27 People Who Taught Me Something Valuable This Year
Try guilt-free weekends.
My girlfriend loves her birthday. But she loves it for every reason except that it’s a day about her. In fact, in her big beautiful blue eyes, it’s a day about everyone else. It’s an excuse to get her favorite people together and celebrate each person who’s helped shape her life.
This year, as my 27th birthday rolls around, I want to honor those who have made me feel special. I’m incredibly grateful to each person in my life who’s taught me something profound this year.
Here’s to you.
1. I have a friend from LinkedIn who used to message me every so often. This year, I barely heard from her. But recently, she sent me a message letting me know how much my work meant to her. I told her I had no idea, and I actually thought she no longer liked reading what I had to say. To this, she replied: “Just because people don’t speak with you, it doesn’t mean they stop thinking about you. You were always in my thoughts. I just never knew the exact words to say.” People are out there thinking about you. Don’t be afraid to check in and see how they’re doing as well.
2. This year I started a 16-month accelerated Master of Social Work program at New York University to become a therapist. Halfway through our second semester, one of my classmates let us know he was taking a leave of absence to focus on his mental health. I decided to privately message him, and I apologized for what he was going through. He appreciated my message, but he asked me not to apologize. He told me there was nothing wrong with taking a break. Everybody has to go at their own pace, and his was just a little slower than others. This really made me think about my approach to school, work, and life.
3. I had a server at a restaurant recently whose Irish accent was as thick as the milkshakes he brought over to our table. By the end of the meal, we found out that not only was he a server, but he was also a part-owner. He and three friends came over from Dublin with nothing and started this restaurant and bar, which was now a local staple. When someone asked why he was our server when he was an owner of this successful spot, he said something that struck me. “If I stopped serving, so would everyone else.” He aimed to set the right example for his people. He led by doing, not telling.
4. I have a mentor whose college-age daughter surprised him for his birthday by showing up unannounced at a hotel he was staying at. When telling me about the experience, my mentor shared how it was one of the best possible gifts he could have asked for. As someone who constantly shows up for others, being shown up for was something he could barely express in words. This is something I’ll never forget.
5. My brother’s in medical school, and he finds it helpful to tell someone else what he’s learning. It helps him study and retain information. During one of our conversations, I learned about liver enzymes, alcohol’s effects on the liver, and other functions of the digestive system. But I learned much more than that. I learned that one of the best ways to learn is to teach. By empowering others with your knowledge, you gain more knowledge in return.
6. As part of my Masters, I intern in the social services world three times per week. I worked at a senior citizens center where I assisted them with healthcare, housing, and various other means. One of my clients was a gentle man in his late 80’s who lived alone and had not been out of his house since before the pandemic. Yet, each time I called, he started by saying, “it’s good to hear your voice.” Let someone else hear your voice. You never know what it could do for their spirits.
7. This year I started seeing a therapist. I’ve learned a lot from him, but one thing stands out more than anything else — there are different kinds of perfectionists. A few sessions in, he asked me if I thought I was a perfectionist. Sensing he thought I was, I heavily objected. I never stress the details, I submit work of mine after only a few proofreads, and I could care less about getting a perfect score on a test or writing the perfect paper. “So, you’re not a task-oriented perfectionist. But maybe you strive for perfection in other areas of your life?” And then it hit me. I absolutely did. I masked my desire to be socially perfect, to be behaviorally perfect, with my lack of task-oriented perfection. Maybe you’re not a perfectionist in everything you do. But maybe you do strive for perfection in something, and that something may be causing you unnecessary stress.
8. One of my grandmas has a mild case of dementia. We talked about a week ago, and she was mentioning how she knew I had a birthday coming up, but she couldn’t quite remember the day. I told her that was ok and let her know when it was. Then, I asked her if she knew how old I was turning. After a moment’s pause, some “um’s” and “hmmm’s” she finally said, “I think 27!” “You got it!” I shouted. She was so excited, she screamed “woooo” into the phone. For the rest of our chat, she kept mentioning how thrilled she was she remembered how old I was. Celebrate those little victories. Be excited about what you can do and what you still have.
9. My other grandma has been battling colon cancer for almost two years now. We got to a point where we asked if she wanted to keep doing chemo, or if she was ready to stop. After days of deliberating, she finally made her decision. “When my joys become less than my pain, I’ll stop. But right now, I have my children, my grandchildren, my friends. I’m surrounded by too much joy to give up. The pain can’t strip me of that.” Grandma still has a treatment every Tuesday and is going strong.
10. My friend has a saying. C’est la vie. So is life. I think about this a lot whenever anything unexpected happens. It’s all part of it. Fair or not, it’s all part of it.
11. Soccer has always been a major part of my life. I recently tried to start playing after a back injury, but during only my second game back, I aggravated my back again and could no longer play. After letting my teammates know, I got a message from one of them. “It was good while you were out there.” I don’t know what exactly he meant by that, but for me, it really helped. It was good to be out there, even if it was only for a game. I’m sidelined for now, but I can’t imagine how good it’ll feel again to get back out there. The wait is worth it even if the reward is only for a short time. Keep fighting.
12. I had a professor who was a huge advocate of “guilt free weekends.” She urged us to play for play’s sake. She didn’t want us to feel badly about going to the beach, even if we hadn’t yet done our assignments. She was strongly in favor of play being just as important as work. Sounds pretty good to me.
13. My grandma has a live-in nurse, and one time after visiting, my family noticed the fridge wasn’t as fully stocked as it could have been. We paid her to grocery shop after all. After confronting the aide, she calmly explained herself. In her culture, she was taught to use the most of what she had, rather than take from surplus. She showed a rotisserie chicken in the fridge, which we thought was ready to be thrown out, and explained in detail how she could make three more meals from this when we’d make none. She showed us how she used her resources carefully, rather than just throwing them away. Make the most with what you have. Don’t just go searching for more because it’s available.
14. My internship supervisor had a lot of quirks. One of my favorites was when she’d sing the word “summertime” to ground herself. It was something small, but every time she sang it, she felt calm, and so did I honestly. Try setting a cue to help bring you back to a more pleasant place. It can really help.
15. One of my friends ended a relationship this year on pretty bad terms. He knew he should have handled himself better, and it didn’t sit well with him that this person he developed such a strong connection with left with such a sour taste in her mouth. He’d already apologized a few times, but he felt like he wanted to meet with her again to clear the air. While others told him not to, he felt there was more he needed to say and more she needed to hear. Ultimately, he met with her and told her what he wanted. She could not have been more appreciative. It was the closure she needed. There’s no expiration date on things that are important. If it’s on your mind, it likely won’t just go away. Say what you need to say.
16. I don’t actually know Paula Stone Williams personally, but I sure wish I did. I’ve watched her TEDx on living as both a man and a woman five times now. In it, she reveals one of the most important sentiments about humility and empathy I have ever heard. “Honor the journey of another.” You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to even understand it. Just honor someone else’s journey. This is a powerful way to be more open-minded and open-hearted.
17. I could fill this entire list with things I learned from my mom. But one in particular takes the cake. For her birthday this year, we went to a restaurant where there was literally nothing on the menu she was interested in eating. I knew that, my brother knew that, my dad knew that. But she urged us to go anyway. She wanted us to enjoy, because to her, there was no better gift than us enjoying. She sacrificed her own enjoyment for something she loves even more — seeing the people she loves happy.
18. My dad could also fill up this list. But something he did this year, for the entirety of the year, stands out. Every Tuesday he drove my grandma to her chemotherapy treatment. He skipped work for it. He sat in traffic for it. He even got COVID because of it. But none of that mattered. He wanted to ensure her comfort on those scary trips to and from the hospital. That proves one way to spell love is S-O-N.
19. A writer I know pretty well was struggling to make a sustainable income from her work. She applied for hundreds of jobs and received several lucrative offers. After thinking about which one she wanted to accept, she turned them all down and came back to the profession she loved most — being a writer. I think she realized if she really, really needed to, something was out there for her. But for now, she shouldn’t deviate from her true purpose.
20. I often see this woman in my building with different babies and pets. I finally decided to ask her one day why this is the case, and she told me she no longer had kids or pets to take care of. She said she uses her scarcity to make others abundant. She has the ability to help, so she does. It’s that simple for her.
21. Matt Haig is not yet a friend, but I hope to one day meet him. In his incredible book, Reasons to Stay Alive I took interest in a line he shared about hatred. “Hate is a lack of imagination.” Hate is a gut reaction. It’s easy to hate. It’s more challenging to figure out what to like about someone or something. We should all be up for that challenge.
22. My co-intern taught me a lot about overcoming my passivity. She asked for what she wanted, and almost always, she got it. You’ll never get what you don’t ask for.
23. One of my golf buddies needs a heart transplant. He walks around 24/7 with a machine that keeps his current heart beating. He breathes heavily, and he talks slowly. But this doesn’t keep him off the course. This doesn’t keep him from starting a podcast. This doesn’t keep him from picking up the phone and calling people to say hello. Life keeps going. You can’t stop when something bad happens to you. You just adapt. As my other friend would say, c’est la vie.
24. My girlfriend’s grandma is a true delight. She is filled with warmth, knowledge, and wisdom. She recently wished me a happy birthday, and she said that each year, I’d find something I enjoyed more than the last. Cheers to that. I’m excited to find out what it’ll be.
25. I went on a hike with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years. While on the trail, he saw a leaf falling from the sky and he chased to try and grab it. It was something we used to do as kids. Everyone watched in bewilderment, but he couldn’t care less. He was enjoying the moment, reminding me of a wonderful childhood memory and feeling.
26. There’s a character in the show Ted Lasso named Danny Rojas, whose signature catchphrase is “football is life.” I don’t know Danny or the actor who plays him, but it feels like I do. In one episode, Danny has an existential crisis where he loses some of his love for football. Ultimately he realizes this: football is life, but it is also not life. I think that can apply to a lot of things. We need to look at things more on a spectrum rather than a binary scale. Things can be one thing one day and different another. There’s constant evolution. Nothing is set in stone.
27. The best birthdays aren’t about you. They’re about everyone in your life who’s helped make you who you are. Thanks to my girlfriend, I realize that this year more than ever.
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