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Reflecting on 2020 and Looking Forward to 2021

How Aurelius, Frankl, Epictetus, Kahneman, Munger, and Keynes shaped my mindset and taught me valuable lessons

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The end of the year is a time for reflection. Every year is unique and carries its own set of lessons. Throw in a global pandemic and you’re sure to gather experiences and lessons you never expected. To say this year was a challenge is an understatement. This year especially, I find myself often reflecting on the lessons I have learned from some of my best mentors: authors.

Reading is one of the most powerful activities anyone can partake in. Reading provides us the opportunity to gain external perspectives and insights. It allows us to apply lessons and concepts to our situation we may not have discovered on our own.

Recently, I have focused on the teachings of stoicism; reflecting on the power of the mind and perspective. As Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning wrote in his book:

“You cannot control what happens in your life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you…What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.”

A common misconception of stoicism is one should abolish all emotions. This is not the case. All the ancient stoics, even Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, felt emotion. The intent is to control the emotion and focus it appropriately. We feel anger, sadness, and frustration, but we do not allow it to control our actions. This is far easier said than done.

Over the past two months, with a newborn and a two-year-old, I have experienced all-time highs in sleep deprivation and all-time lows in patience. Hence, my frequent reflection on stoicism.

It has helped but my emotional regulation is still a work-in-progress. The goal is to recognize and manage the emotions in the moment, but failing that, it comes down to reflection and making adjustments for the future.

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” — Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Despite the challenges of this year, many lessons can be learned. We often garner more lessons from challenging situations than easy ones. A trap to avoid is dwelling on the past and attempting to justify it. We may not be economists, but we can benefit from thinking like one.

“A rational decision-maker is interested only in the future consequences of current investments. Justifying earlier mistakes is not among the Econ’s concerns.” — Thinking, Fast, and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

We should always reflect on our current endeavors and seek to update our beliefs and mental models. Charlie Munger has been one of my best teachers and mentors this year, leading me to broaden and deepen my multi-disciplinary approach to work.

“Double check, disbelieve, or replace much of what you’re told, to the degree that seems appropriate after objective thought.” — Poor Charlie’s Almanac by Charlie Munger

It is far easier to maintain the status quo. We arm ourselves with a plethora of excuses. Here are the most common ones I see in my profession of physical therapy:

  • Sunk-cost fallacy — We use current actions to justify past investments of time, money, and effort, regardless of the efficacy of the current actions.

  • Loss aversion — We have a greater emotional response to negative events compared to positive ones, causing us to favor inaction over action

  • Theory-induced blindness — “Once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing.” — Daniel Kahneman

  • Semmelweis reflex — The tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm

  • Confirmation bias — More likely to support information that confirms current beliefs and reject information that refutes them. Our brain craves congruency and prefers the path of least resistance.

  • Availability bias — We focus more on information that is easily recalled, often being the most recent and frequently exposed information.

Overcoming biases allows us to focus on the primary issue: what is best practice? This is not exclusive to healthcare.

“It is not the intrinsic difficulty of new ideas that prevents their acceptance. Instead, the new ideas are not accepted because they are inconsistent with old ideas in place.” — John Maynard Keynes in Poor Charlie’s Almanac

As we move into 2021, I challenge you to reflect on 2020 and be brutally honest with yourself. Seek the opinion of those around you to gain additional perspectives, not influenced by your personal bias. Through constant reflection, we are able to make adaptations that benefit ourselves and those around us. This doesn’t only apply to how you work, but what work you choose to do as well.

This year has strengthened my relationship with my family, helped me re-prioritize my daily tasks, and led me to pursue endeavors I routinely pushed off. I will have read 50 books (the previous record was 30), I started a blog and writing for Medium, I started a podcast, and I have a completed draft of a manuscript. I would never have embraced 2020 and taken on these endeavors without the compounding influences from the mentors and thought leaders of books.


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