Lessons Learned In 2017

Sometime early on this year, I decided to try to intentionally learn as much as I could from my experiences. In my mind, I dubbed this my “year or learning”, although “year of self-awareness” would probably be a more fitting title. This came in part from learning more about the fixed and growth mindsets, in part from a healthy dose of humility after being brazenly wrong, and in part from thinking about what it means to grow as a person.

Rather than just getting frustrated and trying to resolve or win whatever troublesome situation came my way, I approached it with an attitude of curiosity and humility, looking to crack the nugget of wisdom within.

Did I succeed? Not often; many times, I was pigheaded and fueled by ego. However, over time, I definitely took away a few lessons; observations about my own interactions and reactions to the world. I’d like to share these with you today.

I view these takeaways as beginnings of revelations – not lessons learned and shut away. I may have had an ‘aha’ moment, but changing my ways is a longer journey. You might also find that none of these learnings are revolutionary – you’ve probably read them somewhere before. However, until I learned these through experience, I they were just platitudes to me.

Anyway, here’s what I learned about myself in 2017:

1. Hard work produces results; talent doesn’t

Any achievement in my life I’m proud of (running 6 miles at a time, writing my best music, coding and launching big projects) came from repetitive hard work – a consistent decision to do what was necessary over what I wanted to do in the moment. However, whenever I tackle a new challenge, I often look for motivation and inspiration and inherent talent – and react to the inevitable failure along the way by questioning my abilities. This is a staple of the fixed mindset.

Especially with running, it was incredibly motivating to give up the idea of talent and put in repetitive hard work – and watch my numbers improve consistently as a result.

2. My mind will do whatever it takes to shut me down 

I learned this one over 80+ runs this year. I found that my first mile was often the most miserable, and was encouraged to learn that this was the case with other runners as well. Running is hard, and I noticed that my mind would try to tell me whatever it could to get me to stop.

My muscles are sore. This is my third hard run this week, I should ease up. It’s okay to quit just this one – everyone deserves a break. My last personal record was just a freak accident; I already peaked. Taking three days off has hampered my progress. Is my ankle sore or irreparably broken? I haven’t improved in weeks; I should go back and rethink my running strategy. 

After a while, I noticed zero correlation between good/bad runs and how I felt in the first mile. Aside from the obvious extremes – acute pain – I realized I couldn’t listen to my mind; that my brain was doing whatever it could to stop me from running. Then I realized that this applies just as much to anything else I try to do – running is just the easiest to conquer it in.

The  next step is figuring out how to overcome this. With running, it’s simple – lace up, run, don’t stop unless you feel sharp pain. With other endeavors – building and monetizing a project, for example – I’ve yet to figure it out.

3. Two good people could look at the same facts and see two different narratives

I’ve been in many arguments – some important and some petty, and always wanted the situation to be black and white. I was either right or wrong, and my goal was to figure out which as soon as I could, and then either apologize or wait for an apology.

Watching two good friends struggle to make sense of a high-stakes, emotionally-charged situation taught me otherwise. Both were good people trying to do the right thing, both had built a valid narrative from the same set of facts, and both felt hurt and disrespected. And, in the process of trying to resolve their differences, they spoke right past each other, almost as if in different languages. Parts of the argument seemed to have an objective right and a wrong – but surrounding this was a whole messy gray area of good intentions with bad outcomes and an increasing pattern of miscommunication.

Turning inward, I found this pattern in many of my own conflicts as well. Crucial Conversation taught me that in an argument, people tend to hyperfocus on being hurt, offended, or  validated. Our reptilian brains take over in an extended fight-or-flight response, and we miss the the complexity of the communication. Aiming to survive, we fail to see the opportunity to learn about the other person. I realized that this happened to me constantly; in the heat of an argument, I’d lose my empathy and ability for complex thinking, and reduce situations to win/lose.

There’s a lot of gray area, and stronger relationships are built when you explore this gray area, despite the discomfort.

4. How strongly I feel isn’t an indicator of how right I am

This one seemed painfully obvious once I saw it: the strength of my emotions is separate from the quality of my decision making. I thought these were the same thing – I got angry or hurt because my values were assaulted, so I’d need to defend my values, and an emotionally-charged response represented how right I felt. When I became upset, I never felt like I was lashing out,  I never said things just to hurt someone – I always felt like I was just telling the truth. I assumed that my emotionally-charged response was representative of the validity of my argument.

This is incorrect; they are two separate responses. Feeling angry, hurt, in embarrassed in the moment is not usually an indicator or how right or wrong I am, and it’s worth exploring why I feel the emotions that I do. I’ve found a number of weaknesses this way. For example…

5. Who I think I am is largely irrelevant

This is another “how could you not realize this??” obvious point, but only once you get it.

I think I’m an empathetic communicator and manager. But, there were a number of situations this year where I was neither. I think I’m a creative, motivated entrepreneur. But, I had a number of opportunities to come up with great ideas, or create cool products, and I failed.

If I’m a composer, where is the music I’ve written? If I’m a product manager, where are the products I launched?

This is another way of saying that talent – or my idea of what talents I might have – is irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter who I think I am (beyond motivating me) until I my results demonstrate this. Otherwise, I’m just lying to myself and the world, living on an over-inflated sense of self-confidence.

6. It’s easy to cut people out, but friends are not replaceable

I lost a very good friend this year. I lost the relationship years ago, actually, because I insisted on being right during a challenging situation. I regret this; whether I was right or wrong, I’ve now lost a universe of possibility in this relationship. I had an opportunity – but not the patience – to do better, to offer empathy, patience, and love. Instead, I chose to satisfy on my ego and prove myself right. I felt good about myself for a few weeks, but now, at multiple birthdays and gatherings, I miss my friend. It wasn’t worth it.

It’s okay to walk away after a long pattern of frustration and disappointment. However, while cutting people out is easy, it’s generally a bad idea. Great friends are not replacable.

7. Putting my cards on the table is usually a good thing

Both at work and in personal relationships, I’ve often avoided sharing my honest perspectives, frustrations, or fears. I did this out of a sense of vulnerability and sometimes ego – I wanted other people to figure things out themselves, or I was scared of sharing my honest thoughts due to fear of offending others. I’ve found that when I did finally have the difficult conversations, often out of a sense of desperation or having my back was against the wall, the outcomes were surprisingly positive. It was refreshing to lay my cards on the table and let the truth out – and then I could take honest, genuine steps towards improving the situation.

People around me were (generally) more receptive than I expected to helping me or understanding me once I opened up.

I then realized that this point extends back to myself. I have weaknesses I’ve avoided confronting myself on my, believing that I either can or can’t do something (again, deeply rooted in the fixed mindset). When I finally do come clean about failing at something, or being afraid of something, exciting possibilities emerge. I find that I can improve, that it’s okay to admit that I need help, that there is a path forward.