08/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Lessons in the Key of Life: Putting Together the Jigsaw Puzzle of Life

Rarely do our major life lessons show up in straightforward ways, announcing themselves as "major life lessons." As common as many life lessons might be, they don't seem to lend themselves to a formulaic way of thinking either. And, yet, there do appear to be some common lessons and formulae that work.

So, knowing that each of us get our lessons in different ways and that there is no one "right way," here's a non-formulaic formula for life.

This article and the next few will address four basic keys found in what I call the Cycle of Improvement:


Some simple definitions as we will use them here:

Awareness: knowledge, recognition or cognizance or a current condition
Desired Outcome: the purpose of your endeavor, what you are hoping to produce including substantive and experiential outcomes
Choice: options or alternatives that you hope will lead to your Desired Outcome
Result: the consequence or effect of a choice
Experience: the quality or qualities you hope will characterize both the endeavor and the outcome of the endeavor

Any Road Will Do - or Will It?

The Cycle of Improvement suggests an order or flow of events leading to a preferred outcome. While there may be numerous ways to view the process of improvement, many of which will be at least as useful as this one, I have tried to keep the process pretty simple.

For those of you with really sharp minds, it might be tempting to dismiss this cycle as simplistic. I have found that simple and easy are not the same. In fact, something can be simple in concept and difficult in application. While the model is a long way from exhaustive, I think you may find it sufficiently elegant to be of value in just about any circumstance where improvement is desired.

We could start just about anywhere in the cycle, and I have purposely chosen not to number the elements of the cycle. Said differently, you can pick up anywhere in the cycle and soon find yourself in its rhythm. In some ways, this is a bit like the old chicken and the egg story.


What are you experiencing in your life? Right now? In your career? In your relationships? With your health? And in any other ways that you might notice. How do you rate those experiences? Like 'em? Hate 'em? Or ???

We will come back to Awareness in much greater detail in a future post; for now, let's just say that being aware of current circumstances, what you like and what you would like to be different can be quite helpful in determining the next step in process.

Desired Outcome

For most of us, pieces of the puzzle of life show up much like a jigsaw puzzle, rarely in perfect order. Trying to make sense out of what appear to be random pieces can be a challenge. Putting the puzzle together can be especially difficult if you don't have a picture of the finished puzzle to begin with. Fortunately, most puzzles come with pictures. If only it were so with the puzzle of life.

In some ways, "Desired Outcome" is the puzzle picture on the outside of the box.

Many years ago, a friend and mentor of mine watching me struggle with various life choices, offered an old country cliché for me to consider: "if you don't know where you are going, any road will do."

This simple aphorism has become central to making effective choices in life. If you don't know where you're going, and you come to a fork in the road, how do you know which fork to take?

Desired Outcome may include both substantive outcomes as well as experiential outcomes.

Choice and Result

"Oh well, it doesn't matter, just pick one." And so I pick one. And a bit later I come to another fork in the road. "Which one?" "Doesn't matter." And so I pick one. Sooner or later, this series of choices leads to a Result. Do I like where I find myself or do I bemoan my circumstances? If you are at all like me, you have probably spent some time bemoaning circumstances.

"Why me?" "How did this happen?" "Where did this come from?" These are the kinds of questions some people seem to bemoan of themselves when they fail to realize that they are the ones who made the choices at each fork in the road.

After all, if you don't know where you are going, any road will do. Sooner or later, every road leads somewhere, to a Result. If I don't like where the road lead, who do I blame? The road, of course!

So, let's back up a bit. Let's imagine that you do know where you are going. You have a destination in mind. You find yourself moving down life's path when you come upon a fork. Which one should you take? Does it matter? The only time it doesn't matter is when you have no idea where you are heading. In this instance, you do have a destination or outcome in mind.

Now you can stand at the fork and ask yourself, "If I am trying to get to this outcome, which fork seems more likely to get me there?" With that little bit of guidance, you can now make a somewhat more informed Choice.

Does this mean that you have chosen correctly? By no means! Sometimes you can even arrive at your goal, or at least what you thought was the goal, only to be disappointed by the Experience of the Result.

However, having chosen toward a Desired Outcome, you can now observe more clearly what happens next. If data appear along the way, indicating that you have chosen incorrectly, what can you do?

One choice (there's that choice word again), would be to back up to the previous fork in the road, and try the other one. Another choice would be to notice where you are now (Awareness), and look for other, more immediate choices that might help you get back on track.

Any of these options are possible and potentially effective. The key element is knowing what direction you are heading, where you are now, and what is your Desired Outcome.


In an earlier post, I introduced the notion of distinguishing between the "things" we often pursue in life and the underlying reason we seek them. The basic argument is that for most of us, what truly matters is the quality of experience more than the tangible focus such as job, money, car, etc.

If the main experience I am seeking is one of peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction, part of the process of choosing includes my ability to produce peace, fulfillment and satisfaction along the way, as well as when I arrive at my destination. And if I am trying to achieve a certain income or career goal, how can I achieve these goals while also producing the experiences I truly seek?

The more you know about your Desired Outcome, the more you will be able to identify experiences along the way that help you know whether you are on course or off course.

In subsequent posts, we will deconstruct these apparently simplistic elements, looking more deeply into how they work and how you can work them in your own life.

You can find out more about Russell Bishop at
Contact Russell at:

The author of Lessons in the Key of Life, Russell is a professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California. His intent is to assist you in becoming a more powerful creator of your own life experience, producing more of the results you truly want.

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