I’m now a year older and hopefully a year wiser—although I’m convinced now that age has nothing to do with wisdom. That said, it’s the time of the year I feel the urge to ponder and reflect on the life lessons I learned over the course of the year.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say our lives are full of teachable moments. But how much we actually learn from these moments is definitely a questionable proposition.
This post has seven aha moments, aka life lessons I learned during the year.
Spoiler alert: Some of these lessons are obvious, and you’d be right to wonder what took me so long? Let’s just say the light bulb in my head took a while to go off.
Seven life lessons
There are never any regrets in life, only lessons learned.
1. If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you haven’t understood it
When I try to explain a complicated concept to someone else, and they don’t get it, I’ve assumed they weren’t clever enough to grasp the idea. Dead wrong. On the contrary, it likely means I don’t understand it fully myself.
The inability to break a concept down to first principles is a clear indication that there are knowledge gaps in our understanding of the said concept.
This has broad implications, especially when we become judgmental or hold steadfastly to an opinion before we’ve had a chance to understand the big picture.
So, here’s my takeaway: When trying to understand a new and complex concept (crypto/NFTs?), my goal is to get to a point where I can articulate the idea to someone else in simple terms.
Reading something off the internet and regurgitating it to someone else isn’t true learning. Sure, it may sound impressive in the short term, but it counts for nothing in the long term.
How do we get to first principles?
One of my favorite car games is a game called 20-questions. The objective is for the player to guess a name, person, animal, or thing by asking twenty questions about the subject and using those clues to solve the problem.
Asking relevant questions and chipping away at the problem to reveal the hidden first principles is the only way to understand it.
Millions saw apples fall from the tree. Newton was the only one who asked, “Why?”
2. When you change the storyteller, you change the story
One of the books I enjoyed this year was the book Circe by Madeline Miller. This is a story retold from a minor character’s perspective.
Circe, often forgotten even to get a mention in traditional Greek myths, is set as the protagonist in the book. We, the readers, get to view the world through her eyes—and I can tell you the world looks very different. Good and evil are recast entirely.
The aha moment: all stories are subjective and are based on the storyteller’s viewpoint.
Most problems in the world are because we believe our stories are the only ones. The world is a large shade of grey with little black and white. All of our stories are different and unique. I may be a bit-character in your story, or likely won’t even exist. But in my story, I’m the one who calls the shots.
A popular charity runs a fundraiser called “Walk a mile in her shoes,” is one where men march for a mile in high-heeled women’s shoes. The annual dramatic event is held to increase awareness of sexual assault and gender violence against women.
Empathy is hard to build. Anytime I get the feeling of being too sure of something is precisely the time I now know to pause. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Instead of putting others in their place, put yourself in their place.
3. Others care about your problem. To a point.
It’s great to have many friends and lots of support. It’s okay to vent and whine and bitch and moan and complain to them too. To a point.
Misery loves company.
Overburdening others with how painful it was for you to peel pomegranates or how no one commented on your Instagram updates will get tuned out after a while. Kidding aside, even when you encounter something more severe than a first-world problem, it isn’t fair to burden your support crew with all that’s wrong.
Friends can only take so much venting. That’s why therapists are paid, and friends are not.
It’s okay to think, “I feel your pain. But I’m sick of it. So please get better soon.”
4. Developing Immunity—to social comparison
My reaction to watching other people’s social media feeds varies, like the weather. It depends on how my day’s going.
If things are going well and my day’s all sunshine and roses, I tend to find the glamor shots of others on social media interesting or even amusing. However, I’m not immune to the weariness that sets in when I’m confronted with gorgeous vacation pictures on days when I’ve barely had the time and energy to shower.
Social comparison is wired into us, and it’s a bear. But thanks to some light-bulb moments, it’s all changing (at least in my head.) For the better. Thanks to this one big realization.
Most of us post our best shots or accomplishments on social media. On the other hand, none of us document our bad hair days or pictures of our messy and overstuffed closets because the latter simply aren’t eyeball-friendly (all the social media companies care about.)
Simply acknowledging that everyone has good (the ones you see) and bad (the ones you don’t) days can go a long way to ease the angst of social comparison. Also, knowing that bad days can follow good days is precisely why the good ones are worth celebrating.
Bottom line: Not sure about my Immunity to Covid-19, but my Immunity to social comparison is now stronger than ever. That is a win!
And I don’t begrudge those stunning beach pictures. For every happy smile on the beach, I know that person has to deal with a crummy co-worker or a mushy salad another time. C’est la vie!
5. Step aside, Fomo. Hello, Jomo.
The fear of missing out is real.
Patrick McGinnis, the creator of the term FOMO, describes how he conjured the acronym first in this interview. In his words, “I was flitting from here to there, trying to do it all to the point where I realized that actually, I wasn’t even having that much fun anymore. I just felt stressed out.”
I’m not ashamed to admit I often get afflicted with FOMO. I guess it’s a by-product of trying to be uber-productive. I feel the need to maximize every opportunity—to run every marathon in town, attend every conference, be involved in all aspects of the project at work, and be a superstar mom and wife!
Given that there are only 24 hours in a day and I have limited energy resources, it’s no wonder I feel constantly frazzled and stressed. And barely meet expectations in any area.
Now I’m embracing Jomo—the Joy of Missing out.
Saying no to opportunities and events has been most liberating.
I’m rather enjoying Jomo. The after-work happy hour? Go right ahead. I’ll skip and take a nap instead. It’s such a relief to know I don’t have to be everywhere doing everything.
6. Play the fiddle when the city is burning
Apparently, Nero may not exactly have played the fiddle as he watched his country burn. He had a history of being an ineffectual and unpopular leader, and so the fiddle story simply fit well with his profile and gained credibility as time went by.
I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty for everything that didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. You can imagine how disappointed I am! All that guilt for what (/s)?
Now I’m inspired to try something different. To not feel guilty (okay, feel less guilty). Though it’s going to be a while before I can fiddle when something burns.
The point is this: if you’ve done all you can do to help out, then it’s okay to step back and watch quietly (and without guilt) when a crisis unfolds.
Guilt is a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s one that’s best tamed early.
7. Every day doesn’t have to be an adventure
Not sure if this is just a function of getting older, but I have come to appreciate (and, dare I say, look forward) to days where nothing exciting is happening. Get up, eat, read, sleep, repeat seems like a great way to live life.
But it used to not be.
I was one of those who thought, “if adventure is dangerous, routine is lethal.”
But over the years, I’ve figured bored has a miraculous way of quickly turning to overwhelmed.
Adventure and excitement are okay. But if there’s one lesson the pandemic has taught us, it is this: stability is underrated. When things we take for granted, such as a stable paycheck or good health, are in jeopardy, then we collectively pray for a return to “normal.” Normal isn’t so boring anymore, is it?
Life is interesting. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we learn.
But learning life lessons isn’t the challenging part. Applying these lessons is.
That’s what I hope to do with the seven lessons from this year. How about you?