7 Life Lessons from 2016

Elaine Chao
Jan 1, 2017 · 5 min read

A friend and I had a catch up session a couple of weeks ago — you know, one of those rare phone calls where you just sit and shoot the breeze because you know it’s been a while since you’ve been able to really connect. In the middle of conversation, I burst out with the question that had been percolating in my head for most of the previous week: “What word would you use to describe the past year?”

The word that came to mind for me was transformational, because this has been a year of metamorphosis for me. I’ve experienced significant transitions in my life (both personal and professional) and, at the same time, have increased my visibility both at work and online.

As I reflected on these changes, the milestones that made a mark on my life, I tried to distill the larger themes into lessons that I can remember in the future as I look back on 2016. As I look back on last year’s post, I realized that the lessons from the year are more valuable to me than specific memories, more than accomplishments and achievements.

So, without much fanfare, here are the seven life lessons I learned in 2016.

#1: Change is hard.

While 2015 was a year where I merely survived, 2016 was a year that I had to put on my big girl pants and do a lot of growing. Some changes just had to be done and took a fair bit of emotional effort, but other changes I asked for, sought out, and pursued.

For instance, I changed job roles within the Adobe XD organization in 2016. I was ecstatic at the opportunity, and threw myself into the new job. But even though I didn’t change organizations, products, or companies, I found myself emotionally and physically wiped out at the end of each work day. I was frustrated with myself until I realized that the change itself was enough to take a toll. Once I understood what was going on, I recognized that it was going to take time to acclimatize to the new pace of life, and set the personal expectation that it would take me a few months to get settled.

Life lesson: any change takes effort, and some changes take more effort than others.

#2: Loss can be connecting.

A girlfriend of mine passed away from cancer in the spring of this year. I had a chance to visit her a few weeks before she died, to spend a little time with her and play my guitar and sing. I was able to talk with both her and her husband about my own rough patch with a surprising openness during this precious time.

Her funeral was attended by over three hundred people as multiple circles of friends (and, in some cases, entire churches) showed up to remember her and grieve together. Her husband said at the time, “It’s kind of like a wedding… but not.”

I understood; the entire community was bound together by its communal loss. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in years (or, in some cases, since their wedding) and reconnected with them on a deeper level, brought together in our grief.

#3: Sometimes, just showing up can be an act of courage.

With all that was going on, my default safety net was to hibernate at home and spend time with the cats. But, even in the midst of exhaustion and being overwhelmed, I pushed myself to show up to events that I knew would be emotionally nourishing and encouraging. Stepping outside of my comfort zone was, in itself, an act of courage, and recognizing it as such empowered me to take greater risks.

#4: Listen to your body, and set boundaries.

On the flip side, I’ve also learned to listen to myself when it comes to self-preservation and self-care. Setting boundaries, especially when it comes to work, has meant the difference between complete burnout and a little singeing around the edges.

I’ve also made inroads into making sure that I understand the little cues that my own body gives me, cues that help me make time to sleep a little extra, sit and read a book, or cuddle a cat for a few minutes. I’m constantly reminding myself that marathon living is different than sprint living, and I have to slow down and take care of myself to win what I want.

#5: Ask for investment.

This was, by far, the biggest professional lesson I learned in 2016. Inspired by some of the young UX designers in my life, I began to “hustle” — reaching out to colleagues left and right and simply asking them for their time and advice. I’m not one to often ask for favors, but I realized that I needed to ask people for what I wanted.

I had one-on-one meetings with multiple directors and VPs to talk about the future of my career and the struggles I was facing in getting someone to take a risk on me and invest in me. I bumped into one of our EVPs near the elevator one day and, when asked how I was doing, flat out said I was having a tough time breaking into a new career. Out of that opened up a long discussion with one of the directors of Talent within Adobe, which helped me understand the lay of the land a little further.

Over the course of 2016, I clocked in over a dozen conversations with people I didn’t know, simply because I asked someone to introduce me. I also sat in front of a room full of coworkers and stated what I wanted to do with my career. I asked, and asked, and asked again. I’m happy to say that the persistence and perseverance paid off; I’m now on a different journey with my career, one that I had to fight for — and, as a result, one that I value all the more than if it had been handed to me.

#6: There is nothing new under the sun, and this, too, shall pass.

As I grow older, I begin to understand the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes a lot more. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” the author writes. Later on, the author states: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (And cue the Byrds: “Turn, turn, turn.”)

As urgent as my own crises seemed to be, I recognized in the moment that so many other people have been through the same thing. In some ways, it’s been reassuring to know that I haven’t been the only one to walk that path. On the flip side, it’s allowed me to temper some of my excitement over accomplishments. Because when it comes down to it, accomplishments are temporary. Things are temporary. All of it — good or bad — will pass, and there are more important things in life to worry about than the small stuff.

#7: Take the time to celebrate.

At the same time, though, it’s worth celebrating the successes in life, recognizing them for the blessings they are. And 2016 has been huge for me: new career, big award, first book (with a second one on its way in mere days), great friends, time with family, meeting new people, travel abroad, tons of volunteer hours, cute (and affectionate) cats, a milestone birthday, solid finances, and good health. Celebrating these things helps me maintain proper perspective and a posture of humble gratitude.

After the crazy swing of the past two years, I can’t even imagine what 2017 will hold. Happy New Year to you all!

Elaine is a product manager at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

Elaine Chao

Written by

I work for Adobe on Adobe XD. Also a martial arts instructor, musician, writer, volunteerism advocate. Opinions mine.

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