14 Things I Learned in 2014

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, I took some time to reflect on the ups and downs, highs and lows, and most memorable experiences in 2014. Last year I wrote about the 13 things that I learned in 2013, summarizing the takeaways from a challenging yet bittersweet year. 

This year has been not only completely different, but also a complete whirlwind. My husband and I both started new jobs. I participated in some life-changing leadership programs. Friends and family got married and had babies or successfully adopted. I traveled a lot for work and for leisure. 

Without further adieu, here are the top 14 things I learned in 2014. 

1. Give yourself space to be creative. 

Exhaustion and inspiration rarely go hand-in-hand. I’ve learned to block out specific time for self-reflection to recharge and rebalance, leading to greater creativity later on. Most often, this looks like spending a couple hours on Sundays upcycling vintage dresses into more modern creations. 

2. Developing, evaluating, and implementing ideas should be distinct phases.

One of the most significant takeaways from the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation was learning how to use design thinking. Based on the engineering design process, design thinking is a method of developing, prototyping, evaluating, and implementing ideas or products. At the Institute, we used this process to prototype solutions to local social enterprises’ challenges, learning first-hand that each phase of the process has its unique purpose. 

3. Generosity begets generosity. 

This year I read Adam Grant’s critically-acclaimed book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drive Our Success, which posits that the most successful people in the long-run are generous “givers” rather than “matchers” or “takers.” As the nicknames suggest, givers share with others without expecting anything in return, matchers trade evenly, and takers try to extract as much as possible from others. The book gave terms and evidence for what I’ve known and done for a long time: give more than you take, regardless of who you are and what you do. This is precisely why I send out monthly emails to job-seeking friends with postings and offers to make connections. 

4. Polarity mapping illuminates deeper truth. 

At StartingBloc, we practiced an exercise called "polarity mapping" to map our values, strengths, and weaknesses. A kind of SWOT analysis for personal and professional growth, the polarity map revealed something that I already know about myself: I can be intense and perfectionist. The benefit of the mapping process was that it didn’t try to cure these traits; rather, it acknowledged them and pushed deeper at the why behind them, revealing my distinctly unique polarity map.

5. Vulnerability is the precursor to authentic leadership. 

One of the best and most memorable speakers at StartingBloc was a senior executive of a global tech company who shared her story. She didn’t walk through a PowerPoint of her professional trajectory, but rather gathered us around like a mother hen and shared her messy, imperfect, but powerful story. With only an hour, this speaker transfixed the room, exemplifying that the best leaders model authenticity and strength in their vulnerability. 

6. It’s okay to be an imperfect feminist. 

This year was fraught with injustices around the world that challenged my identity as a feminist. As Flavia Dzodan said, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” Too often in the face of intersectional injustices – from the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to protests after Ferguson and many more – I read the headlines and followed the hashtags on Twitter, but I didn’t let it really affect me. Not feeling because of busyness or convenience or whatnot is no excuse and slowly turned me into a less authentic, less human person and feminist—something I will work on in 2015.

7. Make time for meditation and prayer. 

I had to develop new routines this year with new work and travel schedules. In the midst of the busyness and rushing, I had to continuously remind myself to sit, breathe, reflect, and pray. A helpful resource in building a new routine was the Jesuit prayer tradition the Examen, which is accessible online here

8. Put down roots, even if they’re temporary ones. 

There were three types of dorm room decorators in college: those who put up posters and decorations immediately upon moving in, those who never put up anything, and those who gradually over the year made it homier. Most often, I was in the second category, thinking it was a waste of time and effort to set up a room when I would be moving out in less than a year. Since then, I’ve learned that putting down roots by doing the little things – painting a room, putting up curtains, etc. – facilitates the bigger things like developing friendships in the neighborhood and being present. 

9. Discern process from profession.

I learned to differentiate process from profession this year. Many self-help and populist leaders try to sell process as profession, but this can lead to unnecessary disappointments. Just as engineering something doesn’t make me an engineer, writing something doesn’t make me a writer. There simply aren’t shortcuts or catapults through a process; training for a profession is necessary.  

10. Becoming oneself takes time and energy. 

Coming of age novels often hinge on a traumatic or memorable event in the protagonist’s life, setting off a journey toward self-actualization and growth. While not untrue, I think that this arc of becoming more of oneself or reaching one’s potential is oversimplified in many of these stories. I’ve learned that becoming is shaped more like a corkscrew than a bell curve, and that this slow evolution takes considerable time, effort, and energy. 

11. Seek to plan, but not control.

Before I make major decisions, I dive into researching and assessing the options, reflecting over a period of time, and developing a work plan for implementation going forward. I am a planner and a strategist by nature. This can be both an asset and drive my more intuitive decision-making husband crazy. The difference is whether I seek to plan for or to control the situation. Little by little, I’m learning that at the end of the day, nothing is in my control.

12. Fight burnout with rest. 

For the last several months, I’ve been sprinting at work and with other projects, getting me dangerously close to burnout. I therefore spent the first third of the holiday break sleeping and resting, the second third binge watching the first two seasons of The Americans (making me miss Russia terribly), and now the final third reflecting and brainstorming for the year ahead. I needed that period of restoration before starting to build for 2015. 

13. Test before investing. 

Before jumping into a new project or profession, I’ve learned to test it to experience the pros and cons. In college, I worked for a few nonprofit organizations focused on human trafficking and modern slavery. These experiences helped me understand that my skills and interests aligned less with the nonprofit sector and more with business solutions to social innovation, leading me to my current position. In 2015, I plan to test some new skills and interests before investing in them more professionally and personally. 

14. Marriage is hard, but worth it. 

This year, my husband and I celebrated three years of marriage and six years of being together. It’s been a challenging yet rewarding journey these last few years, and I’m reminded that our marriage isn’t hard because we got married young; it’s hard because being close and real and open with someone else is hard. You see each other for who you really are, as well as who you are helping each other to become. I’m excited for what 2015 holds for us as we grow in passion and purpose together.