9 Unexpected Lessons I Learned in 2020

I never thought I’d spend Christmas alone in a foreign country.

Being alone looks so much cooler when you’re posing near palaces or castles or monasteries which is exactly what I’ve been doing over the past few days

It’s funny; a year ago, I was in Prague having the best Christmas of my life. I was surrounded by people from all over the world. We were at a crowded Christmas market, sharing a single plate of Czech food. Life felt like everything I’d dreamed it would be.

And now here I am, a year later, alone in my apartment during the holidays eating Thai food. (Which was absolutely delicious, I may add.)

There’s nothing that says “Dulce navidad” like vegetarian spring rolls

But it wasn’t all bad.

A month after I’d lost my classes, I’d gained them back three-fold. I started teaching online this year, and I love it.

I’ve started studying again, and am working on a specialization related to teaching.

I’ve taken several online courses during lockdown because I had nothing better to do.

And so on.

Napoleon Hill says in his masterpiece of a book Think and Grow Rich, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartbreak, carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned this year was count your blessings.

You have more to be grateful for than you know.

And the more you’re grateful for the little things, big things start to come toward you.

So, what are the other lessons I’ve learned in 2020? I think we all could write a book on the things we learned in 2020, but to try to keep this short and sweet (300+ words later), I’ll summarize my top nine 2020 lessons here. Numbered but in no order of importance.

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Lesson 1: It’s better to be alone than to be around the wrong company.

I don’t like goodbyes, but I’ve had to cut off some people from my life this year. It’s one thing to try to help others and be a support system for them. And that’s fine; that’s what relationships are for.

But when you feel like the emotional punching bag for someone, or when you feel you need to change everything you are to make someone happy, ask yourself: is this really worth it?

I believe in second chances. But if you continue to feel drained by another, or you have to keep hiding who you really are, sometimes the best thing to do is to wish them well, and say adiós. It’s hard, and heartbreaking, but you’ll be better off.

Your energy is worth protecting, and if that means being alone instead of the wrong company, then choose being alone. You may even learn to like yourself a bit more by the end of your period of solitude.

Lesson 2: Have a Plan A, B, C, D, and E. (And maybe F and G, to be on the safe side.)

Because you never know what could happen. Or how quickly everything can stop. Just try to think ahead of the game.

And know that, even if none of your plans work, sometimes the solution comes in the most unexpected time, in the most unexpected way. That being said, prepare for anything and everything.

Be prepared for an unexpected snowfall on a trip to see a castle, for example. Manzanares El Real, in the Community of Madrid.

Lesson 3: People can survive on their own. But they shouldn’t.

Playa de la Conca at night in San Sebastian

Lesson 4: Going on vacation can restore your productivity (and your sanity).

Hi, my name is McKenna, and I am a workaholic.

During the lockdown of planet earth in March and April, I, like many people around the world, had a lot of free time. Too much free time. So when I got my classes back, along with even more classes, then started teaching online, I held onto teaching as if it were my lifesaver. And it was my lifesaver for those months.

I’d been teaching nearly every day since May, often starting at 6:30am. By August, I felt like a machine. I almost didn’t take a break, until I realized I needed to for my sanity.

Walking up to Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian at sunrise after barely a night’s sleep on that bus was so worth it.

All I’d needed was a good night’s sleep and to go swimming, apparently. When I got back to Madrid, I was ready to start my student teaching in the fall. So, go on vacation. Take a day off. And if you can’t, take some time for, I don’t know, a bowl of ice cream or something. Your mind and body will thank you.

Lesson 5: Keep going, and have faith that things will get better, because they will.

Keep going, even when your bank account balance is in the single digits. Keep going, even when everyone you thought you could trust turns their backs on you. Keep going, even when you’re more alone than you have ever been. Keep going, even when you don’t know when things are going to change. They will.

Spain’s lockdown was intense. For nearly two months, we were only allowed outside to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy. Also, my apartment is approximately the size of a shoebox. Imagine this for two months. Do you know how ridiculous the anti-lockdown protests in Michigan looked to me? You guys could at least go for walks or build a snowman in your backyard.

But when we could go outside … I can’t tell you the joy and happiness I felt that day.

Now, even before, something told me to hang on, that things would get better, even though I had no idea how they would. Going for walks, I listened to the stories of great men and women who’d overcome their circumstances, despite how impossible they looked. The stories of these men and women got me through and gave me hope.

I listened to the story of Les Brown, how he’d been labeled educable mentally retarded, until a teacher told him: “Someone’s opinion of you doesn’t have to be your reality.” Eventually, he started working as an assistant at a radio station, and one day, an opportunity appeared. The next thing you know, he became a DJ, and then a motivational speaker.

I listened to the story of Andy Henriquez’s mom, who was about to lose her home and restaurant because the landlord had issues with his mortgage. Somehow, she won the bid for the mortgage at a foreclosure auction, and in the nick of time, gathered loans from her friends and family to buy the property. It brings me to tears nearly every time I hear Andy Henriquez say, “And that day, she went from being the tenant, to being the landlord, all because she showed up! … You have to show up for your life, despite the circumstances and naysayers, because if you dont, if you don’t … nobody else will.”

I listened to the story of Nas Daily, a video blogger from a small town in Israel who somehow got a full ride scholarship to Harvard, graduated and got a 6-figure job in New York City, hated the lifestyle and quit his job, and learned how to make one-minute videos every day on the go. And he now has his own business, and people all over the world watch his videos. “Commitment is the only way and the best way to become better. If you commit to something, even when people laugh at you, or even if people say you’re not meant for it, and you commit, no matter what, one day you’ll wake up noticing that you changed your personal life, the life of your family, and lives of millions of people around the world.”

I listened to the story of Vishen Lakhiani, the founder of Mindvalley. How he’d studied computer science at the University of Michigan out of wanting to make his family proud, yet hated his classes. He got an internship at Microsoft, and hated it so much he couldn’t even shake Bill Gates’s hand. He also quit his job, was living for a few months off a college student’s couch, until he discovered meditation, excelled at his office job, and started his own company for $700 that’s now worth millions.

One of the best pieces of advice and guidance I heard during the lockdown is quoted below from his YouTube video:

When you start doing the right thing [for you], it’s not like, all of a sudden, everything clicks and everything moves effortlessly. If that were true, you wouldn’t learn jack. Your soul wants you to paint this beautiful picture of your whole life, this original masterpiece. …

There is a red pill in life. … Now when you take the red pill, when you choose not to follow the status quo, but to do your own thing, very often, this is what’s about to happen: you life will not have that same level of quality because you’re doing things a little bit different. But eventually, things will click, and you will end up significantly better off. … The only voice you should only take seriously is the voice within.”

Keep going. Things will get better.

Lesson 6: Forgiveness is possible.

Apologies are possible, even if they take years. Forgiveness is possible, even if it takes years. And when it happens, the weight on your heart that was holding you back, you both back, can be lifted, and you can move on with your life in a new kind of light and freedom.

Lesson 7: Don’t post your New Year’s resolutions on your blog.

Because a pandemic may happen that will close gyms for several months at a time, for example.

Lesson 7, part 2: Make a vision board instead.

I loved having my vision board visible every morning when I woke up. And surprisingly, many things on my vision board came true! Maybe not in the way I expected, but such is life.

I am definitely making a new one for 2021, and invite you to make one as well. It’s fun. 🙂

Lesson 8: My travel style is changing.

When I first started traveling at 22, I wanted to see everything, and I wanted to see it fast. I was spending a few days at most in a city before moving onto the next one.

But the trips I remember the most, were the places I stayed in the longest. And the places I didn’t know much about before.

What I remember most from my month in Chile, for example, was when I was invited to stay with a family in a small mining town for a week. It was a struggle to speak Spanish, even more so in Chile, but this family treated me like one of their own. We’re still in touch to this day, eight years later.

And in Spain, what has been fun has been finding places that only locals know about (and not even all locals).

I still want to see everything. But I realize that the best trips also happen when you find lesser known places that are not as overcrowded, or when you unexpectedly go somewhere. Or just being around the right people. The people will bring you the biggest and best memories.

Like that time my friends and I booked a trip to Vienna, Austria on a whim

Lesson 9: Gratitude is everything.

El Monastario del Escorial on Christmas Eve during golden hour

And that’s a wrap! I don’t know how to conclude this post without sounding overly cheesy or the overused 2020 jokes or memes (that being said, it was a good year for memes). This whole year has been nonsensical. So to end this post on a nonsensical note, here’s a picture of my dog Lola the basset. You can’t look at Lola and not feel happy.


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