What I Learned in 2020
Happy New Year, folks. This year’s list is a bit more dialed back than past years, but hopefully there’s something here to help guide you on your own path.
If this year was particularly hard on you, don’t give up. And, as always, never hesitate to send me an email or ask for a conversation. Always happy to listen.
I took a break from books.
Though my bookshelf certainly didn’t downsize this year (thanks a lot, Bezos), I did find myself being less-interested in reading or taking in new ideas. While I still read regularly, I was far less-concerned with finishing books so I could put them on my list and far more with reading what kept my interest. I enjoyed the mental break and the usual cycles of obsession I get stuck in when learning something new.
Most of the trouble in life occurs when you allow tools to become your identity.
Religion is a tool. Meditation is a tool. Technology is a tool. Tools for purification of the spirit. Tools for completing your work. Just…tools. When too much meaning is attached to these tools, they become who we think we are; our identity.
As you move through life, it helps to know when you’re substituting something that was meant as a tool—an aid to help you—for who you are: your personality. It’s incredibly easy to do and tricks people into getting divisive and defensive when, inevitably, someone disagrees with their tool (“You use sticks?! What a fool! You should use rocks!” Or, “Me? I’m a rock man.”).
Life is a series of rides that we enjoy going on.
The ride where you go and get coffee you enjoy. The ride where you read a book and learn something new. The ride where you talk to a friend. The concert ride. The sex ride. These rides are fun, typically, so we keep going on them. Life, then, becomes a theme park that we get stuck in. If for a moment you stop and ask “what’s outside of the theme park?” you may find a different way of thinking or living. Or, have a fear reaction and…go back to the rides.
You’re at the mercy of what you’ve been conditioned to believe throughout your life and the degree to which you’re willing to tolerate that conditioning.
If you grew up in an environment where victimhood was preached, you’re likely to take on a perspective of victimhood into adulthood. If you grew up in a self-affirming, positive environment, you’re more likely to take responsibility and do what’s necessary to pull yourself up. Your environment (and the people in it) can and often do dictate who you become.
Despite this, it’s possible to overcome that conditioning if one is willing to accept severing the ties with the environment that perpetuated that conditioning. A great lyric by KRS-ONE that encapsulates this idea: “You wanna escape Armageddon, read a different book.”
Every single negative thing that happens to you in this life is designed to teach you and give you the opportunity to improve.
As I’ve started to think more on my belief in God, I realized that every single “bad” thing that has happened in my life was followed by an opportunity for significant self-improvement. It was in response to those negative things that I was able to improve, not some arbitrary decision.
I’ve found that it’s best to think of the bad things as an obstacle course, or even a Rubik’s cube. A puzzle to be solved whose reward is a better (by your own measure, not that of others) version of yourself.
All of the world’s suffering is the result of broken people breaking people because of broken people.
What comes before influences what comes next. Without introspection and awareness, cycles repeat. In reaction to those cycles, suffering is created in the form of negative action (i.e., indulging in addiction or other self-harm).
When you figure out what’s broken, you can start to understand what needs to be fixed instead of imploding. The only way (and I say this definitively) to improve your life in a significant way is to change your approach and perspective with no mercy for who you were in the past or how people who knew the “old you” react.
I was far too preoccupied with people not “getting it.”
As I’ve made an active effort to tamp down my ego, I’ve learned to care less about convincing others of my point of view or racking my brain over “what is wrong with these people?!” While I still get caught in the occasional internet battle, I’ve learned to identify when it’s best to just walk away and accept that most people are stuck in their ways. My time is better spent reaffirming why I believe what I believe and poking at the things I’m not fully convinced of.
How to edit.
A lot of my time this year has been spent asking “what’s unnecessary here?” What relationships should I discard, what material possessions don’t I need, and what work and ideas can I toss in the trash bin. To make that process easier, too, I made a point to identify my true preferences. If it wasn’t something that I truly, deeply wanted to be around or dealing with in my heart…snip. What also helped was learning to put a Charlie Brown muffle on other people’s opinions of what I should be doing or why I should be doing it.
How to Listen to God.
Looking back on the last nine years of my life, a lot of great things have happened and a lot of dark things have happened. During that time I've—slowly—grown from a messy, often chaotic and confused young man into an organized, focused man.
What changed was getting perspective on the results of decisions I made in pursuit of evil (I use that term loosely here, mostly referring to ego) vs. when I made decisions in pursuit of good.
In retrospect, every single decision made in the positive direction resulted in an opportunity coming through or an otherwise troubling situation being defused. Every single time. For years, I tried explain that away with “well, of course, I’m working really hard,” but that’s confusing correlation with causation. If I were to put it into a tidy package, what I’m saying is “God helps those who help themselves.” The more you do to better your situation, the more opportunities are presented for you to move forward. Take the steps and the path will be provided.
A year ago, I suggested that I believed in God but that I wasn’t religious. I was being coy, conditioned by the decades of liberal and secular whitewashing of my mind experienced in school and social circles. Something that lasted as long as it did due to my own timidity that’s since been reversed (see my last two years of “What I Learned” to glean the how and why of that).
Recently, spurred on by my own study, contemplation, and conversations with friends old and new, I’ve begun to drift back to Christianity—specifically, Catholicism—regularly studying the Bible and attending Mass. The why is deeply personal and something I’d rather share in personal conversation, so feel free to get in touch if you’re curious (or would like to base your judgments on an honest investigation).
*If that makes you angry or causes you to view me as an idiot, you should really (seriously) spend some time contemplating why that is. I used to get angry at people who said this because these ideas were unresolved in my own mind. Perhaps you will find the same.
I started to respect my professional worth.
I underestimated just how rare my skillset was. Being able to independently design and implement a piece of software at a high-level without the need to outsource any aspects of the process is rare. What I learned is that acknowledging that is not a “flex” or arrogance: it’s self-respect and self-confidence. Moreover, I learned to not feel guilty about charging what I think my work is worth and receiving that when my efforts warranted it.