Birthday Reflection, Version 42.0

I offer this annual birthday reflection, a day early, from a hotel room in Denver. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel rooms lately, and more time yet remains on the calendar over the next few months. Writing from “somewhere else” often sharpens insight.
I’ve experienced a fair amount of change over the last 12 months. Some good, some challenging. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away is that resilience protects against the pain and uncertainty of change, but the forum of that change (internal vs. external) is not without consequence.
Lots of leadership-advice books natter on about resilience. You know the drill: Cultivate this virtue to accept the things you cannot change. Resilient people follow leaders without complaint because they adapt to having their cheese moved. Grow a shell of resilience to avoid taking workplace slights personally. Et cetera.
I think the truth is different and a bit less opportunistic. I’ve written before about how I’m understanding more deeply the toxic effects of comfort. Yet being aware of the problem and actively addressing it — well, a large gulf of intent divides the two, and most people aren’t ready to bridge the gulf. Resilience is, in a sense, a person’s willingness to build that bridge.
The events of the last year forced my personal gulf to dry to Lake Mead-like levels. Not only did I have to face disruptions to my comfortable routine, but I had no choice but to address them. The stressors — changes in jobs, responsibilities, etc. — were external. Resistance and denial would prove futile. So address them, I did. And I’m largely satisfied with how things have played out so far.
Yet internal stressors beckon, as well. And that’s the real lesson of resilience. What happens when you see a gulf but aren’t forced by outside forces to bridge it?
I recently enjoyed a lovely conversation with a younger friend who’s struggling with her life and career trajectory. I offered advice, of course, but the chat reminded me of a time, back in my late 20s and early 30s, where I kinda-sorta built a life mostly by putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where I ended up. Sure, I might have had goals, but I didn’t meaningfully work on them. I just muddled through, hoping for something better yet preparing for nothing at all.
Eventually, I had to face a sad fact: The life I lived, and the life I aspired to live, stood in stark opposition. What to do?
Some people do nothing. They continue putting one foot in front of the other. They convince themselves, for the most part, that they’re happy. But they’re not really fully actualized in Maslow’s sense of the term. They followed the path of least resistance for them and make do with the consequences.
Others become bitter. You see it in failed careers, failed marriages and shattered families. In chronic disease. In addictions. In isolation and radicalization and a gradual separation from the finer points of reality.
I chose a different path: I elected to pivot. It’s not a fast thing, and it’s not flawless, but over the years — drop by drop — I’ve prioritized different things in different ways. I’ve tried to encourage new habits and to drop counterproductive old ones. I’ve tried to spend my time on what matters instead of what’s urgent.
I started that journey a decade ago. I’m still on it; playing the long game is essential. I’m closer to the finish line than the starting line, but a few laps remain. And I’m happy with that. This pivot required resilience, and that resilience helped me get through parts of 2018 that haven’t been exactly enjoyable.
So I journey into Year 42 with a cheerful spirit. Lots has been done, much remains to do, and I take joy in every turn of the shovel.

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