Top 10 Lessons of the Past Decade

Every year as the New Year approaches, I find myself getting more nostalgic and reflective.  But with a decade fading away, it is especially a time to consider what the past ten years have meant.  Nine days after 2010 began, we welcomed our fourth child, Noah; five months before the decade would close, our eighth child, Katherine “Kate” was born.  The 2010’s were my first full decade practicing as a pediatric psychologist.  I was blessed to finish an Ironman and a number of ultramarathons and backpack through some of the most beautiful, isolated areas in the country.  We were saddened by the loss of a number of close family members, including my father-in-law, Tom, my two grandfathers, and most recently, my aunt Joni, who had suffered far too long from frontotemporal dementia. 

Through these and countless other experiences, a few lessons kept resurfacing, ones that will take a lifetime to fully understand and embrace.  These were lessons learned in crowded, loud rooms and moments of dark, cold silence.  They were learned in the office of my professional life and my home “office”.  They are raw and universal.  In no particular order, here are my top ten lessons learned in the past decade.

  1. Everything of value, including life itself, is a GIFT even if it doesn’t feel like it.  Embracing this perspective opens up repeated opportunities for simple joys born of extraordinary realities.  Five minutes into a new morning, I am aware that my home, warmth, movement, sight, hearing, cognition, conveniences, and my kin are a gift.  Many in this world do not have them.  Recognizing these gifts for what they are not only makes me happier, but connects me more with those who are not gifted in this way.  Recently, a family member told me he wished he could walk like he did when he was 60.  I daresay that when he was 60, he didn’t know what a gift it was.
  2. Our capacity far, far exceeds what we believe it is.  The limits we set for ourselves are not based on what we truly can do.  Ten years ago, I was convinced that my body was not designed to run more than 13.1 miles.  Five ultramarathons later, four of which were 50+ miles in length, I recognize that the limits I assumed for myself were false and arbitrary.  If we are willing to address our anxieties, humble ourselves, and learn from others who have exceeded their own perceived limits, we come to find that our minds and bodies were created in a way to transcend what we believe is possible.  Yet in order to do this, we must commit ourselves first to a process grounded in truth, persistence, and humility, and let the outcomes be as they may be. 
  3. Unnecessary anxiety is the most destructive force that exists.  When anxiety mobilizes us to act in a prudent way, such as a child cautiously approaching a busy roadway, then fear is good.  But so often, we expend huge amounts of time and energy worrying about things that don’t matter and/or we can’t control.  In the meantime, this anxiety erodes away at our relationships, our health, our happiness, and our opportunities to fully love.  Reducing unnecessary anxiety should always be a primary life goal.
  4. Taking care of our health & well-being is not selfish, but rather life-giving.  In a decade where obesity became the leading cause of death, where the U.S. life expectancy decreased for three consecutive years, and where huge increases in physical and psychological problems are overwhelming our healthcare system and financial infrastructure, it is clear that preventable health woes are wreaking havoc on our families, businesses, and countries.  Whether you are a parent, friend, coworker, or just a fellow community member, prioritizing your health and well-being has never been more important. 
  5. Conflict is inevitable, but how we handle it is not; minimization and magnification are the real culprits of estrangement and misery.  Disagreement is difficult.  But what often makes it so much more troublesome is when the conflict is overdramatized or not even addressed, and the original source of dissension gets lost in the drama or the denial.  We are often so busy being defensive or critical, including in public forums, that we repeatedly miss opportunities to unite around positions of agreement and recognize where our overblown reactions and unacknowledged mistakes might be a huge part of the problem.  It’s time we all start addressing conflict by first considering how our reactions to it might be the biggest problem of all.
  6. Be prepared for tomorrow, but put your heart in today; anything else is overwhelming and unproductive.  C.S. Lewis once replied to a reader’s letter by saying that the goal of life was to “do your present duty, bear your present pain, and enjoy your present pleasures, and let the emotions and experiences take care of themselves.”  Although difficult in practice, it is undoubtedly the key to an empowered, hopeful, contented life.  Never has there been a time in history in which we need to harness more the power of the present moment so that we can seek what we desire in this life and the next.  When we focus our lives on what is possible (each day), the seemingly impossible becomes attainable; when we bemoan the past and worry about the future, we miss out on the present joys. 
  7. You can’t control the past, the truth, or others; you can control your (intentional) thoughts, attitudes, and actions.  Don’t waste your time and energy on trying to control what you can’t.  It will only lead to greater frustration, inadequacy, conflict, and futility.  Just as #6 noted, we must fix our eyes on what we can control now, and find satisfaction in doing what is of value even if the outcomes are not ideal.  We are going to make mistakes, and that is okay.  But the biggest mistake we can make is missing out on using our free will for things that we actually can (and should) control.  
  8. Effective communication is the least taught, most important skill that exists.  When it happens, all sorts of possibilities are unlocked; when it doesn’t, doors are repeatedly slammed shut.  Relationships built on a foundation of trust and mutuality are one of the keys to a happy, productive life.  But great relationships don’t exist without sound communication in which both people strive towards clarity, conviction, and empathy.  When good communication practices exist, relationships can survive some of the most trying circumstances; when they don’t, relationships are like a house built on sand.  From the youngest of ages, we should all strive to teach and model what it means to communicate effectively and lovingly. 
  9. There is no substitute for the essential elements of life – empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance.  The more we grow capacity in each, the easier and richer life becomes; the less these capacities become, the more difficult and tumultuous life will be.  Whether we are parents trying to raise our kids according our values and goals, coworkers and employers trying to facilitate a productive, dynamic workplace, or just an individual trying to harness the most out of what life has to offer, these three E’s are essential to maximizing life.  You don’t have to run a marathon to increase endurance, or serve dinner in a homeless shelter to increase empathy.  But we do have to develop daily habits that are focused on growing the essentials.
  10. Nothing is needed more in this world than authentic, courageous people who live for a purpose greater than themselves.  The world is full of people conforming to things they don’t believe in, or even worse, things they know aren’t good.  As we have become slaves to our conveniences, gratifications, and our technologies, people are increasingly afraid of making countercultural decisions that may take them to places of uncertainty, isolation, and discomfort.  And yet arguably, if this does not happen on a larger scale, we may find ourselves looking back on this next decade wondering what happened to the freedoms we so wanted and revered.  Abraham Lincoln once said that “Heroes embody the qualities that we most desire or admire in ourselves.”  Never should we let fear or criticism deter us from heroic actions in small moments and huge circumstances.    

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