Isn’t time an interesting thing? It’s been almost 10 years since I graduated from high school but it feels like only yesterday that I was having meat pies and chocolate milk with my friends at lunch time.
Reflecting on that near decade, I feel that I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had such a wide array of experiences. I’ve had the opportunity to study in New Zealand, Spain and the USA; and work has led me to countless places, from the negotiating tables of the World Trade Organisation, to multilateral meetings in the sunny winemaking regions of Argentina, and even to earthquake-stricken Christchurch as part of the emergency response team. Together with talented and like-minded individuals, I’ve started businesses and not-for-profit organisations, and turned hobbies into international start-up projects. And all along the way, I have met unbelievably inspiring people who have taught me some unforgettable lessons.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if my high school self knew the things that I know now. Would I have done anything differently?
If I could summarise 10 lessons that I’ve learnt since my time at high school, I think they might look something like this:
1. Take baby steps.
Thinking about how to achieve your “dream life” can be a pretty daunting task. It can make you feel like an ant at the foot of Mt. Everest. How in the world are you going to make it to the top? For me, I like to break it down and think of it like a car with its low beams on in heavy fog. Sometimes you can only see a few metres in front of you, but as long as you know you’re going generally in the right direction, you trust the low beam and drive ahead. As you’re driving, you will see the next few metres, and then the next – and before you know it, you will have arrived at your destination. So figure out what that “dream life” of yours looks like, take baby steps in the general right direction, and just trust that the fog lights will guide your way. If you slightly veer off the main road at times, that’s okay too. As long as you know what mountain you’re climbing, the rest will be as good as gold.
2. Share your goals.
Whether it’s an academic, professional or personal goal, I find that if you share them with your friends and family, you become much more invested in achieving them. Perhaps it’s because you suddenly become accountable not only to yourself, but to your loved ones as well. Ask them to touch base with you in a few months time to see how you’ve progressed, and maybe set specific rewards and consequences for those milestones. Or maybe you could start an invite-only blog where you update your progress in real time, and ask your closest friends and family to support you through the process. (Listen to this TEDx talk for some inspiration) I like to keep a whiteboard hanging at the entrance of my house, where I write the goals I want to achieve for the next 2-3 months. When family and friends come over, they write comments and leave me notes on the whiteboard. That way, every time I come home, I’m reminded to keep chugging ahead.
3. Invest in people.
My mum always said that people, and the relationships you foster with them, are your biggest assets. My experience so far has echoed her words. No matter where you are or what you are doing – respect those before you, those beside you, and those that come after you – because they will in turn become the foundation, the walls and the ceiling of your house. What does this mean? No matter who you’re dealing with, whether it’s the nervous newbie in the next office cubicle, your manager’s manager’s manager, or members of your own family – treat them equally with the same amount of respect they all deserve, and give them no less than your genuine self. People recognise and appreciate wholeheartedness. I believe we are the sum of those we surround ourselves with, so invest in authentic and supportive relationships and you’ll never go wrong.
4. Make mistakes.
I know I can be really hard on myself when I make mistakes. I beat myself up about why I didn’t do things differently, why I didn’t know better, why I didn’t listen. But the thing is, what’s done is done; and as of yet – it’s impossible to time travel and go back to change our past actions. Luckily for us, the truth is that as difficult and uncomfortable as it can feel, making mistakes is a must. It’s the only way we can actively learn how to do things differently and better next time. And it’s what you do afterwards that really counts! If you make a mistake, don’t dawdle and linger on what can’t be changed. Instead, note down your learnings and include how you would tackle things more effectively in similar future scenarios. As they say, mistakes are merely useful lessons in disguise.
5. Be the change.
Let’s face it – no one likes a whiner! But sometimes it’s so easy just to complain about our problems instead of proactively doing something to fix them. Playing the victim can be a pretty easy role to fall into. The thing is, we can’t change other people and we can’t change certain situations, but we CAN change how we respond and adapt to those challenging circumstances. Think about it: when we need courage, does the world hand us a plate of courage, or does it give us a situation in which we can choose to be courageous? In fact, it’s just like those “choose your own ending” books we used to read and love as teens. When the time comes to make that choice (no matter how big or small), stare your fears right in the face, and proactively ask yourself whether at the end of your life, you’ll regret having done (or not having done!) this thing. Regrets suck. Courage is sexy. Be the change instead.
6. We are all human.
I remember coming out of school and meeting people who seemed to be so successful, confident, and at the top of their game. They seemed almost superhuman and untouchable – as if they lived on a different universe than the one I lived on. This made me want to be someone I wasn’t when talking to them, as if I was trying to convince them I was worth their time – always attempting to deliver a sales pitch, or worse – avoiding any kind of contact whatsoever in fear of rejection or dismissal. As I started working and meeting people from all backgrounds and levels of society, I realised that no matter what people appeared to be like from the outside, we are all human at the core. None of us are perfect (not even Mother Teresa!) and each of us are born with our own unique set of gifts and unfortunately, our own set of quirks. There is no need to take yourself too seriously, and no need to sell yourself like an infomercial.
On this same vein, I think it’s incredibly important then that if we suddenly one day find ourselves in that superhuman and untouchable category of society, we remain humble and grounded. My dad always said that the higher and stronger a tree grows, the deeper its roots must spread underground. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how majestic and beautiful the tree appears to be above ground, because it will eventually fall. In the same light, I believe that the more prominent or successful we become in our fields and in life, the more we need to remember the people that made it possible, and the more we need to give back to the society that let us grow. Do and face all things with integrity, and the world will mirror it back to you.
7. Be your own fortune teller.
Have you ever been to a fortune teller? I have, and it’s spooky. You laugh it off as lucky guesses at the time, but later down the road you shiver at its apparent accuracy. Or have you read your horoscope, and then later freaked out because things happened exactly how it said it would? Well you’re not alone. This is because our brains hear information about ourselves, and we slowly start to ingest it as reality – even when it might not be the case. Kids who grow up in environments where their parents are constantly telling them they are worth nothing and will amount to nothing, often grow up genuinely believing they are unable to succeed in life. On the other hand, kids who grow up in environments where their parents are unconditionally supportive and full of encouragement, often grow up with an inherent sense of confidence and conviction of their future success.
What’s exciting about this, is that while this is true of what we hear from others, it is also as true of what we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself something enough, you can actually foretell your own future. Here’s a personal example. I’ve always adored eating but could never cook. In fact, when living at home, my parents would laugh (and scoff!) if I offered to cook something for them to eat. But I told myself I could cook, that I could cook well, and continued to tell myself so. At first, I felt like a fraud, but the more I told myself I was a good cook, the more I wanted and enjoyed cooking; and the more I cooked, the better I got. The better I got, the more I cooked for my friends and family; and the more they knew me as “a good cook”, the more I believed it myself. And who would have thought – now I have my own cooking show! A crazy but awesome cycle that we all have the power to ignite.
8. Say thank you.
Saying thank you is such an easy thing to do, but it is something I find myself forgetting to do on many an occasion. We live in a world where transactions happen at lightning speed, and our contact with people is often limited to five line emails and texts. However, no matter how busy you are, there is always time to genuinely thank the people that bring light to your day. And no – mumbling a measly “thank you” with no eye contact to the barista who just handed over your morning coffee does not count as genuinely saying thank you. What I’m talking about is going out of your way to tell the barista that despite you hating mornings with a vengeance, her double shot espresso and spritely smile in the morning always makes it worthwhile. Go on – try it the next time you’re getting your morning cuppa.
And of course, we can’t forget about saying thank you to the people who are closest in our lives. Funnily enough – despite being the closest to us, they are often the ones we thank the least. Perhaps because we take them and their relationship for granted? Life is fragile and we never know what’s just around the corner, so it never hurts to remind your loved ones on a regular basis that you appreciate them, that you are grateful for them being in your lives, and that you love them.
9. It’s the small things.
I know in number 1 above, I said it was important to set your dream goals and then just keep chugging along with your fog lights until you get to the top. What I didn’t mention though, is that getting to the top does not guarantee you the award of happiness. It may grant you a sense of accomplishment, success, and achievement – all of which are incredibly important. However, happiness – my parents always said – is a different kettle of chips altogether. Happiness comes from the small things, and it comes from the inside. Happiness is a state you consciously decide you’ve reached, and not something you miraculously experience when having arrived at the summit of the mountain.
Happiness then, found in the small things, will be different for every person. To me, I find happiness in every puppy I see eagerly chasing his scraggly tail, and I find happiness in the stuffed faces of my friends who’ve just eaten my home-cooked meals. Happiness to me, is the kindness of a stranger, the moving melody of a song, the feeling of mud squishing between my toes, and the scent of my mum’s perfume. We can find happiness in all things around us, and that in itself, makes me incredibly happy!
10. Smile 🙂
Did you know that if you look at yourself in the mirror and force your face muscles to an upward grin, your brain gets fooled into thinking you are really smiling? And in response will release happy hormones into your body that in turn actually makes you smile? This means that if you’re feeling a bit blue, there is no better medicine than simply cracking a huge grin.
Life is a rollercoaster of opportunities and challenges that will take you for a whirlwind ride. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is to just prepare as well as you can (maybe these 10 lessons can help?) and then go with the flow baby! Go on, sport that huge smile, and let’s have some fun 🙂
Graci Kim, a 2004 graduate of high school Kristin School, is a New Zealand diplomat currently on language training in Taipei. From early 2014, she will be posted to the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, working to further New Zealand and China’s trade/economic relationship. She has authored and co-produced an interactive children’s book for the iPad called “My Sister’s Not Like Other Sisters” that made it to No.1 on the ‘Top Ipad Books’ category in New Zealand; and has co-founded several not-for-profit organisations furthering youth identity and development issues. Graci is also the host of the cooking show “Graci In The Kitchen” (where meals are designed to match your mood), which currently airs on numerous TV-On-Demand Networks.