Yesterday was my birthday. I have an odd relationship with birthdays. I love birthdays, just not my birthday. I love to celebrate others, but I get uncomfortable being celebrated, even recognized. For years I tried to repress my birthday. I would hide it on social media, or wholesale deactivate all social media on my birthday so people wouldn’t know. This year my mother – my wise mother – had a convicting word for me. She called me out.
In the usual song and dance of the week leading up to my birthday she asked me, as she does every year, “what do you want to do for your birthday?”. And like every year, I responded, “nothing”. And I meant it. I didn’t want gifts, I didn’t want recognition, I didn’t want people to adjust their schedules to accommodate me. I thought I was being selfless. But as I learned in the ensuing verbal takedown – au contraire – I was not being selfless, I was in fact being selfish. Shanni was quick to point out that by me repressing my birthday I was stealing the joy from others who want to celebrate with me.
Her takedown was masterful too. Shanni’s birthday is five days before mine, so she asked me if I enjoyed celebrating her birthday. I answered of course I did. She asked if I got joy from getting her something. I answered of course. And then she asked if I thought she was selfish for not blocking me from doing that. I answered of course not. And in that moment, she had me. A true logician at work.
In this twenty seventh year I learned an important lesson. It is important to share in life-giving activities with friends and family even if that means you’re the center of attention. Paradoxically, it can be selfish to try to minimize yourself.
So this year I didn’t attempt to obfuscate my birthday. I embraced it, and it felt great. I received a lot of nice notes and well wishes, and for the first time I didn’t feel uncomfortable by that. I put myself on the other side of the exchange and recognized that any time I have sent well wishes to someone on their birthday I have felt good about that, and I hoped they would too.
Well played, Shanni. Well played.
A derivative of this lesson was that it also compelled me to share my reflections on the past year. Every year on my birthday I take a few hours to sit and reflect on the year that has passed to take inventory of what I am thankful for, the lessons I’ve learned, and what I want to do more and less of in the coming year.
Each year I have kept these tucked away, not shared with anyone. Partly because I didn’t want people to correlate my reflections to my birthday, and partly because I didn’t think anyone would care. But this past year I decided to start publishing more of what I write, and some of it has resonated with others. So this year I decided to open source my reflections on the last year. There are a lot of topics embedded in here, many of which can be their own blog post in themselves – so if something does resonate, please let me know. I might expand on that in a future post.
I try to avoid speaking in absolute terms like “the best” or “the most”, because there is almost invariably recency bias embedded in statements like that which dilute the impact of a genuine absolutist statement in the future; however, if I was to rank the year on earth that I grew the most I can say with confidence that this year ranked in the top 3.
This twenty seventh year featured a number of new challenges and new opportunities, both of which contributed to significant personal growth. Some of this was idiosyncratic to my life, but a lot of it was a product of exogenous factors. 2020 has been an “interesting” year for all of us.
There is a lot to unpack, but first I want to start with what I am thankful for. I find this is the best way to align myself to a healthy and objective discussion with myself on what unfolded this past year and how I can use that going forward.
Family and Friends – yes, this is an obvious one. Each year I am thankful for family and friends, however, I want to unpack what specifically this year I am thankful to these people for.
Family: I spent more time with family this last year, well, really the last four months, than I have since I was a teenager. This was largely a result of the shelter-in-place mandates that came in March through July to mitigate the spread of COVID. I live alone in Waterloo and in the regular ebb and flow of life it is nice to live alone. I spend all day out of the house around people so it is nice to come home and enjoy a period of solitude. However, when your world is nothing but solitude – as was the case when the world went into lockdown – this flips from energy giving to starvation of energy. Thankfully my parents are generous people who live less than an hour away. So a few days into lockdown I decided to go for a visit. That visit turned into a four month stay. Outside of a few short trips to Waterloo to mow my grass I was almost exclusively in Burlington. In this time I grew closer to family, which is saying something, because we are already quite close.
What I am thankful for in family is that they are unafraid to call you out. No one else has the same mileage in a relationship and tacit indebtedness to your success than family. So when you’re acting sub-optimally they’ll be there to call you out. Being at my parents’ place meant that I got a healthier dose of that than normal because the feedback cycles were tighter than they ever were. They saw me day in and day out so could observe how I worked through a day and the energy I was carrying. The biggest piece of feedback I got over and over was a word to “slow down”.
Something to know about me about me is that I have an ability to become deeply focused. I mean really focused. I can sit and work away at something for hours and hours without changing focus – forgetting to eat, drink, or do anything. I can get consumed. It is both a blessing and a curse. It is good when I need to get something done, but the challenge is I have trouble turning that off. Even when I’m not explicitly working on something I am implicitly working on it, doing mental cycles in preparation for when I can get back to it, or thinking about the next project. The impact of that can be full conversations that I don’t remember. I can be at the dinner table responding to questions (semi-intuitively) while my mind is focused on something else. That is not a way to live, and my family helped me realign my priorities. After a month of being at home I got better at turning on and off. I’m still working on it but I am getting better. Many of my friends have now commented that I seem more “present”. And I appreciate that.
Friends: This past year felt similar to the year 2007 and 2012 – the years I started high school and university respectively. In this year I made new friends. For many this may seem like an odd thing to announce – you may be thinking: “wait, you’re not always making new friends?”. I mean, yes, I meet new people all the time, but to say that I have invested in new friends has only come in a few tranches. I have traditionally been a fairly insular person, which may surprise some people because I can turn it on and be dynamic in public settings – but my natural safe place is rooted in introversion. 2007 and 2012 were forcing functions to make new friends because, well, I didn’t really have any friends. I moved right before high school so I didn’t know anyone when I showed up, and when I got to university I only had one pre-existing friend join me.
I am a steady and loyal person, so in both of these instances my best friends through my four years of high school and university were the people I got close to in grade nine and freshman year respectively. I wouldn’t say I go through life like Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls (“You can’t sit with us”) – but I generally stay invested in the same people for a long period of time.
This past year, however, I was challenged to grow in this area. While I do still think it is incredibly important to stay committed, loyal, and invested in the same people, I now see that this should be dynamic. It’s not healthy to close off. This change for me was undoubtedly a God thing. In this past year I started attending a new church called Slate in Waterloo. The main reason for this was that my Dad, who is a pastor, had just gone on sabbatical. I have always attended his church, but with him taking a break I decided to check out something local. Originally I was not interested in getting connected. I would show up right as service was starting and leave as soon as it finished. I sat at the back and was not interested in making friends. For me, this was temporary and I wasn’t planning on getting rooted. That is, until about 2 months into “attending”. On one Sunday, one of the site pastors intercepted me on my way out. I was doing my typical routine – bounce as they started the outro worship song – when, as I was cutting through the lobby this guy stopped me. I tried to move through the conversation quickly so I could get out of there before others started pouring into the lobby but he was relentless, asking thoughtful and nuanced questions, and following up on my answers with more thoughtful and more nuanced questions. Finally he encouraged me to join a “Connect Group” – something I had heard the pastors talk about every Sunday. A connect group is a small group of people from the church that get together bi-weekly to unpack the content of a service and talk about life. I said yeah for sure I’d look into it only and follow up (no intention to do so), but then he insisted I fill out an interest card on the spot. It was like trying to escape a credit card salesman at the mall (although I had much higher success escaping those). Next thing you know, he calls over another guy who runs a connect group and between the two of them they sign me up on the spot. I was trapped. But I decided, fine, I will go to one to say I did it and then I’ll be good. That Wednesday I went to my first connect group – a group of 8 guys all hanging out, talking about life. No two of us the same. The age range was 20-40ish, all different professions, family dynamics, race, and life experiences. I didn’t come in planning to come back, but I’ve been going back every time for the last year. And now I co-lead with that credit card salesman I met a year earlier.
Through this I got more plugged into church, and as a result made a bunch of new friends. What makes this time different than 2007 and 2012 though is that it wasn’t a one time event. I’ve continued to make friends, and go deeper with the people I’ve met. I am still a loyal and committed person, but I’m opening that up to more people, and I’m better for it.
But what I learned this year is that investing in new friends doesn’t mean divesting existing friends. I have continued to grow closer to those people I became close with in 2007 and 2012. The family just keeps growing.
Faith: Dovetailing out of the previous section on my thankfulness for friends, I am thankful for my deeper relationship with God. I have been a believer my whole life. A few weeks ago a close family friend and I were golfing and he asked me if through my teens or young adult years I ever felt like I had fallen away from the faith or felt challenged to keep believing. My honest answer: no. But, that doesn’t mean my relationship with God has always been healthy. For a lot of my life it felt habitual. I would pray at the same time, read my Bible at the same time, and try my best to follow the principles set forth. I judged my relationship with God on the absence of bad, rather than the presence of good. If I felt like I was consistent with prayer, devotion, and mitigated sin I was pleasing God and that was what being a good Christian was. What I discovered this year though was that that is not enough. Yes, prayer is good, devotion is good, and sin is bad – but what God wants is a relationship.
I realized that I was treating God like a doctor. I would schedule my time, show up with questions, hope to get some answers, and try to stay healthy in between the next appointment.
But that’s not a relationship, that’s a transaction. A relationship means dynamism. That means talking with God, not talking at God. That means spending spontaneous time together, not scheduling an appointment and showing up. And that means seeking to grow together, not just avoid deterioration.
This was an unlock for me. One catalyst was going to a new church. I was taking ownership of my faith, not just showing up to church with my family where my Dad is the pastor. But it wasn’t just the act of going to a new church, it was this church. Slate introduced me to a dynamic relationship with God. I started doing things within the church community intraweek. Prayer morning with others, connect group, etc. Church outside the walls of the building, and on another day from Sunday showed me that this is dynamic. It was like a gateway drug to start talking to God throughout the day. I got closer to God and our relationship became more dynamic. And the latest push was COVID. It may seem counterintuitive that now with no Sunday service I got closer to God, but now with no physical church I really had to take ownership. I have to be intentional about not just consuming the content but also unpacking the word, supplementing with other resources, and having conversations with people about this. All of this has been a good forcing function to go deeper in my faith and build a relationship with God, and I am thankful for that. I am not saying that being separated from the physical location of church is good for me permanently, but this temporary fracture in my routine required me to adapt, and now rather than be a replacement, it will live as an addition when things return.
Profession: In addition to personal growth, this year brought a lot of professional growth. I’ve worked for the same company over the last six and half years. For the first five and a half I was an individual contributor. I worked across the organization and I would say I was a “leader”, but I didn’t have any direct reports – and that was comfortable for me. I spent a lot of time on airplanes. In the year 2019 I was on a plane 42 out of the 52 weeks. That meant I was largely self regulated and self accountable. I had others that I answered to, but no one answered to me directly. About a year ago that changed. We consolidated parts of the company, divested a large product, and realigned the team to building a new product. As part of that, I assumed new parts of the organization in a direct leadership capacity.
I had become conditioned to controlling all of my work output. Everything I was responsible for, I was responsible for. Now I am leading others – things I am responsible for, we are responsible for. This was an adjustment, but I am thankful for it.
I am thankful for the opportunity to lead others. It comes with new challenges, but I get great joy working with my team and seeing them succeed.
I am thankful for my team. They are excellent. Well principled, smart, and driven. And best of all we have a lot of fun in the work we do.
I am thankful for the challenge. I am a highly self regulated person, and probably my toughest evaluator. I have had to learn to judge my output not just by the tangible quality of my work product, but by the way in which I empower and enable others. That has been an adjustment, but it has unlocked new capacity for me, and I hope has helped others grow as well.
Do More / Do Less
So, where do I go from here? Well, periods of reflection are only as good as the action. For all that I am thankful for, I want to be intentional about taking action in those areas. And in the areas that have brought learnings, I want to take action there too. In keeping with the theme of avoiding absolutist statements, I evaluate my “next steps” not as wholesale stop and start but as “do more” and “do less”. This is an important part of my calibration process to continue refining Tanner the individual. I want to be a better person for myself and for others. The do more/less exercise in year vX is a thematic overview of the things I am going to do differently in year vX+1.
Note: I have a list of concrete, measurable actions that I track in a spreadsheet to keep tension on these but I won’t bore you with this.
Reflect: This is a meta point to be talking about reflecting more while reflecting. I am an introspective person, constantly measuring and tinkering. This happens predominantly ad-hoc, and I’d say I’m good about that. But what I’ve found is that my reflection is almost entirely critical. That is good, I want to continue that, but I don’t reflect enough on the positives, like I have above. I need to be more intentional about recognizing the subtle positives.
Recognize: It is not enough to just reflect, action is required. In the critical areas of life I already do this. Like I said, I measure a lot and I recalibrate areas of growth often. But what I don’t do is take time to recognize the positives. Simple things like celebrating wins, particularly with others. I think about people a lot but I don’t tell them that. Going forward I am going to start engaging relationally with people to recognize the ways in which they are having a positive impact. Whether that’s in my life or the life of others.
Relationships: (I promise I wasn’t planning on alliteration in this list). I have built strong bonds in this last year. I plan to continue to go deeper in those relationships while also opening myself up to others. I gain a lot through these, and I hope that’s reciprocated on the other end. What I’ve recognized though is that it’s not enough to just be “open” to building new relationships. I am challenging myself to take initiative and build relationships proactively.
Intentional Time: In this last year I started batching my tasks to minimize context switching. That has been a game changer. I go deep on one thing, pause, recalibrate and go deep on the next. Not only have I become more productive, I have been more present. I was self conscious about this at first in collaborative work. Managing a team I was worried about not being “always available” but now what I’ve found is I am more effective by dedicating time to non-collaborative work and collaborative work. Now I am fully present when collaborating. I block off my days before noon for no meetings so I can work on things independently, then the afternoons are open for collaboration. I plan to do more of this in other areas.
Turn Off: Bridging from the last point. I need to take intentional time off. I have traditionally been “always on”. Even when not explicitly working on something I’m implicitly working by thinking about it. I want to be fully present when with others, so a hard boot down at certain points of the day is going to be a goal for myself. I have been trying very hard to observe a full Sabbath – that doesn’t always work out, but going forward that is a measurable activity I am working on as well. What I have found with powering down is that while I’m losing working hours, my productivity goes up. Now, when I’m on, I am on. I can produce effective work with efficiency and my total output has increased.
Embrace Spontaneity: I am type-A. I schedule everything and am highly routinized. I deal with unforeseen events well, so I’m not someone that can’t deal with variability. But if something is spontaneous but seems “unproductive” I generally dismiss it. What I have found though is that not everything can be measured in collollary output. A+B != C at all times. This is especially true in things that are relationally driven. It’s good to say “yes” to things sometimes (not all the time).
Talk About Faith: I went deeper in faith this last year, and that was life changing for me. I have never been ashamed of my faith. But being open and being intentional are two different things. I have always taken a reactive approach to this area. I am open about the fact that I am a believer so I think, well if someone is interested they’ll ask, and if they don’t they’re not interested. I think part of this is an over rotation from a desire to not be preachy. I don’t want people to think that I am trying to convince them of something, or jam it down their throats. I’ve seen a lot of friction emanate from this posture in the past, so I didn’t want to do that myself. But what I’ve recognized is that this is an important area of my life, so I should talk to people about that, and I can do that in an authentic way. We talk to friends and family about a lot of things with openness and a sense of malleability – but when it comes to faith it’s as if we feel like we’re delivering a thesis statement and we need to defend our thesis. That’s not the case! We can talk about it like we do other dynamic areas of life: this is what’s been good, these are the things I’m thinking about, this is what I’m struggling with, this is what I’m unsure of. What do you think? The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized people are open to talking. And that’s my goal. Notice I didn’t say “Convince People of My Faith” – I want to have dialogue. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t need to to have a conversation. My goal is to talk. It will help me grow, and if others grow too, that is fantastic, truly. I do want people to share this with me. But I’m not trying to convince them, I’m sharing my experience and being open.
Measure: Bridging from the previous point, I measure a lot. And I am going to continue to do so (remember, this isn’t a “stop”, this is “do less”) but I recognize I can’t measure everything. Not everything has a direct ROI, and not everything should have a direct ROI for me. A lot of life is unseen impact, and in the past I would struggle with things that I couldn’t measure. Being vulnerable here, I would often leave social situations looking at it through the lens of ROI. Was that value add that I did that? If given the chance to do that over would I? These are not always healthy questions – sometimes they are, but not always. I need to be comfortable in the unseen. As I said A+B does not always equal C. You can’t draw a straight line from one thing to the next and I need to be comfortable with that.
Filling Time: Stemming from the measurement theme, I am always evaluating my productivity. Something I’ve found is that if I have a spare X minutes I’ll slot something in, like chipping away at a report, or responding to emails, etc. Things that have a measurable output. But what I’ve found is that ideas can come from these periods of unstructured time. It’s good to let the mind wander at times – that’s where some of my most productive insights have come from, both professionally and personally. What I’ve started to do is if I have 30 minutes between two meetings, rather than schedule in 30 minutes to work on something explicit, maybe I’ll take 30 minutes to sit and think, or take 15 minutes to walk around the block and think. I don’t do this all the time, I still need to get stuff done, but leaving open some slack time has been hugely productive.
Future Planning: I am always thinking ahead. And I think that is a good thing, a very good thing. Personally that has set me up with a good foundation. And professionally that has worked out well too. I’m thinking about the future of the business, the future growth of people on my team, and setting up the pieces to make that happen. But, I’ve recognized it’s not healthy to plan too much too far in advance. It can lead to a sense of rigidity or it can cause us to miss the subtle nuance of the present (cue the cliche forest for trees metaphor – but it’s true!). I am still planning for the future, but I am leaving open more adaptability and trying to be more present.
Running: I don’t mean physically, I’m actually running more. I mean proverbially. This is my biggest reflection of the last year. I realize I have been running, or maybe a better articulation is resisting. God has placed me in the Kitchener-Waterloo region but I’ve never truly embraced it. I never thought I would go to school here, but I came for a recruiting trip for football and felt God clearly tell me I was to go to Laurier. I resisted at first but when I committed I never felt better. But I maintained that after I graduated I was out of here. This wasn’t home. I thought I would move back to Burlington. Maybe I’d keep working in KW but I wasn’t going to “live” in KW. I own a house here but I bought it pragmatically as an investment. I saw undervalued property, and I was here, so I might as well buy a place. When Covid hit and I went back to Burlington I thought this was a perfect time to move back, permanently. I started prepping my house in Waterloo to sell and started looking for a house back home. It made logical sense to me, that is where family is, why wouldn’t God want me to be close to family? As I got closer and closer to putting my house on the market, I prayed about it a lot and felt a strong conviction to sell. That was another sign I was supposed to move back. But as I started to look at houses in Burlington I felt God telling me no. This was confusing to me. I had always planned to move back. But I felt God tell me to stop running. He put me in KW, got me plugged into a church here, and I started to build strong relationships here. Why was I running? As I prayed about it, it felt abundantly clear this is where I am supposed to me. It’s time for me to commit, to put down roots, and invest in being here. I made that decision about 6 weeks ago. But I still felt I was supposed to sell my house. Immediately after committing that I was supposed to stay here, another house came on the market, that I saw online and felt strongly that this was the place for me, even before seeing it in person. Out of an act of being responsible, I did go see it, but had already planned to make an offer. I got the house. But it’s not about the house itself it’s that me buying it is an act of committing to being here. A big part of this connects back to my reflections on relationships and faith. It’s not that God is telling me to stay in KW because he wants my tax dollars to go to the city of Kitchener. I’m rooting myself here because I believe this is where I can make the biggest impact, and it’s the place that I believe will have the biggest impact on me. There are people here I am invested in and are invested in me. It feels good to stop running. I have been in KW for 8 years, but never thought of it as anything other than a temporary stop. That stopped me from investing in anything here. Now I am committing to making this more than a temporary stop. I am committing to being in KW, and I am excited about that. More than that, I’m listening to God. I am excited about year twenty eight, and the years to follow.
There will undoubtedly be more challenges and more learnings ahead, but I am excited that I don’t know what I don’t know. Looking forward to capturing those next year in v28.0.