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2021 - The year I grew up

Like many, I like to take a moment towards the end of the year, and look back at what happened during the past 12 months, usually with a positive outlook, giving me a chance to appreciate the many achievements, opportunities, discoveries and happy moments. Those moments of reflection were usually quite rich, up until 2019 - probably the year to top them all, with my amazing, and prolonged, 40th celebrations, gatherings with my dearest friends and family, far-flung travels and discoveries, etc. The last two years have obviously been very different to look back at, and while last year got us to come to terms and adapt to "these unprecedented times", this year's constant sway between hope and set backs has often led to what Adam Grant has defined as a state of languishing.

With all of that said, I won't either be the only one to try and find the positive aspects to take away from 2021. And in my case, this has to do with a transformation in the way I see the world - yep, nothing less.. By that, I mean two things in particular:

  • Learning to listen to my own feelings and senses, trust them, and stop dismissing them

  • Understanding that we all have an opportunity to make an impact and drive change that matters in the world, no matter how big or small

So far, so woolly... Let me explain a little more.

In the words of the wise Roxette : "Listen to your heart, there's nothing else you can do"

Undeniably, my studies in Organisational Psychology all through the year have been a big influence in how my way of seeing the world around me has evolved. Suddenly, certain phenomena, and ideas about how reality is perceived or constructed, and the subjectivity surrounding many things that are taken for granted in everyday life, and work, all this which had only been vague thoughts I had been pondering about during my commute, or other time prone to deep thinking, were being talked about, had names, had fascinating literature about them. Even better, we were being encouraged to explore them in depth, challenging mainstream theories and views. Not only was that enriching, intellectually stimulating, but it also built a great deal of confidence to pursue trains of thoughts which I would have, before, just seen as me being a bit wacky.

Put differently, what this helped develop is a trust in my own thoughts and beliefs. A confidence to stop myself from just dismissing outright certain ideas and principles which take me away from a comfortable path of conformity or acceptance. Effectively, the very simple idea that if something (a situation, a feeling, an exchange) doesn't feel right, it isn't "just me", and it is worth sticking with this feeling and addressing it, the same way you wouldn't ignore a physical pain, and would instead act upon it.

Practically, I felt this in many different ways this year. For example, COP 26 has given many of us an opportunity to reflect more deeply about climate change and our carbon footprint - an urgent debate which had somewhat felt derailed by the pandemic. I wrote a separate article about this a few weeks back, where I mentioned the dilemmas involved, especially in terms of overproduction and consumerism. While I am yet to educate myself further on certain aspects to be better informed, I stand by an initial belief that only a radical change in our way of living and consuming patterns, and reliance on global supply chains, is essential for us to stand a chance in making the change we need. In the past, thoughts like these would cross my mind, and rapidly be driven away (people would never want to give up on cheap merchandise mass produced half way around the world, or to have out-of-season fruit from the southern hemisphere, right?), whereas I am now much more keen to accept these as my views, think them through and explore them in more detail, even if just for my own interest at this stage.

At a much more micro level, listening to what feels right or wrong and acting upon it can be as easy as making simple decisions. For example, at work, a few words on a presentation which do not feel quite right; it may not be an obvious and far reaching issue, yet not letting go of it could have some positive unexpected consequences, if anything stop you from having this niggle in your head about it, consuming your energy). Or juggling work and life commitments; this 6pm conference call invite you have just received at the end of what is already a busy day, rather than begrudgingly accepting it, you might just make everyone a big service by asking to assess its urgency and whether an alternative can be found.

In short, it is a consciousness that if something feels wrong to you, there is a reason for it. And it shouldn't matter whether this is a deeply personal reason or personal motivation, it absolutely deserves to be considered rather than dismissed.

Change the world? Sounds exhausting...

This second point is a natural follow on from the first one of allowing yourself to follow your thoughts, beliefs and values. For the best part of my life so far, I have sought to avoid getting into debates relating to big issues such as injustice, politics, environment, etc. There are a few different reasons for this. One is that I am not one to search for conflict, and getting into conversations on polarising topics presents an element of risk which I often wasn't prepared to take, for fear of the discussion heating up. But mostly, I had seemed to adopt a principle whereby I wouldn't get involved in matters which were out of my control, and for which I didn't feel I could make a significant enough difference. Instead, my focus has always been on what was in my direct sphere of influence. That is, supporting people around me, be empathetic to them, and do what I can to help; support bigger causes through what I could tangibly do, which was mostly fundraising (rather than entering any debate myself); generally being mindful of my direct impact on my own bubble, which I thought to be much more realistic than trying to get more engaged on the bigger issues of the world.

So what caused this to start to change? Again, there is definitely something about my studies which contributed to this, through reading, hearing and talking about some of the systemic issues which drive unfairness and inequality for example. Of course, this year's events have greatly contributed to deepening my thinking. These were world events such as the continuation of the pandemic, and its impact on people; environmental debates, especially around COP 26 (sadly gone a little quieter again now); the migration crisis, and situation in Afghanistan, and how we too often forget that under these banners there are hundreds of thousands of individual life stories of unbearable despair. What I started to realise this year, relating back to my earlier point, was the way I physically feel when I read or watch stories on these matters: I can feel my chest tightening up, to the point I almost get short of breath, a sensation, relating to feelings of anger, sadness or frustration, which I make a point of being mindful of now, rather than waiting for it to pass.

Of course, some personal events of the year also contributed to this change, the most significant being my partner's hospitalisation and open heart surgery, as things like these reset our sense of priority, and sensitivities to what happens around us; but also through my work with graduates through the year and hearing about things that mattered to them, realising that many were willing to take a stand on world issues, at a stage of their career when I would have probably only just focused on staying afloat trying to do my job.

In effect, what really change for me then? Well I see it more as the start of a different way of thinking, and of being concerned about societal issues. Starting writing has already been a part of it, as it allows me to publicly express certain views and opinions. And I am very mindful that this in itself isn't going to change the world, however this is where I have also started changing my views; none of us will single-handedly resolve any of these big issues, and I now feel that it is worth (even essential) not to avoid making a contribution to the debate, as small as it might be. Writing something on a social media post or blog, expressing a view on a conference call, influencing some small change in working practices, all of these things might be small stones which could have far reaching ripple effects - or in another analogy, they could be a small brick which will strengthen the foundations on which we build a better, fairer and healthier world.

Looking ahead to 2022, all of these considerations are definitely coming with me into the new year, and I would expect them to grow, and to look for further ways to put them into practice. One word of caution that should come with this, which I also started to notice this year, is that being more in tune, and personally involved, with such big issues, can take its toll on your mental health, and indeed in the same spirit of listening to your head and body, it is important to realise when it is time to take a moment to focus on yourself. And as well as a good time for reflection, the final days of the year is also a good time to do just that.

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