For a naturally introspective human being, I’ve come to realize that birthdays are particularly full of rewinding and playing back memories — almost as if someone has documented my life and just handed me the highlights reel. As I turn 20 years old and leave one decade to enter the next, I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to reflect on what turned out to be the most thought-provoking and insightful year of my existence so far.
In sharing some of my takeaways from the past 365 days, I hope you are encouraged to recognize that self-reflection is not reserved for birthdays and New Year’s Eve only. By taking a step back to soak it all in, you can have a better understanding of whether the picture you are painting is the one you genuinely intend on bringing to life. For the most part, I hope to provide unique insight — those points that are more generic are generic for a reason: they’re true.
No matter your age, gender, culture or socioeconomic background, I hope you find what I have to say valuable on a human level.
#1: You don’t have to figure out everything by yourself.
No matter how caring or supportive friends and family members may be, I always tend to believe that my life and all of its imperfections are things that I must deal with alone. Other human beings don’t have the time, mental capacity and/or interest to hear about my worries, and it is my responsibility to see myself through the process of life. While this is true to an extent — relying wholly on others is not only unhealthy but unsustainable — I still recognize it as a veil of falsity that I placed on my own head. In the past year, I’ve come to realize the irrationality of believing that my problems are only mine to deal with.
The human species is more interdependent than ever before. We simply cannot afford to go about our own lives and block out “their” problems, because frankly, “their” problems (on varying levels) are our problems. It is impossible to fathom all the ways in which a human being’s well-being or struggles can impact your life — multiply this by roughly 7.5 billion, add globalization to the equation, and the final answer for the human species’ impact on your life cannot be numerically expressed. It is more important than ever for us to support one another, because we cannot achieve higher levels of well-being while leaving so many of our team members behind.
#2: Your growth as a human being is only possible if you give yourself the oxygen, water and sunlight that you need.
I promise this analogy will shortly make sense.
Personal development is not something that randomly happens overnight or because you so strongly wish for it. When I compare my goals and values from last summer to where I am right now, I surprise myself when I think about how much I have evolved and refined my understanding of myself. These changes didn’t happen on their own accord — they are the result of being determined to ask myself questions, to occasionally take a step off of the treadmill of life to reevaluate, and to stay open to possibilities and opportunities.
Much like a plant needs basic elements on a consistent basis to grow, my brain needed the time and energy that I now actively set aside in order for it to thrive. If you truly wish the same for yourself, I encourage you to see the value in putting resources aside for evaluating where you are and where you want to be. When done consistently and over time, you too may be surprised by the evolution of anything from your deepest values to your most fundamental goals.
#3: You truly don’t know until you try.
Once I form an opinion on something — whether it be an occupation, an item of food or even a human being — it’s quite difficult for me to change my mind. I’m well aware of this and recognize it as a flaw, but I also believe it’s one that I have made strides in addressing over the past year. No matter how accurate I may believe my pre-conceived perception of something may be, it will never be as good as the judgments I can form from immersing myself in an experience or interaction with another human being.
An example of this come to mind from this past summer, when I was offered a position at an organization that I was fairly confident I would enjoy, as I had done similar work in the past and had had a positive experience. But this was exactly the problem. I knew how that opportunity would have panned out — what I didn’t know was how my experience at a completely different organization would be. It was work I had never done in an industry I had never worked in before. I ended up pursuing the latter opportunity because I knew it would contribute to a greater level of awareness of myself and what I do/don’t want in the future.
No matter how many sources of input or biases you may have, you really don’t know until you try. So the next time you have the option to walk down a path that you haven’t yet explored, at least allow yourself to take that first step. No matter the outcome, your future self will thank you for it.
#4: Know when to be confident in yourself.
For some human beings, confidently expressing goals or beliefs can come naturally. “I want to go to medical school so I can become a neurosurgeon.” “I am extremely passionate about global warming, and want to work in environmental law to address some of the planet’s most pressing issues.” “I believe that money is important to my happiness.”
In this moment, I am not at this level of confidence. No matter the number of “signs” or pieces of evidence that may suggest something about my strengths, weaknesses, interests or goals, I constantly doubt their validity. I always wonder if I have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch, even when doing so often leads me to the same conclusions. But I’m slowly realizing the value of and need for having faith in my understanding of myself. No other human being can “figure out” everything about me and provide me with a step-by-step manual of my life. Even if it was possible, and I chose to comfortably live a life shaped by the decisions made by others, would it really have been a life worth living in the end?
Having faith in yourself doesn’t mean being right about everything and never making a wrong decision. It means believing in your evaluation of yourself as it stands, and being willing to tweak it as you go through the trials and tribulations of life.
#5: Get comfortable with never feeling completely comfortable — at the end of your life, you will thank yourself for it.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of mine from the past year is that I will likely never feel like every aspect of my life is completely figured out. It’s easy to fall into a cycle of believing that “as soon as x happens, everything will fall into place” or “once I get to y, I will be satisfied”. The reality of life is that as soon as you think you’ve solved one variable, another one comes marching into your life with no warning or instructions. And honestly, I think I like it this way.
Evolution in the biological sense is fascinating because the human species never becomes complacent with the status quo — this is literally the definition of its root word, “evolve”. The same rings true on an individual level. Achieving growth and higher levels of being (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is only possible if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone and embrace new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. I hate to end on such a cliche note, but life really is about the journey, not the destination. It’s about getting comfortable with change, because change is what exposes you to worlds you would have never imagined, all in the same lifetime.