It's very strange. It really doesn't seem like 10 years. It feels more like two years. A lot hasn't changed since then, and a lot has. The biggest change for me, obviously, is that I'm writing. I didn't start working on my first novel until November 2001. And of course I never expected or even thought of being published. So, what did I think about in 2000? Other than the normal existential questions and daily life issues, I honestly don't know. I think I was just happy to be alive to see the new century, and happy to have a good job after a few years of stagnant professional growth.
A lot has changed since 2000.
9/11 happened, for one thing. Bush became President, twice. The stock market crashed, twice. We now have an African-American president (I mean, Obama's father actually came from Africa!). The economy is even more global now. We still have two wars going on that have gone on for more than six years -- longer than WWII. So, yes, it's a different world from 10 years ago.
With all these changes, however, I still don't know if I have changed much personally. In many ways, I'm still the same person. I look at my pictures from 1999 and 2000 and I don't see a lot of difference (OK, I won't fool myself -- I looked younger). And in a way, it's a good thing.
Life's been kind to me.
In December 1999, I went to Europe to celebrate the holidays. I planned to go to Mont Blanc, Switzerland to ski. But the storm of the century deterred my plans, and I ended up spending a few extra day in Paris with my cousin. Lemon, meet lemonade. In hindsight, that was an eventful trip that I will never forget: for example, how we were stuck at the train station in France and I had no idea how to use the public phones (back then, I didn't have a cell phone that worked internationally); I had the most wonderful, eight-course Christmas dinner in Paris; then we paid $900 for two nights in a crummy hotel in New York, before spending twelve hours right in front of the Coca Cola sign in Time Square waiting for the Year 2000 ball to drop.
Ten years later, I'm much more relaxed and laid back and I plan to go to bed early before the clock strikes twelve on January 1. Yes, I'm getting old, but I don't really feel old, just more relaxed. I don't feel the need to go out and paint the town. My priorities have changed.
And in many ways, that's how I feel about a lot of things these days. Sure, I have my bouts of aggression and ambitions. I have my passing moments of frantic self-doubt. And like everyone else, I brace myself every day for the unexpected and manage to keep my head above water most of the time. Still, one thing I've realized over the years (and sometimes I forget) is that it's all in the work. It's not about how others see me, how I can "get ahead," or how I "deserve to be treated." But it's about the work I do, and how I do it. And let the rest follow.
Sometimes when we see how people get ahead of us, getting their 15 or 20 minutes of fame, getting book and movie deals, etc. and we start to feel sorry for ourselves. And then hopefully we understand -- as we did many times before but forget -- these people work hard for their successes, whether we agree or not . They may have actively sought out fame and fortune, but they work really hard, without a guarantee. They followed their dreams and put everything in action. And I sure don't have a guarantee, but I can work hard.
I just came across a letter I got from the then-CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner, in 1998. It was a commendation for a job well done. Me! A "nobody" corporate drone in a company of 300,000 employees and I got a personal letter from the top dog. The letter reminds me of a few things:
- Focus on our work and do our best. Keep doing it.
- Don't ask for anything but the reward of the work itself. No expectations.
- If we've done good work, others will notice.
- Have fun!
I never thought I would be noticed. I never thought I would be commended by the CEO of the company, I never thought I would get a substantial pay raise and a promotion after that letter (trust me, it was substantial). I never thought I would enjoy the work so much, when fame and fortune weren't even in my mind. I never thought I would make great friends with the people I worked with, because we had a common goal of doing great work of which we could be proud.
You see, these lessons are there, but often we look but don't see, or we hear but don't listen. And over the years, we forget. We are creatures of habits and selective amnesia. When we get hung up on something, we tend to forget what we've learned in the past. But once in a while, something happens and it pushes us back into a corner and we're forced to reevaluate everything, and we remember. We've been there before, and we've learned a few things. We just choose to forget sometimes. It's like going back on a bad diet or giving up on exercising.... it just seems easier that way. No more efforts; no more challenges. Out of sight, out of mind. But sooner or later, we'd wake up and realize, we've been there before, and this "easier" path is not really easier. It keeps us down. It stops us from moving forward. It's all smoke and mirrors. It's there so that others can't see our pain and struggles. So others can't be jealous of us for our successes. So others can feel a bit better about themselves because we're no different than they.
The price of going with the "easy" is that we become complacent, lazy, timid, fearful, out of self-control, with a protracted sense of defeat: "What's the point? Why bother?" The price is we're missing out of what life has to offer. The price is we fall out of love with our work, our loved ones, and our lives.
The 10's are upon us soon. Maybe it's time to reflect on what we've learned in the past 10 years, and think big. Dream big. It was only 8 years ago when I started my journey as a writer. I have yet a long way to go. And I'm ready to do the work.