This Year’s Word Is…
Well, here it is. My last post for 2016. When I started writing this blog over four years ago, I had no way of knowing that I’d be where I am now.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a journey that was much larger than expatriating to Australia. It was the beginning of a journey closer to my truest self, and I’ve really only taken the first few steps.
The end of a year is a time for reflection, and I’m looking back at these last few years to truly think about what I’ve learned. Hindsight can distill the chaos of a year of living into simplicity, and for the sake of that simplicity I’ve assigned a word to each year of my journey thus far. Here they are:
The Word for 2013 was “Challenge”
I started this year utterly lost. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing failure on a personal level. I had set goal after goal for myself since high school, and I blindly pursued these goals to success.
For the first time, I wasn’t successful.
My sense of identity was sent spiraling — if I wasn’t the hotshot advertising executive, who was I?
I spent months grasping for the answer to this question and kept coming up empty-handed. I didn’t realize it then, but that inability to identify myself outside of my chosen profession created a spark within my soul.
It didn’t help matters that I had recently moved clear to the other side of the world. Nor that I was only just establishing my life in a city that would end up never feeling like home. I felt the push to get out, give up. But no one likes a quitter. So I stayed.
During the most difficult times, I questioned what success really meant. Was it the six-figure salary and impressive job title? Was it slaving 12 hours a day in front of a computer? Was it getting invited to the best parties? These were all things my peers considered success. For the first time, the blinders came off, and I wasn’t so sure I agreed with them.
But “Man is the only animal that stumbles upon the same stone twice,” or so my friend Josep the dairy farmer tells me (this is a Catalan proverb, apparently). So I dusted myself off, switched companies (but not careers), and continued with the high-paying, “glamorous” job, with several seeds of doubt firmly and deeply sown.
The Word for 2014 was “Release”
Those seeds of doubt did nothing but grow after I resumed my “normal life.” At first, I tried my best to ignore them in the hope that they wouldn’t root more deeply and grow. I was afraid to let go of all of the things I had told myself were important, because I didn’t know how to redefine myself, success, and purpose in my life.
But the universe was having none of it, and soon the desire to explore myself and the world around me was too intense to ignore. Those little doubt saplings that had been struggling to grow were given a huge dose of fertilizer by the revelation that a high-school friend had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Watching her live out the last months of her tragically short life with dignity, grace, and courage made me take a hard look at my choices.
I needed to let go.
I told myself it would just be a sabbatical, a short career break to get over my burnout. Despite all the signs telling me it was time to move on, I still wanted to cling to what I knew best.
There was nothing fast about the letting go of things. I spent months agonizing over whether or not I should quit my job. After all, who turns their back on financial security, material success, and the only lifestyle they’ve ever known? Me, it turns out.
And once the hard decisions were made, the rest of the year became a series of releases. There goes my wardrobe. Farewell furniture. Adios to all the things.
In a couple of months, I whittled down years of accumulated material possessions to a couple of boxes of photos and mementos that were shipped back to the USA. The rest went into a 40-liter backpack that I would cart around with me for most of the following year.
By the last week of 2014, I had reduced my material life to 1/10th its original size. I didn’t know what I was doing then. Now I know I was voiding myself of material distractions to make room for spiritual growth.
The Word for 2015 was “Explore”
As the New Year rang in, I took off.
That 40-liter backpack and I hit the road and started exploring the wider world. I journeyed through Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Bali, and Thailand with my younger sister for a couple of months. I continued through Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hong Kong on my own (visiting with friends along the way).
I hopped over to Spain and spent a glorious month on a dairy farm in the Pyrenees foothills with Josep and his 40 cows, learning how to make cheese.
I breezed through Switzerland, island-hopped in Croatia, and road-tripped Montenegro. I made friends in Albania and slept on an outdoor couch before flying to Greece to meet up with mom. We spent my final month sailing the Greek Islands, cruising the Amalfi Coast and exploring London.
By the end of the year I explored 17 countries, hundreds of cities and small towns, and befriended dozens of people from all over the world.
And as I physically explored the world around me, I also explored the limits of my comfort zone. I explored human nature in the people that I met. I explored what it really takes to build a happy and full life. And I explored my fear, and the ways it can keep me from myself when I don’t try to transcend it.
I spent a lot of time in 2015 pushing myself past my fear, out of my comfort zone, in a very literal way. It set the stage for everything that was to come next.
The Word for 2016 was “Discover”
I spent most of 2016 in a much more stationary position, physically. I only ventured abroad for three of the 12 months in the year, and only to three countries (two of which I’d already visited).
This slower pace meant that I turned my journey inward, to myself. I was directionless at the start of the year. I knew nothing except the things I didn’t want. That left the field of opportunity pretty wide open.
Freed from the goal-oriented compulsions of my past, I was able to embark on a journey of self-discovery. And as usual, the universe provided for me. I was asked to be a chef on a wilderness charter boat in Alaska. My love of cooking, nature, mountains, and new places were all served in this one opportunity that literally fell into my lap. It was too obvious that this was something I was meant to do, so I did it.
And wow! What an ungraceful shove into self-discovery it ended up being! Every day I was bombarded with the most profound natural beauty. Wildlife encounters, mountains that drop into the sea, and rainbows and sunsets like you’ve never seen became my daily backdrop. Being in a setting of utter peace and wild beauty opened up my heart and mind to new thoughts and ideas I hadn’t before considered.
I met a group of people who spoke to my soul, and helped me think about things in new and different ways.
I developed a set of skills that have turned out to be pretty useful in keeping me in the black as I continue this journey I’m on.
But those weren’t the most important discoveries. The most important discoveries were the ones I made about myself. I realized that I never wanted to return to a full-time office lifestyle. I learned that how I chose to define success was going to look drastically different for the rest of my life. I found that when you have faith, the universe freaking provides for you, if you let it.
As I close out the year, I feel light years away from that woman floundering in 2013. I feel light years away from even that eager-eyed explorer from 2015. This year has been marked with profound personal growth, and I know it’s only just begun.
As I look forward into 2017, I don’t have a clear picture of what it will look like. I know where I will physically be for the first few months, but I can’t really see beyond that. I have a few intentions for ways I’d like to guide my personal growth through the next calendar year. But that’s about it. And I am so at peace with that fact. If I’d told that goal-oriented career gal back in 2012 that this where we’d be four years later, she’d never have believed me.
What will my word for next year be? Heaven only knows.