The Pain of Looking Back & The Power of Moving Forward
Farewell 2023. Hello 2024.
Hey, it’s Alexandra. Welcome to my weekly newsletter where I share what I’m learning to facilitate professional development & well-being.
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In this week’s newsletter, I share insights from:
Looking back reluctantly on 2023
Moving forward empowered in 2024
Giving myself grace at my best & worst
☕️ Read time: 10 mins (so grab a tea or coffee)
Happy New Year. 2024 is upon us and I hope you’re feeling the vibrant energy of a fresh start—as I am. Truthfully, throughout December, as people posted highlight reels of their “Year End Reviews,” I felt more and more resistance to reflect on my own. 2023 was a rough year for me. And I sure as hell didn’t want to relive it.
Looking back, last year wasn’t a standalone though. It was the culmination of the past four years reaching a breaking point.
I (unknowingly) started running a marathon back in January 2020 when I decided to broaden my career by studying learning design and technology remotely from Paris while working full-time at Ubisoft. Fast forward to the Pandemic rocking France (and the rest of the West) mid-March and I wound up moving back to Montreal unexpectedly, changing employers while continuing my studies, then eventually diving into solopreneurship as a full-time gig and taking a boatload of other courses on writing, marketing, financial planning, and so on to try to keep my solo venture afloat.
I covered a lot of distance in that time, strenuously rowing many oars both mentally and physically. 2020 through 2022 was a challenging period. But I always bounced back from my darkest hours—the moments in which I felt my quests were “over” or that I’d “failed.” I’d find a resurgence of energy and declare “I’m back.” And ultimately year after year the highs outweighed the lows.
But 2023 was different.
Looking Back (Reluctantly)
The year started off well. I launched my first course entirely on my own and had some great students launch courses of their own in taking it. That was an incredible win for me. But I never got the marketing off the ground and so despite a strong start, my intake petered out and I was left feeling exhausted amid the fog of what to do next.
I started having chronic pain in both wrists that shot up my arms and on occasion, my neck. At one point the right side of my neck became so stiff I couldn't turn my head for 48 hours. My doctor misdiagnosed it as carpel tunnel and prescribed wrist braces and rest. A minimally invasive surgery was said to be an option if things got exceedingly worse.
But after weeks of agony and utter boredom from being unable to do much of anything from working out to reading a book—not to mention being unproductive workwise—a physiotherapist set me straight. She identified the problem as a pinched nerve in my neck and fixed it through (painful) massage therapy and a twice-daily at-home stretching routine.
(FYI My doctor is amazing but I learned through this ordeal that General Practitioners don’t study the nerves running from your neck to your hands—like the pesky Ulnar nerve that wreaked havoc on me—anywhere near as closely as physiotherapists. I also learned that like muscles, it’s important to stretch your nerves. Who knew?)
I had a playlist on shuffle the other day and just as I looked at my phone to check the time, Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” popped up. Lyrics aside, if I had to title my summer based on a song, it would be “Cruel Summer”. July and August were brutal months for me.
I was burnt out, anxious, and lost. I also made $0 in that time despite expending effort as though I was running inside a hamster wheel. And the worst part was despite everyone around me assuring me I’d bounce back, I feared I wouldn't.
For weeks, I believed I couldn’t. My entire world seemed to have lost its colour. Everything that used to be vibrant was suddenly a dull, static grey.
Fortunately, after some much-needed respite in the latter half of the summer, and some deeply appreciated support from family and friends (you know who you are), colour returned to my life like fall foliage.
And with renewed energy, I got clarity about what I wanted in the future and implemented those changes. I wrote more about this in the following newsletters should you wish to revisit them:
My Latest New Beginning (From Solopreneur to 9-5er)
Winter (Take 2)
After most notably making the shift from full-time solopreneur to 9-5er with a great company in a hybrid work environment here in Montreal, I feel especially grateful for the more steady and social dynamic I have now.
And I still plan to take on the odd consult, side project, etc., and continue honing my skills as an entrepreneur. I wrote this a bit over a year ago, in November 2022:
Until recently, I was timid about referring to myself as an entrepreneur. After many years of aspiring to quit my job and become an entrepreneur, it sometimes feels surreal that I’m finally doing it. But I am. I’m an entrepreneur now. And by recognizing that, I’m emboldened to act like one.
Funnily enough, I figured shifting to a 9-5 dynamic would mean hanging up my entrepreneurial hat—that I no longer “qualified.” Yet after walking through fire these past couple of years, I feel more confident than ever in referring to myself as an entrepreneur, regardless of how limited my pursuits are at present. The identity shift is the real win and it’s one I plan to honour in years and decades to come.
My Advice to My Past Self (or Anyone Going Through It)
It’s hard to see the light when you’re in the thick of things but you always come out stronger and wiser if you have the patience—and support system—to ride out rough storms and barren deserts.
But hell, don’t take my word for it. These are two of my favourite sayings on hard times and having the resilience to get through them:
Finally, here’s another spiel I stumbled upon on Instagram that reminded me that growing pains are never in vain:
Cheers to the journey ahead and being that much more prepared for it.
Funnily enough, despite my initial resistance to reliving my “year from hell,” my iPhone forced my hand with an autogenerated photo recap. And as I watched photos fade in and out from my annual family trip to Maine, posing with my sisters and cousins at my brother’s engagement party, my nephew celebrating his first birthday, and countless other photos capturing happy moments with family and friends, I felt grateful. That’s the energy I’m taking with me into 2024. I’ve released all my disappointments and painful memories like balloons into the sky.
Moving Forward (Empowered)
“All work and no play” didn’t pan out in The Shining and it proved pretty damn scary for me too. So to avoid future burnout, I’ve decided not to set any audacious career goals this year. The grind of the past four years was an investment to be sure, but it came with a hell of a cost. So in the spirit of adding more “play” to my palette, I’ve set three intentions for 2024 that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with enjoying life in general.
🎹 Piano Forte
My favourite thing about the boarding halls in Paris airports is the pianos available for use free of charge. On one particular visit back to Montreal (I was living in Paris at the time), there was a rowdy group of pre-teens who must’ve been heading out on a school trip.
Their supervisors were trying to keep everyone under control to no avail when one of the students sat down at a free piano and started to play. Unlike the amateur noise you hear from most users, this guy played well. Within seconds, his peers had gathered around the grand piano and were listening intently (and filming, of course).
Silence fell over the boarding area as he continued to play and I remember thinking as the sun streamed through the glass ceiling what a perfect, serene moment it was. The kind you want to bottle up and revisit like a time capsule.
All that to say, I love the piano and one of my intentions for the new year is to get good at playing it. I took lessons as a kid and really liked the piano but really didn’t like my teacher, so I quit.
The cool thing is I still remember how to read sheet music. The downside is I’m pretty limited in converting that into actual music. I just got a keyboard to practice on and within minutes of using it for the first time I sent a voice note to a friend saying “I’m screwed.” But an hour later, having realized I need to start with simple songs, I sent an update saying “I’m back” with this Elton John meme:
I’ve got a long way to go until I can try my hands at an Elton tune but I’m excited about the road ahead. Stay tuned (no pun intended) for updates on my learning and development as a pianist—there are sure to be many insights that apply to professional development at large.
P.S. I shall now refer to my piano-playing journey as my “piano forte” because I’ve been binging Bridgerton and Pride And Prejudice over the break and I swear 20% of their plots involve “pianofortes” (the formal name of the instrument before we went casual à la “piano”).
🇮🇹 Italy Bound
It was June 10, 2010, when I touched down on Italian soil for the first time. I was a twenty-year-old university student and part-time café worker meeting three friends at the halfway point of their nine-week “Euro Trip.” It was a day of firsts: my first solo flight, my first time in Europe, and my first time catching a train in Italy.
Back then, I had no idea what I was in for. And I clearly looked naive because on my flight over, an attendant who looked about forty asked me if I was travelling alone and told me “to be careful.” I assured them I would and smiled to myself thinking “If only they knew how many people had said as much to me in the lead-up to my trip.” The most hilarious instance was my aunt saying “One time I was swarmed by gypsies!” The eruption of laughter around the dinner table among my cousins, siblings, and friends was unforgettable.
Until I visited Europe, I ignorantly associated gypsies with whimsical, scarf-waving characters portrayed in Disney films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So the idea of such a “swarm” posing a threat was hysterical.
But as I later told the others, I learned quickly that anyone could reasonably pose a threat. My most vivid awakening to this was my solo train ride from the airport to Rome. As I was moving from the platform to the train a petite, kind-looking woman approached me with a map in hand. She was frantic, speaking fast, and presumably asking for directions as two children pranced around her. As I channelled my brain energy into trying to understand her, it took me a few seconds to register that the kids were now patting me down and reaching into my pockets looking for money. She had distracted me.
Fortunately, I pulled away and met my friends without further issues. But another embarrassing sign of my ignorance at age twenty was the fact that I embarked on my five-week Euro trip without giving a single thought to learning basic words and phrases to get by in the countries I was visiting. Like many Canadians, I just assumed people would speak English everywhere. And while it is common for many people to have a basic level of English, I know now that it’s obnoxious to expect locals to cater to you.
That’s why one of my intentions this year is to learn some simple phrases in Italian. Because, guess what? I’m headed back to Rome next summer, a whopping fourteen years since I was there last (granted I’ve been to other parts of Italy in that time like Sorrento, Capri, Naples, and Pompei).
My brother’s getting married in the “Eternal City” so it’ll be a doubly special trip visiting with family and revisiting the place where my love affair with Europe began in June 2010. In any case, I’ve started using Duolingo to learn how to do basic things like order coffee, food, or ask for directions in Italian.
I shared this one particular prompt in our family group chat because Duolingo is known for its humorous turn of phrases. In this particular example, the “I am the man” prompt is accompanied by a mustache man blowing kisses with a rapid-fire of heart emojis:
Also, I once helped a friend get set up with Duolingo’s French lessons and was dying laughing when their first prompt was to translate “You eat like a pig.” Their marketing in general is pretty funny. The best was their Halloween Instagram reel inspired by Mean Girls:
Side note: I’m sharing this as humour—like other emotions—boosts retention. It’s good to keep this in mind when you’re learning new things as not only does it make the process more fun, but it also makes things easier. (I’ve written more about this in a newsletter aptly titled Emotional Teaching.)
💌 Newsletter Love
Another intention for this year is to maintain my weekly writing ritual. That means sending out another 52 newsletters in 2024. I’m proud to say today’s edition marks the first step toward that achievement.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, my newsletter has been a powerful outlet for me since I launched it in October 2021. Since then, it’s been both a weekly reflection prompt and a picture window to share my journey with you. And rather poetically, Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” came on as I was wading into this (somewhat) painful reflection on 2023. These lyrics spoke to me:
“Don’t wish it away,
Don’t look at it like it’s forever.
Between you and me, I could honestly say…
that things can only get better.”
An optimistic and wise message. I’ll have to add this song to my “piano forte.”
In any case, thank you for making space for me in your inbox. Someday I’m going to write a book, and the writing muscle I’m building, the ideas I’m exploring, and the stories I’m capturing will serve me in that aim. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the journey. I’m grateful to count you a part of it.
I mentioned the three intentions I’ve shared above are intentionally non-work related because my ultimate priority is to strike a healthier balance between work and play (after working incessantly the past few years). The irony of this is each of these three things will make me better at my work because they’ll:
Expand my mind
Spark my creativity
Make me more articulate
Make me more empathetic
Enhance my self-awareness
All of which will make me better at guiding, teaching, and mentoring others. It goes to show you don’t have to strictly focus on conventional “work” to become a better worker. So you may as well chase enjoyment guilt-free.
Thank You & Well Wishes
One of my favourite things about rewatching favourite shows and movies is how much you notice the second time around that you didn’t the first. For instance, during my latest Bridgerton binge, the main character, Anthony, recalls a memory of his late father telling him:
“You cannot show someone your best without allowing them to see your worst.”
If I had to sum up the story arc of this particular season (season two), this one-liner would do so perfectly. But I also realized it sums up the vibe I’ve created with this newsletter. I initially questioned whether I should bother opening up about the difficult aspects of the past year, or if I’d be better off plunging straight ahead with a chipper outlook on 2024.
Ultimately, that one-liner from Mr. Bridgeton was my deciding factor.
Here’s hoping you afford yourself that same grace to show others your best and worst.
Happy New Year and have a wonder-full week,
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☕️ If you want to grab tea or coffee in Montreal, let me know when you’re in town.