In May I spent 10 days in Italy with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and eight-month-old grandson. While we did some touristy things (e.g. you simply cannot visit Florence and NOT see the David!), we also immersed ourselves in the culture.
We never set foot in a hotel or gift shop. Instead, we slept in residential neighborhoods in old convent rooms now run as B&Bs by the nuns, or in an apartment within a medieval-era walled city with a commanding view of olive orchards and vineyards.
Immersion in a foreign culture refreshes the way I view the world. First, the “different-ness” of life in another country or region opens up new awareness; then, my newly expanded lens causes me to review habits and beliefs that were previously “invisible” to me.
Through the lens of learning, I share with you my most powerful life lessons from Italy:
- Just because you don’t know where you are does not mean you are lost. We circled parts of Umbria and Florence for hours, unable to make sense of the serpentine, one-way roads…and we had a blast!
Just like in real life, the pleasure’s as much in the journey as the destination.
- You can be way off track and still maintain balance. I’m a vegetarian who manages my diet to minimize starches and fat. Not in Italy! There I consumed huge amounts of pasta, gelato and vino every day, and LOVED it!
There’s nothing wrong with letting the pendulum swing far in one direction, as long as you ride the swing back in the other direction to keep yourself centered. To balance our doubling of food, we walked EVERYWHERE!
- Don’t underestimate the common and familiar. At first, we resisted the vino della casa (the house wine), thinking it was the “cheap stuff.” We learned that in Italy the house wine (typically ~€3/liter, about $4.50US) was inexpensive because it was made just a few kilometers down the road – and it was always fantastico!.
Take a fresh look at what is right under your nose and you may be pleasantly surprised. I’m now paying more attention to the Locavore movement, which is all about reconnecting with the great quality of foods and opportunities nearby.
- Happiness is all around, but there’s not always a Sign. One of my two vices is great coffee, and I was told that “espresso bars are everywhere” in Italy. I was frustrated until I learned that the bars are typically tiny and, since the locals already know where they are, poorly marked. Once I had clues, I could find a shot of espresso within minutes.
Happiness is like that – if you don’t know what you seek, it’s impossible to find. Seek clarity, and you’ll soon realize it’s right in front of you.
- Do your inner work, first. Americans are often concerned about the view OF their house, e.g. how others see their house/lawn/gardens from the street. In Italy, gardens are maintained in hidden courtyards, so the focus is on the view FROM the house.
When you work on how YOU see the world, you will create more positive change than when you spend all your time worrying about your “image” with others.
- We build on other’s successes. While we think we are special and so advanced, we are not the first generation to achieve huge innovation and create great works – ancient Rome proves that point. If not for the accomplishments and creativity of those who went long before us, what we have today would not and could not be.
We have a responsibility to understand history and use it in two ways: as a jumping off point to build a better future AND for lessons on what NOT to repeat!
- When you move all day, many small steps add up. Our busiest walking day (nearly 20km/12mi!) covered ancient Rome’s central city: the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Coliseum. Yet because we stopped for a picnic lunch in the emperor’s throne room and a nap in the palace gardens, we survived the day.
As the saying goes, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time;” any big undertaking becomes easier when tackled just one step at a time.
- Happiness is in the small things and the quiet moments. One of my fondest memories will be of the supreme calm I’d experience each time I stepped off the crowded, frantic streets of Florence and into the dark, cool quiet of the convent lobby.
Take a moment to breathe.
- There are friendly people everywhere. We got lost. We feared pickpockets. We sat down in restaurants where nothing was in English. We learned that no matter the situation, per favore and grazie (please and thank you) brought out the best in others.
In life, we often assume that we’re on our own because we buy the “story” that the world is an uncaring and dangerous place. That’s an image created by the media to sell newspapers, cable news, and reality shows. In the Real World, 98% of the people you ask will return a smile with a smile, and help you on your way.
- Once you let go of control, it’s easier to enjoy the ride. Italians pay scant attention to breakfast, start dinner “too late, and drive like lunatics on impossibly narrow roads, right? Well, it took a few days for us to understand, but once we let go of our American “filters” and embraced a different set of rules, we had a better time, and created great stories to tell.
Let go of your “shoulds” and instead be curious about what is.
- Don’t sleep with the windows open unless you pull down the screens. Don’t get mad at the mosquitoes – it’s not their fault you forgot!
- Although it is hard work to climb up hill, the spectacular views from the top make it all worthwhile.
- Anything that seems strange at first can feel perfectly normal after a week. Exhibit A: pumpkin, sardines, and octopus on a pizza (it was pretty tasty!)
- There’s no place like home. No matter how delightful the trip, there’s nothing quite as lovely as a good night’s sleep in your own bed!
The 13 Principles of Happiness offer even more life lessons. Visit https://theexecutivehappinesscoach.com/happiness/philosophies.cfm, to download a 1-page PDF Poster. Post it on your workplace wall or your fridge at home, and try to live principle each day!