Birthday Reflections: Ten Life Lessons I’ve learned so far.

I recently celebrated my birthday, so I thought I would share with you ten lessons I've learned in my four and a half decades on earth. There are more but these are pretty poignant. I'm still learning and making mistakes but that's the point of life, isn't it?

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1. Life is not a ladder to climb, nor is it linear. When I was young, I never thought about detours or changes to my path. I figured if I worked hard, and with a little bit of luck, I would get to my chosen goal. And I did. But as I got older I realised it was, and is that much more important, to remain flexible and open to changes. Life has thrown some pretty interesting challenges my way, some even instigated by me. So many of us have experienced changes to the way we thought life would work out leaving us feeling like all that we worked towards when we were younger really didn’t prepare us for what was to come. Downsizing, divorce, and redefining our “raison d’être”, are commonplace in the world we live in today. And while it seems the stakes are even higher when we advance in age and the appetite for risk seems low, I go by the belief that those challenges, while excruciating as they are when we’re going through them, are the kicks up the backside that we need in order to dig deeper within ourselves. It forces us to reevaluate and check in with ourselves. Maybe we’re meant to go on a different path. But that’s what makes life interesting. I figure if my life were a movie or a book, the last thing I would want it to be is predictable. And I better make damn sure I’m the star.

2. Always look inwards and ask ‘why?’ Many years ago, I started to see a therapist because I felt my life was not in my control, that things were just seemingly happening to me and I had no say, and if I did, I wasn’t strong or confident enough to change. It was only when I started to ask myself “why” I felt the way that I felt, I found my voice and my control. It’s always easy to blame other people for their behaviours and how they “made” us feel. But once we take our gaze away from the other person and look inwards, once we dig deeper into ourselves, we start to gain control over a situation because we then have the power to change it, for us. We, especially women, are always trying to understand why the other person is the way they are to us and how we are always trying to change them, thinking “if only he/she did this or that. Yet it’s only when we understand ourselves, our own motivations, can we really make decisions that are right for us. Decisions based on our healthiest truth and not based on layers of baggage or perceptions.

3. This is more for (and from) the younger me. Relationships are there to help us understands ourselves better. We are drawn to certain people for a reason and it often has more to do with our past, our history, our family, patterns we learned from our parents. They are known as karmic patterns, patterns literally embedded in our DNA. Once we understand our patterns, we can either let go or be more active in asking for what we really want in a relationship. Relationships can be complicated, and everyone’s outlook is different. Heartbreak doesn’t feel good, that’s not rocket science. And we all try to avoid feeling that way by either denying it, trying to avoid it by staying in a situation that isn’t healthy, and we think if we give in to heartbreak we will always be broken and nothing will pull us together again. But when you’re broken, you may feel, even for a split second, a release. At a particularly difficult time in my life, I was searching for answers to help me make sense of the drama that I was going through and as I was browsing through an airport bookstore, I came across this book by Elizabeth Lesser called Broken Open. Here is an excerpt and passage that resonated deeply: “To be human is to be lost in the woods. None of us arrives here with clear directions on how to get from point A to point B without stumbling into the forest of confusion or catastrophe or wrongdoing. Although they are dark and dangerous, it is in the woods that we discover our strengths.” After asking myself why I was in that situation, after many months of introspection, I worked towards changing my thought patterns and behaviours. I am happy to say that I am now in a relationship where there is laughter, respect, fun, passion, and all of that put together is how I define love. 

4. Try as many things as possible. If we give ourselves choices, we get to know who we are and what we gravitate towards. I’m starting to do that with my little boy. Giving him choices. Granted, right now it’s really just about food, toys, games, clothes, and tv/movies. What I’m doing is helping him cognitively understand himself, to practice choosing and making choices so that he gets to know what he likes and doesn’t like. I grew up at at time (and culture) where I had to take a particular path: study hard, get good grades, be a good girl and become a doctor, get married, have kids, live happily ever after. I’ve learned that to really experience and appreciate life is to experience and appreciate myself first—get to know what I love to do, what I gravitate towards, and what I don’t want. Try and fail. For my son, I want him to gradually build up the mental skills to figure out the bigger questions and decisions in life. That’s why making mistakes, failing are just as important as succeeding.

5. Learn about money. Money is currency in which employers will show us what they think we are worth. But we have to educate them too in what we know we are worth by what we bring to the table. I never liked talking about money, I hated negotiating my salary. I would tell myself that I just wanted my work to speak for itself but really I was hiding behind the fact that I always felt like I was reduced to being a little girl who didn’t want to rock the boat and be seen as difficult. I then realised that was wrong. It wasn’t the bosses. It was me. I had to grow up. I had to find my voice and take control over my life and that included knowing what I was worth and fighting for it. It is up to me to educate the people I deal with on my worth. It’s like money expert Suze Orman says, “Women tend to settle for less. They don’t ask for what they know they’re worth, because they are afraid of the consequences if they speak up. They put themselves on sale.” She goes on to say in her book Women and Money, “We have to develop a healthy, honest relationship with our money. And we have to see this relationship as a reflection of our relationship with ourselves. I can’t put it any more simply or emphatically: How we behave toward our money, how we treat our money, speaks volumes about how we perceive and value ourselves. If we aren’t powerful with money, we aren’t powerful period. What is at stake here is not just money—it’s far bigger. This is about your sense of who you are and what you deserve. Lasting net worth comes only when you have a healthy and strong sense of self-worth.”

6. Health is everything. And that includes mental health. If we have our health we can do anything. Stress can wreak havoc on our physical being. Our bodies are amazing machines but the impact that stress has on our body can be irreparable. I’ve lost hair, I’ve had kidney stones, I’ve had a benign tumour removed, I’ve had IBS, gained and lost weight. All I know is that the body can only take so much emotional and mental crap we lay on it. Once I realised the direct impact that stress was having on my body, it hit me like a ton of bricks, and I then became more conscious of what I thought and what I was doing to myself. It’s like Oprah says in her Lifeclass series, “Life whispers to you all the time. It whispers, and if you don’t get the whisper, the whisper gets louder. If you don’t get the whisper when it gets louder, I call it like a little pebble — a little thump — upside the head… The pebble or the thump upside the head usually [means] it’s gone into a problem. If you don’t pay attention to the problem, the pebble then becomes like a brick. The brick upside your head is a crisis. [If] you don’t pay attention to the brick upside your head, the crisis turns into a disaster and the whole house — brick wall — comes falling down.”

6. Recognise the importance of the present. I used to get so wrapped up in whatever personal drama I was in that I didn’t stop to just look around see what incredible experiences were right in front of me. We tend to just get so lost in our own thoughts, our own emotional drama, we get lost in our own bubbles we forget that sometimes, just stepping away, even if it’s for a minute, can help us get perspective. And perspective comes when we bring ourselves to the present moment and ask ourselves “is this really how we want to remember this moment?” I don’t take anything for granted now because I know how fragile each moment is. I’ve had friends who have endured unimaginable pain and I keep their hearts close to mine so that I never take anything in vain by being anything but grateful for what I have.

7.Fear is a great motivator but it is also a great roadblock. Years ago my then-boyfriend (now husband), hired a boat and took me out onto the water for a day of swimming and sailing around Hong Kong. We docked near a beach and he told me to just jump off the boat into the warm water. Now I had learned to swim maybe a year before this so the thought of just jumping into open water wasn’t something I was prepared to do. But he kept encouraging me. I remember I would run to the edge of the boat and then just stop. I was so afraid of what was beneath the surface (and of drowning). But there was something inside me that also was pushing me to just try. So there was this internal battle between the fearful me and the me that wanted to try. Eventually, I summoned up all my reserves and literally took the plunge. My head went under, my heart was pounding, then I emerged into the warmth of the surface with the sun shining on my face and I felt like I had just conquered Mount Everest. Since then I have gone snorkelling and diving and have swam with Manta rays barely 2 feet away from me. Fear is so powerful, it stops us from seeing what is potentially on the other side. Fear is a constant but that’s ok. Every time I have felt fear of failure, fear of making a fool out of myself, fear of being found out that I actually didn’t know what I was doing (that whole impostor syndrome thing), I would take a deep breath and push through because I would also think of the alternative. I would think about what I would miss out on if I didn’t take a chance. And let me tell you, for me, that was worse than playing it safe. It’s like what the actress Gemma Chan said about going into acting (instead of law which was what her parents wanted her to do), “It is better to try and fail. Disappointment is temporary but regret lasts forever.” Whether it was leaving my family and friends and everything I loved, to go to a city where I didn’t know a soul to start a new job at a major company where the learning curve was so steep and the world would be watching (literally); whether I was about to interview Mikhail Gorbachev with a moment’s notice or handle a breaking news story with minimal information and no script and know what I said on air could have a catastrophic impact if I was wrong; or make a decision with my husband to step away from the rat race, change our lifestyle drastically and move to the English countryside where we didn’t know anyone and would have to start a new life from scratch, I did all of it where I thought about the alternative. And that usually gives me the strength I need to push through.

8. Confidence is key. While the choices I have made in my life have led me to where I am today, I could have circumvented a lot of tears and heartbreak by having more confidence in myself. Believing that I had/have value just by being here. And letting go of those people and places that didn’t serve in my best interests. How to have confidence? It’s like anything in life—practice makes perfect and also knowing that nobody—and I mean nobody—has it all figured out. Confidence (or lack thereof) is a feeling we’re not good enough and that we don’t belong. But like any muscle in our body, we have to train the thoughts in our brain to question those self-limiting beliefs. I have learned to ask myself 4 key questions whenever I feel anxious or down. It’s something I learned from reading Byron Katie’s books and her teachings that she calls “The Work”. They are: Is it true? Can you absolutely know it’s true? How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought? And finally, who would you be without the thought? Then, try turning that thought around to see the how you feel. 

9. Life gives us what we ask for. I truly believe this. I believe in the universal genius that surrounds us. I believe in having a clear vision of what it is I want out of my life. With an honest heart and a grateful soul, I believe in asking the universe, God, nature, spirits, energy, (whatever or whomever you believe in), for guidance and leading me to where I want to be. I trust in something bigger than myself. Start expecting miracles. Like my mother always says, “you never know what is around the next corner.” When I have been searching for direction or answers, I am led to them because I have come to believe in signs. I remember many years ago when I first moved to Atlanta. I had gone through a break up before I moved and was dealing with the immense pain and emptiness that resulted from it. I remember driving to work down Peachtree Street from where I lived in Buckhead to downtown Atlanta. I happened to see, along the sidewalk, banners hung on street lamps outside a church that had the words “All Will Be Well” painted on them. For some reason, it struck such a deep chord in me. From then on I felt like I had taken off that dark cloak that I hid behind and believed that indeed, all would be well. I started to believed then and I believe in it now, that the universe is here to help us if we only let it. Coincidences, the right sign, the right people, the right opportunities have come my way. It doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for all the goodness to unfold. It does mean working hard towards our vision, working hard on ourselves to figure out what it is we want and why we want it. It does mean taking whatever steps necessary, even difficult ones, to get us closer to our dreams but also trusting that by enjoying the process, being aware of and grateful for the gifts we are given every day, we will get there.

10. Get out of our own way. I had to get out of my own way, my own limiting beliefs, my own unhealthy sense of self in order to get to the life I wanted. And through the work I did on myself, the therapy, the reading, the deeper understanding of who I am, I am living a life that is more than I could have ever imagined for myself. Does this mean my life of worries is over? No. Not in the slightest. I am a mother now so it comes with the territory. I am still a work in progress and will be till the day I die. But I am building the tools to help me get better and closer to the person I wish to be. By doing the work, learning my lessons, and getting out of my own way I am making space for the unexpected miracles that have shown up for me in the past. Miracles I know will continue to show up as my life unfolds. 

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