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For more than 20 years, I’ve spent time in December and over the holidays reflecting on the year, but this is the first time I’ve published my notes. While I didn’t achieve many of the goals from my 2023 goals list, I accomplished one significant one that felt impossible when I declared it, so as a chronically ill entrepreneur struggling with an invisible illness, it feels important enough to share with the world. 

I started the year as I had for 2022—in a day-long goal-setting retreat with 4 amazing women entrepreneurs. We usually spend the morning mind mapping ideas for the year and then work through a detailed season-by-season plan for how we’d like to achieve them (we organize our businesses by the energy changes that come with each season through the year). 

A very reasonable approach, except that I couldn’t do the planning part. I had just passed the 5-year milestone for my stem cell transplant and life felt uncertain and precarious. As the clock ticked by through the 2 hour planning window, I doodled, looked at my phone, and sat in anguish at my inability to define anything in detail for the year. 

All I could do was post each of my overarching goals on star shaped post-it notes above my desk, hoping they would inspire me towards right actions through the year, even if I had no idea yet what those steps would be.

There was one overarching goal that mattered most but felt the furthest from reach:

Be hopeful again about my health.

At this point, for more than six months, I had been struggling with severe chronic pain in my hip and both feet that made walking difficult. I was barely able to leave the house, except for grocery shopping and other short trips. I wasn’t able to join my family on vacation, drive anywhere longer than 20 minutes, sit in a movie theatre or restaurant comfortably, or walk in the park with friends. 

So the idea of being hopeful again about my health felt like a pipe dream. But I included it anyway. By declaring it as a possible goal to achieve, I was already hopeful. It was a goal turducken—-an objective wrapped up in its own outcome. 

I could wrap up my year here, but there was a lot more to it, so I thought I’d share it here.

WIN (a big one): Not only did I become hopeful again, I unlocked the source of my most critical chronic pain, leading to a significant recovery.

I chose the word “vibrance” for my word of the year: “a state of being full of life and energy” and it felt like I was pranking myself. How in the world could I be full of energy when I was barely sleeping 4 hours a night and struggled with walking from the door to the couch.

Honestly, I still can’t believe this happened, given how I felt at the start of the year. I had just been told that what I thought was the source of my pain (neuropathy from chemo) was not the case, but no one had any suggestions for what else to consider. 

I knew I was on my own—there wasn’t a single health care practitioner who would be able to solve it. I started doing a ton of research about chronic pain as well as digging into possible sources. I went to an osteopath (who tried painful jolts of electricity in my feet; 10/10 do not recommend); I tried massage (helpful but not curative), visits to my family doctor, increasing my dosage of pain meds and CBD (which increased my brain fog, but didn’t help my sleep or pain). 

Finally, it was the combination of seeing a chiropodist for my feet, who diagnosed collapsed metatarsals and possible arthritis in my feet, and a physiotherapist who helped with new exercises and acupuncture, that unlocked my pain. 

From June onwards, I was able to return to long walks (which had mental and physical benefits) and step back out into my life again. Incredible. 

Lesson: Put a big goal on your list, even if it feels physically impossible and you have no idea how you’ll achieve it. 

 

WIN (another big one): Trip to the UK to attend a work conference and visit a sick friend. 

In January, I knew my friend would be undergoing a stem cell transplant in mid October, but it felt impossible that I would be able to travel to London to support her. But by August, because of my recovery, I knew I would be able to travel as long as I put some options in place to mitigate any health issues that popped up (I was still new in my pain recovery and was worried I would have some challenges from the flight).

It was a storybook trip from start to finish, including meeting people I had known for years IRL for the first time and being able to help my friend return home from the hospital on my last day there. Major wins all around and one of the highlights of my year. 

Lesson: Be ready to add new incredible dreams to your list if you manage to unlock a big one early in the year. 

 

WIN: Creating the Authority Engine model and all the clarity that followed.

Building models for clients is one of my favourite things to do but I didn’t have one for my own work. And through the year, I struggled to articulate how I did my work.

Creating the Authority Engine model (more to come in 2024) meant that I could “see” the pieces from end to end. It still feels a bit complicated to explain so one of my jobs in 2024 is to find new ways to describe it. The model led to a speaking opportunity at a writer’s conference in London in October as well as more ease in how I worked through the content audits and planning with clients. 

Lesson: Keep persisting in defining your work. Lots of great things will follow from that clarity.

 

WIN: Naming and launching the Body of Work newsletter.

Launching a newsletter was one of the post-it note goals this year, but despite getting advice to the contrary, I wanted to wait to start it until I had a name for it. I wanted it to feel like it could become a byline in a major publication or website like The Atlantic. 

This wasn’t just for ego or a way to procrastinate about actually doing the writing (although it felt like it at times); I wanted to clearly picture the “so what” purpose for it. Why would a reader benefit from subscribing? How could I connect the seemingly disparate themes of my work and life under one newsletter? 

And what I later discovered was that the struggle to name the newsletter was a metaphor for the lack of theme that connected all the disparate parts of my business. How could the benefits of the done-for-you work differ so significantly from the do-it-yourself offers?

Once I landed that name, the writing started flowing so easily. It wasn’t writer’s block at all, it was exactly as Jessica Abel described in a podcast: I just hadn’t found the right way into the work yet. 

New level of clarity unlocked. Thrilling.

Lesson: Stick with a creative hurdle that feels important, even if it feels like you’re stalling out. There’s likely a deeper reason for it (both the gap and the gain) if you can figure it out. And find a variety of creative ways to solve it.

 

Lots of WIN moments: Seeing Carolyn’s book on the shelves at Indigo. Writing retreats with my friend Jane. Hosting big parties for the holidays because my energy was back. Finding my way to amazing communities, like The Copywriter Club Think Tank and the Intuitive Writing School community. Being a guest on several big podcasts made me feel like I was entering the big leagues. 

It was a good year. But it wasn’t without its challenges. 

 

MISS: A lack of cohesive marketing strategy translated into declining revenue in the second half of the year.

This one hurts. I had one of the best months of my business in July and really felt that I could keep going based mostly on referrals.

Wrong.

The second half of the year was a struggle. 

Small win: I didn’t panic or freak out. We have some savings and I also benefit from being able to lean on my partner’s full time salary (which Ventakem Rao mentions as important to new business owners in his book The Art of Gig.) 

Lesson: I’m creating a new marketing model for 2024 and a process for testing new short term and longer term tactics through the year. I need to do the content marketing and authority-building work I do for clients in my own business as well. 

 

MISS: Not dedicating enough time to organization, systems, rhythms and routines. (In work and life)

As soon as things are busy, I start to hyperventilate. I’ve got paper lists and notes everywhere and while it’s a system of organized chaos on my desk, it will be impossible for others working with me to access the information they need, something that became very obvious when I started working with a new virtual assistant (VA) in the fall. 

 

MISS: Not having consistent rhythms and routines in my day that support my goals for writing and health.

I’ve gotten into some bad habits again and I’ve tried all of the time blocking/get up at 5 am advice but life with a chronic illness makes it impossible to predict what day I’m going to have until I’m in it (or needing a nap during my “block this for fitness” window. 

Lesson: Figure out how to create small moments for writing and wellness through the day, instead of hoping to find bigger blocks that never materialize. 

 

Phew, what a year! Lots of ups and downs, but I’ll ride out the big win and call it a successful year. I’m feeding these observations and identification of gaps into my planning for 2024, leaving me feeling much more grounded and clear than in previous years. So that’s a win too.

I hope you’re seeing some unexpected wins in your 2023 year too, even if they’ve been crowded out by challenges you faced. Here’s to new adventures to us both.

Author

Alyssa Burkus

Alyssa Burkus

Alyssa Burkus is a thought leadership strategist, writer, and coach. She's the founder of Shift Wisdom, a writing agency based near Toronto, Canada where she specializes in helping business owners and corporate leaders build their authority and influence through writing.

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