A pause to reflect

I’ve often said that by the time you finish a PhD, having spent at least 3 years immersed in a single, intense, drawn out project, all you can see is the flaws in that work. It doesn’t matter if you get glowing examiners’ reports and win awards for your work: all you know about by the end of that time is the hundreds of little ways you could have done better if you started it all again. The kind of obsessive personality who can actually finish a PhD (I’m pretty sure obsessiveness is the primary requirement for graduation) generally has a perfectionist streak approximately as wide as the infinitely expanding universe.

I’ve found that I have a similar tendency in real life. I’ve just finished a marathon year, and I’m both exhausted and a little nauseous at the thought of everything I want to achieve next year. The majority of my brain is sitting in the corner, rocking, and gibbering quietly at the thought of another year like the one just past.

Facebook puts together naff little photostreams of “the year that was” for you, collecting a moderately random set of your posts from the year into a summary of 2014. Mine seems to consist largely of animals and photos from the far distant past, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It’s a bit pointless, except that it has prompted me to consider what my 2014 really looked like. Rather than hyperventilating at the thought of the progress I still want to make, maybe there’s something to be said for stopping to consider how far I’ve come.

For a teacher it can be hard to quantify your year, especially if you don’t have year 12s. Year 12 students provide some kind of objective measure of your teaching, because their assessment is primarily external, but even then you can say “Oh, well the students were amazing, they’d have done well whoever taught them.” Which is what I tend to do when my students achieve extraordinary things – because they are invariably extraordinary kids, and it is exceptionally difficult to measure your own impact on a class full of kids with any kind of objectivity.

So you get to the end of the year having given your job everything you’ve got, and with nothing concrete to show for it. Sure, there are the amazing things your students have done, but how much of that was your doing, and how much was theirs? It’s no wonder it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much you still need to do, and feel ill at the thought of starting it all again next year.

But research shows that spending time writing down and contemplating the things you have to be grateful for can dramatically improve your emotional well being and resilience, and my suspicion is that writing down your achievements could be even more powerful.

So this evening we spent some time writing our own “year in review”. Rather than leave it to Facebook to pick a random selection of images from our 2014, we went through the year, month by month, and listed the things we remembered. It was very powerful doing this as a family, because we each remembered and prioritized different things, and we came up with a very full list of things to be grateful for, as well as things, like my heart problems, that we have survived and often learnt from.

I’m going to write that list in to our little book of thankful things, and maybe in the future we will look back at 2014 and smile, remembering the events and the people who made it remarkable. But even if we never look at it again, the act of pausing and reflecting on how far we have come this year is a potent and positive reminder of what we have achieved.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful message on Facebook this afternoon about how today is the solstice (winter for him in New York, summer for us in Melbourne), and that this is “the moment of stillness and change,” which I found a very powerful thought. We tend to rush through life without a moment to pause and reflect, and the solstice, together with the approach of Christmas and the New Year, provides a trigger to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come.

It was a hugely positive thing to do as a family. When was the last time you paused to reflect on your life?

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