Another year is over, and it’s quite hard to believe how quickly it went by. In many ways, this was the year of extremes – full of projects and challenges that really pushed me to the edge (and beyond) of what I always thought I was capable of. From the places I got to visit (10+ countries I had never been to), the projects I started, to the many opportunities that crashed into my life. If this year had a theme, I would call it the year of “unlocking myself.”
Among my highlights: certainly my photo exhibition on Iran, the opportunity to contribute to TEDxKish, visiting places like Cuba or North Korea, co-organizing a trip to Colombia for 260 of my classmates, a trip around the world that took me to 14 different countries, climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro and every single new person I got to meet this year. Despite all these high(light)s, what carries most weight is a massive sense of gratitude for this to have been another healthy and positive year in the books.
Needless to say, as action-packed as it was, it was also full of lessons to be learned. In the following, I created a quick-read list of some of my most important take-aways.
When you are aligned, you are unstoppable
My story: There were quiet a few moments this year where I saw myself doing things that were far beyond what I thought I was capable of. On top of mind are the photo exhibition (which was something I had absolutely no experience in) and the entire adventure of getting myself to Iran for the TEDx event (which was probably the craziest itinerary I ever had).
In both cases, I knew that what I was doing was a massive stretch. Yet these things felt like the right thing to do. I was eager, excited and motivated. I disregarded the naysayers and just focused on the outcome. More importantly, I was able to visualize the outcome … I didn’t know how, but I could see myself pull it off – right in front of my eyes.
The lesson: Some of the experiences of this year showed me the potential that lies within being aligned with something that I felt very passionate about. It was like the sail was aligned exactly with the direction of the wind which allowed me to speed ahead at full force. It unlocked elements of me that were always there, but never had a chance to surface. From the outside, folks would say I couldn't do it, but deep inside I knew I could. The interesting piece here is that you don’t always need to have the passion first to unlock these feelings. Sometimes you might notice these feelings which are then indicative of what you are passionate about.
Leading with Curiosity or with Vulnerability
My story: I dedicated a lot of my own time and effort this year into researching and understanding how we as humans can build more lasting, memorable and meaningful relationships with each other. Apart from a lot of articles and speeches, I tested a lot of different ideas myself. From my Smarttalk questions that can help chat up strangers to different ways of engaging with classmates (e.g., Walks & Talks).
Stanford in particular, was a great environment for me to test and understand what types of social approaches work and which don’t. At first I thought the 400 of us would be “similar enough” for me to be able to connect with them all through one single approach, but I soon realized that this wasn’t the case. While many of my articles were about leading conversations with a strong sense of curiosity, I soon realized that this doesn’t work 100% of the time.
The lesson: In addition to “Leading with Curiosity,” which I describe as a genuine interest in the other person’s life (their collective memories, experiences, and feelings), there is another approach which I would describe as “Leading with Vulnerability.” I saw that while being interested and curious is generally appreciated, it can come across as nosy/imposing. I saw how some people became defensive as a result – it really is a personality thing. Instead, a different approach that seemed to work was to lead conversations with vulnerability – by sharing things that would expose me a bit, yet which set the right stage of "approachability." And by vulnerability, I don’t only mean stories in which one comes across weak, but even a simple question like “this is something I want to learn from you” can create a sense of "subordination," and thus, vulnerability.
The high return on taking small risks
My story: Some years ago I had this idea that “each year of my life would have to be better than the previous one,” a thought that was inspired by Google’s early-days hiring practice: “each hire needs to be better than you.” Looking back on the last 3-4 years, I can certainly say that I “managed” to live by this principle. Each year “felt better” (measured in how active I was, fulfilled I felt, meaningful connection I made, etc.) than the previous one.
As I was thinking about my goals for 2016, I sat down and started to write down a list of all the things I wanted to do (and wanted to do more than in 2015). Yet soon enough, I realized that some of the best things that happened to me in 2015 were not things I could have ever planned. There is no way that at the end of 2014, I could have ever captured, planned, or predicted some of the best things that happened to me throughout 2015.
The lesson: I realized that the only reason why so many great things happened in 2015 was not because I planned them, but because I had the right attitude. The attitude was that I was willing to take small risks, here and there, and thus unlock high returns. For example, the only reason I got invited to speak at TEDx was because I dared to invite someone to my exhibition that I had never met (I messaged her like a creep yet she believed me and came). The only reason I got to party backstage with Robin Schulz at his show in Buenos Aires was because I dared to start a conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the plane. None of these things I could have been planned, but with the attitude of wanting to take small risks, I was able to unlock big returns and thus make it a great year.
2015, thanks! 2016, bring it on!