You’re Not Failing, You’re Just Cycling

The “Cycle Of Years” And How to Make The Most of Them

This story is based off of the original description of the “Cycle of Years”, penned by Molly Mahar and viewable in its full form here.

I don’t know if I ever had the intention to follow the traditional timeline for life in Western culture. I didn’t grow up dreaming about going to college at age 18, getting married by age 25, buying a house by age 28, having kids by age 30, and settling down into a predictable and structured pace until retirement. I was so stumped when it came to planning so far into the future that I never managed to form a Five Year Plan. And while I was quite good at shaping and achieving my goals, I didn’t have a problem when things changed — in fact, I likely would find and adopt a handful of new projects and loves within the same month if things didn’t work out.

Despite not adhering to traditional timelines, I did hold myself to a very high standard when it came to the progress I made in my personal growth. If I became skilled at something, I intended to only work upwards. If I reached a certain income level, acquired a loving and dependable network of friends, invested in a swanky new homestead — I never intended to lose those things, or even question them. To reach a new level, in other words, was to never go backwards.

This is a well-intentioned illusion that I fought with for my childhood and through most of my twenties. I spent hours if not days of my life beating myself up when I lost my grasp on success, however briefly I may have held it. This came if I lost a job, if I realized I had lost touch with dear friends, or that I couldn’t travel as much as I did the previous year. It was so painful and frustrating to me to come to terms with the fact that despite my accomplishment of my goals, the fact that the results didn’t stick made me feel like I had failed.

It made me feel like an imposter.

When you look at your week as a whole, you can probably account for a mixture of good and bad moments. You got a raise at work on Monday, but you spilled food on your blouse before going out on Friday. You gained weight over the holiday, but you also ran further than ever before last month. You scored a really big and exciting client, only to be underbid and replaced a few months later.

We don’t beat ourselves up when our days or weeks fluctuate in terms of success or failure — so why don’t we treat our larger, loftier life stages with the same leniency? Can we have good years and bad years and still be on our path, and how do we break those periods down into manageable, practical forms to really see them from a place of organic growth?

Enter the Cycle of Years.

Much like you have good days and bad days, inspiring days and “meh” days, you are actually living through a larger scale version of this same series of contrasting events. If you were to look at the last several years of your life, what do you notice? Did you have big life changes, moments of success, personal failure or shortcomings, extended times of impatience or uncertainty? Understandably, you probably had each of these in each year you recall, but you also may notice that each year’s audit reveals a particular theme or trend.

These patterns lend to the following four phases:

The Year of Unrest
The Year of Destruction
The Year of Growth
The Year of Mastery

When I read about Molly Mahar’s description of this cyclical pattern, it was as if she had just clarified and given breadth to a practical Law of Nature. You know that balance and process are an inescapable part of life. You will have ebb and flow, and while you will see happiness and success, you will also have failure and distress. Through the years, you will see this happen dozens of times.

To give you an example of what these cycles may look like, here is how I’ve spent the last 4–5 years:

2013I was hustling hard, and hitting the pavement in a very strategic way. I was keeping myself busy, but I was also slightly all over the place — a very glamorous hot mess, and loving every minute of it. I told myself I needed to be in a new city at least once a month, then tripled that. I was on the road for weeks at a time starting this year, and while I wasn’t sure how long it would last, I was banking on keeping it going. I gained a few high profile clients and met a few really inspiring people and was hopeful for what was coming.

2014Things were starting to get good. Sure, stuff still got sticky sometimes — I broke away from a team I was working with, money was okay, but not great. I was restructuring some of what I was trying to do, but I had lots of interest for new projects and clients. Social media had grown exponentially and I was seeing the payoff in the form of lots of emails, bookings, and travel.

2015 Holy crap, what a great year. I was packed with a notable client list, had a full calendar, and no dark clouds in sight. It was like I had found my rhythm, that all those years of hard work had finally paid off. I was a pro, I had my people, and I was in the best possible place. I had finally “made it” and ordered all the extra guac.

2016 January-April: I actually called this year out as one of doubt in February. Something had shifted, and I felt uncertain about where I was, why I was doing what I was doing. I knew that a lot of my work and self felt sensitive, tender, and at times, downright depressed. I wasn’t happy with where I was, and knew it was time for a change.

2016May-December: Boom, I gave two weeks’ notice before I packed some clothes and as much gear as I could carry and flew down to live in a sublet in Los Angeles. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew it was necessary to try to restart. It was literally a reset of everything — my work, my home, who I surrounded myself with. And I didn’t know all the details, but I knew the direction was a worthwhile risk. There was a lot of introversion, borderline agoraphobia, and structured focus on my work in this period.

2017I feel as though I’ve entered a hibernation the last few months, but I’ve also begun to poke my head out. My network of friends is incredibly small and guarded, but I also know who I can trust. I’ve slowly begun to date again for the first time in several years, and have begun to open myself back up to new possibilities. I feel inspired as an artist again, and have begun to take steps on a few new and exciting projects.

When you look at this breakdown, what do you see? Is there a pattern? Even as I was typing and recalling it, I started to pick up on it again. I’ve recalled it quite a few times, aloud and in my own head, and still recognize the phases freshly each time. Here’s how my cycle is playing out:

2013: Year of Growth

2014: Year of Growth

2015: Year of Mastery

2016, Jan-Apr: Year of Unrest

2016, May-Dec: Year of Destruction

2017: Year of Growth

Right off the bat, you’ll notice two things that Mahar notes are not what we associate with traditional timeline models, but are extremely common in the Cycle of Years:

  1. Your “years” may not be 12 month periods. Sometimes they are only months, sometimes they are more than 1 year. In my case, my latest Unrest/Destruction phases were only 4–6 months in length, a variable decided by my move to LA. The catalyst can be attributed, in this case, to my receiving an offer of a sublet and me an being impulsive and strong-willed SOB.
  2. Your cycles will repeat themselves and may fall out of order. While my two years of Growth may seem like an extended period, it’s also one of my most repeated (and honestly, one of my most enjoyed) phases. I look back through my life and see this phase so often, and it seems to be my tendency to be pushing myself higher more often than I’m sitting back to enjoy the fruits of my labor. A bit of an over-achiever, perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Think back over the past few years of your life, and see where your personal and professional paths may have fallen within the Cycle. Are you on the up, or are you rebuilding? Do you see the end of the phase coming, or are you kind of lost and unsure how long this Year will last?

We can’t always predict when the good or bad will come. In fact, even with the most diligent plans, we’re often blindsided by unpredictable circumstances and events that change everything. I didn’t foresee a lot of the events that changed my route, but I did remain open and moved with the tide when necessary. And while identifying what year you’re in is going to help you make the most of it (even if it feels like one of your worst), remaining adaptable to the changes will keep you open and accelerate your progress.

Cheers to your next Year, and keep making.