2017 Year in Review / by Cassandra Lam

I attribute my inspiration for this post to the annual tradition of being digitally bombarded with all sorts of lists about the moments, people, and media that defined that particular year. As someone who personally struggles with remembering what she did last weekend, nonetheless 6 months ago, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to document some of my discoveries, works-in-progress, and reflections as I begin to set my intentions for 2018. I'm already looking forward to reading this one year later as I'm hopefully drafting my 2018 Year in Review. There's a really weird adrenaline rush that comes with observing a temporally bounded chapter of your own life from a distance with an outsider's perspective. 

I've never believed in New Year's resolutions because why not live your best life daily? But I do believe deeply in designing the life that you want, including the unsexy work of laying a solid and strong foundation for your dreams to unfold. You can't reap what you sow if you're planting your seeds haphazardly in shallow and unfertilized soil! And with joyful exception to the experience of being hangry and wondering when your Seamless order will arrive just as the doorbell rings, nothing great ever happened by making a wish while sitting on your ass.

Theme of the Year

One theme has emerged over and over in my life this year - the importance of disconnecting to reconnect. I first mentioned this on Instagram when I returned from the Amazon Rainforest because it was topical after a couple days without cell service and WiFi. I knew in advance that would be the case during our stay and in fact welcomed the brief reprieve from hyper-accessibility. What I didn't expect was that it would be harder than easy breezy. The funny thing is that it wasn't the actual inability to contact or be contacted that bothered me; it was the in-your-face realization of all the ways I rely on my smartphone as a crutch. Rendered useless except for photos or journaling, my sneaky phone still found its way into my hands at unexpected moments. Sometimes, it would take more than a few seconds before I even noticed. I recognized then that my smartphone is a habit and a reliable source of distraction that my autopilot brain has been trained to crave. I've read and scoffed at many articles claiming the dangers of being slave to your devices, but I never believed it could be me! It's humbling to be proven wrong.

To extend this concept beyond devices, I've been personally exploring the art of purposely breaking life as we know it apart, especially when we recognize that it no longer serves us in its current state. Change can be uncomfortable, but shattering routine, normalcy, and comfort frees you up to rearrange the pieces into something new of your own making. Whenever I feel internal turmoil and friction bubbling up, I know I'm about to face a great shift. I consider the discomfort a reminder of our innate unknowable power and potential to create, build, and empower our future right here, right now, within ourselves.  It's a profound exercise in willpower and fortitude, but incredibly inspiring if you can overcome. 

Evolution comes in many forms and many times over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes it's forced by fate, but many times, it's the consequence of decisions we make. There’s infinite power and potential when you recognize that you need not wait for it - whatever it may be - to simply happen to you. At any given moment, we can choose to let what is old, stagnant, or toxic die to make space for the future. Rebirth is within our two hands and always just around the corner. 

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Highlights

  • Traveled throughout Brazil (my first jaunt in South America) with my best friend Reena Choudhry, where we developed a penchant for caipirinhas, witnessed the most intense thunderstorm in the Amazon Rainforest, and met Chef Alex Atala after a spectacular meal at D.O.M
  • Completed an 18-month fellowship with Revive the Dream Institute, an education nonprofit that develops emerging community leaders into education advocates
  • Authored a case study on the politics of public school funding in Vermont that was published by Edbuild in Making Change: Favorable Conditions for Education Finance Reform
  • Competed in Opera Open Semifinals (my company's internal innovation competition) where our team presented an app-based solution to provide electric vehicle drivers with optimized charging station recommendations
  • Took a leap of faith to pursue my first big passion project with Akin: digital storytelling platform that collects and elevates anonymous short stories 
  • Piloted and launched Communally by Akin: an intentional dinner series to bring Akin's mission to life by building community centered on practices of vulnerability, empathy, and storytelling
  • Recorded a fun interview with my friend Matt Scott for Let's Care where we discussed unexpected career trajectory changes, finding purpose, and the ups & downs of growing your passion project
  • Befriended the lovely Karen Mok, a fellow creator + storyteller + community builder, who is now also my partner behind a soon-to-be-announced initiative for AAPI women focused on tackling the question, "What does it look like for Asian American women to flourish and thrive?"
  • Maintained a dedicated yoga practice as I entered my 4th year as a lifelong student, found my wellness/spiritual family through Woom Center, and contemplated the right time to undergo yoga teacher training 

Lessons

1. Treat gratitude like Sriracha and put that shit on everything!


Think of your favorite sauce or seasoning. How does it change the taste of your food? What's enhanced or elevated in your experience of eating? Everything is somehow better, even if the kitchen made a mistake and your mashed potatoes were a little cold, right?

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I began treating gratitude as a serious and intentional practice this year. It stemmed from a feeling of finally hitting my stride in New York, which emboldened me to put myself out there in a ways I had never done before. Three years ago, I could not have done any of the things I did this year. I simply wasn't capable given my physical, mental, and emotional state of affairs. So what changed?

I realized that the people I surround myself with are my source of power.

They are endlessly inspiring, funny, talented, creative, supportive, and best of all, seriously fun to be around. By being themselves and sharing their lives with me, I am empowered to be myself too. When I started to notice how good this all felt, it became easy to recognize how my community impacts me and how many teachers I have all around at any given moment. Taking the perspective that I am and will always be a student, willing to learn from anyone and anything in front of me on my journey of self-discovery, I can't help but overflow with thanks. It's become my personal duty to inject love into each hug, handshake, or smile I share with the people who make me feel abundant.

In most things, there is virtue in moderation but when it comes to gratitude, I'm shamelessly overzealous. Seasoning my life daily with it has been life-changing and I believe it shows in my demeanor. If you need a visual, imagine those frustratingly crappy pepper shakers that release just 5 specks per shake. They're annoying and useless because nobody wants just 5 specks - you always want more! Rip off the top of the shaker AKA the barrier keeping all those wonderful specks of gratitude pepper out and shake happily away! 

2. Time and attention can be created, but never taken back. Use with care and good intentions!

 

Whatever your creative outlet or side hustle, I learned this year that if you're working on something outside of your full-time job, your concept of time, free or busy, will radically change. It simply must be spent a lot differently than before. Sure, this sounds glaringly obvious, but in reality, it's pretty freakin' hard to adjust to. I waved the transition away easily at first because I likened it to cramming for finals week in college while friends who finished exams earlier got to enjoy the break.

However, unlike college which provided a structure to follow, your 5-9 time slot is what you make of it. No one's holding you accountable except yourself, and self-discipline is hard because you can push the guilt away for later. In practice, it requires daily sacrifices - saying no to others in order to say yes to yourself, using weekends as work time, scheduling phone calls and hang outs in advance, and being a bit more unreachable than you might like to carve out space to create.

Naturally, I frequently found myself feeling drained, lonely, or exhausted. But I also discovered a new appreciation for the concept of time and attention that made me more mindful, thoughtful, and present. Now, whenever I make plans with people, it feels extra special because it's a decision I am consciously making in alignment with my goals.

3. Self-care is not a joke; it's a survival tactic.


I'm a chronic over-committer who constantly struggles to strike a balance between what I need to do for myself and what I want to do for other people. I've always known that being around people makes me happy, but I'm still trying to figure out what that ideal composition of personal vs. social should be. There were a few times this year when I had to last minute or near last minute pull out of a commitment that I realized was a disservice to my well-being or an overextension of my energy. I really dislike doing that to other people out of respect for their time so I'd like to continue fine-tuning this balance.

I'd also like to factor in time to process and formulate opinions on various aspects of my life as part of my self-care routine. I tend to careen headfirst in the fast lane as that's my default pace for all things in life. It can be an exciting way to live but, as it turns out, really shitty for reflection and learning.
 

4. Sleep is not for the weak; it's for the wise.


It's official and I can no longer deny what my body needs - I realized this year that I need 8-9 hours of sleep per night to operate at my optimal level. Given the nature of my full-time job, my unwillingness to give up my evening yoga practice, and the projects I'm involved in, it's proven awfully tricky to get into bed at a decent and consistent hour.

I started using the Sleep Cycle app to monitor my sleeping patterns and train myself to wake up on the right side of the bed (i.e. not in REM state). It's improved my mental focus and chances of being clear-headed enough for creative work in the hours before my full-time job. However, as a naturally nocturnal person, I struggle with putting things down in the evenings and pay for my stubbornness in the mornings when I'm chugging caffeine like nobody's business. My sleep schedule should reflect my priorities or else I'm choosing to operate at less than my full potential, which sounds outright silly when I say it aloud.

5. The most important job you'll ever have is to become yourself.


Everything that's happened this year forced me to look inward for strength and ultimately, peace. I am as Type A as they come and am used to operating with a belief that I can plan for everything that life hurls at me. So it took a tough year like 2017 to really clarify a truth that I've been in denial of since birth - we can't control anything in the world except for ourselves. This includes how we choose to perceive things that happen to us, how we react vs. act, and what we hold onto vs. let go of. Contrary to belief, surrendering to this ultimate truth is not a sign of weakness or giving up. It's an embrace of what actually is as opposed to what we think or feel. It's laser focus on what actually matters without being misguided by feelings or expectations. It's self-preservation when we choose only to allocate time, energy, and attention to what we can actionably do to move forward.

I've been trying to learn how to get out of my own way by clearing the blockages or superficial distractions that used to dominate my life. Instead of letting my expectations rule my life, I'm coming to terms with the fact that none of us really know what's best for us in the moment since we can't look into the future. By making space mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, what I truly need can make its way to me.

Anthem

2017 has undoubtedly been a year of fights on many fronts. This song is consistently at the top of my playlist because it illustrates the catharsis that awaits when you break through a struggle. It's great to listen to whenever you need a little reminder of your own strength or if you want to flip the bird at something (or someone) standing in your way.