Risk Big. Fail Often. Stay Humble. Choose Happiness.

(c) ana teresa fernandez

To say 2017 was a game changer—nationally, globally, and individually—would be a grotesque understatement.

The daily what-the-fuckery of the Trump administration, the tax “reform” bill, DACA, CHIP, FBI investigations, the ACA, the UN, and a host of other acronyms were in dramatic play non-stop, and that list doesn’t even include the #MeToo campaign.

Fortunately, late December has brought with it an almost palpable collective sigh of relief. Although it is too soon to know exactly how the new tax bill and other regulatory changes will play out in the long run, we as individuals, as a nation, and as a community must move forward, just like the relentless march of time.

Marking time and its transitions is a thing we humans like to do. Birthdays, anniversaries, and New Year’s Eve mark a passage from one state to another. I think of them as a bridge from things-which-have-come-to-pass to things-which-may-or-may-not-come-to-be. So while I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, I appreciate being on that bridge, straddling past experiences and future possibilities.

Personally, 2017 was a big year: I risked big and failed often, but within each failure lay the seeds of success. Each “failure” contained some wisdom to discern in order to make better choices in the future.

In 2017 I left a job that was a toxic environment—one that seemed almost a play-by-play echo of what was happening around the country as women in every industry began speaking out about harassment in the work environment. After I left the company, I took on more than one marketing gig, only to realize I didn’t want to do marketing strategy anymore. And in 2017 I fired not one, but TWO clients in 2017 when it became clear that we were a poor fit.

I know there is no shame in canceling a contract. It happens all the time in business. I’ve worked for individuals and companies who regularly cancel or renegotiate contracts with suppliers, vendors, and contractors. But this was the first time in nearly 25 years of self-employment that I’d terminated an arrangement. This, too, felt like a failure at first.

If being in business for myself was solely about making money I likely would have gutted it out, doing the best I could with the resources I had. But at some point, I realized that being in business for myself hasn’t been entirely about making money. I recognize other values which are equally as important as making a buck. Values like making a positive change in the world, protecting the environment, working for the good of others—these are all prime motivators for me.

I’ve come to realize that in saying no—in terminating agreements where I couldn’t produce a win for either the client or myself—I was saying yes to bigger picture goals where my work aligned better with my values.

Many years ago a Buddhist mentor of mine told me a sort of parable about changing habits. It went a little like this: You walk down a road. There’s a giant sinkhole in the road, which is your weakness, and it’s magnetic. Like a black hole, it draws you toward it. You fall in. With great effort, you crawl and scramble your way out and continue on your way. Eventually, you find yourself going down the road again. You fall in. You crawl out. You stumble on. It happens so often it becomes a habit. That road (again), into the hole (again), struggle out (again), move along. Each time you fall in, it’s a little easier to climb out, but you’re still falling. So you start to skirt the edges of the road, clinging to the curb, hoping and praying not to fall in. Sometimes you make it. Sometimes you don’t. This is the new habit; hoping and praying and skirting. But there’s another way. There are other roads available to you. Don’t want to fall in? Tired of hoping and praying? Choose a new road. Granted, that road may also have a booby trap of its own, but once you’ve tried a new road as a strategy, you’re infinitely more likely to seek new roads as a habit. And the beautiful thing is there are so many roads from which to choose.

Saying no to work which has poor alignment of values frees me up to say yes to collaborations not only utilize my strengths, they quite frankly make me ridiculously happy. Imagine! Being in business TO BE HAPPY. This is unquestionably a new road, or rather, it’s a road I’ve traveled earlier in my career before I got lost on Sinkhole Alley.

It can be a bit scary to travel unfamiliar roads—money is excruciatingly tight and scarcity is a powerful motivator for clinging to the known, however ill-fitting or uncomfortable—but it’s also somewhat liberating as it leaves the door open for more satisfying collaborations. I’m also choosing my strengths—writing and editing—over slightly more lucrative, but unsatisfying work in other skillsets (notably the marketing strategy stuff).

Just this month I said no to a project for a client because their expectations were inversely proportional to their budget. I knew the stress level of meeting the deadline was going to be unhealthy so I chose my wellbeing over a not-so-quick buck. It was not an easy decision to make, and I agonized over it for days. And then something wonderful happened. An acquaintance sent me a referral to a different kind of client.

Of all the work I’ve had this year—from the marketing strategy to designing websites and magazines, to teaching people “how to do WordPress”—by far the most satisfying, most meaningful work is the final project I secured for 2017. I’ve been hired to edit college admissions essays for a kid who wants to be a physicist so he can help heal the world. Though this isn’t portfolio-enhancing work, it is soul-enriching. Here, then, I find my values fit. In smoothing out the rough phrases, restraining haphazard adverbs, and eliminating rogue commas, I feel as though I’m holding something delicate and unfamiliar. I find myself engaged in this work with a profound sense of empathy and compassion. I am reminded to set aside my own cynicism to trust once again in a thing called possibility. I’m forced to remember what it was like to be full of hope and optimism and how worthy and valuable those qualities are.

As I wrap up the old year editing these hopeful pages that point to a brighter future, I’m not sure who is getting the better deal. Maybe I ought to be paying the young Mr. Gordon instead of the other way around.

I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my life which “stuck”: try yoga. I wrote it in large longhand lettering, in thick black sharpie and took up half the page. Not only did I try yoga that bright January long ago, but I also went on to become an authoritative therapeutic yoga teacher, trainer, and author. I know what can happen when intention, motivation, values, and goal-setting are aligned.

I could make any one of my goals a resolution moving forward into 2018: work out more; drink more water; focus political activism; cut out caffeine and sugar; do more live storytelling performances; smash the patriarchy…you know, the usual. But maybe it’s the way in which I’m traveling (and the companions I choose) that’s more important than where I end up, so I think I’ll just keep trying new roads.

Happy travels.

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