Giving thanks to 2021: Silver linings for a difficult year

I am a silver linings person.  Ever since I was young, I have believed that things happen for a reason and that most bad things carry positive outcomes.  I firmly believe the universe offers us balance, and I understand that it’s up to us to find goodness in even the most awful things.  I learned early on that it’s hard for me to wallow for too long, even when I want to, and that somehow, a shimmer of light will appear in even the darkest of spaces.  It is true that sometimes, even I, the eternal optimist, need help seeing the light… but I will seek out the help I need because I remain true to my quest.  2021 brought its share of challenges for me, just as for everyone else.  Some of these, of course, were extensions of 2020 and the persistence of covid.  Others were brand new obstacles that stood all alone, defiantly trying to impede progress.   My son practiced Kung Fu when he was young, getting his black belt after about 10 years.  I learned from him that the key to Kung Fu was not to meet blow with blow, but rather, to harness the energy behind each blow and redirect it.  As a practice, this makes defending oneself against an opponent much easier, and in this way, the defender is always in charge.  As a philosophy, I hold fast to the idea that we cannot control many of the challenges that come our way, however we can control how we respond to them.  It is tempting to dwell on the things that have gone wrong, but I find solace in the search for the silver lining.  And considering all the challenges of this past year, those bright edges abound. 

Here are four of my main takeaways from 2021. 

On Connection.  Thanks to a well-timed sabbatical, I have spent the last year and a half working through zoom – planning and leading professional learning, studying, coaching, developing ideas, building networks and websites, writing a book, and just connecting with people.  While zoom fatigue is indeed a very real thing, I also believe that the ability to bring someone into your personal space (even virtually) adds a dimension to connection that might not otherwise happen.  There is no icebreaker like sitting in my son’s room and explaining to someone I have never met that the black shapes on the wall behind me are the formula one circuits around the world, and that my son has followed F1 religiously since the lockdown in March 2020.  I have developed close, meaningful relationships with people I have never even met, and ironically, although being on sabbatical meant I had no physical place of work to go to, I have felt more genuinely connected than ever before.  While working day in and day out, I didn’t realize just how shallow my relationships were, and it took stepping away from my daily environment to understand what I was missing.  As I prepare to take a new job in 2022, this is a learning I carry with me.  I thrive when I am challenged and growing alongside people I care about and who care about me. 

On Self-worth.  Writing a book on leadership development for women (https://raiseherup.net/) and learning how to talk about myself as I interviewed for many leadership positions was good for me.  I learned to value my strengths as my own, independent from my workplace or my peers.  I also learned to celebrate my experiences, learnings, and accomplishments.  Over the course of this year, I applied for over 120 leadership roles.  With every new recruiter I spoke to, every interview I had, I was faced with questions I hadn’t had to answer before.  The harder the interview, the more I learned about myself.  My year culminated in interviewing for an unexpected job at an unexpected place, and it was an incredible experience.  With all that I had learned, I showed up to this last set of interviews authentically me – honestly and transparently speaking about what makes me me, and at the same time, with gratitude and appreciation for others.  I fell in love with the job description, the potential, the people, and the place; and what’s more, I loved the person that emerged in these interviews and who I knew I could be.  For many years, I didn’t think I could afford to be flawed, and so I hid behind an image that I felt I needed to project.  I have realized throughout the last year that my strengths actually lie in my ability to learn from the past, and that means that I have to be willing to acknowledge when things didn’t always go as planned – either personally or professionally.   I was able to do that on a personal level – it’s how I started my blog, Ebb and Flow back in 2010 – and in the last year, I have learned to do that professionally as well.  That deeper understanding of who I have become and why has served me well.

On Success.  As an extension of my developing sense of self, I have learned a lot about leadership and success, and what these mean to me.  I have finally realized that I do best when I strive to achieve success not as others have defined it, but rather, as it best suits me.   I got the job, by the way – the unexpected one.  I recently told one of my zoom friends (a recruiter I have known for several years who has become like a mentor to me):   This role was never on my list of possibilities.  In fact, I was a bit put off at first because it wasn’t a “Head of School” role.  I was so focused on the traditional titles usually associated with leadership, that I didn’t give myself the chance to explore positions that would continue to challenge me in growth while actually bringing me joy.  When I didn’t get the position back in October (see my article on LinkedIn, Why I didn’t get the job), especially after the emotional and spiritual investment in the whole process down to the last detail, I was thrown and had to regroup.  I’m quite focused and stubborn, and I internally interpreted moving away from a Headship possibility as “failure” or “quitting”.  Eventually, I started listening to the fact that my heart and mind were actually telling me something different.  Success wasn’t going to be defined what would have made other people proud, but rather, by doing what would fulfill me, where I felt I could make the greatest impact.  A gift I have is supporting people, helping them be their best, and making them look good.  And that is not a sign of “second best”, but rather that is quite simply where my leadership comes out.  This year, I have learned to honor my own strengths, and that means defining success as it feels right to me and me alone.  

On Reflection.  Officially, I began my sabbatical in August 2020.  About a year later, I decided to continue working from home, staying focused on continuing my professional learning and personal growth while at the same time pursuing the right kind of leadership role for me.  The following is an excerpt of a piece I have been working on throughout this year as I have taken time to reflect on what I have learned so far.  

About 6 months into my sabbatical, I was circling a deep, dark depression.  Circling, because I didn’t want to let myself head down that hole, but I was so, so close, and it felt like the tiniest misstep would have me tumbling into that place where the light rarely shines and the most basic of actions (getting out of bed, brushing your teeth) feel pointless.  I had already begun to give up on showering every day, telling myself that there was no point – I hadn’t done anything that day, so why waste the effort.  It didn’t matter to me that showering in the literal sense was important.  Hygiene is always important.  But in the figurative sense, showering was a way of getting rid of the dirty, the negative, the things that weighed me down, and the clean, fresh water would allow me to feel renewed.  But for me there was no renewal.  I found no satisfaction in showering.  So I sometimes didn’t do it. 

When I started working with a coach, I felt helpless and at the same time trapped in a kind of purgatory that kept me busy all of the time so that I wouldn’t feel the loss.  I had lost my direction, a vision of my future, my faith in my abilities, my sense of security.  I raced into my sabbatical carrying a years-long accumulation of burnout with the added layer of COVID exhaustion, and so I courageously dove into what I hoped would be a sea of glorious tranquility, in desperate need of some healing rest and relaxation.  I crashed into the waters with such force that what had looked like an inviting oasis broke apart into a thousand pieces.  I came up gasping for air, and was surrounded by broken glass, everywhere.  The impact created waves that I was unprepared for as I’ve never been a strong swimmer.  I crawled, butterflied, breast-stroked for as long as I could, but the water was deep and those shards of glass wanted to rip right through me.  So I did everything I could to stay afloat.  When I was five years old, my dad thought the best way to teach me to swim was to throw me in the pool.  Luckily, my brother – who was barely 8 and already knew his way around a pool – was there to help.  This was not like that.  I scanned the water frantically for some kind of help, but there was nothing I could grab on to.  I found myself flailing my arms desperately, grasping at anything that floated by, but nothing was strong enough to hold me.  I was terrified and I was alone.   

I can say this with all honesty:  As I look back on the first half of my sabbatical, had I known that it would have been so devastating to my confidence, faith, and sense of self, I might not have taken it.  But, I have learned a lot out at sea.  I remain a poor swimmer, and I have had to lean on other strengths.  Over time, little by little, some of the most cutting shards of glass have sunken slowly to the bottom, finding a new home there as they fade away.  There are still pieces all around me, but the water is calmer, like the Gulf Coast in springtime.  The waves still come, but if I lie on my back and allow myself to float freely, my whole body moves rhythmically with the water and I’m less afraid.  Once in a while, a raft will float by that I can hold onto. I imagine these to be gifts from the Universe, giving me a moment to catch my breath.  They are always too small to carry me for long, but they bring me moments of peace, glimmers of hope.  

I sense that the wait is getting shorter, although I could be wrong.  It’s hard to know just how much longer I’ll be out here, but I do know this.  The pieces floating around me are all there for a reason.  Each of them carries a part of me – of my life, my past, my character, my values, my strengths, my weaknesses.  In them are lessons learned, or waiting to be learned.  Soon, I’ll feel the sand on my toes and realize that the water is only chest deep.  I’ll look up, breathe, maybe cry even, and then slowly walk toward the shore.  Before that happens, though, I am going to embrace the time I have left in the water, and figure out which of those pieces, now smoother around the edges, I will take with me. 

Sabbaticals are not uncommon, but they really ought to be encouraged more.  Having targeted, intentional time to reflect, to grow, to take risks, to connect with others to reflect should not be a luxury, rather, it should be a requirement at certain moments in our lives.  A gap year after high school or college or a sabbatical in the middle of one’s professional career – these should be commonplace.  As intelligent, emotional and social beings, we need time to reflect in order to continue to grow and be of service to one another.  My own reflections have resulted in writings about faith, courage, service, time, integrity, vulnerability, connection, breathing, serenity, gratitude, curiosity, grace, and authenticity.  

As you step into the new year, I wish for you the chance to create genuine connections with people who both challenge you and lift you up.  I hope that you set out to live a life that is aligned with your values, where the success you seek is the one that brings you the most joy.   I hope you give yourself the gift of purposeful time and self-compassion, where you intentionally reflect on your life with the goal of growth, acceptance and love for who you have been, who you are, and who you want to become.   And finally, do tell yourself you can be better – but first, accept that you’re already pretty amazing, and learn to articulate why.

Here’s to a new year full of love, learning, and silver linings.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

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