by Niall Doherty

It has been a fantastic year in the life of me. I met a ton of legendary people, tried lots of new things and had numerous great experiences. I march into 2011 feeling more true to myself than ever and excited for the journey ahead.

Below, in no particular order, are five important lessons I learned over the past twelve months. You might also want to check out the five lessons I learned in 2009.

1. You must give yourself permission

This is really two lessons rolled into one.

One of the more popular posts I wrote this year was titled Permission to Suck. The message is that you should do what you love even if you suck at it, because everyone sucks at first. You must give yourself permission to suck for a while. You must embrace that discomfort and awkwardness and embarrassment and keep going back for more. And if you do that consistently, you’ll eventually stop sucking.

Unfortunately, most people refuse to embrace the suck phase and give up long before they get over the hump. They never give themselves permission to suck. They’re too concerned with looking foolish at their first few dance lessons, or being the last person picked for sports, or not making any money within the first few months. The few people who can stick with something despite the suckage are those who succeed in the long run.

The second part of this lesson is that you must give yourself permission to be awesome. (If this sounds like a contradiction to the last bit, it’s not. More like a paradox.)

I learned this lesson via the Toastmasters humorous speech contest that I won in October. As I wrote in that post:

There’s this strange resistance we encounter when we set out to do something remarkable. I encountered it in the first three rounds of the contest. My speech was good enough to get me through those rounds, but I was holding back each time. I was fine practicing the speech alone in my bedroom, but when it came to delivering it in front of an audience, everything was dialed down a few notches.

It made no sense. I knew that my speech would be better received if I went all out, exaggerated my gestures, raised my voice, kept my energy high. Yet there I was, reluctant to let loose. It was as if I was afraid to succeed.

In the hours leading up to the final performance, I kept telling myself that I had permission to go all out. I even stood in front of the mirror in the restroom for a few minutes, giving myself permission to be awesome.

And hey, it worked!

Fear of failure is an obvious enemy, but just as crippling can be the fear of success. You have to believe you can be remarkable and then get out of your own way to make it happen.

2. You need less than you think

At the start of the year I owned approximately 350 things and my recurring weekly expenses amounted to more than €340/$450. Right now I own 58 things and I expect my recurring weekly expenses to be less than €230/$300 (likely closer to €200/$265, but I’ll estimate high to be safe) for the next four months.

I’ve sold my car and given up things I once considered must-haves, like television and internet on my phone. I’ve also managed to live quite comfortably for the past four months without paying any rent (here’s the CraigsList ad I used to start that adventure).

Having eliminated many of my expenses and gotten rid of all but my most useful possessions, I find myself happier than ever. There’s less clutter in my life, which makes it easier to prioritize and focus on important things, like doing meaningful work and building real relationships. With such a low overhead, I’ve also given myself a much better chance to make a living running my own small business.

I look around nowadays and see people addicted to their televisions, slaves to their wardrobes, jonesing for mobile Facebook updates. When they learn that I go without such things, the response is usually something like, “Oh, I could never do that.” But of course they can. Some expenses/possessions might be useful and worth keeping, but they’re not essential. We think many of them will make us happy, but more often than not they are blocks to happiness.

3. Environment is stronger than will power

I had known for a long time that it was important to surround yourself with the right kind of people, but Steve Pavlina‘s Conscious Growth Workshop in Las Vegas in July really drove this lesson home.

On the first day of the workshop, Steve assigned the whole group a bunch of power and courage exercises. We were asked to run down through the list and give each exercise a score from 1 to 3, the low end signifying something that was no big deal for you to do, and the high end signifying something that you’d find extremely embarrassing, scary or difficult. An example of a 1 for me was, “Ask a stranger for the time.” A 2 for me was, “Give a stranger a compliment.” And a 3 for me was, “Dance for 30-60 seconds in a public place where nobody else is dancing.”

After rating each exercise, we split up into groups of three and went out onto the Vegas Strip to do as many of them as we could. I was amazed at how much easier it was to do my 2’s and 3’s when I had support from the friends I had made at the workshop, all of whom understood what I was trying to achieve and were there to pick me right back up whenever I failed and encourage me to keep trying. By the third day of the workshop, I was doing some 3’s for the fifth or sixth time and having a blast. On returning to New Orleans, I found it more of a challenge to do the same exercises since I didn’t have the same level of reinforcement.

Since that experience, I’ve been much more selective about who I spend time with. I’m careful to surround myself with positive, passionate people who think deeply and work hard to achieve their goals. I support them, they support me, and we all accomplish far more than we ever would alone.

4. Play

My experience in Las Vegas also taught me to be a lot more playful. I learned to approach each scary situation as a game to be enjoyed, and as a result it became far less intimidating and I was more likely to receive a positive outcome.

I found this to be especially true with flirting. When I went in thinking, “How can I impress this girl?” things usually didn’t go so well. But when I went in thinking, “How can I have some fun here?” everything would flow much more easily and I’d often end up making an impression without even trying.

I delved even deeper into this lesson via my two-month experience with improv comedy before I left New Orleans. On a bit of a whim, I signed up for eight weeks of classes and learned how to look at the world like a comedian (a happy comedian, not a self-loathing one), finding humor and joy in even the dullest, most insignificant things.

I also learned how to trust myself creatively, to the point where I could eventually step out on stage in front of a crowd of people, with no script and no idea of what was about to happen, and somehow build a hilarious scene with a teammate.

To achieve this you have to give up your attachment to your identity and allow yourself to create. You are not your past. You can forget who you are and reinvent yourself at any moment.

I believe it was Tony Robbins who said, “Don’t just ask yourself, ‘How can I achieve my goal?’ Ask yourself, ‘How can I achieve my goal, and have fun in the process?’

5. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just listen

I learned this from Glen Allsopp in his birthday post on ViperChill (see #15):

A common thing for men to do when a woman is sharing her problems is to constantly offer solutions and then get frustrated when their partner is still talking about the problem after offering these “fixes”. What women want men to do at times like this is simply to listen.

I love helping people figure stuff out and offering solutions so this was a completely different approach for me, but I found it to be excellent advice. I’ve been amazed at how people (not just women) who are going through a tough time will open up and start to feel better if I just sit back and listen. It seems we all need someone to talk at every now and then, to help us verbalize our thoughts and figure out how we really feel.

I still often catch myself dispensing advice (or is it my opinion?) and offering my two cents, but I’m getting better at simply being there for people and listening more than I talk.

(By the way, if your listening skills could use some work, this post might help.)

Here’s to 2011

I’m excited for the new year. I’ll be focusing on upping my writing game, building my audience, making a living online, becoming fluent in a language other than English, and travel. At the very least, it should be an adventure 😉

What about you?

What lessons did you learn in 2010, and what are you most looking forward to in the next 12 months?