4 Life Lessons I Learned in 2018

This year was a challenging year, but it was also a good year.

After saving money for nearly two years, my husband and I finally moved back to Laramie. This was a major achievement for us. Now that we’re not inhaling fumes from a nearby oil refinery or trying to avoid the negative influence of a prison town, our health and our outlook on life have improved significantly.

I made some gains professionally. I had some challenging projects that taught me new skills and equipped me with valuable knowledge.

I reinstated my teaching license this spring. I’m so glad I did, too. The online ESL industry went into a tailspin this month when news broke that the Chinese government is expected to release new regulations imposing stricter requirements for online ESL teachers. A valid teaching certificate will likely be a requirement for teachers.

They’re also expected to require online teachers to have an ESL certification. So, earlier this month, I started a program that will grant me my TESOL certificate from Arizona State University.

Yet, I think the biggest gains I made this year were personal, not professional. At the end of every year, I like to take inventory of what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed. Here are four key life lessons I took away from 2018.

1. Culture is Everything

Peter Drucker reportedly once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s unclear whether Drucker himself coined the phrase, Forbes reports, but it’s true nonetheless.

Toxic culture is like Godzilla: It’s an unstoppable force of destruction. I’ve learned the hard way that trying to take it on singlehandedly is a fool’s errand. If you get crosswise of bad culture, it will smack you into next week. About the best you can do is steer clear of it.

I’ve started reading contracts and company policies differently. These documents aren’t merely legal tools. They are statements about the company culture. They indicate what people in the culture do (and do not) care about. They reveal what problems people are (and are not) willing to solve. Read these documents carefully, and trust your gut. Small red flags are usually signs of a more serious problem.

2. Death is a powerful motivator

I’ve been reading Stoic philosophy lately, and I’ve realized something interesting: Greek and Roman philosophers thought about death all the time.

Here’s Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and a practicing Stoic:

“Not as though thou hadst thousands of years to live. Death hangs over thee: While yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

If they were alive today, the ancient Stoics would have a hell of a time getting invited to cocktail parties. We live in a death-averse society. As Americans, we act and think as if we will live forever. Any reminders to the contrary make us profoundly uneasy.

But, if you avoid thinking about death, then you deprive yourself of a powerful tool for living your best life. Death clarifies your priorities and creates urgency. It helps you sift out life’s essentials from all the silliness. Preparing for the end allows you to make the most of the here and now. As the song says, “You ain’t getting any younger, are you?

3. Virtue still counts

We don’t talk about virtue much in America. “It’s not that we’re bad,” columnist David Brooks said in a 2016 panel discussion. “We’re just morally inarticulate.”

But, if the past year has taught me anything, it’s this: Virtue matters, perhaps more now than ever before. 

Without virtue, you live a miserable life. You become a continual disappointment to those who rely on you and a source of shame to those who love you. No matter what you accomplish, how much money you make, or how much power you have, a life lived without virtue is a damn pitiful sight.

This year, I’ve tried to cultivate the virtues of temperance, fair-mindedness, and disciplined curiosity. In doing so, I’ve discovered I’m more inclined to be intemperate, biased and addicted to blind outrage when I’m left to my own devices.

Constantly questioning your own motives and quelling your immediate impulses gets exhausting. But, I guess that’s part of the process. As Michel de Montaigne says:

“… the word virtue imports something more great and active than merely for a man to suffer himself by a happy disposition to be gently and quietly drawn to the rule of reason. … The very name of virtue presupposes difficulty and contention, and cannot be exercised without an opponent.

4. To feel better, you must do better.

The right actions come first. The good feelings come later.

This year, I discovered that surprisingly small actions, when performed consistently, go a long way to improving your quality of life. These include:

  • Going to bed at the same time every night.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Establishing daily goals, tasks and intentions. (I borrowed this idea from Tom Brooksher at Zipline Performance Group.)
  • Attending community events, meetups and other social activities.

I also became a big fan of personal projects, and I launched two new ones this year.

  • The Wellness Project is my attempt to become more intentional about my self-care and personal development. Wellness Project tasks include anything from trying a new yoga routine to sampling a new genre of music.
  • 10 Percent Better is focused on making consistent and incremental changes that lead to long-term improvement.  I borrowed the idea for the title from Dan Harris’ excellent book about meditation, 10 Percent Happier. The whole concept is an attempt to deconstruct my perfectionist tendencies. It reminds me that an improvement of even 10 percent pretty doggone good.

Major influences

I found inspiration and wisdom from a wide range of sources this year. Here are a few.

Books

Music

See you in the new year, friends.

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