7 Life Lessons from 2017

Elaine Chao
Dec 29, 2017 · 7 min read

A friend and I sat in a cafe in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago in the weak winter sunlight. I played with my teacup as we plunged into the type of deep discussion about life that marks our relationship. The conversation was a balm to my battered soul.

2015 was a pivot; 2016 a transformation. 2017 could best be termed as growing pains, with both the soaring achievement of new growth and the road rash that accompanies a spill from a runaway bike. The year vacillated between incredible growth — an award winning music video, a new anthology, and the 1.0 release of a new product — and the struggles of simply being an adult.

With that overview, I present to you the seven most valuable lessons I learned this year.

#1: Ask others to dream for you.

A few years ago, after working for a particular manager for six months, I asked him to dream on my behalf — to envision what I could become. For some reason, I felt that he had a good enough grasp of both my aspirations and my potential to give me an outsider’s perspective on what I could achieve. After a couple of weeks, he shared a few options with me based on his observations of my strengths, which didn’t match the role I was pursuing at the time. As a result, I ended up looking into product management, a change that I’ve found hugely rewarding.

Similarly, my current manager began dreaming on my behalf when I began sharing some of my thoughts on leveraging my writing skills on behalf of the product I’m working on, Adobe XD. Instead of merely using my skills to benefit the business, he began dreaming on my behalf… and challenged me to consider both speaking and writing about the process of making software from my unique perspective.

The lesson I learned is that I often dream too small. Instead of accepting and encouraging me in my small goals, someone had the vision to push me to bigger and better things for the growth of my own career. I’m both humbled by his belief in me and blessed by his willingness to dream on my behalf.

#2: In the midst of instability, go back to the basics.

2017 marked my first full year as a product manager, and the only way I’ve been able to make it through is creating and relying on systems and rhythms to survive. In some ways, it’s almost like falling back on focused breathing when life is overwhelming.

I figured out the only way for me to get a workout in was to work out before work. I started both a home and work Bullet Journal to help me track what needed to be done. I fixated on my bedtime and tried to regulate myself into an earlier sleep schedule to make getting up early for work easier.

Every week, I tweaked things a little until I felt like life was manageable. It took a lot of fiddling, but getting the rhythm of everyday life was important in the midst of the amount of change that was happening in my life. Enforcing these internal rules was an important part of my overall success, and guarding the boundaries I put in place helped me to achieve my goals.

#3: Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

At the same time as trying to regulate my everyday life, I had to push myself to be a little more adventurous. I’ve met a ton of new people, traveled to foreign lands by myself, and have more or less initiated the life I wanted to lead instead of letting the routine of everyday life dominate my world.

By ditching my internal “rules” on a regular basis, I was able to make space both for people and for myself. I ditched my bedtime every once in a while to have dinner with a longtime friend or see a concert. I tossed any guilt or regret over skipping chores to spend time with family or to be present with a friend in crisis.

I’m still growing in this area. I’m never going to be a fully spontaneous person, but I’m hoping to be a more balanced person at the end of this process.

#4: Spend a little more. It’s okay.

When it comes down to it, I live a fairly ascetic life. I’m not a minimalist by far (though I’m definitely trying to get less stuff), but I do recognize the difference between a want and a need, and put off the desires for another day. However, I’m privileged to be in a financial position to be able to indulge in some of these wants, and can push myself away from being in a constant save-save-save mentality to choose to be more generous with my money, both with myself and with others.

I’m still not a huge spender, but I feel a little less trapped by the need to save, and I can give myself the freedom to spend a bit more than I’ve been accustomed.

#5: Outsource.

At our second annual Adobe & Women Summit earlier this year, Adobe invited author Tiffany Dufu to speak about her new book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less. While I still haven’t made it through the book (still have others to read ahead of the queue), the message was clear: you should focus on the things that only you can do, and, if possible, let go of the things that anyone can do.

So I spent a little more (see lesson 4), and was rewarded with the surprising feeling of a burden lifting off my shoulders. I had been carrying around the weight of some of these things and was doing less of the things I loved as a result. Now that I have a little more time, I’m dreaming bigger things for my creative life, which is incredibly exciting.

Near the end of the year, I found a surprising way to outsource. I asked a friend to curate music for me, which has vastly increased both the breadth and depth of both my musical education and our friendship. I’ve purchased every album he’s recommended, and I’ve been profoundly blessed by the excellent suggestions he’s made and by the relief from decision fatigue.

#6: Things can change at any moment.

One phone call changed my life this year. A shocked conversation, a moment of crisis — and the sudden death of a family member completely redefined reality. In the midst of the blur of the first week, I recognized that this, too, is the nature of life. Most of the time, we live our lives in a flood of incremental change, but much of it doesn’t touch the fundamental routines.

But everything can change in an instant. Instead of moving at the same pace as the changing shape of a beach, a cliff falls. A tsunami hits. A volcano erupts and forms new land. And the shape of your life is different. There is pain in that moment, pain in the healing, and the way life works will never be the same again.

In some ways, this lesson was the most abrupt, but also the most human. For in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, this was a call to relationship. In the aftermath of such a universal change (because everyone dies, and at some point in time, that “everyone” means someone you love), my circle of friends reached out to comfort, to encourage, and to grieve with me.

Would I have put off this lesson? Yes. But would I rather have never learned this lesson at all? No, because it proved again that people are more important than achievements, than process, than getting things done, and any of the other things that we value in everyday life.

#7: Be okay with life mess.

“Yeah, so Christmas cards didn’t make it out this year,” I said, “because… you know… life.” Part of my growth this year was being okay with living at that messy spot where being human meets the more mechanical parts of life.

Some of the most rewarding relationships I have are the ones where both of us are fully comfortable with grappling with the messiness of life and failing. As a highly independent, capable person, it’s sometimes hard for me to ask for help (much less emotional support) with my own mess.

This year was a huge trust fall into the safety net of my friends and family, and the result was an increased sense of interconnectedness. If I only give and never receive, my relationships become imbalanced. But by being vulnerable in my mess, I was able to rest and know that life was truly manageable with deep friendships.

Despite the lessons that cut to the quick, I remain hopeful for the year to come. I’ve been vision casting and dreaming about this upcoming year, and I know there will be experiences that will both push me beyond what I think I can bear and bring me joy that I cannot even fathom in my current state.

And that, too, is life.

Here’s to 2018.

Tea Cup” by Saxon Moseley, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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.

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