I turn 29 today. Not to be dramatic, but I look back on the past year and feel like I died and came back to life multiple times. In many ways, this year was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. It also required more courage than I ever thought possible.
A whirlwind year
My birthday always coincides with the start of the school year, which means it’s usually a time of transition for students and people connected to students. Last fall, I started the MBA at Yale along with a transition from our lovely community in Los Angeles to New Haven, Connecticut. Meanwhile, we launched the first pilot for our mental health startup. Aaron took on multiple jobs, including one working with the police in child trauma cases. So many aspects of our lives felt significant, sometimes heavy.
My first fall semester was crazy. My days were 12-16 dizzying hours long, and I felt constantly torn between schoolwork and startup work. I simultaneously discovered just how productive I could be, and how challenging it was to be thoroughly present through all that productivity. I heard inspiring people speak at Yale, won several prizes for our startup, did poorly in a couple classes, and made a handful of really good friends.
Winter commenced with an epic family trip to Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. I launched 2019 in Chile with a bruise on my face from passing out due to dehydration. Between February and April, I traveled to Peru and Ecuador, lost a major grant for our startup, and grieved the death of my grandfather. I took a week off in February to attend Aaron’s dissertation defense and another week off in April to bury my grandfather in Taiwan. When school ended in May, we had received enough prize money to plan a summer working on the startup, and I was relieved to be done with year 1 of the MBA.
In early June, we hit our 5-year wedding anniversary and celebrated by returning to Paris, our honeymoon destination, for a long weekend. My summer having started, I dedicated some time for networking and reconnecting with friends in California, followed by a month in June to prepare for our month of startup work in Mexico in July.
Our time in Mexico was transformative for our startup, and detrimental for my health. I was somehow sick or in pain throughout the entire trip, with one of the symptoms lasting for two full months. In fact, I am still healing. The amount of pain I’ve been in this year amounts to more pain than I remember experiencing over the course of my life. After a particular procedure, my body seized up for 48 hours afterwards due to the intensity of the pain, with soreness shooting through my eyes, fingers and toes. As I discovered, this is a common post-operative complication, and a very unpleasant one.
This past week, I had the honor of speaking as one of Yale’s female entrepreneurs at the University celebration of 150 years of women in its graduate programs. This coincided with an article featuring my experience as a social startup founder in a business publication. Honestly, I don’t love the spotlight, but I accept it as an opportunity to encourage others like me to be brave with their dreams.
Lessons from the past year
This year was emotionally stressful, mentally taxing, and physically painful. It was also exhilarating, exciting, illuminating, empowering, and affirming. I’ve begun to stop asking myself why something is happening to me, and rather what it might be teaching me. As it turns out, there’s a lot to learn when you choose adventure.
Lesson 1: Vulnerability invites kindness, not judgment.
Vulnerability rescued me in so many of the breaking points of this year. Whether I was getting sick in Latin America, feeling stressed about pitching our startup, or struggling to understand something in class, I learned to ask for help in ways I’ve honestly never had to before. The challenge of sharing the very real shame I felt about my body and my abilities forced me to realize that people don’t judge me the way I judge myself. They actually tend to be far more generous and compassionate. And I need to borrow that compassion at times when I’m angry about my own weaknesses or incapacities.
Lesson 2: God promises to sustain us in suffering, not protect us from it.
One of my personal heroes, Father Greg Boyle who started the US’s largest gang intervention program, writes that “God has protected me from nothing but sustained me in everything.” The longer I live, the more I witness horrible, painful things that happen to faithful people. I suppose I’ve always known this, but now I know it in new ways. Earlier this year, a good friend’s niece died suddenly from a heart incident. She was nine years old with no known medical conditions. Though I didn’t know her personally, her death held my heart and attention for weeks.
In my own life, I experienced and witnessed more suffering this year than ever before. Falling ill and being in constant pain in Mexico, while we were working with communities torn by violence, was a strange experience in shared suffering that was new to me. Still, somehow, we were able to launch a second pilot with an amazing partner that is doing important and exciting work. In truth, I wanted God to have protected me from my health issues. Instead, God sustained me.
Lesson 3: People need your courage, not your fear.
I remember vividly the experience of sitting across from a torture victim this summer. He was a Mexican journalist who had been captured by the police and left to die in the Sonoran desert. Here was a survivor whose experience was nearly inconceivable to me. And yet there he was, laughing, discussing the news, and kissing me on the cheek goodbye as they are custom to do in Latin cultures.
We had encountered him because he needed a place to recover from the nightmares he had experienced, and we are working with local partners to create that space for many more like him. Am I afraid of failure, misunderstanding, and a lack of support for what we’re doing? Absolutely. But does he need me to bring that fear to the table or the solutions we create? Absolutely not.
Even as I’ve become more open to vulnerability, I recognize that when people need us to stand up, they need us to do so with great courage and conviction. We can admit our fears, but we can’t lead with our fears; all too often, our fears keep us from serving in the ways we should. And people have enough fears of their own; what they need is for us to be brave for them.
Stepping into 30
As I enter the final year of my 20s, my desires are simple, if challenging. I’d like to continue to live openheartedly. To be faithful to my commitments. To behave authentically in a self-promoting world. And to encourage others to do the same.
I want to show myself a little more compassion, knowing that my wellbeing directly affects the way I create, lead, relate, and build. And I hope to make the most of my final year in graduate school, a chance to engage with fascinating people and cutting-edge ideas that might inform how I make decisions later.
I’m so grateful for this year in all its fullness of highs and lows. Thanks for being here.