by Niall Doherty

By far, 2009 was the best year of my life to date. My personal growth accelerated to unprecedented levels, I met lots of new people and tried lots of new things. Here at the end of the year, I feel I know myself a whole lot better than I did twelve months ago.

Here are five valuable lessons I learned in 2009:

Inside Out

Things look a lot different from the inside looking out than they do from the outside looking in. I came to understand this when I tried vegetarianism. It was purely for selfish reasons that I decided to experiment with plant-based diets, but after making the switch, all those other reasons (health, animal rights, environment, etc.) began to make a lot more sense.

A.J. Jacobs discovered the same truth, as recounted in his book The Year of Living Biblically. He dove in at the deep end and tried all sorts of religious customs that he previously thought ridiculous, and found positive meaning in many of them. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, as they say.

Having learned this lesson, I’m much less prone to prejudge people and their customs, and I often find myself questioning whatever preconceived notions I may have.

Honesty

I learned a lot about honesty, especially in regard to relationships. I used to find it tough being honest at the start, as I was preoccupied trying to impress the other person and avoid tension. But keeping secrets and holding back opinions always came back to bite me in the end. I eventually learned that it’s much better for everyone to lay their cards on the table early and figure out if the relationship can thrive in spite of the differences. Both parties are spared a lot of time and trouble that way.

Volunteering is win-win

I finally started volunteering in 2009, spending time helping out with various organizations around New Orleans at least once a month. Going in, I had the sense that I should volunteer simply because it was my duty: Since life was going great for me, I should sacrifice some of my free time to help the less-fortunate. Sacrifice is the key word there: I assumed I would get little, if anything, from the experience.

How wrong that assumption proved to be. I quickly discovered that helping people in need gave me a great sense of perspective. It became much easier to appreciate my own blessings and to express gratitude. Best of all, I learned that the best people in the world can be found volunteering. Seriously, if you want to meet good, honest, kind-hearted people, you’ll find them helping out at your local food line or homeless shelter.

Growing ain’t easy

Personal development is tough because you’re constantly pushing yourself to the limit to see how far you can go. A lot of self-inspection and courage is required. You have to be willing to fail and suffer embarrassments. If it’s not a struggle, take that as a sign that you could be trying harder.

Also, if you really want to grow, be prepared to go it alone. Lots of people will think you’re crazy, and many who don’t will still keep their distance. No need to be bitter about that though. Most people just want to stick with the status quo and not ruffle any feathers. Understandable, since that path proves much easier in the short term.

Accepting others

I feel I took this to a new level this past year. I used to get upset if someone was rude towards me, but now I just feel sorry for people like that. They’re simply not very good at being nice. In the end, that hurts them much more than it does me.

I also used to get frustrated with people who squandered their potential, but now I better understand and accept that nobody can be forced to grow. Same deal with small-minded people. There’s a lot of truth in these proverbs:

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

I find that by focusing on my own growth and development rather than trying to change others, I become more understanding and accepting of other people’s shortcomings, while also expanding my circle of influence.

That was 2009. Here’s to more valuable lessons sought and learned in 2010.