Learned in 2018

Like any year for any one of us, 2018 for me had its fair share of challenges, lessons, and moments I would handle differently given the chance. Such is the nature of experience, always gained, ironically, and by definition, right after you need it. In artistry, they say to look at your past work and feel a little embarrassed is a sign of the progress between then and now, and so, I trust, it is in life.

The close of a year is a convenient time to take stock, learn from the negative, and set goals for the future. It’s also useful, however, to take a little time to appreciate the small victories. When you’re right at the edge of your comfort zone, which is where you want to be if you’re pursuing a worthwhile goal, looking back at the victories achieved can provide the confidence needed to take that one more competence-expanding step. In the philosophy of David Goggins, that is your ‘cookie jar’.

Physical training was a big feature of the year for me. I’ve dabbled on and off in the past, but this was the first time I took care to dial in macros and calories, set a routine, and commit to it. As fitness fans will know, this is much more a mental battle than physical. As a natural introvert, even joining the gym felt like an achievement, and I had to truly embrace my inner Twitter guru and adopt the ‘beginner’s mind’!

The first lesson, learned a couple of weeks in, was that motivation is a useful spark, but the fuel of discipline is what’s really required to achieve a long-term goal. Initially I went all in on that idea, never skipping sessions. As a natural night owl, a busy day would often see me fitting in a distance run in the small hours along the streetlight-drenched and mist-draped roads of North Down, which quickly became a favourite pastime for its isolated silence and ethereal otherworldly feel, singularly perfect for snapping quickly into distraction-free focus (disclaimer: active recovery by pacing post-run laps around your house at midnight dressed in all black Lycra may increase your chances of a chat with local law enforcement). Over a few months, I covered hundreds of miles, although I was waiting for foot surgery at this time, so each step was a battle with pain. At the gym, I’d trained pull-ups and presses despite an injured shoulder, and rowing and cycling through lower back pain.

This led to my second lesson that far from being an excuse, rest and recovery and well-rotated schedules were as vital to progress as the exertion, and should be undertaken just as earnestly. I found that spacing out workouts optimally led to quicker improvement and broken plateaus. As in life, growth is what happens between the periods of tension. Rest.

I learned through trial and error that exercise, hydration, sleep, and nutrition are complementary components of holistic wellbeing, requiring all to be functioning optimally for peak performance. As I reached the limits of my knowledge, I enlisted the help of a great trainer, Johnny. I’ve loved learning and experimenting in these areas this year, and there is much work to be done in 2019!

In 2018 I shared good times with wonderful people. But a special shout out goes to my friends. You know those sitcom-fairytale-ideal friends, who grab a coffee at a moment’s notice, organise trips, patiently listen, and generally represent an unrealistic standard? Those are my friends. The ones who encourage you beyond your comfort zone, celebrate your victories as their own, tell you when you’re being too hard on yourself, when you’re on the right track, or when you’re being a bit of an eejit (often, apparently). Who will invite you one day to travel to a debate and the next to chill with a burrito and Love Island. Who have a huge list of music, tv shows, books, and podcasts to recommend, or an uncommon knowledge of medicine, business, psychology, programming, music, religion, or philosophy and an abundance of time to share. I found them. Thank you.

I don’t know whether to characterise this section as mindset or philosophy, motivation or psychology, but it certainly encompasses elements of each. This year I actively pursed what had previously been a fairly unexplored interest in psychology, after excitedly finding that hundreds of hours of recorded lectures from the University of Toronto were available, for free, on YouTube. Learning about the mechanics of perception, the neurochemistry of motivation, the processes behind learning and assimilation of new information was both intellectually fascinating and eminently practical, particularly when planning to achieve a goal or more easily acquire a new skill. Studying the components of personality, the strengths, weaknesses, and biases that they confer was hugely interesting, not least for deeper personal understanding, but for truly empathising with the positions and perceptions of others, and learning how to mediate between differing value structures.

Psychology was a gateway to philosophy and mindset, and the motivation aspect dovetailed nicely with my training goals, and I was my own experiment, able to put theories into practice. I challenged myself to adopt a practical approach to achieving goals, and focus on the elements I could control. If you consider your situation to be outside your control, you surrender the ability to influence your own destiny. It’s particularly tempting in cases where the decks are stacked against you to chalk it up to bad luck and give up. Rather, recognise that life is rarely fair, external forces are outside of your control, but you yourself are not, and get after it anyway. One day, a mile into a wintery run, an unexpected snowstorm materialised. Shards of hail drove into my face like icy daggers, scouring the first layers of skin, the damp air caught in my lungs and made it hard to breathe, my glasses fogged up immediately and I had to run without them along the now treacherous tarmac. I finished the run and walked into my house, panting and shaking my head like a dog as chunks of ice that had frozen in my hair fell to the floor with a crack, fingers too stiff to be of use. I checked my watch to see a new personal best time. The storm was not in my power to control, but how I reacted was. This was a tiny achievement, but often small physical challenges are a microcosm for developing an attitude that can be carried into life.

I tried out the philosophy that you can do the most good by maximising your strengths, bolstering your weaknesses and attempting to develop a competence in the art of overcoming obstacles itself. This way, you can at worst show up in the world as a positive influence, and at best take practical steps to help others. Maybe you can be that friend who will listen, or help make some positive memories, or support and assist someone in their goals. This year I put some of the physical training to use by running a 5km obstacle course (through a forest, bog, and thrice through an October lake) with a great friend to help raise money for Cancer Fund for Children, one of the things I’m most happy to have done in the year, and something that I couldn’t have completed without putting in the work ahead of time. For me, it’s a practical example of how improving your personal competence leaves you more capable of affecting positive change for others, even in a small way. And thanks to everyone who donated, it means the world.

Some other little goals achieved for me this year were taking a first solo trip and meeting a bunch of people I never would have otherwise, finally getting contact lenses to work with my crazy prescription, and undertaking a bunch of renovations to my hundred-year-old house, always an adventure. I completed a personal financial review, and am making use of new tools to track and control budgeting and saving. At work, the staggeringly talented, thoughtful, driven and just plain awesome team I have the constant privilege of working with punched way above their weight, and we made some great progress and hit some big milestones, and I was fortunate enough to get opportunities to attend and even speak at events.

In all the busyness of life, don’t forget to take some time to reflect on the little moments that went your way. Go get it in 2019.