Thursday 26 December 2019

40 at 40: Things I have Learned

I turned 40 this year alhamdulillah, a number that in my earlier years would have felt very old and unimaginably distant.  But now having arrived at it, I still feel myself – human, flawed, youthful, enthusiastic about life, perhaps comfortable in myself and my body, if a little battered by life. 

This feels like a good time to stop and reflect on what I have learned so far, including the wisdom imparted by others and taken on with some grace and those lessons that were learned the hard way.

1.     Fear Allah (SWT) in all you do – this one criteria has steered me away from bad decisions, helped me to hold my tongue or stop me from acting in anger many times.  It also pushed me back on course when I felt lazy or was being careless in my deeds or the things that are an obligation on me.
2.     If it looks too good to be true, it probably is - get rich schemes, amazing bargains, big promises.  Most good things don't have short cuts but come from sacrifices and hard work.
3.     If in doubt, be silent.  I don’t think there has ever been a time when I held my tongue and regretted it later, but oh so many times when I spoke and made things worse than they might have been otherwise.
4.     Silence can be power - if like for me, silence is a void that makes you uncomfortable and needs to be filled with chatter, try holding back for once. It’s not your job to keep everyone entertained. The world won’t suddenly end because there were a few moments when no-one said anything. Better still if you are annoyed then play nice but stay very quiet and watch everyone else squirm and try to fill the void.
5.     Be kind - I learned this one time my uncle was visiting and I had just come back from work. I was busy complaining I was tired and hungry and didn't want the dinner my mum had made.  My uncle gently asked me if he could go and get me something from the shops.  I was so ashamed at my behaviour that it knocked the wind out of my grumpiness.  In hindsight, it made me think about how kindness can change the mood, environment, discussion or relationship you are in so quickly and effectively. We never know what small kindness can change a person’s day or even their life.
6.     Be kind to yourself - if others deserve your kindness, so do you. Rest when you need, eat nutritious food, spend time with friends or doing things you enjoy, or doing nothing if you need to.
7.     Our children don't belong to us and we are not responsible for their ultimate destiny and outcome, so let go of the guilt.  We are a means to their nurture and growth as they move through this temporary world and they are a test for us, but also a massive source of growth and comfort for us. I know this I the truth, but find it so hard to hold on to this one.
8.     Pray on time – we are here to worship Allah (SWT), it is both a means and an end in itself.  A purpose and a way to eek Allah’s help.  Pray at the beginning time of your prayers and the rest of your day, and activities will fall into place themselves.
9.     Never be afraid to speak the truth, we spend so much time trying to spare other people's feelings or trying to avoid conflict that we end up burying our voices. Sometimes, some things need to be said. Our feelings and voices have as much value as anyone's.  Some people need to be pulled up on bad behaviour and challenged on their nasty words.  Stick up for yourself.
10. Take care of yourself. You can't take care of anyone else if your own tank is empty.  Taking care of your health, mental health, wellbeing and financial health are all an investment in being able to help and care for those around you.
11. Ask for your worth - ask for money, for training, for opportunities to do more interesting work. Outside of work ask for discounts, for special treatment for help.  No ask, no get. Even if you ask and don't get, it's out there and people will remember and come back to you later with an opportunity or raise.
12. Take action - if you are an over-thinker like me and start doubting yourself, or if you feel stuck and not sure where to start, make a list and start doing something. Getting moving and taking some action will help you feel like you are doing something and will make you feel motivated.
13. Start with the hardest thing.  What are you resisting?  Start with this, get it done and everything feels easier after this. Just get started.
14. Take time to reflect every day.  Whether it's how you did at work, what you could have done differently in parenting your children or how productively you spent your time. You will find that nothing helps your personal or professional growth like reviewing your day and seeing where you could do a little better or understanding where you made a mistake you could avoid in future.  I do not believe that you can have continuous improvement, whether in work, life, learning a skill or improving your own character, without self-reflection.  So much so, that I included a section in the daily pages of my annual life planner called “Review of the day” – this section asks “What was amazing about today? What could have been better? What will I do differently next time?”  “Account yourself before you are brought to account and measure your actions before they are measured.” ~ Umar Al Farooq (radiallahu anhu).
15. Be kind and loving to your parents - I am convinced this is the secret to success in life. Treat your parents well and earn Allah (SWT)'s favour.
16. Don't be quick to judge - when you find yourself looking on others harshly, take a deep breath, step back and let go of the judgement. Remind yourself that
that others are in a different place in their journey. Tomorrow they may be better people than you.
17. Make time to do nothing now and again - doing nothing is a condition for creativity and innovation.  The best ideas come when you are distracted or doing something completely unrelated - like playing with your children or enjoying nature.
18. Sit with your feelings - if you feel sad, angry or hurt, rather than burying these feeling and trying to force yourself to be positive, allow yourself to feel how you do. Acknowledge those feelings, you'll be surprised at how much more quickly they pass compared to when you ignore or resist them.
19. Make time for play - women are not good at this.  Men have their sports, their gadgets and their cars and take play very seriously.  Women either don't have time to play or treat their pastimes as something frivolous. Play helps us to unwind, learn skills, take ourselves less seriously (sometimes) and nurture ourselves.
20. Build your allies and advocates around you - those that look out for you, give good advice, share useful information, will help you raise your game and do better and be better. For me this includes my sisters and best friend at home, a big group of women at work, the sisters from my masjid and friends in the local community.
21. Accept sadness as a part of life - it is bound to come at some point, and if we accept this, it will hurt when it comes, but we get through it easier. We are patient knowing that Allah (SWT) tests those he loves, and we are hopeful knowing that this will pass and that Allah (SWT) promises ease after every hardship. “Whoever persists in being patient, God will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience.” (Al-Bukhari)
22. Keep learning - whether through reading, podcasts, courses, taking on new projects or travelling. It will make the world stay interesting to you and you interesting to the world.
23. Don't be scared of tech - whether smart phones, blogs, websites or social media. Don't let it intimidate you. There is a step-by-step process for everything available on the internet.  It feels good to be able to navigate the different types of tech that run our lives and use the to our benefit rather than having to ask others to do things for us.  And what's the worst that could happen…well there was the time I accidentally took down the whole of my office's SharePoint site disconnecting all of the levels and losing all of the permissions. It was for a simple task I had asked IT to help with and they told me to do myself. Instead of 10 minutes to help me, it took them a week to fix :)
24. Be proud of who you are - I learned this from my best friend who has always been proud of and celebrated her Moroccan heritage.  I think of
being the child of immigrants and trying to fit in. Or being a religious Muslim at home and perhaps feeling like you have to play your faith down outside at work or school.  Be proud of your faith, your heritage, your family and your history. We are no better or less than others.
25. Remember to focus - the world is endless distraction. Time goes by in a blur.  Keep reminding yourself to let go of the things that waste time and have no value and to keep coming back to those that will put you in a better place in the next moment or the next life.  If at any moment you are not sure what this is, then engage in dhikr, remembrance of Allah, because this is why we are here, to glorify and praise Him.
26. Everything is worship - done with the right intention. From waking up to the moment we sleep, our lives can be purposeless, aimless and pointless, or every moment can be sacred - caring for our families, serving our communities, doing an honest day’s work, resting, even play and having fun. Keep going back to the intention to do good or lay the foundations to do good - e.g. sleeping or resting so that you have the strength to care for others.
27. Believe in yourself - sounds like something from a self-help book, but more and more in my life, I see that no one held me back as much as my lack of belief in myself did.  Even when others believed in me.  There came a point when I had to deal with this and promise myself that I would hold onto my achievements and stop doubting myself.
28. Akhlak, or good character, is everything.  Good intentions, kind words, good deeds, gentle behaviour.  Be pleasant to be around, be someone who is easy to get along with, no because you are a compliant woman but because you are a beautiful, loving soul. 
29. Be honest with yourself - Have the courage to face yourself and your mistakes and see things for what they are.  There may be times when I don’t have the courage to speak up or bite my tongue instead of telling the truth, but I have always been adamant that I will tell the truth to myself.  No matter how unsavoury, or how painful the consequences.
30.  Be grateful for the ordinary - we look for the big exciting experiences of life, but sometimes the same joy can be found in the everyday - nature, our friends and family, the weather, the events of our day.  There is joy and beauty to be found in every moment if we attune ourselves to it.
31. Understand money - Be the boss of your money: how much you earn, how much more you could earn, where it goes and where it should be going.
32. Plan your time, but not all of it - I make a point of making sure there is unscheduled time during the week with no plans. This is with the intention that you never know what is coming and want to leave space in your life for spontaneity and opportunities to do fun and interesting things.
33. Don't be taken in by the man or woman in the suit - at some point I realised that so many of our authority figures are blagging it. They often know as little as or less than us.  Stand up as an equal, don't be scared to questions and assume you are as competent as the suits. Or at least don’t assume their competence, wait for them to prove it.
34. Take responsibility for your health - I have seen my mum and mum-in-law blaming the doctor for not fixing various problems they have, when the root causes are linked to their choices and behaviours to some extent - diet, stress, anxiety, lack of exercise.  Acknowledge your health starts with you, not the doctor and invest in your health with the right nutrition, rest, mental health support an exercise.
35. Treat every day like a new day - set aside the arguments and gripes from the day before and start again.  Sounds unrealistic? I practiced this with my children. Children start every day having forgotten the squabbles and sulks from the day before. I love this reset option and try to apply it in my life as much as possible.
36. Listen to your mum - she has been there, done it and learned the lesson, better still your grandmother too.
37. Listen with patience - Youth by its very nature is impatient. When you are 18 or 21, you think everything has to happen now because time is running out and soon it will be too late (for what I never thought through). The think that used to annoy me the most was people who not only speak very slowly, but refuse to get to the point – just say what needs to be said right? Wrong. I once attended a course where one of the participants spoke very slowly and took ages to get his point across. Every time he opened his mouth I started feeling impatient. Eventually he made a point that blew my mind (so much so, that I can’t remember what he said). I realised that the roundabout path he had taken to get to this answer was necessary for us to understand the full importance of what he was saying. I promised myself after that, to taken the time to listen carefully to what people are saying and this has benefited me immensely – you connect to people properly, you understand things more fully and people feel more that you are taking them seriously and treating them with respect.
38. Do what you want - Listen to everyone, smile, agree they are right, then do whatever the hell you want.  You are a grown woman. You know what you want. My mum-in-law complains about this one to my mum - how I listen and agree and then do what I want.  I do so with absolute glee and conviction about my right to do so.
39. Be a source of love – everyone is yearning to be loved and accepted, be that source of love and acceptance – for your spouse, your children and those around you.  Do it through your words your touch, your kind deeds and your smile.
40. Accept yourself - wrinkles, extra weight, grey hairs and all.  Stop being so self-conscious about it all. No one will notice because they are busy dealing with those thing about themselves too.  Accept you have the right to be here, taking up space and being good enough as you are.

These are some of the things I have learned in the last forty years, I hope there is something in there that you found useful. What has been your biggest life lesson? 

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