The 3 Biggest Lessons of My 40th Year

 

WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM MY AWKWARD SUNBURN SEASON-OPENER


No one: “Meghan: Describe your year as a 40-year-old in a single memory.”

Me: “Easy: The sunburn I got on day six of my eight-day trip to Cabo San Lucas.”

  • Imagine the awkward burn lines. (Not quite as awkward as the lines I used to get playing fastpitch. Shout out to the red stripe across the top of my fivehead, compliments of a visor…you’re the real MVP.)

  • Imagine the tomato-colored skin earned from (an arguably short) time in the unrelenting Baja California Sur sun (she said with a hint of defensiveness).

  • Imagine the sting from the light brush of my caftan billowing in the breeze.

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I’d spent five days luxuriating with friends at Solaz, an impossibly cool luxury resort…the likes of which I may never experience again. First, there was the general Baja-ness of the place. Often when you buy a picture frame, there's a photo already in it. Frequently it's of a couple in their late-sixties…not just good-looking, but privileged, blessed, walking hand in hand on a secluded beach. I used to think they were professional models. Now I suspect they're just ordinary vacationers at Solaz, perhaps chosen at random from one of its many infinity pools.

Most everyone I encountered was engaged in some sort of activity/exercise. Their skin was lightly bronzed and their hair was either blonde or silver, for gray does not exist in Cabo: not on heads and most certainly not in the sky. Every day was sunny with a high in the upper 70s. At night it cools down, just so you can wear cashmere.

There are other such resorts in the Baja—the Viceroy, the Pedegral, the Hacienda Beach Club—but none seem as satisfied with themselves. When I went to the spa, I thought I’d been rerouted to an exclusive rehab center. It’s nestled in the middle of the resort, which is meticulously landscaped and smells like prickly pear cactus mulched with shredded money.

When not sipping margaritas at the swim-up bar, my friends and I smugly gallivanted around the Baja, exploring artist communities, swimming with whale sharks (and staring longingly at our gorgeous guide, Yann), and eating delicious food styled into flowers.

Then came that stupid day six sunburn.

No stranger to second-degree sunburns, I was hyper-vigilant in applying sunscreen. On day six, I was a negligent prick.

This “2 steps forward, 1 step back” bit is a life metaphor; the interminable “knowing v. doing” battle never ends. Even for a professional coach like me.

Skin damage aside, here’s what I learned from my literal day in the sun (beyond being dogged in applying sunscreen). Actually, these are lessons that played on repeat during my entire year as a 40-year-old:

LESSON #1: WIN WITH CONSISTENT, SMALL STEPS

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By day six, I slid into a mode so relaxed (lazy?) I couldn’t be bothered to open the bottle of sunscreen literally laying next to me and rub it onto my skin. “Meh, it’ll be fine,” I thought, despite my inner knowing that I’d be acting against my own best interest. (Why do we do this? I have an answer that I’ll save for another time.)

It’s as though the Universe said, “Think you’re so smart, Meghan? Well, here’s a glorious sunburn to keep you honest.”

As a coach to people who are making kick-ass changes in their lives, I didn’t need crispy skin to remind me of the ripple effect of small steps. But it occurs to me you might want to know why small steps have such big effect. Here’s how: 

  1. Small steps are party starters. A focus on small steps helps us get started because they don’t feel overwhelming. Once in motion, it’s easier to continue.

  2. Small steps add up to big results. Just like compound interest, small, consistent steps add up to impressive gains.

  3. Success breeds success. Once we start and realize early success, it’s easier to continue…or learn and adjust.

  4. Consistency makes work easier. Small steps help us avoid decision fatigue and distraction, which diminish our impact. Small steps also allow us to better manage our cognitive load, meaning we free up headspace to deal with other commitments.

  5. Small steps aren’t overwhelming, so they’re more likely to stick. Small steps are attainable…and specifically designed to not feel overwhelming…and these types of incremental changes are packed with staying power. (They’re also easier to fit into hectic days.)

LESSON #2: CURIOSITY IS UNDERRATED

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I have a crush on curiosity. Curiosity at lunch. Curiosity at the gym. Curiosity in all aspects of life. Curiosity about myself. Curiosity about others. Curiosity about where those intersect.

Curiosity asks a lot of us…and it can sometimes be painful. But curiosity is also what helps us live the life we know we’re meant to lead…and it’s what will mend the cracks and wipe the tears…and it’s what will ultimately save the world. 

Isn’t that beautiful?

So get curious and examine why, for example, you don’t put sunscreen on when you know it’s only a tool to protect you. Because you can undo this tendency. As long as you stay curious and stay the course.

LESSON #3: GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP

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I used to think that people would like me more if I were more independent, and if I were to not speak up about my own troubles. It wasn’t so much that I needed to be strong and put together—just that I didn’t want to be a burden to others. This meant I would pretend I was okay even when I wasn’t. And I thought if I didn’t give voice to my needs, then life would just roll off of my back without worry or distress.

Hahahahahahaha.

One of the gifts of going through any challenging time—bad sunburns included—is the opportunity to be more human in both giving and receiving love. This is the beauty of humanity—letting each other in.

We tend to think showing vulnerability might sometimes feel more like weakness from the inside…but to others, these acts often look more like courage. Also, new research is providing more and more evidence that helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning. When we choose to engage in these types of actions, it helps to meet our basic psychological needs: for autonomy (feeling that we have freely chosen our actions), competence (feeling that we are good and capable), and relatedness (feeling close to others).

You see, it’s not just when we can’t reach to coat our own sunburnt backs with aloe vera gel that we need to turn to others for support.

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All told, 40 was a mighty fine year for me. While I’m always learning and growing, these three lessons—as told through my awkward sunburn season-opener in Cabo—stand out among the most important reminders in dancing with life’s beauty and chaos.