grow and evolve. Harvesting wisdom from life’s roadblocks requires some combination of going toward our pain and grieving, practicing radical self-acceptance, letting go of control, and leaning on outside support. These moves seldom feel natural.

Cultivating Wisdom

Fortunately, there are ways to cultivate wisdom that do not involve as much pain. Here are four ways that Positive Psychology research has shown will help you benefit from difficult times.

  1. Develop a Gratitude Practice – start or end each day by writing down three to five things for which you are grateful and one or two things you are looking forward to that day or the next.
  2. Meditate – take three to ten minutes each day to be mindful; use an App, play music, focus on your breath, or just sit still and quiet.
  3. Let Go – Stop reflexively taking credit or blame for everything you experience. Consider there may be other forces at play and you may notice that life is happening through you not to you.
  4. Feed Your Spiritual Life – spend time in nature, reflect on your abundance at meal time, spend more time with whom or whatever you most adore, forgive yourself, and occasionally contemplate your mortality so you can age and die with less fear and regret.

Research shows that most older people are happier than younger people. The older we get the more we are aware of the fleeting nature of time, the better we are at prioritizing, and the easier it is to stop sweating the small stuff.

Why wait until you are old or beat up to be wise? What is the one thing you can do right now that will put you on the fast track to wisdom on your terms?