This year was tumultuous, to say the least. Our species faced the overwhelming wrath of one of the largest global challenges of this century.
Despite the depreciating condition of nearly every sector of our society, the past year sparked the spread of knowledge, innovation, and a push for global collaboration and development.
Where we previously saw transportation and distance as a hindrance to collaborative efforts, these challenges no longer stopped us. Rather, they allowed us to develop tools and become a community that could collaborate, innovate, and create without face-to-face interaction but through a singular screen.
As we developed a COVID-19 vaccine, urged mask mandates, and tackled a global pandemic, we began to make unsurmountable progress towards innovating solutions in healthcare, education, and climate.
If you haven’t already, I recommend you read Bill Gates’ Year in Review: Reasons for optimism after a difficult year, where he talks about the progress we’ve made this past year and what we can expect in 2022, including the end of COVID, institutional trust, investing in climate, a digitalized world, and healthcare innovations, including Alzheimer’s diagnostics and HIV preventatives.
When thinking about I wanted to format my yearly reflection, I originally felt that it would be best to reflect upon my experiences and reflections for each month, showing my yearly progression and the lessons that were applicable in each context. However, the lessons I learned this year and the realizations I’ve had seemed to actively influence my decisions, outlooks, and actions on a larger timeframe, and not just in the context of a singular project. Therefore, I decided it would be best to speak about my experiences in the context of the biggest lessons I have learned over this past year.
And with that, here are the 5 biggest lessons I’ve learned in 2021:
#1: No one ever bypasses emotion to reach a successful outcome
The biggest blocker I had in achieving my personal goals at the start of this year was my mental and emotional state. I was constantly jumping from project to project, even having the opportunity to consult for the United Nations. In the spare time I had, I optimized for conversations with others, learning from mentors and building relationships, even finding some of the closest friendships I currently have. While many of these projects and conversations were extremely fulfilling, I was burnt out. I spent minimal time in my own company and on reflecting, as it seemed unnecessary and temporary.
It took time to realize that fixing my irrational worries, temper, and discomfort, came down to simply acknowledging the discomfort rather than kicking it to the curb. No one ever bypasses emotion to reach a successful outcome.
When I began to be honest with myself, it became easier to overcome mental and physical roadblocks. Rather than berate or victimize myself, I learned to look at my relationship with myself through a neutral lens, allowing me to gauge which thoughts were true and which ones were part of an emotional response, allowing me to think more rationally and enjoy my own company.
#2: Success isn’t a destination
I spent the past several years and the beginning of this one treating personal success as a checklist to reach a given destination. By crossing everything off of this theoretical checklist, I believed I would attain success in the short or long term.
Each of us has different metrics for our notion of success, believing that once we graduate high school, finish med school, or land a job, we will have reached that destination. At the beginning of this year, my definition of success became my “impact.” I thought that my success could only be quantified through the scale of the projects I had completed. However, this was a directionless and unquantifiable aim.
In viewing personal success as a destination, I ceased to realize that highs that come with accomplishing the steps along the way are transitory. As we get closer to achieving any given goal which we correlate with “success,” we relocate this goal. And with that, the system repeats, creating a never-ending cycle where we are never truly fulfilled.
I began to view success as the growth and expansion in the process of accomplishing a goal and spent more time reflecting upon the lessons learned in the process rather than immediately setting my sights on checking something else off of a list. In turn, I felt much more fulfilled and more cognizant of the future and what goals I did want to attain, rather than going off of pure instinct and irrational desire.
#3: We are in control of our experiences
As I made the transition back to in-person school in August and the beginning of September, I struggled to realize that my priorities were not aligned with what I was spending my time on.
Rather than actively working on things I wanted to be doing and continue to explore, I became a passive learner and let school and my schedule dictate me. It became easy to use school as an excuse to not work on exciting projects and have conversations with interesting people. This led to two large realizations:
- I can take control of my time if I act strategically, rather than use commitments as an excuse. Teachers and systems run on carefully crafted schedules, which I can use to my advantage.
- School and activities that I spend a majority of my day on don’t have to be passive learning time, but only if I actively find value in them
With the mindset that there’s value to be gained in nearly anything we are required to dedicate our time to, we end up growing more from the experience than we would otherwise.
After taking control of my schedule, aligning it with my priorities, and establishing habits to ensure my mental and physical health was in balance, I became excited about my days again. When you realize that your time is in your hands, your life becomes a lot more fulfilling.
#4: Inertia and creating opportunity for progress
Newton’s first law says that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
I had many moments, especially over the beginning of the year and this summer where I fueled inactivity by brooding over my inactivity rather than pushing myself to simply start and let the wave of progress allow me to continue. Instead of building upon habits, I diminished their worth and made excuses for skipping a day or two, and before I knew it, I had forgotten about it altogether.
Going from 0 to 1 is representative of this relationship, as the most difficult part of any action is simply starting. Going 0 to 1 in any aspect of your life maximizes your probability of long-term success. Once you go from nothing to something, you’ve created an opportunity for progress.
Going from 0 to 1 also means activating something and building upon it. If you’re trying to build a skill or a habit, you don’t do it once. You begin with the intention to continue and optimize for longevity. I would trick myself into not starting a habit or skill until I had a strategy; a clear plan of what I was going to do. However, I realized that there is a fine line between strategic thinking and fear-based overthinking. Over-thinking can increase the barrier to entry and result in slower progress.
I used James Clear’s 2-minute rule a lot this year, where I simply scaled habits and skills I wanted to build down to 2-minute blocks that I could easily implement and had no excuse not to complete. When it came time to actually execute tasks I knew I had to do, Mel Robbins’ 5-second rule changed everything for me. Counting down from 5 before I had to do something felt almost like starting a race, where I was so focused on the start that I was not worried or feeling lazy about the task at hand.
#5: Plans are meant to be living documents
One of the most important realizations I had towards the end of the year after a conversation was that plans are meant to be living documents. They are meant to be updated and refreshed, not to be feared, and not to be scrapped completely when something falls off-plan.
I used to fear making long-term plans because I never knew what to put on them. I didn’t know where to picture myself 5 years, much less 10 years, from now. I was drawing conclusions from projects, exploration, and conversation to conduct a mental process of elimination and generate ideas for what I wanted to be spending a majority of my time on.
However, I realized that having a plan does not mean setting my future in concrete, but rather can be used as an ever-changing document to record hypotheses to test out, and serve as living proof for realizations I have had about topics and projects that I find are worth spending my time on.
It makes sense to change plans because they shouldn’t be constraining you to follow down a certain path. I’m not “xyz” yet so I can’t guarantee that I’ll get there because I don’t know what I’ll find along the way. However, I have found immense value in using plans to my advantage where I update them almost weekly. Adding insights and observations in the process, I can adjust my long-term goals while assuring I’m at least making attainable progress towards something.
These lessons are applicable not only to this past year but also to this upcoming one. These are lessons that I want to continue to embody and leverage, using them to supercharge me and fuel my progress.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to reflect upon the biggest learnings you have had over this past year. Whether they be in your personal or professional life, I think that there is much to be gained from looking back not exclusively at what events took place, but at what you gained from those experiences.
I am grateful for the privilege I have had over this past year, from the health of my family, having food and water, having unforgettable experiences, and making lasting friendships. I am optimistic for 2022 and look forward to not only my personal development and working on exciting projects, but to seeing the state of the world change in front of our eyes after an unforeseen year!