“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when we look back everything is different.” – C.S. Lewis

“The stuff of our lives doesn’t change. It is we who change in relation to it.” – Molly Vass

Fascinating research shows that we have a tendency to incorporate new insights and beliefs into our “normal,” and quickly forget what it was like to not have known. It’s why we’re all great Monday Morning quarterbacks, and “knew all along” that things were going to turn out the way they did. “You have a deep desire to be right all of the time,” writes David McRaney in You Are Not So Smart, “and a deeper desire to see yourself in a positive light both morally and behaviorally. [So] when you learn something new, you quickly redact your past so you can feel the comfort of always being right.”

The impulse to quickly and easily re-write the past is one of the reasons I find doing yearly reviews so valuable. I’m always struck by how much growth can happen over the course of twelve months, and how fast I forget what my mindset used to be. It’s a gift to be able to step back and witness it, and then attempt to capture the biggest insights that I’d like to carry forward. And, it’s also funny how often this same sentiment has been repeated (and not on purpose!) in this annual post.

As I’ve done in previous years (2014, 2015) I’m going to focus on answering four questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What could have gone better?
  3. What did I learn?
  4. What am I working toward?

I share my experiences for two reasons: the first is for public accountability, and the second is that I hope some of the insights might resonate with you or inspire you to make positive changes in your own life.

As always, take some time to answer the above questions for yourself. Or, if you haven’t yet, check out the 2016-2017 Annual Review, Celebration, and Planning Process.

I wrote more during 2016 than ever before – almost four journals of small writing and inspired images. (see below). Even though these posts are condensed versions of my full review, they’re typically still my longest of the year. This one in particular is the longest article I’ve ever published.

If you’re pressed for time, the “What did I learn?” section tends to be the most universally applicable.

What went well?

“Our business in life is not to get ahead of other people, but to get ahead of ourselves.” – Maltbie Babcock

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” – Colin Powell

  • Playful. Authentic. Masterpiece: This was my theme for 2016, and it’s cool look back and feel good about those words accurately describing the year as a whole.
    • Playful – I was playful in both planned and spontaneous ways, in language, general way of being, and specific instances. From Sonos-music-inspired wild-dancing at home, to Bananagrams, chipping contests, putt putt, Spikeball, frisbee, fetch, chess, euchre, and many other activities, including the 90-day money game – more play has been a welcome addition!
    • Authentic – It’s difficult to describe, but I was more “me” last year than ever before. I had open conversations with partners, family, and friends old and new, share more publicly than ever before, and both laughed and cried more than I had in years.
    • Masterpiece – The goal was to have at least one masterpiece day, and even though it took until December for it to happen, it happened twice. A key insight here was, as Henry James writes, “Excellence does not require perfection.” The formula ended up being pretty simple: Masterpiece Day = Fundamentals + Creative Production + Friends
  • Professional growth: I left a seven-year career as a commodity options trader and turned my full-time attention towards work I’ve been preparing for my entire adult life. The highlight was formally launching a consulting practice that provides executive coaching, advisory services, and leadership + performance consulting to incredible businesses, leaders, and individuals in Chicago, San Fransisco, NYC, Denver, Orlando, and more. While I didn’t quite reach my “best-case” goals, I exceeded my expectations for both impact and income, and I’m excited about future growth. As Kristen remarked early in the year, “I can’t comment on whether or not you love what you’re doing, but you’re definitely happier – a lot happier.”
  • Travel: We spent almost a third of the year, 108 days, exploring the world outside of Chicago. International trips included Toronto for the TIFF, as well as three new countries (and a new continent): Jamaica, Australia, and New Zealand. Domestic trips included Nashville, San Fransisco + Northern California (2x), Houston, Florida (3x), NYC, Michigan (9x, both N. Michigan and the Detroit area), Colorado, and Indiana (2x).
  • Health & Fitness: My body continues to be the foundation that gives me the energy I need. I feel stronger and fitter I’ve ever been, which is a fun thing to say year after year. Highlights for 2016 include shifting most workouts to the morning (to start the day on the right foot and take advantage of the 12-hour endorphin boost,) advancing to the final rounds of a few city-wide fitness competitions, and setting an Olympic Distance triathlon PR without any race-specific training, (I signed up ~3 weeks before race day.)
  • Relationships & Communication: I connected on a deeper level with close friends and family, created new personal and professional relationships, and even had the opportunity to meet a few long-time mentors and role models. Aside from having uncomfortable, open, and liberating conversations with those closest to me, I had the privilege of meeting incredible people creating inspiring businesses, works, communities, and transformations. Other fun experiences include having the chance to chat with Chris Guillebeau, who wrote a fun /note in my journal, and Tim Ferriss, who said, “Michael Balchan, you are on the ball man!”
  • Discipline & Consistent Fundamentals: Over the course of the year, I came to fully appreciate and take ownership of how big of a strength this is for me, and how much value and support I’m able to offer others in this area. Consistency in creating a strong personal foundation is what allows me to be who I am and do what I do, and it’s been amazing to help others experience the same joy, power, and feeling that comes from nailing the fundamentals. Another overall theme for this area was simplifying and letting go of those practices that weren’t serving me – not being a slave to my habits but making sure they added value to my life!
    • Meditation: My target was to average 45 minutes a day. For the first half of the year, I averaged around 50 minutes daily, but the average dropped to around 40 minutes for the second half as it became less important for me to hit that number. I preferred to focus on always having a strong morning session, and then creating space for a PM nap-itation when possible. I’m planning on maintaining that intention going forward, and will continue to never miss a day – I haven’t missed in ~3.5 years, including a 750+ day streak with the Muse.
    • Tibetans daily + at least one longer yoga practice weekly: My morning movement was less consistent during a few months in the summer, especially when trying to fit it in before 5:45 am workouts, but I was able to re-commit in the early fall. On the yoga side, it’s crazy to think that it’s been more than four years since we started a regular practice, and fun to be able to nail almost any shape an instructor throws at us. This is another one of those areas that, along with meditation, has become so routine and automatic that it’s hard to remember what life was like before practicing.
    • Sleep: My goal was to average 7.5 hrs and to be out of bed before 5:00 am. 5:00 am didn’t quite happen, but ~5:30 am still isn’t bad. It was actually a growth edge for me to let go of the 5:00 am target once I realized it wasn’t necessary. Towards the end of the year, sleep became my #1 focus, with my pre-bed ritual and in-bed time moving earlier and earlier. I’m pretty consistently getting 7.5+ hrs, with a few 9-10 hrs here and there, as well as an occasional 3-5 hrs – those nights are almost always followed by a 90 min nap the next day. Sleep will continue to be my #1 fundamental focus in 2017.
    • Fitness: See above. My growth going forward is going to come from more consistent recovery days and mobility/tissue repair work. For those curious, the current routine includes kettlebells, boxing, yoga, pilates, running, swimming, biking, HIIT, and various cross-training combinations.
    • Food: My diet continues to be plant-based slow-carb: tons of veggies, healthy fats, nuts, eggs, legumes, and fish on occasion. Very limited dairy, refined carbs, processed foods, or added sugars. It keeps me looking, feeling, and performing great, and I have a ton of fun on cheat days – even if I almost always pay for it a day (or two) after. Another focus has been keeping my gut bacteria healthy with probiotics and kombucha.
    • Journaling: 2016 saw some significant evolutions of my journal practice, which I’ll be sharing more about soon. There was both more intention and more flexibility. As I said in the intro, it resulted in almost four full journals full of insights. The biggest differences came from laying out the next day’s most important tasks (or “What would make this day amazing?”) on the evening or night before, and adding a free-flowing “morning pages” to the AM routine.
    • Cold showers: The cold-finish has been a regular practice for years, but 2016 marked a transition to pretty consistently taking 100% cold showers. It helps get me into my body, melts away petty worries, has physical benefits, and generally makes me feel like a badass – especially when our water source, Lake Michigan, is covered in ice.
  • Kindness: This has evolved to become a true way of life instead of a thing to check off. I, very selfishly, am always on the lookout for random acts of kindness. I’m a huge fan of love 2.0 – finding opportunities to spread love and to cultivate an attitude of kindness and compassion all the time. Everybody wins.
  • Writing: The highlight was publishing a book – Meditation: What, Why, and How To Meditate (Hint: Breathe In. Breathe Out.) It’s been a long time coming, and it’s cool to get it out there. I’m excited for the next one(s)!
  • Learning: As for formal learning, I read fewer books but listened to more podcasts – typically while walking or biking to work, or when walking Gus. I also added 123 Philosophers Notes to the “read” pile, bringing my to-date total to 305. As for courses, most of my attention was focused on coaching and professional development.
  • Mindset + Inner work: This was the area that had the most growth, and also contributed significantly to all of the others. Playful and authentic was a big part of it, as was surrounding myself with people and resources to support me, and making investments in my future. I worked with incredible coaches, went on week-long immersive experiences, upgraded my inner game, meditated on death, gained more self-confidence/worth/love, destroyed and re-wrote my most fundamental beliefs, used movement to release things I didn’t even know I was holding (thanks, Taryn!), did more written reflecting than ever, and had a ton of fun in the process.
  • Simplify + Declutter: Physical, digital, mental, and time-based demands on attention continue to be pared down to the essentials. Our home is now almost completely clutter-free. I even let go of my badass massage chair  – the first major purchase I made after moving to Chicago. It’s incredibly liberating.

What could have gone better?

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself.” — Daniel Dennett

“If I had experienced different things, I would have different things to say.” – Mark Nepo

Reading through these, I’m conscious that many (most?) might be the result of unrealistic expectations, or otherwise make me seem like an out-of-touch over-achiever. And I suppose that’s something I need to own. But, none-the-less, here’s what I think could have gone better in 2016.

  • Reading: As hinted at above, my reading went down by a third, from 70 books/15k pages in 2015 to 44 books/11k pages in 2016. I know 44 books is still awesome, and that I’m crazy, but I also recognize opportunities to improve – mainly by not feeling the need to do a deep reading of every book, as well as being willing to stop reading if it’s something I’m not enjoying.
  • Full Ironman: I decided early in the year that this probably wasn’t going to happen due to time constraints. It’s still on my to-do list, and I hope to make it happen soon. I’ve also got great friends who have committed and are looking for training partners…
  • Blog posts: After committing to publishing weekly in 2015, and doing so with 53 articles, I ended up 12 articles short in 2016 – publishing only 40 times. Towards the middle of the year, I lost consistency around publishing every Tuesday, and it gradually grew into not publishing at all on some weeks. Eventually, I realized that I needed to step back and take a break – which happened during November. Moving forward, I’m excited to build scheduled breaks into 2017, to re-commit to publishing more consistently, as well as to release site upgrades and additional tools that I’ve been working on.
  • Skills training: I wanted to master the major number system, as well as to learn and adapt the Colemak keyboard layout full-time. I didn’t even really try to do either of those things.
  • Art: While I did fill my notebooks with more sketches, I didn’t do the amount of drawing related deliberate/purposeful practice and training that I wanted to. Likewise, I picked up the guitar far fewer times than I would have liked, and even had to pay to get a tune-up after not keeping it properly humidified. I probably won’t commit to a daily practice for either of these, but both drawing and playing music give me a different kind of creative energy and relaxation that I hope to experience more.
  • Language practice: I love being able to speak with people in their native tongues. For many reasons, I didn’t make this a priority last year, and both my Spanish and French have slipped.
  • Monthly “dark” weekend: The goal was to have one weekend a month that included an electronic-free day. We successfully had a digital vacation once, but that was it. On the positive side, I spent most mornings disconnected from wifi and out of inboxes, and almost always left my phone stashed in a bag or pocket when having a conversation or meal with someone.
  • Website admin: I thought this was a high priority for me, but it quickly fell down the list – and I believe it shows. There are several elements to the site that are due for an improvement. My goal is to retain the simplicity and distraction-free theme while upgrading the back-end, improving the overall design, and offering more valuable resources.

What did I learn?

“Your life is always going to change. Please don’t be afraid to change with it.” – Alan, from The Listserve

“I don’t know of any magical solutions and, frankly, I am not looking for one. A full life is painted with broad brush strokes. Many paths can lead to understanding and wisdom. Each of us has different needs to address and things worth pursuing over the course of a lifetime. Each of us has to chart our own course, and it has to fit what we are ready for.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Note to self: remember these things. And, as with anything, always find the virtuous mean. Take any virtue too far, and you end up with a vice.

Human connections are EVERYTHING

The single most important component of a masterpiece day was having meaningful, real, and joyful connections with the people I love. On the flip side, I was reminded of the pain of losing that opportunity. Life is hard, but it’s also beautiful. We’re in it together.

A great morning creates an amazing day…

…and a great morning is created the night before. Everything cycles and grows in waves, and it’s important to prepare for the next wave before it’s right on top of us. Practically, this meant getting clarity on the next day’s most important tasks and writing them down on the night before. Then, having the courage to stop working and prioritize recovery. Earlier bedtimes led to a better morning routine, which resulted in several hours of incredibly high-quality work, which then led to better afternoons and an easier time “turning off” work in the evening. Evening –> Morning –> Evening –> Morning… Alternatively, when I focused on paddling to catch up to the wave that was passing, I ended up feeling exhausted and ALWAYS behind.

Simplify, reduce, eliminate

Digitally, physically, mentally, and with your time. The fewer things making bids for your attention, the better. I’m still in a multi-year process of continuing to pare down and be conscious about what I allow into my life. I schedule regular digital and physical cleanses, and am working on FOMO and being willing to say no. To the last point, here’s a note I wrote to myself: “Your time is too important to be wasting on people that you don’t respect, that don’t respect you, or that aren’t willing to give you their energy and attention.”

Discipline = Freedom

This particular articulation comes from the beast Jocko Willink. For me, it means several things. Create discipline around the things that don’t matter so that you have the freedom to pursue the things that do. Put in place the tools and systems that allow you to achieve your highest potential. Remove the choice by making the decision one time, committing to it, and it becomes MUCH easier to avoid temptation. Take extreme ownership of your experience and have the discipline to master yourself, so that you then have the ability to create the outcome you want.

For ALL relationships: choose love (and, if possible, laughter)

Relationships thrive on a positive to negative experience ratio of 5:1. Recognize that you have the choice to increase the number of positive experiences – and do so by always choosing love. Give love through words, actions, physical touch (especially non-sexual kinds!), and attention. This prescription applies to partners, family, friends, and yourself. When in doubt, or hurt, or afraid, remember that we’re all doing as best as we can – so laugh and give love!

It’s not personal

Stop taking everything so personally. You are not the center of other people’s Universes, and the vast majority of people are not out to make your life miserable. Assume positive intent, or at a minimum, lack of awareness. How can you make it a game? How can you make it fun? How can you respond in the best way possible?

On the flip side, when someone or something does upset you, celebrate that! It’s information on what part of yourself you can work on. Anger, fear, triggers – these are gifts to explore what wounds need attention and healing.

Be clear with your direction, consistent on your progress, and flexible with your timelines

It’s OK not to know exactly where you’re headed. Life isn’t a puzzle with pieces that perfectly fit together to re-create an existing image – it’s a painting that is created as you go. Goals can (and will) change. The important part is having something to move towards, making progress one tiny step at a time, and continuously course correcting to point in more-or-less the right direction. Don’t be stressed out about when you get there either. Things ALWAYS take more time than you expect.

Take imperfect action

All fears and all battles are far more mental than anything else. Stop thinking, start doing, and you’ll see that what was a big deal in your head is much less so in real life. It’s better to be decisive and move fast than it is to freeze up and choose nothing.

Treat every moment and every day as an opportunity to experiment and iterate. Results are just data, so let go of your attachment to outcomes and keep taking imperfect action.

S – T – R – E – T – C – H

When you go all out and really stretch yourself, you find out that you’ve got much more than you thought you had. Don’t be so afraid of failure that you never explore where it actually is – go to the edge and allow yourself to feel truly alive. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. A great place to practice this is in your body – like with the treadmill on max speed and that whiny voice in your head quieting once it realizes you aren’t going to allow it to dominate the conversation. Unrelated to treadmills, but very much related to this insight…

“Does it require you to focus? Do you have to ground yourself? Do you have to breathe through it? Does it bring up excuses? Good. Welcome to the threshold of transformation. Now we have something to work with.” – Taryn Toomey

Relax!

Really. Take it easy. Choose to be playful and have fun instead of taking life so seriously – none of us can make it out of here alive anyway. We’re on a miraculous rock, flying through space ridiculously fast, with no real destination. We might as well enjoy the ride! Give good vibes out, and you’ll get good vibes back.

Other big ideas

Among many: powerful service, grit, astonish, change your state, good + better + best, self-leadership, there is no box, bright lines, one shot, RECOVER!, appreciate, align incentives, model, create…

What am I working toward?

“To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.” – Sydney Smith

“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin

This year’s theme, as I shared last week, is: Bold. Seen. Pro. I’ve spent a long time doing deep inner work and laying a strong foundation, but I will no longer allow myself to play small. I’m excited to continue integrating and embodying the lessons I’ve learned – particularly the ones highlighted above.

On the habit side, my #1 focus is on getting sufficient and high-quality sleep. Consistent fundamentals will continue to be a priority, and I will always be tweaking and optimizing. But, at this point, I feel that focusing too much energy here would be more of a crutch and excuse, rather than a benefit.

On the projects & experiments side, here are a few of the specific things I’ll be putting energy into. I’m keeping the list intentionally short, and expect these all to evolve over time.

  • Serve one million new people by sharing insights, actions, and ideas through public speaking, guest blog posts, podcasts, and traditional media appearances, including (hopefully) television.
  • Publish content: An average of 45 new articles, one new book, and an improved and increased toolkit of free resources. (aka turn pro)
  • Build a team to support the work I’m doing.
  • Master a handstand.
  • Support 5% of the world’s population in developing a regular mindfulness practice. (NOT a one-year goal)

What about you?