A Long Recap of Some of What I Learned in 2016

I love reflection and especially the reflection that bookends a calendar year. The ruminating, meditating, thoughtful examination of the previous year colliding with the hopeful, optimistic, anticipatory dreams of what tomorrow will bring. I like taking stock, and recommitting to a better me living in a tomorrow that I try to make better. The traditional New Year’s examination gives me both of those. My son Gavin (9) asked why there was so much hoopla around two minutes of celebrating. Why there were hours of build-up that dissipates almost instantly. But in those two minutes we close the past and turn to the future as we look hopefully towards what lies ahead.

I start with two quotes to set the tone. The first from Emerson:

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt creep in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

And the second from a talk Jeffery Holland gave at BYU in 2009. I’ve read this talk twice in the last day or two and find it chockablock full of insight and wisdom worthy of reflection – especially at New Year’s. I actually read it to my boys on New Year’s Day, unfortunately with no perceived success. It was sadly lost on them (was it George Bernard Shaw that said “youth is wasted on the young??”)

“as a new year starts and we try to benefit from a proper view of what has gone before, I plead with you not to dwell on days now gone, nor to yearn vainly for yesterdays, however good those yesterdays may have been. The past is to be learned from but not lived in. We look back to claim the embers from glowing experiences but not the ashes. And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead, we remember that faith is always pointed toward the future. Faith always has to do with blessings and truths and events that will yet be efficacious in our lives. So a more theological way to talk about Lot’s wife is to say that she did not have faith. She doubted the Lord’s ability to give her something better than she already had. Apparently she thought—fatally, as it turned out—that nothing that lay ahead could possibly be as good as those moments she was leaving behind.

Let me start first with a quick recap of some 2016 accomplishments.

In 2015 I climbed my first 14er and fell in love. It was the perfect simile for the mountains I was climbing in my own life.  There are 53 peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet and another 14 in California and Washington for a total of 67 14ers in the Continental United States. It is my hope to climb them all.

After putting 2015 behind me, it felt fitting to start 2016 atop mountains. I made my first two winter ascents in the first days of 2016, finding myself on one of the highest peaks in the country. There is a beautiful juxtaposition between summiting physical mountains and ascending figurative ones. In many ways, I find myself today on a higher plane than at any point in my life. And I see the peaks – both distant and near, real and metaphoric – that I’m aiming for. I followed my January summits with a climb in November, a day after the first snowfall. I summited Mount Harvard and now have 10 of the 67 summits under my belt. I’m looking to climb 2-6 14ers in 2017.

After running my first marathon in October 2015, followed by my second in November 2015, I went on to run 6 marathons in 2016 (Washington DC, Big Sur, San Francisco, Venice Italy, New York City, and Singapore). Running 6 marathons in a year was never my intent – it just, well, sorta happened. I know what you are thinking, “marathons don’t just happen!” One of the highlights was running the Big Sur marathon with the Move For Hunger team and fundraising in their support. I forgot how much I love fundraising for worthy causes, and I think Move For Hunger has one of the most worthy missions. I don’t want to run as many marathons in 2017, but I’m looking at North Korea (yes…I know), Cuba, Chicago, and maybe one other one.

I did my first triathlon in 2016. Miserable! I thought I was going to drown through the entire swim. It took me half way through bike to catch my breath. In 2016, I also did my first Gran Fondo (finished dead last – Woot!), followed by a second in September. I biked roughly 860 miles and ran 715 miles in 2016. In all my miles I thought often of the lyrics for the Avett Brothers song “The Weight of Lies”: “So, when you run make sure you run to something and not away from.” As the last pillars of my marriage dissolved in 2013, I did a lot of running away. In 2016, for the first time in a long time, I finally felt like I was running towards something instead of away. I hope to do 2-3 tris in 2017, perhaps one of which can be longer. I’d also like to do a few Gran Fondos.

New countries in 2016 included Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania. All visited with my three sons. Those three boys are my everything. The trip wasn’t perfect. Definitely a few things I wish I could have done differently. A few things I’d like to redo. I still find myself constantly praying the trip will be a fond memory for each of them. In the coming months I’ll try to post more about this trip. New countries I’m eyeing for 2017: North Korea (yes…I know), Cuba, Iceland, and Aruba. But who knows where the tide will take me.

One of the highlights of 2016 for me was my 40th birthday. I spent my 40th birthday sleeping on our trampoline with my three boys. A milestone birthday came and went and there is no other way I would’ve wanted to spend it than with my sons. The highlight of my birthday was spending it with them. It will be a birthday I will forever remember and always cherish because in many ways it was nothing more than the best of a very normal day with my sons.

Now onto some of the things I learned in 2016.

1) Process Matters.  In 2016 I learned that process matters. Maybe not as much as outcome, but very very close to it. This was a lesson I’ve long needed to internalize. I have, for a very long time, burned the proverbial candle at both ends. For a decade plus, I was able to do this mostly successfully. There were hints and flashes of crashing and burning, but in the end, for the most part, I delivered. And my, at-times, chaotic process was tolerated by others because the end product was valued. In 2016, and to an extent 2015, this all collided and I learned the hard lesson that no matter how great or grand the deliverable is, a messy process can negate much of the value created. In 2016, I focused less exclusively on what I delivered, and looked more collectively at what I delivered together with the process in which I delivered it. I made concerted efforts to hone the process in an attempt to minimize stress placed on others.

2) Make Time for Self-Discovery. I think I’ve had four major periods of self-discovery in my life. The first was my freshman year of college in Hawaii. I imagine college, especially the freshman year, is a period of self-discovery for many. I think mine was magnified by the distance I placed between myself and home and the time I was able to spend in nature. Hawaii can be very slow (Island Time) which also helps facilitate time for self-discovery. This period was followed by the two years I spent living in the Netherlands as a Mormon missionary. Recently, I’ve started going back through the thousands of pages I wrote in my journal during those 24 months. It’s been interesting to see themes that remain constant in my life still today. I seem to have been haunted then, as perhaps I still am, with a feeling that I simply come up short. I fail my own expectations of myself – whether seemingly high or not. And it’s always followed by a doubling down to do more and try harder tomorrow.

The third period of self-discovery was the period during which I studied in the Middle East followed by the months I wandered around East, Central, and Southern Europe in the late 1990s. This area was under tremendous change at the time, as it shed its former identify and reached for independence. I had very little money which ultimately augmented my experience. I wandered where the tide took me. I slept in parks and fields, in the homes of strangers and of newly found friends. I slept in a field near Dracula’s castle, under willow tree in Hyde Park, and even spent a night in the double bunk of a semi-trailer truck after I hitched a ride across France. I thought often of George Orwell while he was Down and Out in Paris and London.

And then, after this third period of self-discovery, I spent the next 15 years doing what most spend their lifetime doing. I graduated college, got married, had kids, added graduate degrees. Tried to build the proverbial “career” and make it a successful one. In general, I tried to keep up and make the sacrifices that seemed to be the right ones at the time. I was living life, or something like it.

One of the many great things to come out of my divorce was the chance to once again make self-discovery a priority. In 2016 I learned more about myself as an individual than I have for well over a decade. This was driven by a number of factors including slowing down and focusing and optimizing on the things I value most in life. Perhaps in the  coming months I’ll write more about what I’ve learned about myself.

3) There is Beauty and Power in Being Vulnerable. I have found beauty in vulnerability over the last two years – both in being vulnerable to others and in being receptive to the vulnerability that others show me. I have had amazing conversations in the last year because I was receptive to the vulnerability of others. Some of the people I have grown to admire the most are people I didn’t even know a few years ago. My first marriage lacked vulnerability completely. When I think of the non-negotiables of romantic relationships, vulnerability is at the top of the list.

4) Optimize on What Matters. 2015 was a year filled with a tremendous amount of change as we formalized the dissolution of our marriage. I remember a specific moment wherein I was facing a long series of decisions and I was struggling to determine which of all of the good choices were the best. Moreover, many of choices were tightly interwoven so one decision here would impact another decision over there. Wise counsel from my oldest brother helped me to realize that I needed to identify one or two core priorities and then optimize all of my decisions around those priorities. From there, I could let all of the other choices fall around that single priority. My three boys are the most important thing to me. They far exceed anything else in my life. Whenever I’m faced with options, decisions, and alternatives I simply optimize on them. This simple decision tree has fundamentally changed how I see the world and how I decide between many good choices. I’m not perfect, but optimizing decisions on them helps me overcome decision paralysis and also brings with it a tremendous amount of peace that I am doing all I can.            

5) Be Present. I think I’ve always made efforts to be present, but I really saw the beauty and significance of this over the last year – especially as it relates to my kids. Good luck to anyone trying to get ahold of me when my boys are with me. I often put my phone in a drawer in my bedroom when they are. Related to this, I made one simple change in my life in 2016 that has made a tremendous difference in allowing me to be present – I set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” from 9PM to 5AM. It’s awesome! My phone doesn’t ring. I’m less likely to notice texts. I’m able to be present. Over the last year I volunteered as much as I could in my boys school and found tremendous joy doing so. I try to have lunch with them once a week. At one point, my ex-wife called me “Mr. Volunteer.” She was being pejorative. And in that moment I realized in the insults of my ex-wife are some of the greatest complements a guy could ever hope for.

6) You Can’t Push Again the Wind. One of the most valuable, and beautiful pieces of advice I received in the last year was that “you can’t push against the wind.” I didn’t fully understand this at first, but overtime I’ve come to realize the power and wisdom of this advice. We all have in our life distractors, those people who are critical of us and seek to find fault in what we say or do. They might be former spouses or someone else that we can’t fully get out of our lives for a wide array of reasons. These individuals feel compelled to send derogatory texts or emails. They say belittling things. They seek to degrade, demean, and disparage. Nothing we can say or do in response will stymie their crude, coarse, commentary on our lives. They, and their comments, are the wind. You can’t push against the wind. You can’t stop the wind from blowing. But its’ blowing has no bearing on you and eventually, though it might take decades, it will blow itself out.

7) Write Your Narrative. Michael Lewis said, “I get such pleasure out of knowing that I’m lucky. It also allows me to assume that I will continue to be lucky. I am creating a narrative of my life, and it makes me braver and less fearful.” I have similar feelings, though I think I would be inclined to replace “lucky” with “blessed” and in place of feeling “braver” I’d say it makes me feel “greater peace.” I think we have more control over our stories – especially the chapters that lie ahead – than we allow ourselves to realize.

8) Love Unconditionally. After a year-long battle with a rare brain tumor, Josiah Lanier died in May 2016 at the tender age of 10. He touched thousands of people and his life left a giant wake in this world. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t think about him. In the final weeks and months of his life, I would carry him up my stairs when he would visit my house. He possessed deep, profound humility unmatched by anyone I have ever met. I’ll never forget the last time he visited my house, and the feeling I had after carrying him downstairs, that it would be his last visit there. I went back inside and falling to the floor, bawled until I couldn’t breathe. Josiah’s life taught me what unconditional love looks like. I saw it in his father, dressed in a matching superhero outfit. I saw it in his mother, when she’d lean in to hear and ascertain his needs. I saw it in the thousands of people who were touched by Josiah’s life. By people who donated time and money and talents to Josiah and his family. And I saw it in Josiah himself. They he would give his precious time to others. He would allow people to visit him and to ask how he was doing. He’d allow adults to talk to him, in the horrible way that adults talk, something no 10 year-old likes to do. He showed constant compassion and deep unconditional love.

9) Our Emotions and Our Actions are Choices. Be Kind. Be Grateful. In 2016, I saw clearly our emotions and our actions are both choices dictated by free will and agency. We choose how we feel and how we respond. I want to choose kindness, gratitude, and ultimately happiness. Happiness is a choice. Maybe it starts with gratitude. Gratitude and kindness together with humility and acceptance. And in the end, we can choose happiness.

10) Be Prepared. Yes, I channeled my inner Boy Scout in 2016. Take time. Have the right gear. Know when to ask for help before a series of mistakes ends with that final fatal mistake that so often follows a series of errors. Take a few minutes to prepare.