An accidental discovery of a note to myself from 2004
A few days ago I was searching for an important piece of paper in a basket I keep in my study for all kinds of wordy scraps that I don’t want to throw away. At the bottom of my basket I discovered two sheets of paper, stapled together, each page containing a hand-printed list. The document was dated July 9, 2004. The pages were titled “Accomplishments” and “Regrets.”
Apparently I had thought these lists were significant enough to keep on my desk at my old house and then unpack them from some box or another when I moved to my condo three years ago. Eleven years! I don’t remember rereading the lists until yesterday, but they got me thinking about how we measure success and failure. They gave me insight into how I have changed—and not changed—in the past eleven years.
My life has become altered by many events since then, most of them unforeseeable. I’ve accomplished a few big things. On the other hand, many of the regrets I had eleven years ago—things not done—remain. I regret some “things undone” more keenly now because my age makes opening certain doors unlikely or impossible. Yet I can strike some of the regrets off my list. I’ve changed; I’ve had new experiences; I can accept omissions that were painful to me before.
My lists of Accomplishments and Regrets
I’m going to copy my lists of Accomplishments and Regrets from 2004 exactly as I found them. The only extra information (for explanatory purposes) is the text within the square brackets.
These lists are personal and quirky. The idea to write an “Accomplishments” list came from a close friend of mine. She was probably trying to cheer me up when I was in a negative frame of mind. It was my own idea to balance this list with a list of “Regrets”—things I had wanted to do for a long time, but had never got around to doing.
Why do these lists mix accomplishments that seem worthy of recognition with apparently trivial things? And how can I be at peace with the reality that many of my regrets from my 2004 list are still the same today? My interpretion of my lists will follow below.
A final note: these lists were written quickly, spontaneously, and honestly. I wasn’t trying to place anything in either chronological order or in order of importance. However all items mentioned were significant to me for one reason or another.
My life situation in 2004
I was 45 years old, still competing at a high level as a masters runner locally, nationally, and at the occasional big American road race. I could still run about 35:00 for 10K. I had been married to Paul Tinari for eighteen years and expected my marriage to be permanent, although I was unhappy about it in some ways. I had a 13-year-old son who was doing well in school and sports. I trained hard every day and worked part-time as a private English and ESL tutor.
- Undergraduate lab project and thesis
- Olympic team
- “Going for” the Esteem Team [public speaking at BC schools—motivational speaking for students in grades 3 to 12]
- Becoming a tutor
- Surviving my stomach illness
- Being a patient mother when Abebe was small—arranging my life around him
- Surviving many insomniac nights—doing what I had to do the next day—races, exams, etc.
- Becoming a pretty good cook
- Getting top marks all through university
- Finishing the 10,000m in Indianapolis [1987 Pam Am Games]
- Winning the Canadian 10,000m easily in 1987 [Canadian Track & Field Championships]
- Making Canadian Ekiden teams as a Master
- Putting up with terrible students in my first year of tutoring
- Making papier-mâche Christmas ornaments with Abebe when he was five
- Going all-out for Abebe’s pirate birthday party (his 5th birthday)
- Surviving many angiograms and two bypass surgeries
- Swimming twice a week in the freezing pool in Brussels
- Living in a tiny maids’ room at the top of a house in Brussels
- Running 38:05 in the Sun Run six weeks after Abebe was born
- Winning a 20K road race and a cross-country half marathon in the same weekend
- Haven’t learned to play the guitar
- Never became fluent in French
- Didn’t have many lovers
- Never ran on the European track circuit
- Never ran a good marathon
- Never became a science journalist
- Haven’t yet written a book, or even published a short story
- Only one child
- Never learned to dance well
- Never learned to put on makeup well
- Never did much with my hair
- Never went back to a lot of countries I loved
- Didn’t keep in touch with close friends [list of names omitted for privacy reasons]
- Totally giving up the violin
- Not listening to music enough
- Not having a pretty garden
- Not good at making friends
- Cowardly about social events
- Never having a full-time challenging job (university prof, scientist, etc.)
What is my definition of accomplishment?
If my list of accomplishments had been a list of things that the world in general would recognize as my greatest achievements, it would have looked very different from the one above. It would have been filled with running statistics, race wins, and academic awards. It certainly wouldn’t have included the ability to make a Christmas tree decoration or learn how to cook.
The point my list is trying to illustrate is that each person’s success should be self-defined. To me, a great accomplishment is something that is achieved through great effort, by overcoming fears, handicaps, and perhaps opposition from others. I define myself as successful if I must be brave, persistent, and hard-working to overcome a challenge. Did I have the courage and patience to try something new, something for which I had no talent or something I was afraid of?
What about the running accomplishments I did list above? I didn’t mention my PBs, or any of my best races, other than the Canadian Championships 10,000m win in 1987. No, I listed the running achievements that were the most difficult, the ones that tested me to my utmost physically and mentally.
When we look at others’ performances and behaviour, we can hardly help but judge and evaluate them, and there is often an objective measure of evaluation—like a race time—but what we can’t know, unless we are very close to someone, is what that performance cost that person. What physical, psychological, and circumstantial barriers did they have to overcome?
Only I can fairly measure what is a good effort for me. Only I can know the cost of that effort. Only I can know the extent of the joy or sense of accomplishment that a certain achievement brings.
So let us celebrate fighting our limitations.
What does my Regrets list teach me?
Many of my regrets from my 2004 list remain the same today. I’ve realized that change is hard—and procrastination is a powerful force.
Of course, some regrets have to be permanent because of physical or circumstantial limitations that no amount of positive thinking can change. For these regrets, the only choice is between acceptance or bitterness.
As for things undone that could still be done, I now understand the concept of prioritizing. I know that only the items at the top of the list will get done. Only the top of the list gets my focus and my energy. The other ideas are just wishful thinking. I see clearly that I can’t do everything I want to do; by making one choice I am striking out another.
My biggest regret is that despite earning a diploma in Professional Writing, I have yet to establish myself as a full-time writer or editor. There are a few reasons for this, which I won’t get into here, but the main thing I’ve come to understand about myself is that I make my day-to-day happiness and leisure time my top priority. I won’t give up my workouts and other parts of my daily life that give me joy.
I recognize, with a humbleness I didn’t use to have, that many people are more willing and able than I am to set long-term goals, work hard every day, and not have much time in their day-to-day lives for enjoyment and leisure. I have enormous admiration for people who have succeeded in ways that I haven’t: those who excel in their professions, those who are high achievers in multiple fields, and those who make time to nurture their friendships and help others through their volunteer work.
Being at peace with oneself requires self-acceptance. In the past eleven years I’ve gained an increased acceptance of both my accomplishments and my regrets.
Yet, true to my often-conflicted nature, I can see even acceptance as a double-edged sword.
When I’m depressed, I view accepting my limitations as a failure. I’m limited because of my laziness and fears!
But when I’m happy, I see that acceptance allows me to focus on the positive things I’ve done and the small joys I experience each day. I still haven’t published a book, but I have published two hundred articles on my blog. And every day, for the past four years, I’ve written in my “Three Good Things” journal. I’ve learned that every single day I can find sources of joy, beauty, insight, and connection with other human beings. From there comes thankfulness and—sometimes—peace.