Back in college, my stoner neighbour once rattled off this spiel about the brain treating life as a movie. He argued that when we die, the last thing we see is a kaleidoscope of memories rewinding before us, reminding us of what we learned along the way.
I kind of bought into his idea. I mean, after a party, you don't remember the whole thing, right? Your memory filters out specific funny moments and what you learned about certain people. The same applies when anything's over - relationships, high school, trips - all that remain are the faces that mattered and what you shared together.
So whenever this time of year rolls around and I'm getting reflective on what this year taught me, or what I can attempt to do better next year (as always: more exercise, less worry, more comfort-zone-exiting, less overanalysing) - I notice the random highlights that stick with me, the moments which remind me of the obvious 'lessons' I want to hold onto going forwards.
1. Travel while you're young.
January, some bar in Chicago: the twang of "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" on the jukebox at 2am, while hanging out with Steve (a ridiculously talented writer I've been working with) and his ridiculously friendly midwestern friends. There's something about floating around the world while you're young, soaking up different cultures while you have no responsibilities, that makes you feel more ready to grow up once you figure out where to land. Or maybe that's just me.
Honestly, I can't remember what we talked about, but I remember really enjoying the evening. For a second, on the way home in the cab (and this could have been the vodka) I imagined some version of myself living in Chicago, working for a media publication or web startup, living with a creative boyfriend and hanging out with our friendly midwestern friends.
Travel opens you up to the parallel lives that you're never going to experience; corners where you'll forever be unwritten.
2. You are your commitments.
February, on Skype: my best friend telling me that she had just finished the book that I hadn't been able to shut up about for the past month, having read it in preparation for a speech I gave at her wedding. Timothy Keller's The Meaning of Marriage pitches marriage not as a destination or a status marker but as a vehicle through which we become our highest self. Keller argues that commitment means surrendering to something more important than your ego; that you choose the adult you become through what (and whom) you devote yourself to.
Why was The Meaning of Marriage so (Dad joke ahead) especially meaning-ful? Well, despite my ovaries, marriage has always scared me a little. (By a little, I mean a lot.) Maybe because marriage signifies finality and indirectly alludes to being a step closer to death.
The book rewired my thinking. ("Marriage is the beginning! Not the ending.") I found Keller very persuasive.
3. There's always someone else, but never another them.
March, a street in East London: kissing on the street, outside the restaurant where a date and I had just had dinner. No matter how much you think you're never going to meet someone who eclipses the last guy you fell for, you always do. Then again, you never get the same guy twice: nobody can ever replace the way that he spoke to you, the way that he made you feel. But there are always better guys out there (for you).
I used to think that if a relationship broke down - or failed to launch - that it was somebody's fault. Now I see that sometimes there doesn't have to be a reason.
The older you get, the more you see guys you were previously crazy attracted to morphing into people who are better suited to others. It makes you realise that episodes that once made you cry can often turn out to be signposts that you're heading in the right direction.
4. The lean startup approach works.
April, The Hub Westminster London: feeling awed by our instructor on the opening evening of our inaugural Startup MBA intake. The program was born because of a simple customer interview, and its evolution taught me that deeply listening to customers leads you to designing products that they actually want and will buy.
I read The Lean Startup ages ago and loved it. This year, my inner startup nerd loved being able to put those theories into practice. I really believe in using customer feedback to iterate towards product-market fit, although I know it's very anti-Steve-Jobs' "people don't know what they want until you create it for them" mentality.
This year, I became more of a Steve Blank than a Steve Jobs fan anyway.
5. Goals trump dreams.
May, the Nike 'We Own the Night' run: jogging beside one of my best friends during a nighttime 10km. This was literally a walk in the park for her, as she runs half-marathons for fun (I, on the other hand, do not). As I huffed and puffed beside her, I was reminded of how inspiring/amazing she is: she sets goals, she gets things done. I love that about her.
She reminds me that dreams live only in our hearts. Unless we translate them into targets, they risk never becoming real. Until we externalise dreams into goals, they become safe illusory places to hide whenever reality's not working out that well for us.
Goals, on the other hand, have deadlines and a relationship with our calendars. The people I most admire tend to do an excellent job of turning visions into goals.
6. True friends bully you.
June, my couch in London: hitting 'send' while sitting at home at 1am. I was in my underwear; I'd forgotten to eat dinner for maybe the third night in a row because I was so hyped up on creative adrenalin - but I'd finished my first book.
I finished it because my friends got sick of me going on and on about this 'book' that I was working on, and they made a pact: if I didn't complete the damn thing and email it to them by June 20th, they would organise parties without me where they'd do all my favourite activities (e.g. karaoke), and would not only forbid me from attending but would also take countless photos and tag me in them on Facebook. They would also kill one baby seal per day over deadline.
The lesson: good friends care enough to hit you up if they think you're selling yourself short.
7. Home is wherever your favourite people are.
July, a West Village apartment: lying on a couch as my best friend from Auckland made me cheese and crackers, a gesture that weirdly reminded me that no matter how far away she and I lived from each other, some things would never change.
There was a point this summer where ten friends all happened to be in Manhattan at the same time. So for that blissful week, I had my favourite people in one of my favourite cities. I realised that I could move anywhere in the world and as long as certain people were around, I would be right where I needed to be.
Home isn't just a place; it's a feeling you get. It's the sense of belonging and being whole, knowing that you'd be missed if you were gone.
8. Only you know what's best for you.
August, a beach in Ireland: strolling along the sand with my parents, realising that their opinion still mattered to me but nowhere near as much as my own did.
At that point, I'd spent months calculating where I should live next year (after my UK visa expired). I'd been weighing up various jobs, cities, scenarios, feeling like my mind was that screen from Minority Report. Eventually I landed on the scenario that felt right to me.
While you should seek out multiple perspectives, nobody else's advice really matters in the end. Ultimately you're the only one stuck with the choices you make.
9. Whenever possible, work with people you enjoy.
September, Escape the City HQ: sitting in the sun at lunchtime with the Esc team and feeling very lucky to be working with people I actually really liked.
We can't always choose our colleagues. But past experiences had taught me that Devil-Wears-Prada type colleagues are like emotional vampires - no matter how amazing the project is, if the other people working on it suck, they in turn suck the energy out of you and it's hard to stay wholly motivated.
Conversely, stumbling upon a work situation that brings out the best in you is like being in a relationship that always lifts your spirits: if you're lucky enough to find it, you should be smart enough to hold onto it.
10. You chase what you cherish and you become what you chase.
October, Chancery Lane: tottering along in high heels after another job opportunity danced in front of me, questioning whether a higher salary would be worth abandoning the startup projects that had become increasingly important to me.
A good job is one that allows you a good life. What constitutes a 'good' job (or life) is obviously subjective. To me, working with smart, inspiring people on meaningful challenges has always felt more exciting than working for money and money alone.
Money matters up to a certain point, but beyond that, other things matter far more.
11. Sometimes things fall apart so that they can come together again.
November, my brother's room in Hong Kong: hanging out with my brother as I visited him at my parents' place. He has always been my best friend and it was through him that I realised how dark some of my thoughts had gotten around the process I was going through in terms of deciding where to live next year. He reminded me that part of what I wanted to do with my career was to help people through transitions.
He said, "You have to see this as life's training program for you. This is your major transition, and you have to go through your own pain in order to help others through theirs." He also pointed out that all the crap that he and I had ever seen each other go through had always led to clarity in the end.
Maybe there's no kaleidoscope of moments when you die, but if there is, there's only ever one spectator, a sole judge determining what makes it worth watching in reverse. There's a lonely liberation that comes with that realisation.
Sometimes that makes me want to run away, back to a time when things seemed simpler; but this year I accepted that there are some things we cannot outrun. Like the words of a stoner neighbour, whose name I can barely remember, even though I once made him an ice cream cake for his birthday.