2017 was a weird year for me; one where I can’t really remember who I was at the start (because January feels like two years ago, not 11 months), much less who I hoped to be at the end. I do know I chose the word ‘Why’ to guide my year. And the main reason I chose that word was because 2016 was filled with me saying ‘Yes’ to a lot of stuff purely because I was flattered to be asked, wanted to impress someone I admired, or needed to be liked.
In 2017 I wanted to apply greater rigour to the things I was committing myself to. If I was going to spend time on something it needed to take me closer to where I wanted to be in life or closer to the person I wanted to be.
This saw me spend more time helping with stuff at my kids’ school while giving up my beloved Flying Solo Editor role. It also saw me spend more time working on someone else’s book than my own. In all, there were very few knee-jerk type decisions made about how I was spending my time in 2017 which made for a very deliberate and satisfying year; one in which I learned a lot.
So, rather than running through the usual ‘year in review’ type questions (which I’ve already answered in this ep of Straight and Curly), I thought I’d share some of those key learnings:
1. You’re not stuck in traffic; you are the traffic
When I read that line in a blog post it immediately transported me back to the days where the slightest impediment to my day (a slow driver in front of me, a long line, the doctor who was running late) was taken personally. All those people were out to ruin my day by getting in the way of me executing my tasks in the most efficient way possible and I hated them all.
One of the major transformations that have come from reducing overwhelm and having more whitespace in my life is I no longer spend a lot of time and energy hating the world. But I’ve been doing so with a bit of a superiority complex: Look how magnanimous I can be because I have time to be patient and forgiving of all the people getting in my way.
Realising that when I’m in traffic, I am the traffic as much as the next person has shifted my perspective from ‘me vs them’ to ‘us’. It’s a good reminder that we’re all in this messy thing called life together. Small actions can create big ripples and we get to choose if the small actions we take are in the service of others, or just ourselves.
2. It does hurt to ask
For the past two years, I’ve been experimenting. If I found myself wanting to contact someone to ask for something or offer something and found myself hesitating because I was scared they’d say ‘No’ … I made myself do it. Essentially, I was trying to increase my tolerance for rejection. Also, I’ve always figured:
- If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
- It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Now, these statements are true if you get the ask ‘right’ because, even if the answer is ‘no thanks’, you’ve started a dialogue with the person that could lead to a mutually beneficial relationship down the track.
It’s very easy to get the ask ‘wrong’, however.
- It’s easy to forget someone you feel you know well (because you’ve read their blog or admired their work for years) doesn’t know you from Adam.
- It’s easy to think their enthusiasm for your idea should match yours.
- You may not realise your request or suggestion is one of several in a similar vein they’ve received that day/week/month/year.
- You may not realise you’ve contacted them at a very bad time.
Getting your ask wrong makes future correspondence from you easy to ‘delete without reading’.
I’ve got the ask wrong several times this year. I’ve made my future chances of working with certain people unlikely because I made all the mistakes above in my rush to ‘embrace rejection’.
On the upside, I now have a better feel for where and when to be a bit more discerning.
3. Just play the song
We’ve all seen that thing where a musician is auditioning for a TV talent show and instead of performing the song the way the original artist did (i.e. the way it was intended), they deliver it in a way that demonstrates (or tries to demonstrate) their impressive range and skill.
This is what I’ve been doing when writing my own books.
Instead of ‘just playing the song’ I’ve been trying show off my impressive ability to think and present information in a way no one else has. I’ve gotten so caught up in this, in fact, that 18 months after starting work on Overthinkers Anonymous, I have reams of pages full of research and outlines, but only about 2000 words worth of book, none of which are usable.
I found it approximately 1 billion times easier to write James’ book. Why? Because the ideas contained within were not mine. Since I was no longer caught up trying to show how smart I was, I could focus on delivering an outcome for the reader.
Which should always be the primary driver of a book – right?
4. There are great perils in mortgaging the present to pay for the future
Some people sacrifice sleep and health in the present to pay for a financially secure future.
Some people sacrifice relationships in the present to achieve a big goal (like, say, becoming a concert pianist, or Olympian).
My thing is looking ahead from the present moment, predicting all the bad things that can happen in the future, and putting things in place to ensure those bad things don’t happen. The goal? That one day I’ll finally be able to relax because life will be sorted and perfect.
In other words, I’m sacrificing joy in the moment to pay for a comfortable, trouble-free future; one that doesn’t actually exist.
5. The reality gap is a big anxiety trap
Humans sit atop the food chain today because of our ability to see what ‘could be’ (understand future possibilities) and make those things reality. Our instinct to strive for more underpins innovation, raises living standards and increases effective life-spans.
This instinct also means that much of our existence is spent in the gap between what is, and what could be – the reality gap.
The reality gap is an unhappy place to be if you haven’t developed the skill of working towards what could be while also sitting comfortably with what is.
I’ve never developed that skill and the result has been anxiety when I can’t control a situation into being the way I feel it should. Which is … pretty much always.
The best antidote for this is ‘acceptance’.
Acceptance that there will always be things you can’t control.
The concept of acceptance scares me, however, because where’s the line between:
- Acceptance and giving in?
- Healthy striving and relationship-destroying single-mindedness?
- Pursuing a passion responsibly versus recklessly?
6. There is no line
‘Why do you need a line?’ my therapist asked.
At the time I didn’t have an answer beyond, ‘I … I just do.’
I have the answer now.
Quite simply, I don’t trust myself to make sound judgement calls.
If left to my own devices I tend to err on the wrong side of the line, the one that strains relationships and health. If someone else tells me where the line is, it allows me to outsource judgement calls to them.
The thing is, not only is this lazy and refusing to take personal responsibility; it ignores the fact that the line is constantly moving. Every situation is different, every person is different and everything in life is a judgement call.
The only way to make better judgement calls is to make mistakes, learn from them, and make better choices next time.
7. For growth to occur, learning needs to be applied
Which leads to my final uncomfortable discovery for the year. A friend and I were discussing a writer we both follow. (FYI: If you’re reading this post, then no, you’re not the writer in question.)
I expressed my admiration for the writer’s vulnerability and brutal honesty about all the mistakes they’d made. My friend was less impressed.
‘I’m just not seeing a lot of growth there. The same mistakes keep getting made over and over again.’
I realised the same could be said about me. I’m that person who has to make a mistake repeatedly before I relent and actually apply what I’ve learned. It’s like I need to make sure of the lesson before I apply it!
The thing is, I’ve only been able to do this because of the unwavering and unconditional love of a partner who’s accepted this is just how I am and goes with it, knowing I’ll eventually figure things out.
Which brings me to 2018
It’s time to stop taking advantage of my partner’s patience. It’s time to stop being so slow to apply life’s lessons.
My biggest problem in life right now is anxiety. I’ve always managed that anxiety using two methods:
My therapist has suggested a better (or at least, complementary) management tool might be ‘getting better at sitting with discomfort’.
Frankly, the very thought exhausts me because it involves remodelling patterns of behaviour I’ve been building for over 20 years.
But, in the absence of any other worthwhile goal for 2018, I’ve decided this should be it.
Every year I set a word for the year that will guide my year. Given the above, I think the best word to guide 2018 should be ‘Acceptance’.
This may be almost as laughable as the year I experimented with ‘Relax, nothing is under control’.
But I’m going to try anyway ?
Are you using one word to guide your year? What is it?