My Annual Birthday Check-In: 13 Lessons I Learned in the Last Year
Here are some practical, non-obvious lessons I've learned in the last year.
Today is my birthday, so that means it’s time for my annual check-in.
Every year, I take the time to pause and think back on the previous year of life. What’s changed, how have I grown, where can I improve, and most importantly, what learnings can I share with you?
Like I’ve said before, the best part of my birthday is getting to reflect on how my thinking has evolved. I've been doing annual reflections for the last three years (check out 28, 29, and 30).
This year certainly looks quite different from prior ones. (I’m writing this as my 9-month-old daughter is currently “cleaning” the bookshelf of all books and magazines because she has decided they belong on the floor.)
I hope you find my insights useful, and I look forward to hearing from you.
1. Things aren’t always perfect on arrival
One very difficult (but very important) lesson I learned this year is to embrace the messy middle. How many times do we look forward to something only to have our plans derailed and our expectations shattered? I learned this lesson from author and speaker Robert Hoge.
“Now, more so than ever, I think a lot of people expect things to be perfectly formed, perfectly mature, and wonderful on arrival,” he told me. “But they're not. You don't go from the first scene of a movie or a book to the last scene of a movie or a book. That journey in the middle is really important.”
That messy middle is where growth happens — we learn how to navigate chaotic situations and become better people as a result of it.
2. Serendipity can be a tremendous teacher
Serial entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt reads 10 to 15 books at the same time and relies solely on serendipity to guide her.
By cross-referencing and combining the books, she boosts her creativity because it allows her mind to make new connections. If you focus on two subjects for a period of time, you will naturally begin to see relationships between them that will trigger new ideas. Exposing yourself to a wide range of reading material has the power to improve your content diet and spark fresh ideas.
Books are magic, and they are often the gateway to endless creativity and innovation.
3. Seek priorities, not balance
When I was born, my parents were finishing their master’s degrees, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My mom has told me that she wishes she hadn’t missed out on those early moments.
That sentiment stayed with me, and I’ve always known that I wanted to be present when I had a child. But I also wanted to work.
So the one thing I am genuinely thankful for every single day is the flexibility that The Profile provides (all thanks to you, dear reader!) on a personal and professional level. I’ve been able to be present with my baby while still growing my business. There’s no “balance,” but rather, a shifting of priorities.
4. Don’t fall for false finish lines
For the last several months, I’ve been working on a project with a set deadline. I was repeating to myself, “Just make it to July, just make it to July.” I treated July as a panacea to all my current stressors. And then a week beforehand, things started to break, and by “things,” I mean me. As someone who rarely gets headaches, I got one so debilitating that it can only be described as a constant piercing stabbing. I joked that I felt like I was short-circuiting.
And then I realized why. I had fallen for “a false finish line,” or an imaginary endpoint that causes your body, mind, and spirit to react as if you’ve already reached your goals. It’s often the reason why we get sick during holidays or vacations.
It's referred to as "the let-down effect," a psychological-physical phenomenon that occurs when the body produces an immune response (a headache, a cold, a stomachache, a health flare-up) just after a concentrated period of stress has subsided. So I learned to slice my goals into tiny chunks rather than hefty, daunting tasks that would haunt me for months.
5. Stress the body; relieve the mind
Routine is the antidote to depression. I learned this lesson from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He once read that depression is part of a kit that comes with the creative aspect in the brain. He’s learned to keep it at bay with rigid routines.
“I think I could solve just about anyone’s life with weight training and transcendental meditation,” he says. One is a stressor while the other is a stress reducer — and you need both.
Build a routine into your life that expends and re-builds your energy. After having a baby, I cannot overstate just how much movement (of the body) plus stillness (of the mind) has helped me.
6. Find something to look forward to
This sounds really trivial but when I was young, I would look forward to receiving the new edition of Teen People magazine in the mail every month. It was something small that gave me immense joy. And through the years, I’ve continued having little things to look forward to.
These days, that little thing is a Saturday morning walk with my husband and daughter. We talk with no distractions, and we’re always amazed at how many ideas are born during this time. A walk allows you to share what you’ve learned during the week, get curious about one another’s recent experiences, and conduct a check-in about where things stand in your personal and professional lives.
Most people look forward to big (but sporadic) things like a vacation, a wedding, or a birthday celebration. Instead, increase your level of joy by developing one small ritual that you can look forward to every week instead of every year.
7. Ask yourself, ‘Where am I right now?’
This year was somewhat stressful and chaotic at times, so I’ve learned to periodically ask myself the question: “Where am I right now?” So many times we’ll physically be at dinner with a friend but mentally we’re in the office worrying about a big meeting at work tomorrow.
Stillness is a practice that I have yet to master. The whole point of mindfulness is to make sure that the physical matches the mental. When you’re playing with your child, really play with your child. When your spouse is telling you about their day, really listen.
It’s crazy how something so simple can be so difficult, but the beauty is that you have an endless number of opportunities to practice.
8. Stop neglecting the basics
When I was younger, it was so easy to fall into automated habits that I did without thinking — eating poorly, going out all the time, drinking, consuming junk content, and spending time with the wrong people. After a conversation with James Clear, I decided to audit my habits and stop running on autopilot.
Here are the seven daily habits that drastically improved the quality of my life: 1) Getting 8 hours of sleep (or at least attempting to get close to it); 2) Eating healthy meals; 3) Exercising for at least 30 minutes; 4) Consuming quality content; 5) Going on a walk; 6) Quitting alcohol; and 7) Being selective about the people I spend time with.
Those seven things have the power to change your life. I find it’s more manageable to start with two or three and then continue optimizing your days.
9. Discipline pays off
I haven’t missed a single week of sending The Profile since February 2017. Although the last year threw some curve balls my way that would’ve been perfect reasons to pause, I still made sure I kept my promise to my readers.
I’ve always said that I’m not the most talented writer nor am I the best curator, but I am willing to bet that I will outlast and outwork the competition. Shane Parrish recently wrote, “The hardest part is the discipline required to do otherwise ordinary things for an extraordinarily long period of time, even when the results are barely noticeable.” He adds, “Extraordinary results come from ordinary people with uncommon consistency.”
I’ve learned that discipline in the face of uncertainty is what’s gotten me here today.
10. Think through reversible and irreversible decisions
Most decisions in life are reversible — you can change your job, dye your hair, and sell your house. But then there are irreversible ones like deciding to have children.
The best advice Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg received was this: “Make reversible decisions quickly and irreversible ones deliberately.”
This mental model is quite useful during times of uncertainty. If the decision reversible, you can make it quickly without a ton of prior information — and you’ll probably learn a lot more by making it. If the decision is irreversible, however, you should be slow, deliberate, and analytical before making it. In the last year, I’ve asked myself this many times: “Is the decision I’m about to make reversible or irreversible?”
11. Letters are the most meaningful gift you can give
When I was 2 years old, my mom recorded us talking on a cassette tape. The conversation is amazing and hilarious because it perfectly encapsulates the thought process of a toddler. The topics I chose to talk about were all over the place — from what my friends in pre-K were doing to why I was upset that I went to time-out a few days prior. It’s a very regular conversation, but it’s one I absolutely cherish today.
Whether it’s writing letters to your children or creating some sort of time capsule in the form of a video they can enjoy when they’re older, find a way to record the special moments.
As Jim O’Shaughnessy says, “We could be living through one of the most interesting periods of human history, and you have a chance to narrate it for yourself and your children. I’ve long advocated writing continuous letters to your kids, but given all the changes we’re living through, it might give you an extra special opportunity to let your kids see it all unfold.”
12. It’s the ordinary moments that build an extraordinary life
This lesson is a persistent one. You may have noticed that I included a version of it in last year’s reflection as well. It’s one of the most important ones yet the hardest to learn.
Our belief that things will last for a very long time is the root of our unhappiness. Becoming a mom has humbled me in ways I’ve never imagined. It’s exciting, it’s exhausting, and it’s worth every second. I’ve learned about sleep cycles, nutrition, and cognitive development. I’ve learned the difference between a hunger cry and a sleepy cry. But most of all, I’ve learned to enjoy the mundane moments — the lazy Sunday mornings, the sound of baby giggles, and even the sleepless nights.
I know that in 20 years, I’ll probably be getting my precious eight hours of sleep and there won’t be toys all over the floor, but the house might be quiet. And in those times of reflection, I’ll think back to these chaotic moments and refer to them as “the good old days.”
Here’s the great irony of life — we are constantly pursuing the extraordinary moments yet our future selves yearn for the ordinary ones. If you’re a parent of an older child, I’m sure you miss the sound of them playing a loud toy piano and the sight of them getting avocado puree everywhere.
Remember, it’s the ordinary moments that build an extraordinary life.
13. There is no ‘right time.’ Just do the damn thing.
There has never been, nor will there ever be, a ‘right’ time to do anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year it’s that you just have to do it. Start the company, write the book, enter the relationship, move across the country.
The reality is that even if you wait another year or two, you will find other inconveniences that will be in your way. Set a date, make a plan, and execute.
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Happy birthday Polina! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom, it’s even more special because we share a birthday. Blagodaria 👏👏👏
Happy Birthday Polina! Wonderful lessons and insights! Wishing you a blessed day with little Sofia, Anthony, and all of your loved ones.