Seven years ago, I began a year-end tradition of recounting what I learned in the previous 12 months. It turns out there are endless lessons if we look for them.
2019 was a remarkable year. It started with an Uncomfortable Challenge, where I got out of my comfort zone every day for a month. I became a Search Inside Yourself teacher. Some fantastic books were read. I began an organizational psychology grad program. Connections with some beautiful human beings were cultivated or deepened.
Here are ten things I learned in 2019.
1. Internal storms can lead to growth
Here’s a secret about meditation you won’t find in the headlines: once you’ve figured out how to meditate for benefits like stress reduction or attention training, you reach a deeper level. You begin to see things as they really are — your habits, tendencies, and the stories you tell about yourself and the world. These include core beliefs and unprocessed emotions from the past. This process is painful but necessary for growth. With the acceptance of this awareness comes understanding, followed by clarity.
In 2019, I experienced a couple of these internal storms. They’re not fun, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Growth is hard. And, it’s ultimately worth it because it leads to a more intentional and vibrant life.
2. Choose courage over comfort
“Courage over comfort” is a phrase popularized by Brené Brown. When I heard it back in May, I wrote it on a post-it note and stuck on my bathroom mirror.
It served as a reminder several times a week to seek discomfort when courage felt necessary. This manifested back in the spring with a difficult conversation I attempted with a colleague that was borderline disastrous. Despite the outcome, it felt good to face the fear of uncertainty and embody a quality I have for so long admired.
Choosing courage over comfort is a practice that allows us to grow and become better people.
3. Our experience starts with the body
By the time light waves make their way into our eyes, they are fragments from the past, dictated by the laws of physics. Teacher and scientist John Kabat-Zinn points out that the present moment only really exists in our bodies.
For many years, I said I should practice yoga. “It will help with my back pain,” or “it will help deepen my mindfulness practice,” I told myself.
I finally cultivated a regular yoga practice this year not because I thought I should, but because I wanted to. I fell in love.
Yoga has profoundly changed how I show up. It has connected me with my body, and thus my daily experience, more deeply. The practice spills out into my interactions with others — I feel connected and more present when actively practicing yoga. Similar outcomes can come from any workout if they are done mindfully.
4. Strengthen your “self” through flow experiences
This year I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. By coincidence, a friend convinced me to take a wheel-throwing class with her around the same time. I immediately experienced this “flow experience” I had been reading about.
When we’re in flow, we are completely absorbed in an activity — so much so, that there is no mental bandwidth left for anything else. This is why people experiencing flow say they lose their sense of self, and that time disappears. The thing about wheel-throwing is you must be entirely absorbed because if you’re not, you mess up. Instantly. Your perfectly centered pot becomes a piece of abstract art in a fraction of a second.
I have also experienced flow while teaching Search Inside Yourself. The challenge of conveying content, interacting with an audience, and keeping time, forces total absorption. It’s an unparalleled feeling that I find both terrifying and exciting.
Paradoxically, we lose our sense of self while in flow, and emerge with an even stronger sense of self.
5. Curiosity is the door to an open mind and heart
This year, I actively tried to cultivate more curiosity into my life. This manifested in asking unfamiliar questions, suspending judgment, and trying new things.
Curiosity expands. It allows for growth. It allows for humility. Curiosity is how we grow as individuals and as a species.
Think about the people in your life who are open-minded and radiate love. Chances are, they are curious and ask you interesting questions. They don’t judge. They support you when you make mistakes. They have a deep desire to understand you. They want to learn about the world and deepen their knowledge — even if they are seen as an “expert” in their field.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be around people like that.
To be curious is to challenge the status quo.
6. Seek stillness
Many people I know, including me, move quickly. Work. Workouts. Emails. Netflix. Chores. Social media. Social obligations. There’s always something to do. To be “bored” in 2019 is unheard of.
This can lead to living life on autopilot instead of with intention. It can mean ignoring our feelings. Or continuously running on the “hedonic treadmill” without pausing to ask, “Is this the life I want to be living?”
Seeking stillness is another choice. By slowing down and looking inward, we can create the space necessary to understand ourselves and our lives more deeply.
This year, two books were released that speak to this concept beautifully: Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key and Jerry Colonna’s Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. Colonna writes:
Slow down. Stand still. Breathe. Let the forest find you. Then you can begin to ask yourself the hardest questions: Who am I? What do I believe about the world? What do success and failure mean to me (and not to everyone else)? What kind of adult do I want to be? And, most helpful, how have I been complicit in creating the conditions in my life that I say I don’t want?
Autopilot is easy. Stillness is hard. It requires patience. Seeking stillness can be both liberating and excruciatingly uncomfortable. And it leads to growth.
7. A little gratitude goes a long way
Gratitude has always been important to me. How I express it has varied over the years.
This year, my gratitude practice deepened. I have discovered joy in expressing gratitude to people I care about using modern mediums like video and audio messages and older methods via USPS. Practicing gratitude takes time and intention, which can be challenging, given our busy lives. But those extra few minutes are always worth it.
When I think of gratitude, I tend to think of the positive things in my life. However, it can also be useful to express gratitude for the hard stuff. Every experience, good or bad, presents an opportunity to learn. What might it be like to find gratitude for the things we don’t have? For opportunities lost?
8. Love is a skill to continually hone
Culturally, in the United States, we are taught that love is something that “happens” to us. That we “fall into” it, almost by accident.
But what if that’s all wrong?
In his 1956 book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm explains that love is a choice; something we “stand in.” He describes love as a skill that we must practice if we want to cultivate it in our lives.
I am still reflecting on and making sense of this idea, particularly with romantic love. But it resonates with me because it makes the concept of love less elusive and more intentional. My takeaway is that we can show up with open hearts and minds to love others without condition or judgment. We can offer love with our presence: how we listen, how we support, or how we show kindness. Love is a quality we can hone and become better at over time. How empowering is that?
9. Kindness starts with yourself
In a conversation with my organization’s president several years ago, we discussed performing “random acts of kindness” for our employees. I wrote those words on a post-it note that sat on my computer monitor for years.
We tend to think of kindness as something we do for others. And it is. But to truly be kind, we must believe that we are worthy of kindness, first. This article explains this idea through Fred Roger’s teachings, summed up here:
Fred didn’t talk much about kindness, even though he was modeling it constantly. And this may have been because he didn’t think you could cultivate kindness by telling people to be kind. Fred believed what a seminary theology professor taught him in the 1950s: When we believe we are good and lovable, we will look on our neighbor as good and lovable, too, and we will treat them as if they are.
I have been the recipient of many incredibly kind gestures from friends and loved ones this year. At times they have been hard to take in without feelings of discomfort or unworthiness. With intention and practice, I’ve practiced allowing the kindness inside by remembering that I am “good and lovable.” This has made my acts of kindness more authentic.
We are all worthy of kindness.
10. Life is about connection and belonging
This was a takeaway from 2018. I’ve learned a lot more about it this year — so, it’s back for an encore.
In June, my friend and colleague Gretchen produced an event for her 30th birthday that brought together friends to connect with and learn from one another. I arrived feeling anxious — I only knew two people at the party. I was mentally rehearsing my presentation on training the mind, which was scheduled to close the night. The event was so engaging that it went past midnight, and I left feeling connected to everyone at the party — people who were strangers just hours before.
I was so inspired by the party that I did the same thing for my 30th birthday in October. It was a night I will forever remember. Close friends came together; several traveled from out of town to attend. Many did not know each other at the beginning of the night. Somehow, the conditions for connection and belonging were cultivated. Some people cried. Many hugs were exchanged.
At a time when many feel disconnected from themselves and others, we need to cultivate spaces for connection. We need to create belonging in our workplaces, friend circles, and communities. This is what life is about.
In 2020, I intend to study and write extensively about joy, love, and connection. Gretchen and I are talking about holding more connection events with the hope of inspiring others to do the same.
When we look back on our lives, we will likely remember the moments we connected with others. When we touched others’ lives. When we felt like we belonged. This is what matters most.
What did you learn in 2019?