A Reflection on Thriving in 2016

In 2016, I reached new heights, literally, by making it to Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, landed my first Fortune 500 client, became a Global Shaper and Hive Global Leader, stepped out of my comfort zone many times, and grew in the face of unexpected transition.

Never before have I spent multiple days game planning, reviewing, and defining a year before it has happened. At the tail end of 2015, I used Susannah Conway’s workbook to do a full review of 2015 and jump start 2016 with purpose.

With Conway at my side, I bravely embraced the challenge of laying the groundwork for the year ahead. With all this prep and understanding, I knew with certainty I had chosen the word to guide me in the direction that would best suit the year ahead.

Drumroll please, the chosen word was thrive because it had that certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’ factor about it. Thrive means to flourish or to prosper. To me, it meant stuffing my excuses into a bottle and throwing them out to sea. It was also undoubtedly influenced by the shiny new job that awaited me at the beginning of 2016. In addition to choosing a word for the year, I set specific goals in the categories of personal finance, leadership, relationships, and for my career.

On a macroscale, 2016 was crummy for many many reasons as we all agree on at this point. For the sake of this review of 2016, I’m focused on a microscale, what happened in my life and in my world this year. This includes the top five learnings on the specific goals I mentioned above.

I joined a design consulting firm in January that focused on design coaching for startups and enterprises, workplace experience design, and service design. I walked into the experience with limited knowledge of the field of service design. It became obvious very quickly that my background in production and operations management as well as my structural, systems take on problem solving would be a strong match to service design thinking.

I immersed myself in all things service design. I read books on service design, held impromptu interviews with service design thinkers, watched countless hours of Birgit Mager speak on the topic, and joined service design communities across the world. I spent a lot of time educating myself and my peers on the purpose and power of service design.

To my surprise, I fell in love. I fell in love with this collaborative, innovative, systems based, design, and improvisational approach to solving our most wicked problems. The discovery of service design has led me to hosting Raleigh’s first Global Service Jam, and has created in me a real yearning to think and do service design work during my career.

My role within the design firm led me to Collision Conference, one of the world’s largest tech conferences, to connect with startup founders and VCs. Collision takes place every April in the heart of New Orleans and allowed me to explore the birthplace of jazz.

I giddily stayed an extra two days to attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and to stuff my face with the infamous beignets from Cafe du Monde. I saw Paul Simon play “The Sound of Silence” and danced up a storm in the Gospel Tent.

More importantly, after my jaunt to NOLA and throughout 2016 I began embracing jazz as a way of life. I wanted to see what it could teach me. I started seeing the parallels between jazz and design, much like IDEO did in this beautiful piece they wrote last May. Between jazz and event planning, between jazz and….. the list goes on and on.

I started seeking jazz out everywhere I could. I ended up at Cecile McLorin Salvant, Snarky Puppy, and Lake Street Dive performances. Began singing jazz. During the presidential election, I swooned over the original composition by Sara Bareilles entitled Seriously? performed by Leslie Odom Jr.

Then following about a month after the New Orleans trip, WHAM!, without much warning my life changed. I lost my job with a three day notice in the middle of the year and I needed to embrace the lessons of jazz in a whole new way. Questions swirled in my head, How will I make money? Where is my career headed? What’s the next note or step now?

As George Gershwin says, “Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.”

When this sudden change occurred in my life, I chose to follow Gershwin’s advice and improvised. I thought quickly and confidently reaching out to other jazz players (friends, acquaintances) and seeing what new jazz band (company) I could join. By the fall, I had leapfrogged my way from a stop gap part-time project management role to a full-time Director of Operations position with a successful tech startup.

Although I grew up studying leadership, there is still this nagging voice in my head that says, “If you don’t attend a university that everyone in the universe has heard of or have started a company by 21 you just won’t make a dent.” Call it lack of confidence or imposter syndrome, but finding my voice as a leader and making space at the table has been a learning process.

My nagging voice was quieted quickly because in 2016 more than any other year in my life, I needed to step up to be a leader again and again. I stepped into two Director of Operations roles within twelve months and co-founded four new community initiatives in Raleigh-Durham (here, here, here, and here).

In February, I was honored to be invited to facilitate Startup Weekend Social Impact event in Raleigh. To be a strong leader, you need strong public speaking skills. I saw this as an incredible opportunity to give back to the Startup Weekend community that I love so dearly. It was a rewarding experience to see incredible members of my community, new and old, find their voice and create companies that are still running today!

With my surprise, I then had the phenomenal opportunity in March to facilitate again during the Startup Weekend at Alphalab, a top hardware accelerator program for early stage companies, in the heart of Pittsburgh.

In May, I accepted my nomination as a fellow of the Hive Global Leaders Program, a global network of leaders and CEOs and attended the program in San Francisco. In late June, I hosted the Creative Mornings RDU speaker series. And in July, I was in Geneva to represent my city as the incoming Curator for the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers initiative attending sessions at the UN, World Trade Organization, and World Economic Forum HQ.

I list these experiences out above for one major reason, I am amazed at what I was able to accomplish and contribute as a young leader in twelve short months. It gives me hope that I can continue down a path of true impact and that I can cultivate what it takes to positively change the world around me.

This year taught me that if I work hard enough, silence the inner critic, and go into any situation with a clear enough vision, I do have a seat at the leadership table. What it has also shed light on is that it takes grit and discipline.

As Steven Pressfield says, ““If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” and then he goes on to say, “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

In 2016, I became a leader.

Patience for Prosperity

The average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loans. I graduated in 2012 and have been paying off my loans ever since.

I very deliberately decided this debt ball and chain needed to come off. I made a lot of sacrifices and socked away enough money to pay off my student loans in full. Most millennials keep the ball and chain of student loans well into their late 30s or beyond, most at no fault of their own.

I chose to go full force, drink fewer coffees, eat fewer scones, and travel smarter or not at all. The mental and physical benefits of ridding my life of debt was immense. It was as if a cloud of doom that I didn’t even know was there, had been lifted off of my life. I felt an overall lower amount of stress and anxiety and an immediate sense of relief. Since paying them off, I’ve started a Roth IRA and built an emergency fund that would last as an entire major league baseball season. This took patience and willpower to do.

It also took reading up on Mr. Money Mustache articles and understanding my relationship with money to find a path to financial freedom in such a short span of time.

2016, at least in my world, was far from the worst year ever. It was one of the best years of my life so far. I truly did thrive. I blew the lid off of so many of personal assumptions and made strides towards becoming the person I want to be.

Let’s see what 2017, the year of flow, will hold.

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I make experiences worth having. Write about how we work, tech, belonging, and other musings. @Techstars @WEF. More at jenriedel.com