29 Things I’ve Learned

Intending to build on my previous post around this time last year, I’ve been in a reflective mood.  I’m less fearful in a lot of ways, and more uncertain in others.  This year has given me a lot to think about and a lot to move forward with.  Relationships have deepened in many ways, others have been shed, and exploration has become one of the most driving forces in my life.

I’ve discovered a deeper-seated need to explore than I thought I had before.  Exploring more about who I am as a person, what motivates me as a person, who I want in my life, and what makes me… well, “me”.  I think my flexibility in being able to be present in so many different ways for myself and others is one of many  profound strengths I’ve discovered.  I think in writing especially, I can be present for others and hopefully be a teacher, even when I’m not physically there.  In that spirit, let’s get started.

1. Empathy is indispensable.

This point has become abundantly clear to me as time has gone on, and especially in light of the recent US election, that empathy is the key to almost anything we intend to engage in.  Being aware of how I feel, how others feel, and how to relate to people in a way that’s positive and well-meaning makes me not only a nicer person to be around, but also people that others will seek-out.

2. Change is the only constant in the universe, so find the joy in it.

Even when I’m at my absolute worst, I’ve tried to recognize and remind myself more often that change is constant and it’s going to happen with or without me.  I’ve already “bought the ticket” as it were–sometimes it’s as simple as taking the ride and enjoying it, wherever that ride takes me.

3. Try.  Fail.  Try again.  Fail better.

I have to say this to myself a lot: failure is not an end.  It’s the semicolon in a sentence.  It’s up to the writer (which happens to be me in this case) to decide what to do after it.  Do I continue with the effort, or do I change what I am putting my effort into?  We all have personal agency to make decisions on where we spend our time and our energy, so make it count.  If it’s something I care about deeply, I need to recognize that and keep trying.

4. Not everything is as it seems.

I can’t count the number of times over the past year where I’ve been so thoroughly surprised at learning something new about myself, about someone else, or about a subject I’m interested in.  It’s amazing to me that my mind can be blown in so many ways and by so many things.  It’s one of the main reasons why I seek out discomfort and new situations.  Speaking of…

5. Comfort is the enemy of progress.

Over the last year, I’ve come to understand that comfort in my life has been the ever-present enemy to progress.  The times I’ve put myself “out on the sharp end” or exposed myself to new situations and new people, I’ve always come back with more to think about and a different perspective.  I have a good number of climbing friends, skiers and snowboarders, and technology leaders to thank for the invaluable gift of perspective.  Don’t let comfort dull the sharp or jagged edges of your life–instead, get closer to them and know them better.

6. Get out of your own way.

Sometimes I’ve spent days wavering on a decision to do something when the best course of action was honestly just to get out of my own way and do it.  Instead of getting tied-up in knots over the pros and cons, doing it would have given me the answers I was looking for.  Kitschy as it might be, “you only live once” is actually somewhat meaningful here.  Get out of your own way, bite that bullet, take that drink, step off the edge, and just do it.

7. Embrace the power of less.

There’s beauty and simplicity in having less and using less.  That device you only use sparingly?  Ditch it.  That book you’ll never read again?  Re-gift it.  Those clothes you’ll never wear again unless Aunt Gertrude decides to throw another over-the-hill party?  Donate them.  There’s almost literally nothing that you own that you can’t find a suitable (and often times higher-quality) replacement.  Buying used, high-quality items are not only a good way to keep your overall footprint small, but it’s also a great way to make friends.  Borrow your friend’s mixing machine and make some bread.  Offer to make drinks and steaks if they come over and use it.  Get creative!

8. Lessons can be learned anytime, anywhere, from anyone.

I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve been smacked in the face with the proverbial clue-by-four from random discussions with friends and coworkers.  Seldom a day goes by where I’m not asking myself “what did I learn today?”  Take those answers, turn them into lessons.

9. Sharpen your axe.

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds on the internet for years that is attributed to President Abraham Lincoln (which is probably mis-attributed, but let’s go with it anyway).  I’m paraphrasing at-best, but it reads:

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the axe.

To clarify, what’s being presented here is the notion of not just being prepared, but taking the steps necessary to ensure a positive outcome.  Getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet, improving your professional skills, learning how to relate to people, or picking up new hobbies and projects.  All of these things will help you to not just be more efficient, but also keep your mind as sharp as the aforementioned axe.

10. You can say ‘no’.

This one has taken me so long to grasp.  I would find myself going to events I really didn’t want to go to, hanging out with people I didn’t even like, to impress someone who didn’t even really care if I was there or not.  At work, this would manifest itself in being sidetracked with lower-priority issues.  All of this created stress for me and made me even more unhappy than normal.

I’ve gotten in the habit lately of saying “thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not really interested” when it comes to personal invitations from friends and asking coworkers “what would you have me de-prioritize to take care of your issue immediately” when I’m asked to divert from what I’m tasked with.  I’ve found it surprisingly effective and people lately seem to be happier with me saying “no thanks” than accepting and not having a good time.  Some people haven’t been happy with this, but I have to keep telling people “I’m only one person”.

11. Advocate for yourself (because no one else will).

In addition to saying no, I’ve found that I really have to advocate for myself because no-one else will.  People might say “I’ve got your back”, but at the end of the day it’s up to me to pull my own weight and make the case for myself.  No one else knows what I want or how I want to get there, so the only person who’s responsible for the process and outcome of that advocacy is me.  We all have agency, we just need to use it.

12. Conditions are not identities.

Reminding myself that I suffer from something rather than identifying myself as something has been helpful in separating my identity from their effects.  I am not depression, I suffer from depression.  I don’t have PTSD, I suffer from PTSD.  I am not my illness, just as I am not my job, my label, my clothes, my car, or anything else.  I may be able to own some aspects of my identity and make them part of my overall identity (like being gay), but they merely inform who I am.  They are not me in totality.

13. Recognize and appreciate the small things (aka “be present”).

Something I discovered while I was out on my road-trip earlier this year was that the small things like looking at the snow-covered mountains from my truck, appreciating the wind blowing through a desert canyon, and having close friends are things that used to escape my notice.  I’m doing a lot better at recognizing the small moments and appreciating them, but I sometimes have a difficult time getting other people to see them.  At the end of the day, it’s more about contentment than it is about overwhelming joy.  The small moments come more often and are less ephemeral than the big ones.  Be aware and ready for when they arrive.

14. Appreciate the differences.

Everyone will be different from you.  Different opinions, perspectives, desires, and actions.  If you can step out of yours shoes and into someone else’s, even for a moment, you might be able to appreciate what you see and how they got there.  I appreciate the differences in experience and opinions that many of my friends have, and recognize that they got to where they are for different reasons and because of different paths.

15. Share a little love (even if it’s uncomfortable).

I’m not saying “go out and hug random strangers”, but maybe spend a bit more time and show a little more care with people you interact with regularly.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many times this year I’ve been given a glimpse into someone else’s world when I’m a bit more vulnerable and loving.  When greeted with humanity, most people respond with humility and vulnerability.

16. Vulnerability and Authenticity are inextricable from each each and are Essential.

Maybe it’s the time I’ve spent in therapy or the work I’ve been trying to do to soften my emotions, but I’ve found that vulnerability and authenticity are two variables in an equation that has led me to a lot of beautiful and eye-opening places and people in my life.  Now more than ever, we need more vulnerability and more authenticity in how we relate to each other.  We need to understand rather than berate, belittle, and avoid.  Without these things, our future survivability as a species is in grave danger.

17. I’m a little weird and so are you (and that’s great).

I worry all the time about being seen as too weird to be seen as a good friend or a compatible partner, but I worry about that less as time goes on.  My proclivities for some activities and behaviors might drive some people nuts, but those same proclivities make me more interesting and help me navigate the world in a way that makes sense to me.  Your weirdness makes you more interesting, and people being interesting is a good thing.  Homogeneity isn’t just boring, it’s dangerous.

18. Don’t ignore the call to adventure (she often doesn’t call back).

Ignore the call at your own peril.  Adventure knocks every minute of every day, and it’s up to us to do the math individually and decide whether or not to answer.  If the axiom “you only live once” is anything to go by, not answering the call is tantamount to giving up your shot.  The next time you find yourself stuck with indecision, ask yourself: “What have I got to lose?”

19. We are more powerful than we believe…

I often have to remind myself that as a human being, I’m quite powerful on my own.  As an American, I have outsize power in human society.  Additionally, as an individual unbound by dogma or creed, I am more powerful still.

20. … act accordingly.

Using that power responsibly and ensuring the highest amount of good while minimizing the amount of harm is the highest priority I have.  Others might not share that same belief, but I believe it’s up to all of us to ensure that we instill that belief as broadly as we can.  The better we do for ourselves and the people that we care about, the better we can do for everyone.

21. Take nothing for granted.

This should’ve been a no-brainer but for much of my life, I’ve taken a lot for granted.  I’ve left a lot of things unsaid and a lot of work un-done.  I’ve spent a lot of time letting relationships that I ultimately valued rot away from the inside out rather than actually work on them and make them a priority.  I’ve taken a lot of people’s affection and interest for granted, and I’ve hurt people in the process.  Don’t make the same mistakes.  At least if you do, own-up to them and make amends where you’re able.

22. Keep ignoring the hype (and hyperbole).

Hype isn’t worth the time or the energy that’s put into it.  Hype is essentially someone else’s emotional sales-pitch for something that likely isn’t going to help you or the people you care about, so tune it out.  Get rid of the distractions, ignore the con artists, and look for the things that matter most to you.

23. Don’t lose your faith.

Faith is hard to come by lately.  So many things are challenging our basic notions of humanity lately that in some ways it’s become increasingly more difficult to have faith in anything.  Faith in the due process of law, spirituality, other people–all of it seems useless in the light of the crises we all face, whether they are the day-to-day or existential variety.  What can we do in the face of such reckless hate and inhumanity?

We have to keep believing.  We have to keep our own faith and our own path illuminated.  Though we might traverse proverbial or literal darkness, and though the depths of our patience and love of our fellow humans may be plundered and left barren, one way or another we have to find and maintain our faith that people ultimately mean well, that there is a point to our suffering, and that there will be a better day.  It might seem useless or “Polly-Anna” at first blush, I’ve come to the understanding that without faith in something all endeavors eventually fail.

24. Acceptance is helpful.

Understanding and acknowledging the limitations of your circumstances can go a long way toward helping you understand what you can change and why it might be useful.  When you’re able to accept your circumstances, you might find the situation less constraining than you originally thought.

25. … but don’t settle for less.

At the same time, settling for less than what you’re worth or less than what you want only helps to kill your dreams.  Unless your end-goal is to settle into a familiar pattern and die of old-age having done nothing of note, never settle.

26. There’s a difference between what you value and what your values are.

What you value might change many times a day given various circumstances, but hopefully what your core values are will remain fairly constant.  Discovering what those core values are and taking those values into account when your priorities are changed or challenged will likely lead you toward living a more meaningful and authentic life.

27. Aging isn’t nearly as scary as our imaginations make it out to be.

Maybe this is more a result of what I’ve done with my therapy over the last few years, but lately I’ve been feeling as though aging isn’t nearly as terrible as I’d imagined.  Along with just simply giving less weight to other peoples’ opinions of me and doing my best to just be the best version of myself that I can manage, I’ve found that my life is less stressful and more fulfilling for the kind of life I want to live.  No one has to “agree” with the things I do or the way I live my life, and I don’t have to do the same with theirs either.  Simply accepting who they are (and who I am) is the quickest way to get there.

28. Fear is useful as an indicator, useless as a reason.

When I come nose-to-nose with fear, I know I’m onto something bigger.  Fear has become an indicator for me rather than a reason to avoid something.  I know now that instead of shrinking from challenge, I sit-up and take notice.  What the demons on my shoulder keep whispering in my ear, I’ve worked hard to understand it and why it’s being said.  More often than not, it’s just my past fears about how I’ll look in front of other people, how badly I think I’m going to fail, or everything that could go horribly wrong.

I’ve been working hard to instead lean into the discomfort, listen to the fear, and reply: “That was last time.  This is now.”

I figure I’ve got a choice when I’m confronted with my own fear: overcome it, or be consumed by it.  Better to go down fighting and learn something from it than to fail because I let my past or my demons get the better of me.

29. Even if you think you can’t take the time… take the time.

Seriously.  The work will always be there.  The friends and family that know and love you for who you are will understand and still be there.  That long list of books to read, routes to climb, mountains to ski, bugs and stories to write code for–all of that isn’t going anywhere.  What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all, is learn to take time for yourself.  Life is too short to be occupied with busyness at all times.

Sometimes you have to take and find your Walden Pond and recharge.  Whether that’s a literal place or a figurative one in your head, you have to be able to take the time to find yourself and check-in with yourself.  Your direction, your voice, and your energy are all dependent on whether or not your efforts are aligned with your life’s goals.  Making sure that you’re listening to your intuition and stepping back when it’s necessary is the first step to contributing at the highest level that you’re capable of.

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