Lessons from the Hardest Year of My Life

What I learned in 2021

In the last 1.5 years of COVID, I spent 85% of every day alone in my house.

This hurt my mental health and relationships a lot. I lost the best friend I’ve ever had in 2021.

I want to concisely share some practical lessons I learned this year. I hope they help you in hard times :-)

Mental Health

Everyone’s fighting two battles: them vs. themselves and them vs. the world.
The battle with myself is more important.
If I don’t value myself, I won’t grow. I won’t want to live.
Self-esteem is REQUIRED for any success. If my self-esteem is low, I MUST take action.

Worries seem tiny in a list, but tangled in my head. Think less, write more.

Don’t push away negative thoughts. Don’t overthink endlessly. Seek the balanced middle.
Ex: Journal about a sad experience. But leave the thoughts after. Work on something else.

Depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc. are feelings. If a solution makes me feel better, it works.
It doesn’t matter if it seems weird.

  • Point at myself and laugh for no reason.
  • Imagine an alien is in front of me. It has the EXACT same problems as me. What advice would I give it?
  • Talk to landmarks like trees: “I bet so many humans that pass you aren’t smiling. So I’ll make you a deal, tree. I’ll start smiling and you’ll have better sights to see! Win win!”

“Perhaps you weren’t [doing anything]. But it’s the way of doing it that counts.” — Vladimir, Waiting for Godot — Samuel Beckett

“Often, we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” — Helen Killer

“Pain is a good thing physically because that is your self-preservation mechanism. But suffering is something that you do in your mind.” — Sadhguru

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” — Viktor Frankl

“The dark thought, the shame, the malice — meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in… Each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” — Rumi

These are many ways to say one thing: I can choose how I view the situation. And some ways of viewing situations make me happier.
Practically:

  • Can I view the rejected application as an opportunity to find a better-suited job?
  • Can I view the failed friendship as a gift of time to find a closer relationship?
  • Can I view the technical error as a chance to practice patience while redoing work?

To get my mind off of troubling thoughts, try:

  • Repetitive tasks. Ex: drawing circles, jumping jacks, naming colours I see around me.
  • Square breathing
  • All these tips

My thoughts are temporary just like the weather.
They don’t decide my character. They don’t control me.
I can notice and let go.

There’s more kindness and love in the world than I’ll ever know.
Search for random acts of kindness on Youtube when I feel drained.

“Never forget — you are here because someone took care of you. And you have a responsibility to take care of others. This is what makes you great.” — Simon Sinek

When feeling cynical, think of the kind strangers who helped me in life. Also try these tips.

When hurt, be the supporter I wish I had. Plan what’d make me happy. Do that for others.
I’ll stop thinking of just me, me, me. And I’ll feel compassion. Evolutionary guarantee!

Celebrating others makes me happy more consistently than the others!
Celebrate others. It’s good for me.

Make a ‘happiness’ box. Save messages/events/memories that make me happy.
Works well for me. I’m very receptive to others’ emotions.

Venting emotions to others is a healthy habit. Not venting = doing something wrong.

Calm + rejected > angry + rejected.
In troubling times, pretend I have a test to stay calm. After, score myself on how calm I was.

Don’t make decisions while feeling negative. Wait a day before communicating with others.

Don’t act on self-doubt. Then I can be useful to others.
Ex: I met successful entrepreneurs and felt insecure. But I saw they made a textbook mistake. So I shared the textbook. Turns out they hadn’t read it :D They liked my advice.

Don’t be a victim. Self-pity makes me unhappy. It doesn’t solve problems.
Notice thoughts like: ‘this isn’t fair.’ Respond: “Don’t be a victim. What’s the first step to fix this?”

Suicide multiplies your pain 10 times and throws it on everyone around you. Make a vow to yourself or someone else to not commit suicide. — Tim Ferris

Productivity

Work with a countdown timer running. It forces me to leave what doesn’t matter.
Ex: 10 minutes to finish these emails, 30 minutes to finish this article, so on.

Work in short sprints. Ex: 15-minute bursts.
At the end of each sprint, ask: “Am I still working on the real problem? Have I gotten off track?”

Schedule time to do nothing. Just stop and think.
I’ll find new perspectives on old problems. From relationship issues to debugging code.

“You don’t need to push yourself as hard when curiosity is pulling you.” — Paul Graham

Schedule 15 minutes to research something random out of curiosity.

I can save more time fixing unnecessary work than inefficient work.
At the start of the day, ask: “What’s the least necessary thing I plan to work on?” Don’t do that or do that last.

If I don’t have a goal, I literally cannot win.
If I don’t have a goal, I can’t compare different ways of reaching it. (To find the best way)
Before starting any work, write down WHY I’m working on it.
Write down the minority of the work that has the majority of the value
.
And break down the work into smaller steps to do.

Action needs intention. Action doesn’t need tangibility.
Sometimes, it takes all the courage I can muster to do nothing. Ex: Not check notifications :D
Other times, it takes all the courage I can muster to do something tiny. Ex: break a promise I can’t keep anymore.

Structure is like a dam that slows down a river of creativity.
If I can’t get 10 good ideas, get 20 ideas. — James Altucher
Intentionally get stupid ideas! Combine 2+ stupid ideas into 1 uniquely-good idea..
Ex: What’s a unique project? A) Make video games (stupid — not unique). B) Cut off a leg (stupid — not feasible). Combine: make video games as less-boring rehab exercises for amputees.

I can create or I can polish. I can’t do both.
The first time doing something creative, make it rough! If it feels ‘scalable’, I did it wrong.

If demotivated, work on the most exciting part. That’ll motivate me to work on the regular parts after.
Ex: I was tired of theoretical AI projects. So I worked on making artsy profile pictures with AI. I gifted these to friends. This motivated me out of my rut.

When stuck for a long time, work backwards.
Ask: “What skills will I need to reach my goal? Which experts can I ask to find out?”

There’s 10% better and 10x better.
To get to 10x better, ask: “What can X do that can’t be done anywhere else?”
^ For any topic X or even any person X.

The areas I haven’t prioritised are the areas I can grow most easily.
Ex: I know nothing about sewing. I could learn how to apply a patch to clothes in 10 minutes.

Relationships

Helping Others

Supporting others isn’t simple. But there are some key pieces:

  1. Show I care. Tell others my intention is to help.
  2. Let them talk as much as possible. Ask open-ended questions. Leave silence to think. Ask for examples. Say back what they said.
  3. Ask them what they need. Don’t tell them what they should do.

More here

“Treat others the way they want to be treated.”Chris Voss

Ask others what they need:

  • Ask: “What makes you feel cared for?”
  • Ask: “What gives you energy?”
  • Ask: “What would your perfect day look like?”

When thanking, complimenting, encouraging, etc. — add SPECIFIC details.

Keep giving till I learn to stop expecting something in return.
Ex: Thank someone every day. Do a random act of kindness every day.

Pay forward the good I receive, with the energy I receive it.
Anything else is not showing gratitude.
Ex: If someone greets me enthusiastically, get out of my ‘reserved zone’ to reciprocate.

Honour commitments. Not just for others. Also, to reduce my regret & improve my self-esteem.

Want to be extra helpful? Assume they’re extra busy.
Ask: “How can I simplify their work as much as possible?”
Ask: “What would this look like if it were simple?”

Tag people on any social media post that might interest them. Low-effort way to show I’m paying attention.

At the end of any meeting, think of something I could do to help them Tim Ferris

Listening

The first step to listening is WANTING to hear from others.

I can start doing that by asking questions which bring me value. Ask others:

  • “What’s the most surprising thing you learned about this week?”
  • “What’s something [adjective] you do that most others don’t?”
  • “What’s a big challenge you’ve faced that shapes who you are today?”
  • “If you could display one statistic/lesson about [topic] on everyone’s computer screen, what would you put?”

Second, stop listening to speak.
Third, stop listening to be right.
Then, I can listen to understand.

Don’t interrupt others (information lost). Let others interrupt me (information gained).

Reasoning while motivated is like driving while drunk. — Tim Urban
Never respond before saying back what they said. Forces me to refocus on the other.

Their red isn’t my red. Ask for an example.
People can talk past each other all day with the same words.

When talking to [name], say what I learn about [name] in my head: “[Name] does [X] because [Y].” Hones in my attention on them.

To find what others are looking for, ask them why I’m worth their time.
Ex: “I’m curious, why did you decide to respond to my email?”

Avoid preprepared lists of questions in meetings.
I can’t listen to what people are saying now when thinking of what to ask next.
Instead, ask followup questions whenever possible! Shows I’m listening.

The context in which I see someone is how I judge them. Not their content.
This is reality. Work around it.
Ex: If I’m dismissing someone’s opinions, visualise them saying it at a big conference.

Beware: most strangers will never say ‘no’ to me.
To get accurate information, I need a lot of techniques to fix that bias.

Building Good Relationships

Shared past = comfort. Shared present = understanding. Shared future = excitement.
To become more comfortable around others, ask about their childhood.
To become excited around others, ask what makes them excited.
To become more understanding about others, ask:

  1. “What takes up most of your time these days?”
  2. “What are the main goals you’re working on?”
  3. “Which influences are you learning from?” Ex: Books, podcasts, people, etc.
  4. “What are your main worries right now?”
  5. “What’s been making you happy these days?”

Show others I trust them by sharing vulnerable stories.
Also: “I know X is complicated. But I really trust you can figure it out.”

Before meetings, recall one thing someone told me in our last meeting. Ask them about it again. Shows I’m paying attention.

Choose more common words. So I don’t sound like an evil robot :D

Making friends is not others showing interest/appreciation for me.
Making friends is me showing interest/appreciation for others.
Go on social media and post compliments on the first 10 posts I see. Even if they’re ads!
Ask people personal questions. Ex: about their childhood, family, dreams, worries, etc.

A story starting with achievement is a cue to tune out. A story starting with struggle is a cue to listen in.
Be vulnerable first. Share my struggles with others from the very first meeting.

Excitement is a skill. Train how to greet others as enthusiastically as possible.Dale Carnegie
Start by smiling more. And always name something I’m grateful for when asked how I am.

Enthusiasm hack: just add more exclamation marks and emojis!!
Either I feel more enthusiastic or I laugh at myself.

Not everything happens with intention and not everything with intention happens.
Ex: Fun & relationships thrive in spontaneity. Go into a meeting without plans once a month.

If I feel I have to change myself around someone, I won’t enjoy being around them.
Thank people who let me be myself around them.

The people are worth more than the paper.
When I got my diploma, it meant nothing to me. My teachers were nice though.

Handling Conflicts

The problem isn’t that it didn’t turn out the way I cherished.
The problem is that I didn’t cherish the way it turned out.
Stop trying to change others so much. I’ll regret being ungrateful for who they are.

I judge myself based on thoughts and actions. Why judge others based on only actions?
Look beyond results. Ask others about their intentions. Especially in conflict/failure.

Defer conflicts until I’m face-to-face with the other. It’s hard to understand the meaning behind words over text.

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” — Robert Hanlon

Default to assuming the best in others. Don’t search for ulterior motives. I’m not great at searching.” — Me :-)

Don’t make others’ problems my problems. When others come to me to start a conflict, I don’t have to respond to it. I can walk away.

When in a conflict, calm down by:

  1. Asking: “What could possibly have made them do that?”Dale Carnegie
  2. Being grateful: “Thank god I’m not them” :D

I don’t need to be in control to feel calm.
If I accept what’s out of my control, I’ll also feel calm.
This works well with relationships: “They’re going to [verb] and it’s out of my control. Oh well.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

One bad trait doesn’t make someone entirely bad.

Ask: “What sacrifices are they making here?” to focus less on me, me, me.

Bizarre behaviour comes from bizarre beginnings.
They’re not crazy. There’s some information I’m missing.
When someone seems odd, don’t step back. Step forward to understand.

When jealous, compare myself to those less fortunate than me.

Fear and worry decrease my ability to empathise/listen.
If worried/afraid, warn others upfront that I’m emotional & that I’m not listening well.

Don’t tolerate people who make me feel guilty about needing what I need.
I can be safe and still feel unsafe. Don’t tolerate people who make me feel unsafe.
Distance myself from them. Don’t argue with them.

Ex: “Okay, I understand. Oops, sorry but I have to go do _____ now.”Bill Eddy

Too much ego? Talk to someone who worked ten times harder to get to the same place as me. Meet ambitious youth in developing countries especially.

How to argue less: ask myself: “Am I helping the situation right now?”

Persuasion

I work harder for my idea than others. So do most humans.
Don’t tell people what to do. Let them think of my idea by asking guiding questions.
Ask new teammates what motivates them.
Ask for specific examples.

To prompt action in others, send them a [very rough] first draft myself.
People will hesitate to start acting, but they won’t hesitate to correct me.

How to say no without feeling guilty: “I feel guilty just saying this, but… [insert honest reason for no]”

How to disagree without feeling uncomfortable: “I want to be honest with you… [state disagreement].”

Life Lessons

A Good Life

“The only real test of intelligence is if you get what you want out of life.” — Naval Ravikant

“The only real test of intelligence is if you pursue what you want in life.” — Me :D

What I love is what I love. Prestige is worthless when I’m dying.

“All greatness comes from suffering.” — Naval Ravikant

“Remember… broken people just like yourself have reached unbelievable greatness.” — Me :D

I researched the childhoods of 27 influential historical figures. For 24 of them, I learned how they faced a lot of childhood suffering.
No matter the pain I’ve been through, I can get unimaginably better.

“Nobody publishes your balance sheet in your obituary.” — Howard Stevenson

“Nothing wrong with money. But the richest of your life won’t be measured by it.” — Source

The more I expect, the more I’m setting myself up for disappointment.

There are different types of success. Ex: family, career, legacy, happiness, …
I have to JUGGLE between them.
Sometimes, I have to drop one ball to catch another.
Be careful about which balls I drop. Career balls are bouncy. Family balls are glass. — Howard Stevenson

Don’t make one thing everything. It’s not that the thing is bad. It’s good. It’s just that it’s limited good. — Sadhguru

What I work on > who I work with > how consistently I work > how hard I work. — Naval Ravikant

“All the golden heros are walking flaws who have maximised one or two traits.” — Tim Ferris

Human expertise is very variable. How many people that impressed me with skill A were horrendous at skill B? I just didn’t hear about skill B.

Learn about how horrible the past was. It’ll make me feel grateful to live in the modern world.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is a helpful podcast for this.

Good Habits

At the start of a day, remind myself of the things that may go wrong.
And realise those possibilities aren’t as bad as they seem.
Don’t expect bad things to happen. But acknowledge bad things may happen.
This works well when planning tasks for the day (ex: X may cancel the meeting).

Do something that’ll benefit my future self.
Ex: Put a reminder to make my bed in my journal so I’ll see it the next morning.

Death is weird. Being reminded of it creates messy emotions. But also some benefits:

  • Remember that I’ll do [current action] for the last time someday. Maybe even today.
  • Remember I might look back on this current moment wistfully. Because I’ll likely have more problems as I get older and closer to death.

Both will make me appreciate the present.

Before starting, plan multiple approaches for my goal. And how long to spend on one before switching to another.

Just ask. No matter how complicated my problems are. Others often relate.

  • Ex: I can search the most vulnerable issues on Reddit. I’ll find dozens of others with the same issue. Ex: “site:reddit.com I worry I make others sad” → post
  • Ex: It’s easy to ask for advice by making the question about them. “Could I ask you for advice on how to deal with anxiety?” → “How do you deal with anxiety?”

Just try. Each new experience leads to the next one. Even if the first wasn’t valuable, it might lead to a valuable one — Jesse Pound

When I stumble across awe or beauty, leave everything else. Witness that moment.
The sunrise a minute later won’t be the sunrise I see now.

If I don’t know what to do, helping others is a good default :D
It benefits others, makes me happier, strengthens relationships, and gives me new perspectives.

I can’t reason away emotions. Pause to consider emotions when an idea/situation isn’t making logical sense.

Notes are useless if I don’t read them. — Rob Fitzpatrick

Clutter starts with my desk. Simplest way to feel more organised = declutter my desk.

Resiliency

I, others, and the world are always changing.
If I feel upset at X, say: “This too shall pass.”
Nothing matters as much as I think in the long run
.
To realise this, go on a walk and ask: “WHY am I [verb]?”

Don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re just a monkey with a plan, after all.” — Naval Ravikant

Say this when I feel like I ‘deserve’ something.
The universe doesn’t owe me anything. When something goes wrong, shrug it off.

A bad day is just setting up the next one to be better.
At the end of a bad day, say: “Surely tomorrow can’t be this bad!” :D

Sometimes, a ‘failure’ will stop me for a while. Ex: pulling a muscle while exercising.
That’s the universe saying: “Stop. I unlocked this time for you. Go research how to avoid this mistake next time.

“Often, we spend so long looking at the closed door, we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” — Helen Keller

When plans change, exploring is an easy next step to find value.
Ex: If I’m stuck in traffic, study the typography on store signs. Reflect on what I’m grateful for.

If I don’t get what I want, see what I can learn from what I get.
Ex: I interviewed a biotechnology expert hoping to learn. Understood none of his fancy words. Felt frustrated. But then forced myself to learn every one of his words.

Progress over perfection. Take what I can get.

Struggle sweetens success.
Say that when I feel like complaining about challenges.
Ex: I didn’t find the stat I needed in this report? On to the next one! Struggle sweetens success.

If I feel judgemental about X, think about some value I could gain from it. Even if it’s a useful reminder to avoid X. Other judgement tips here.

Never give up on my ability to change. No matter how bad I am, others are, or the world is.

In a world full of things breaking, a normal day is worth celebrating!

“Prepare for the ripple, not the splash”Howard Stevenson

Ex: I might feel ready to let go of a relationship that’s not working. But am I ready to handle the nights of runaway thoughts/nightmares after that?

At the end of the day, I’m alone.
I can get help, but I can’t expect help.
Prepare for that reality. Ex: Learn self-care tips. Or how to cook. Or common illness cures.

Everyone’s outside looks better than my inside.
If I feel jealous comparing myself to others, compare myself to these people.

Self-awareness

Only I can decide what makes life worth living.
A helpful piece of information in this decision is my values. Ask: “What tiny things easily make me feel irritated?” Those are my non-negotiable values being broken.

I have several instincts which tend to give the wrong result consistently. Ex: Being hesitant to try new things. Start a decisions tracker — any time I have to think twice about a decision:

  1. Write the problem
  2. Write what I considered
  3. Write the decision I made
  4. Later, write its outcome.

Over time, I’ll see where I consistently make incorrect decisions. Then, I can correct them!

When I feel afraid, dig deeper.
The fear has an important cause that I don’t understand.
Ask: “Which of my prior experiences might have influenced this action/decision?” Dr. Lisa F. Barrett

Realise my weaknesses and run from their effects. Don’t run from my weaknesses and realise their effects.
DEMAND feedback on how to grow. More feedback now, less redoing later.

Calmness is in the inside, not the outside.
Ex: I can stay silent in an argument, but still feel annoyed. That isn’t being ‘calm’.

Curiosity dissipates conflict. “I am mad” → “Why am I mad?”

Curiosity is like a compass that points towards authenticity.
Ex: Pursue work I’m curious about. Especially if most others aren’t curious about it. That’s how I know prestige didn’t bias my decision.

Authenticity is proportional to spontaneity.
To do something authentically, just get started and don’t pause.
Ex: To write authentically, put on a timer and don’t stop writing.

Authenticity needs to be maintained, not just initiated.
Thank people for times I remember them vulnerable/authentic. Maintains that ‘standard’ in our relationship.

Usually, I fear what others think. Not failure.
Right now, this has low cost. Ex: Me combing my hair before a meeting in 5 seconds.
But the fear of what others think can have high cost in the future. Ex: Which career I choose.
To overcome the fear of what others think, do tiny things to look slightly ridiculous every week. Ex: Wearing a tie with a sports shirt.

Many of the things I do, others have done. Knowing that gives me confidence.
If I struggle with X, find stories of others like me who’ve done it.

  • Ex: Abraham Lincoln had severe mental health issues, but was resilient in depression.
  • Ex: Oprah Winfrey grew up poor but is now giving back after she’s rich.
  • Ex: Marie Curie and Napoleon overcame sexism/racism to achieve one of a kind success.
  • Ex: …

Self-confidence is based on intention, not results.
If I’m waiting to ‘make a name for myself’ so I can be confident, I’ll never stop waiting.
Before starting a task, do a positive affirmation about my intention. Ex: “I will pursue this out of curiosity and will persist even if there are setbacks.”

Self-confidence is about me, not my power / influence over others.
Shout out others who are more ‘successful’ than me. Note how acknowledging their ‘power’ has no influence on my self-esteem.

Health

Fix my posture before it fixes me [to a wheelchair]. Useful tools are everywhere. I just have to look.

Also, sleep = number one priority for staying alive. Fix it.

“When building habits, choose consistency over content… the best workout is the one you enjoy doing every day. The best food is the one you find tasty.” — Naval Ravikant

Reflection

Reflect at the start of the day: “How can I seek growth over productivity today?”
Ex: Do all my work tasks. Or remove one task and research how to improve my sleep?

Failure feels okay when I can see it’s just one iteration!
Reflect at the end of the day: “Which of today’s failures was just the first iteration?

Immediately after negativity, reflect: “How can I grow from this?”

When doing something necessary but unpleasant, make a list of how it’ll help me grow.
Say: “This tough time is practice for the next one. I’m better off having practice, right?”

Who do I feel comfortable being playful around? Those are the people who let me be me.

How exactly to face guilt

  1. Ask: “WHY am I feeling guilty?” Curiosity dissipates negativity.
  2. If I made a mistake, tell them that I feel remorse and ASK how to do better.
  3. All the other tips here

“What past limitations — real or perceived — are you still carrying on as baggage?”Tim Ferris
It’s easy to let what’s expected mask what’s possible.

If I feel I can’t do X, write down in detail what I’m avoiding and why. — Jamie Foxx
Ex: WRITE down: “What’s the worst case if I do _____?”
When I look at the details of excuses, they matter much less.

Ask “What do I do that reduces my self-respect?” Cut that from my life in small increments.
Ex: Fix poor sleep by sleeping 10 minutes more per night.

“Write down the 20% of activities causing 80% of your negative emotions. What is the worst thing that could happen if you stopped doing them?” — Tim Ferris

Thank you for peering into my life! I hope that was concise, but useful :-)
- Madhav

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Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/