Ask The Readers: What Was The Most Important Lesson You Learned This Year?


At the end of every year I like to look back and consider what I’ve learned throughout the previous twelve months. I’ve shared some of my biggest lessons the last two years here on the blog:

Below I’ve listed what I feel have been five of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 2011, a year which saw an unprecedented amount of change and uncertainty for me.

But before we get into that, I’d like you to consider what you’ve learned this past year. Which lessons have been the most profound? And why?

Let me know via the comments at the bottom of the post.

5 Lessons Learned in 2011

A year ago, on the eve of 2011, I wrote the following:

I’m excited for the new year. I’ll be focusing on upping my writing game, building my audience, making a living online, becoming fluent in a language other than English, and travel. At the very least, it should be an adventure.

Well, it definitely has been an adventure :-). I feel I’ve made significant strides in all those areas. Here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way…

1. Trust yourself

For me, this past year was mostly about taking the leap. I started off in January with no idea how I was going to make a living. I struggled for months to earn good income, ran into a lot of dead ends, had to switch tactics several times. At the end of September, still no closer to figuring out this self-employment lark, I threw caution to the wind and started my round the world trip with an ever-dwindling amount of cash in the bank.

But here I am at the end of the year, and I’m pretty confident now that everything is going to turn out just fine. For the past two months I’ve earned enough to cover my expenses, and these days the work seems to be finding me instead of me having to go chase it. The momentum is building.

The lesson here is that I was able to find a way to make it work. I didn’t really leave myself any other choice. I took a public leap and it would have been pretty humiliating to fall flat.

And I don’t believe I’m special here. I think most of us are fully capable of breaking away from 9-to-5 to go chase our wildest dreams. We feel like we need to know exactly how everything will unfold before we take the leap, but the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s a lack of trust in ourselves.

2. The world is your playground

Back in January I did Random Acts of Courage. In November I tried flirting with 100+ women in two weeks in Amsterdam. I grew tremendously on account of both experiences, and from them emerged many of the best moments of my year.

What’s interesting though is that all it took to make those experiences happen was to go out and face my fears. I didn’t need lots of money. I didn’t need someone else’s permission. I didn’t need luck.

The lesson here is that you can go out and make something amazing happen whenever you choose to. It’s completely within your power. There’s absolutely no reason for us to be bored when there’s a world full of other people to play and interact with. Sure, some of those people won’t want to play, but there are plenty out there who will. They’re just waiting for you to make the first move.

3. Empathy

I wrote a couple of blog posts this past year that really upset specific people, real-life friends of mine. That wouldn’t be such a big deal in itself — I understand and accept that I’ll never be able to please everyone — except that I completely failed to anticipate their reactions. In fact, it took me by complete surprise when I found out I’d upset them.

I used to pride myself on being quite empathetic, but after those misjudgments I had to admit that my empathy was severely lacking. I hadn’t been doing a good job of putting myself in other people’s shoes, and I was quite disappointed in myself for that. I found that I was often projecting my own values on to others, assuming that they’d be okay with something if I was okay with it myself.

Yeah, that was dumb. But hopefully I’ve learned my lesson.

Time will tell.

4. Advanced self-discipline

I thought I was pretty self-disciplined and hard working before this year, but I took it to a whole new level in 2011. I realize now how dependant I once was on routine to get stuff done. And if that routine was broken, things quickly got out of control.

For example, I’m very much a morning person. I’ve found that I’m at my best when I wake up early and get to work before the birds start singing. But with the vagabond lifestyle comes an oft-irregular schedule. I don’t always have the luxury of an early bed time and a quiet place to work the next morning. I also used to get derailed by long breaks during the day. I wouldn’t be able to get back into the work frame of mind if I took three or four hours in the afternoon to go do something fun.

But this year, I didn’t really have any choice but to develop that advanced self-discipline. You can get away with arseing around on Facebook for several hours when you work in a cubicle, but do that too often when you’re self-employed and you’ll find yourself going hungry.

As such, I now find that I’m able to do what needs doing at any time of the day or night. I can flip that switch and enter work mode whenever I choose.

Of course, as Spider-man’s uncle reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. Nowadays my challenge is to not work too much.

5. Strange becomes normal

This has definitely been the most adventurous travel year of my life so far. Before 2011, I’d only ever stepped foot in five different countries. This year I’ve stepped foot in ten, hitchhiked 1,141 kilometers, and traveled further East than ever before.

As regards work, I’d spent the previous eleven years of my life never going more than a month without a job. Now I’ve been self-employed for over a year and I’m learning more about entrepreneurship every day.

As regards relationships, I used to see an attractive woman and feel like she was the last person on Earth I could go talk to. Now I’m quite direct in such situations, approaching the girl and letting her know in no uncertain terms that I’m attracted to her, and having lots of fun with the interaction.

I also gave up alcohol this year. I used to depend on it quite a lot to be at my best socially, but it wasn’t long before I became accustomed to having a great time without a drink in my hand. Now I find that I’m more social than ever and see no good reason to go back drinking again.

While all these things were once very strange and uncomfortable for me, they’ve become quite normal now. And it leads me to believe that we humans can adapt to pretty much anything. Whether it’s quitting your job, moving to a foreign country, or repeatedly putting yourself out there in social situations, you’ll find that it all eventually becomes your new normal.

The tricky part is fighting through your initial internal resistance to change. But after battling through it a few times, guess what? Winning that fight becomes normal, too ;-)

Here’s to 2012

Now is also a good time to consider what you’d like to learn and achieve in 2012. What experiences would you like to have, and how can you make them happen?

A few things I have in mind:

  • Continue to make steady progress on my trip around the world without flying.
  • Level up my business skills so I can earn more while working less.
  • Get comfortable walking on my hands.
  • Continue to improve my Spanish.
  • Learn the basics of playing guitar.
  • Continue to build community and engagement here at Disrupting the Rabblement.
  • Become a newspaper columnist.
  • Read at least one book every two weeks.

Now, over to you :-)

Share a Comment



  1. Bravo Niall –

    This last year has been amazing following your story. You have become a great writer who can tell your story while teaching your lessons learned.

    I liked the “the world is your playground” part. I am going to use that with my kids (in the future). Often kids feel like the playground is just the box with sand. I want my kids to build something amazing and try crazy things outside of the physical sandbox and in the metaphorical one of the world.

    Thanks for being an inspiration!

    David Damron

  2. What did I learn? That’s a good question. I guess that I need to devote more time to writing. Besides the fiction, I’ve been going over and over in my mind whether I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in my lifetime and what format I should use (column on my web site or new web site all together). I’ve had an unusual life and most people would have a difficult time believing any of it, so I’m tempted to publish the information under a different name. Coward, I know. Sigh. I’ll figure it out.

    Best wishes for the new year Niall. Keep up the good work. Be careful in Iran. (Flying over it is safer;-)

    • I don’t know, Darlene. People die in plane crashes all the time ;-)

      Whether you publish under a different name or not, I do hope you get your story out there. Sounds like it would be helpful and inspiring to a lot of people.

  3. Niall, a few things. Firstly I really love the new site, it’s a great design and gives the immediate impression to me of exploration and adventure.

    Secondly huge respect for your lesson about empathy, I think the way you’ve responded to people’s reactions by acknowledging this lesson is so lovely and shows that even if your empathy may have appeared lacking for a while, it was there deep down all along!

    Biggest lesson for me has to be the idea that it’s only me that limits my own possibilities, before this year I made a whole bunch of excuses for not living my dreams and this year I’ve learnt that all it takes to live the life I want to is to change my attitude. Best life lesson I’ve learnt yet!

    I can’t wait to see what you get up to in 2012 :-)

  4. Loving the new site design! Ok back in topic.

    The most valuable lesson learned this year was following my passion. I left my 9-to-5 job for a more freelance and entrepreneur way of life.

    Gratitude, has also played a huge part on my new business, being grateful to the people who helps me has truly made me grow as an entrepreneur but also in a very personal level. :)

  5. I think I’ve done a lot of questioning over the past year (about myself, my goals, my life, etc.) and while I haven’t figured it all out yet I guess what I can say I’ve learned is that, well, that it’s ok to question things.

    It’s ok if you don’t know, or aren’t sure, as long as you continue on the journey of figuring it all out.

    I’m hoping that the new year brings some answers to the questions I have, and that I continue to work on being the best woman, mother, and partner I can be.

    Hope you have a fabulous new year Niall! <3

    • Thanks, Sarah.

      “It’s ok if you don’t know, or aren’t sure, as long as you continue on the journey of figuring it all out.”

      I like that a lot. Embracing uncertainty :-)

      All the best for 2012!

  6. The most important lesson for is that people are generally good and that they actually do give a damn. All you need to do is to actually be willing to believe them with they so they want to be nice you.

    Man, writing that made me think who rough I had it in the past with smart asses in school / college. All it took was someone to literally tell me that it is ALRIGHT to hang around them and that I wasn’t going to get burned for my trouble to set this new train of thought off.

    I guess it boils down to me becoming more trusting of people and more open as a result.

    That was the main thing I am taking away from 2011 with me.

    2011 was a crazy year for me regardless, between finishing college, discovering this site ( and the whole Lifestyle design movement with it ) , some travel, meeting you and all the came in between. I’ve grown as a human being greater in this year than I ever did before and I for one, am happy with that.

    Here’s to 2012, Niall. May it bring more happiness than we can handle! :)

    • A huge year for you, Adrian. Amazing how everything can change so fast, isn’t it. Glad we had the chance to meet up in Cork. Hopefully we’ll run into each other on the road as well before too long :-)

  7. What have I learned in the past year?

    I have learned
    that I don’t hate my job I hate working for other people, and all their petty rules.

    That its not as hard to start a business as you think. Should have mine up and running early next year. Made some mistakes but I learned a lot.

    To be less critical of myself.

    What I want from next year.

    To grow my business.
    Start My own Blog.
    Learn Guitar.
    Quit work all together or at least go part time by the end of the year.
    And to do the side splits always been an ambition of mine.

    That’s it, I will see what else pops up along the year.

    Also Niall, I follow this guy on you tube he puts out good guitar tutorials, very easy to follow. Happy strumming

  8. A very inspiring post indeed, Niall. I intend to go sober this year (haven’t had a drink in 5 days, which for me is quite a feat). When I stop drinking I tend to avoid social life for a while ’cause I get really bored (and tempted!), so here’s hoping I’ll get over that phase soon and can get back to enjoy other people’s company!

    Thanks for a wonderful year packed with great articles, keep up the good work!!

    • Hi Claudia. The share buttons should show up down the left side of the page. They’re supposed to scroll down as you do so they’re always visible.

      If you can’t see them, let me know what browser you’re using and I’ll investigate.


  9. I feel I learnt much more things during this one year than I did in the 30 previous ones… Well, that was a little exaggerated :D
    One of the most important things I’ve learnt this year is to trust myself, to believe in my abilities and possibilities.
    Thanks all the good inspiration you’ve provided me! :)

  10. What I’ve learned and the most profound? Wow, 2011 was the most amazing year for me. And the things I’ve learned/realized, are all profound as they have led to a shift in my life (the word “change” is inadequate. “shift” denotes that these lessons/realizations affected me on a visceral level). Let’s see: why I should become vegan (which happened Jan. 4th); why not to use chemicals from lotions, deodorants, etc. on my skin; drink distilled water (I have my own distiller); not to use a microwave; give up caffeine and alcohol; meditate daily; began and continue yoga practice; conduct my life according to the Buddhist Five Precepts…that’s enough to list, lol – anyway, I also fully realized my purpose and function and am working in it (all volunteer). btw, I left my regular job the end of Sept. ’09. Do not have any income, but am most happy and content in this life so far. Om Shanti!

  11. I realised that what really makes me happy is making things. (I’ve kinda known this for years, but hadn’t truly understood it) so i decided to spend as much time as i can making things. deceptively simple, eh?

  12. Hi Niall,

    Great blogpost and great new site design!

    In 2011, I made the shift to fly helicopters commercially and this is a big thing for me – for the first time in ten years, I am starting to get paid to do what I love ;-)

    However, what blew my mind completely was getting to know so many great people like you via their online work and starting off a complete new journey of trust, uncertainty and looking truth straight in the eye, whether I like it or not ;-)

    As I said before, I consider meeting you as one of the kickstarts to my new life. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas here!

    I like this quote from Julien Smith’s “The Flinch” which sums it up for me:

    “The strength you gain by letting go is more important than any object you own.”

    I’m working towards it in 2012!
    As well as:
    - Becoming a Toastmasters Competent Communicator
    - Qualify for Flying Helos Commercially in the US
    - Continue Flyin’ and Ridin’ as it will always be Horses and Helicopters for me ;-)

    Have a great year 2012 and travel a lot without flying (Local Budapest scenic flights do not count, ha ha!)

    Looking forward,


    • Thanks so much for sharing, Sabine. I really enjoyed meeting you in 2011 as well. Definitely a highlight for me :-)

      Looking forward to following your journey in 2012. I’m sure it will be even bigger and better than 2011 for you!

  13. Hi Niall,
    2011 was a big year for me in my journey. I find myself in one of the most difficult situations of my life, with stressors around every corner and facing the notion that perhaps I’ve been my own worst enemy in life. Things I’ve learned: We really don’t need to use shampoo and chemical soaps etc to get clean. Thanks to reading about it on your blog, I’ve been happily shampoo and soap free (except for my hands and face) while bathing since June of last year. My girlfriend things I smell fantastic!

    I learned that it’s very important to FEEL what we need to feel instead of holding it inside or avoiding the emotions. Doing so can cause us much more pain down the line. Events relating to my family, the death of my brother, and more were all stored up inside of me as I diligently went through life searching for adventure, stimuli, and other distractions to keep me from feeling them, and now they’ve come back to the surface, preventing me from enjoying the present. I’m working on that.

    Thirdly, I learned that real happiness and enjoyment needs to come from within, and reliance on external circumstances or substances is ultimately misguided and unsuccessful. I’ve stopped my reliance on something I was quite fond of but that brought me unforeseen trouble, and the clarity I’m gaining is helping me more forward.

    It can be hard to be so honest in a public forum but thank you for the chance to put this out there. I’m rooting for you in your travels. Be well, Niall!

    • Very powerful lessons, Ben. I really appreciate you sharing them. I especially like the second one you shared. I’ve had to work a bit on that, too. And I sometimes suspect there might be more I’m holding back that I’m not willing to admit to myself just yet.

      Thanks again. Glad I know you, sir!