Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lessons Learned

Life is a perpetual lesson.

I suppose this is a truth I've always known, but it wasn't until last night that it really sank in.

I attended the opening night of Chicago Ideas Week--seven days packed with lectures, labs, workshops and networking opportunities with some of the most influential and thought-provoking people in the world. The theme for the night was Lessons: The Choice is Yours, and it featured five very different, and very inspiring, speakers: Ben Rattray (Founder & CEO of change.org), Catherine Hoke (Founder & CEO of Defy Ventures), Tig Notaro (Writer & Stand-up Comic), Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Author and co-founder of Beekman 1802) and Malcolm Gladwell (Author and Staff Writer for The New Yorker).

Each one of them had a lesson to share, something they had come across in their own lives that was impactful enough to change their perspectives, alter their paths, open new doors. As they spoke, I let every word unravel in my mind. For them, it was usually one event or story that changed things, sometimes it was simple, sometimes not. But those pure things had presented an unexpected lesson for these people, and it made me think about all the seemingly inconsequential events that have happened in my life and what lesson I might have missed.

Now, as a writer, I consider myself to be pretty astute, especially when it comes to these kinds of observations. However, after thinking about it all night, much to my chagrin, I missed a lot.

Not surprising, most of my life lessons have happened while traveling. What's unexpected is how and when those lessons came about.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery
The first memory that came to mind was of my eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. and New York. (Not really sure why, but it probably has to do with the fact that I'm writing a freelance article about student travel.) I remember being at Arlington National Cemetery, and our class was going to present a wreath to the tomb of the unknown soldier. Prior to leaving for the trip, my English teacher asked if I wanted to be one of four representatives to offer the wreath, and I gladly accepted. She told me to pack a nice outfit for the occasion. Being a bit of a tomboy, my nice outfit consisted of fitted khakis and a button down collared shirt (I can't even remember the shoes I wore).

On the day of the ceremony, my principle stormed up to me and asked if that was really what I was going to wear. Sternly, I said I didn't have anything else, and that these were the nicest clothes I had brought. He was mortified. The other girl was wearing a plaid skirt, tights and buckled black shoes--with a heel, of all things. My appearance mimicked the boys, who wore slacks, buttoned shirts and ties. It was the first time I'd ever stopped to think about my wardrobe and what it said about me. It was also the first time a teacher had ever made me feel ashamed of how I looked. Regardless, I stood proudly with my classmates and handed off the wreath to the uniformed guard, who placed it in front of the tomb. My principle apologized for making me feel bad (followed quickly by a 'you could have at least worn heels'), and I went about the rest of my day trying to forget the whole thing. It was my first lesson in dressing to impress.

Throughout high school, I made more of an effort with my clothes--although dresses were still my least favorite thing to wear. In college, I didn't have to dress up, but every once and a while I made it a point to look a little nicer. And somewhere along the way, I really started appreciating what clothes could do for my self confidence. I even started wearing dresses on a regular basis. My perception of myself started changing. To this day, I make sure I look my best for important meetings, interviews and work, when I'm required to leave the house. It shows people you are serious about your career and your life. I will say, however, that the lesson I learned in eighth grade did not turn me into a shallow person. It taught me about expectations--other people's and my own.

So many other travel stories have drifted through my mind today, and all the different lessons that came outside the classroom. I would love to tell them all and analyze the ways they changed my life, but that would take way too long. (Perhaps I'll save it for my book.) But it has reinforced my belief that travel is essential. It broadens our perceptions of the world, introduces us to different cultures and ways of life, it propels us forward and challenges our ideas. It is a cog in the ceaseless learning process. And I look forward to the many lessons it still has to teach me.

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