Continuing the tradition I started last year, this post is a reflection on my last 12 months.
In writing this review, I recognize how fortunate I am. To say 2020 brought a lot of challenges for a great many people is an understatement, and I feel for all those who had a tough year.
For reasons other than COVID, this year forced me to slow down, embrace uncertainty, and learn to trust my own path. In 2020, I questioned everything I thought I knew about life, success, and what is most important.
I let go of med school and became a full-time blogger and independent researcher. I wrote articles, hosted a virtual conference, and witnessed the birth of my niece. My husband and I brought our digital nomad adventures to an end and landed in Wisconsin. I re-kindled several old relationships, made some new ones, and redefined others.
While it’s been one of the more challenging years of my life, it’s also been the one that has brought the most growth, perspective, and clarity – and for that, I’m very grateful.
Thanks to everyone who was a part of this year or supported me along the way. In sharing this, I hope you find some of my lessons learned helpful to you on your life journey.
On career decisions, forging my own path, and learning to listen to my intuition
“Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” —M. Scott Peck
It’s still crazy to think that I was supposed to start med school this year. In hindsight, it’s hard to see how I didn’t see it sooner. When I finally did let go of med school in January, I latched onto the idea of a postdoc first before finally embracing full-time blogging and independent research.
In the fall, I explored re-booting our startup idea for several months, only to realize that it was just a distraction from the work I loved most and that was already having an impact.
It was certainly a bumpy road for a while. It’s easy to feel like we’re supposed to have it all together; to have a clear path that doesn’t take any detours or have a few hiccups along the way.
The logical, researcher part of me likes to believe that any decision can be broken down and reasoned through carefully. And sure, maybe if I just knew myself better or thought it through in a different way, I would have come to the same conclusion.
But I’ve learned that sometimes, you just have to move forward and try a direction to know if it’s really right for you. Sometimes that intuitive, inner voice is way more accurate than any calculated rationalization. Sometimes the meandering path is exactly what you need to be confident that you’ve landed in the right place.
And those detours? They led to some of the connections I’m most grateful to have made this year.
On balancing present vs. future focus
“There are ways to really live in the present moment. What’s the alternative? It is always now. However much you may need to plan for the future, to anticipate it, to mitigate risks, the reality of your life is now.” —Sam Harris
For much of my life, I was exclusively future-focused. That insatiable, never-satisfied, work-for-the-future mentality and self-discipline served me well in my academic pursuits, recovering my health, and even in launching this blog. But it often made it impossible to enjoy the present. I wasn’t “enough” unless I was being maximally productive, actively striving for something better.
Only brief flow states, usually writing, playing soccer, or time in nature could break the constant stream of mental chatter and bring me fully into the present.
Thanks in great part to my husband, a few good books, a chance moment on a flight in 2019, and meditation practice, I’ve learned to let go and live more fully in the present. I find it easier to relax, enjoy the simple things in life, and recognize that no amount of achievement or external recognition will ever provide lasting happiness.
The trouble, of course, is how to balance this ability to be happy and content in the present with the desire to continue to be productive and fulfill my mission. Over the last year, I tried hard to find that balance. More often, I found myself yo-yo-ing back and forth between the two extremes.
It’s something that I’ll continue to reflect on in 2021, but for the time being, I’ve come to a few solutions to help find that balance:
- Meditate regularly and practice mindfulness throughout the day. Take time to sit with, meditate, or journal on any emotions that come up related to my need to constantly be doing Always aim to start work from a place of inspiration, not obligation.
- Emphasize activities that compound over time towards a better future yet also induce a sense of flow and timelessness in the present. Build these activities into my daily life and routine (e.g. research/writing, soccer as exercise)
- Set aside specific times each week/month/year for past reflection and future planning. At all other times, try to bring my focus back to the present moment.
On goals, work as art, and focusing on the process
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” – Richard Feynman
Last year, my review was largely based on goals – how I fared on my goals the previous year, and my goals for 2020. Setting long-term goals made a lot of sense for a while. Many of my academic pursuits required long-term vision and planning. Blogging, on the other hand, was never something I really set any objectives for.
Fast forward to 2020, when I got to pursue blogging and consulting full-time. It was truly a dream come true. But I also felt a lot of pressure to make my new “business” work. So, like any good entrepreneur, I set goals and target milestones. And?
My writing tanked. I realized that I’d actually gotten more writing done back when I was also working on my PhD! How could that be? Back then, I just showed up to write for the pure joy of it, followed my natural curiosity, and published articles whenever they happened to be ready. I had no goals, no deadlines, no pressure. I was free to learn and write about what interested me.
I knew I needed to bring that joy back into my writing. I finally let go of the outcome and started to see my work as art. I let myself go down random PubMed rabbit holes for hours just for the hell of it. And just like that, the muse returned, and my writing returned full force.
Does that mean I’ll never set goals again? I’m not sure yet. I’m certainly a lot less convinced that long-term goal setting is the optimal strategy for getting the most out of my work and life at this stage.
On downshifting, meditation, and just being
“It is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.” — Alan Watts
A major theme for me this year was just slowing down. Thanks to my accidental meditation experience in 2019, I’d had a glimpse of what connecting with a deeper sense of being and transcending ego could look like.
While I lost the deepest sense of presence and inner stillness that I felt after that initial experience, there was a lasting shift in perspective that seemed to open a door for further exploration.
For the first time, I could effectively meditate for longer periods of time. By April, I was sitting for anywhere between 20-40 minutes every morning, and I soon came to last 5-10 minute stretches without any thoughts coming in. Even more, I was actually starting to really enjoy the time that I was sitting in meditation.
My day-to-day slowly slipped away from that presence though. When my work commitments ramped up in May, I lost my morning meditation in favor of productivity. And my sense of presence faded with it.
Fortunately, June offered a chance to slow down again, and I joined an online lovingkindness meditation retreat. After several 90-minute meditations, I was again able to experience the deep presence I’d felt in 2019 and had a few blissful weeks before it faded again.
The presence continued to come and go for much of the rest of the year, as I tried to figure out what was next and navigated a lot of moving pieces in my life. Periods of intense clarity and deep inner peace intermingled with periods of doubt, confusion, and existentialism.
It wasn’t until shortly after the new year that things really solidified, when I took a few weeks off to slow down and reflect on the year.
I realized how much my constant need to be doing something often got in the way of my ability to connect with my deeper values, my intuition, and with a sense of deep peace, fulfillment, and well-being in the present moment.
I read a number of spiritual/psychology books. I journaled a lot. I sat with my urge to do instead of jumping straight into doing. I started to appreciate the simple things. And one day the presence just returned, gradually but intensely.
I don’t know if it will last. But I do know that slowing down and connecting with my sense of being is something that I will continue to practice in the coming years.
On the end of travels, community, and settling down
Working for yourself amidst a global pandemic is hardly the recipe for meeting new people, and I feel quite fortunate to have made as many connections as I did in 2020.
Pre-pandemic, we traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona for the annual Physicians for Ancestral Health retreat, where I reconnected with several old friends and met some new faces.
When COVID hit, we returned to the Midwest. During the weeks of lockdown, we hunkered down in an Airbnb in West Michigan. Thanks to the Virtual Microbiome Summit, I spent the summer connecting with some of the top microbiome researchers, many of whose work I had admired for years. I was also able to continue to engage online with hundreds of people around the world, thanks to my blog, patreon, and consultations.
The summer brought more in-person connections with the chance to relocate to Ann Arbor to support my sister through the end of her pregnancy, labor, and the first month with their newborn baby girl. It was an incredible, beautiful, magical experience, and one that I will always treasure. We ended up staying nearby for much of the summer and became great friends with our Airbnb hosts along the way.
When we moved to Milwaukee in August, it was largely back to virtual connections. More than anything though, this year helped me realize that community doesn’t have to be local.
As much as I love seeing people in person, I am probably never going to be able to be in one place with all of the people closest to me. And I really like that I can have a more introverted, quiet life to create and connect globally, punctuated by occasional phone calls and, when possible, travels to visit our friends and family in various places.
So I’m okay with having a more widespread community. And I’m deeply grateful for the technology that allows us to connect, regardless of the distance between us.
On owning my time and lifestyle design
“If you care about something you have to protect it – If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” – John Irving
Simultaneously one of the greatest gifts and learning curves this year was having complete control over my time for the first time in my life. Questions like: “How can I make my time matter? What is the “right” use of my time? How do I know that I’m doing enough? Do I even deserve this much freedom?!?” flooded a lot of my free time.
If you’re an entrepreneur, writer, or creator, I’m sure you can relate to this. When you work for yourself, it’s much harder to draw the line between work and leisure.
And the thing is – I love my work. And part of me (the future-focused, mission-driven, never-satisfied part) could easily work every waking second of the day.
On the other hand, I know entrepreneurs who work 60-80 hours a week and are constantly on the verge of burnout. The present-focused part of me sees right through the “never-enough” mindset and knows that if I want to be in this for the long haul, I need to find a balanced lifestyle that is sustainable and fulfilling.
I finally asked myself: what is the most important thing to me in my work? What part of my work do I enjoy the most? The answer: researching & writing.
I realized I’d been comparing my work habits to other entrepreneurs, healthcare practitioners, or research professors when my work is actually closer to most creators/writers.
So, I started maximizing for writing and optimal creativity. I cut the unessential and freed up my calendar from most commitments. I prioritized deep work, reduced my inputs, and left more free space just for thinking.
With this approach, I was able to consistently get 3-4 hours of intense, deep writing in a day. I usually add on a couple of hours of client consults or other work, depending on the day.
Could I do more? I certainly often feel that I should be doing more. But I seem to experience only marginal gains beyond that 3-6 hours per day. After all, the 8-hour workday really wasn’t designed for deep knowledge work.
What do I do with the rest of my time? I read, take walks, exercise, meditate, listen to music or the occasional podcast, make home-cooked meals, spend time with my husband, or connect with friends. I’m very intentional about keeping my inputs low. As many writers attest to, the best insights usually come when you’re not explicitly working!!
Admittedly, I still suffer from productivity guilt from time to time. In those moments, I try to examine the guilt and remind myself that optimizing for deep work is not only more enjoyable but also more effective at fulfilling my mission and creating the most impact with my work in the long run.
On my eczema as my best teacher
“Your enemy can be your greatest teacher” – Buddha
Like many practitioners in the integrative health space, I came to do the work that I do through my personal health journey. And I could easily present a shiny, professional image to the world of perfect health without obstacles. But health is messy, and life throws challenges at all of us.
With all of the uncertainty in my life this year, I faced some struggles with my eczema for the first time in several years. While the flare was mild and came and went, it was quite humbling. I resisted it a lot at first. But I’ve worked hard to accept that I’m not perfect and that my worth is not defined by the health of my skin at any given time.
More importantly, I realized that my eczema has really been my best teacher all along. My own health journey has always pushed me to go deeper – to learn, to research, and to experiment. And that ultimately makes me better able to relate to my clients, and to have a greater impact with my work.
Had my skin magically cleared up for good by eating paleo, drinking bone broth, and eating fermented foods six years ago, I probably would never have explored the depths of the gut and skin medical literature, pursued microbiome research, or started this blog. So yes – I’m grateful for all of those years I suffered from itchy, flaky skin, and for the long journey it took to regain my health.
And this year? This year I learned firsthand how much uncertainty and emotional challenges play a role in skin health. I learned the importance of choline and organ meats. And I learned that when my skin flares, it’s a sign that something’s not quite right in my life.
And you want to know a secret? I used a bit of hydrocortisone cream for the first time in eight years. And that’s okay.
On letting go of what doesn’t serve me
“When you let go, you create space for better things to enter your life.” – Greg Mckeown
Oh boy, did I let a lot of things go this year. For a long time, I had a tendency to please those around me in an attempt to escape judgment from others. And it drove so much of my behavior.
I’d often say yes to something just to please someone that I respected, even when I wasn’t excited about it. I cared far too much about what other people thought of me. I always put other people’s needs before my own. And I had very few boundaries.
Deciding on my own path and letting go of med school was just the beginning. As I started to really get in touch with my inner self, I started to see when I was doing something just to please someone, or for other external reasons.
Sometimes that intuitive feeling wouldn’t come until after I’d already committed a lot of time and energy into something. And it often led to me having to backtrack a few steps and even risk disappointing people I respected.
And while it was often scary to do that, it always led to a deep sense of relief when I finally let that thing go – like I was being true to myself again. And when I backed out with grace and honesty, people actually respected me for it.
One of the things I let go of this year was social media. I’m not sure yet if I’ll permanently delete it, or whether I’ll ever return to it in the future. But it was clear that even my already-minimal relationship only served to provide unnecessary external validation and disconnect me from my inner voice. I really haven’t missed it at all.
I also let go of our startup. This was perhaps the hardest of all. I’d invested a great deal of time and effort in researching and exploring this. I’d brought on a few advisors, connected with Cathy, an amazing business partner and human being, and even toured a lab space in Milwaukee. But the more time I invested, the more disconnected I felt from myself and my work. And when I finally let it go, I felt free. Sure, I still think about the impact it could have. And maybe I’ll have the chance to help build something like it in the future. But for the moment, it was time to let go.
On the power of journaling and leaning into discomfort
In 2020, I also discovered the transformational power of journaling. I’d kept a journal off and on for the past few years but wasn’t really consistent enough to get the full benefits of the practice. More often than not, I used it to document new developments or plan my future, rather than to really explore the inner workings of my mind.
That all changed when I stumbled upon a new approach to journaling, inspired by Derek Sivers, and started to type my journal in plain text files. With a keyboard, my hands could finally keep up with my thoughts, producing a more honest, stream-of-consciousness output. I could see clearly what I thought about various situations, relationships, and opportunities, and examine and question those thoughts and beliefs from different angles.
Any time I felt even the slightest twinge of stress, anxiety, or tension in my body, I would sit down and let my hands flow over the keyboard. Sometimes it would take ten minutes of self-interrogation before I’d figure out the true cause of the tension, but more often than not, sitting with it and asking myself questions aloud in text format brought it out. And nine times out of ten, once I could see the cause clearly, I could give myself perspective and see that it was a silly thing to be stressed about!
Other times I would sit down to journal, not really thinking anything was on my mind, only to have several pages of thoughts fall out of my brain. I’ve been amazed how frequently this outwardly useless brain dump often leads directly to new insights about myself or my work.
More than any other tool I have used, this really helped me to understand myself on a deeper level, to learn more from my thoughts and emotions, and to uncover the less obvious parts of my mind. I highly recommend it!
Other things to celebrate
While I truly feel that the lessons I learned this year will be more valuable than anything else, there were some other things to celebrate in 2020:
Full-time blogging!! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be able to transition to full-time blogging and consulting just two and a half years after launching this blog. I’m so grateful to all of you who continue to read and share my work. Thanks especially to all those who have chosen to consult with me, enroll in my courses, purchase the summit recordings, or support me through Patreon – it is because of you that I am able to keep doing the work that I love.
Hosting the Virtual Microbiome Summit! What a blast this was. I’m still so honored to have hosted a conference with such an incredible lineup of researchers. In less than two months, Steven and I pulled together a virtual four-day conference with over 25 speakers and 3,000 participants across 45 different countries. It was certainly a silver lining of lockdown to be able to bring this event together and connect the research community. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and we may consider hosting another summit in 2021.
Launch of my course academy: I was pleased to release two courses on Microbiome Basics and Hydrogen sulfide overgrowth in 2020. Not too surprisingly, I realized that I much prefer writing blog articles to creating courses. I still intend to add to the course academy over time but will continue to write content for the blog if it seems like a more appropriate medium for a given topic.
Lots of speaking opportunities. In 2020, I was invited as a keynote speaker for the Physicians for Ancestral Health Retreat and the IHH-UCSF Symposium on Nutrition & Functional Medicine. I also appeared on several podcasts, including Nourish Balance Thrive, HumanOS Radio, Functional Medicine Research, The Perfect Stool, the Fundamental Health Podcast, and Ben Greenfield Fitness.
New approach to consulting: I was extremely happy with this! Thanks to an automation that Steven set up, my scheduling page now allows anyone to book an appointment, without any administrative hassle on my part. This approach allowed me to work through my entire waitlist and help a lot more people with their gut health this year. I plan to continue this model of offering weekly time slots for anyone to book 1-on-1 consultations.
ACSM Paper of the Year for 2019! My colleagues at UIUC and I received this award from the American College of Sports Medicine for the review paper we published titled “Exercise and the gut microbiome: a review of the evidence, potential mechanisms, and implications for human health”.
Patreon monthly gut research digest. One of the major things I wanted to improve last year was making more time to keep up with the latest scientific literature. I launched this research digest in October and found it to be the perfect way to engage with new literature, without taking away from my regular synthesis writing. So far, it seems to be a hit!
Becoming a scientific advisor for IBDCoach. This revolutionary, evidence-based online program was started by my good friend Andrew Kornfeld to help people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) achieve and maintain remission. If you have IBD, I highly recommend checking it out.
Submitting a publication with Jonathan Sholl and Dr. Tommy Wood to highlight the bias against high-fat diets in microbiome research and emphasize the inherent metabolic flexibility of the gut microbiome. Look for it in early 2021!
Meeting Cathy. As I mentioned earlier, some of my meanderings this year led to meeting some incredible people. In this case, exploring our startup idea led to a very timely and fortunate connection with a business mentor who soon just became an amazing friend and life mentor. I’m so grateful for this connection this year.
More intentional travel: unsurprisingly, this year led to fewer travel adventures. Before the pandemic hit, we traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona for the PAH Retreat, spent several weeks in San Diego, including one with Steven’s brother for surfing and beach soccer, and also checked out Sacramento and UC Davis. When COVID hit, we returned to the Midwest. We spent most of the lockdown in a small town on the coast of Lake Michigan and relocated to Ann Arbor for the summer to be closer to family.
Moving to Milwaukee! In August, we dusted off the minimal belongings we’d left in storage and moved to a suburb north of Milwaukee. Steven has been enjoying his new job at Milwaukee Tool and I’ve been loving the distraction-free work time (and an actual desk!). Our cozy third-floor apartment has a balcony that gets sunshine most of the day and overlooks a local elementary school soccer field. After five months of travel and nearly six months of long-term Airbnb stays, it’s nice to have a place to call “home” for a while! We largely stayed put the rest of the year but enjoyed a few visits with family, including an outdoor social-distanced early Thanksgiving.
Reading. I read or listened to quite a few books this year. Some of my favorites were Ultralearning, Zen and the Art of Living, Range, Creative Calling, Free to Learn, The End of your World, Chop Wood Carry Water, and Open. I also read quite a few blogs, including Scott Young, Leo Babauta, Derek Sivers, and Sloww.
Exercise/play. Despite the pandemic, I was still pretty active this year. I jogged or walked daily, enjoyed lifting with our friends in Ann Arbor in their outdoor gym over the summer, and played 1v1 soccer with Steven in the fall in the field behind our apartment complex. I even got a small rebounder for some solo keeper training!
Other things to improve
Many of the lessons I mentioned above are things that I’m still actively working to incorporate into my life. Here are a few other things I’d like to improve on:
Making my writing more understandable. I’d like to make my writing a bit more accessible without sacrificing content quality. In particular, I want to work on reducing jargon, eliminating passive voice, and shortening sentences. This will probably not mean changing my writing process, but just being more ruthless during editing.
Updates of old articles and more regular website updates. Much of the topics I cover are things that don’t go out of date very quickly, but I know there are a few articles that could really use an update!
More strength training. My exercise routine gradually drifted more towards jogging and cardio during our travels and quarantine, when we didn’t have access to our usual at-home exercise equipment. In 2021, I’d really like to get back into strength training and reduce cardio to 1-2 times per week.
So, what’s next?
For the first time in my life, I don’t really want anything. I’m doing what I love. I have an incredible husband, a cozy apartment, and a handful of great friends. I get to decide what I do on a daily basis and am doing work that I feel truly matters. I feel complete.
I’m not sure if I just achieved all of my major aspirations or have simply realized how little achievements or material things will ever really change my happiness. Maybe some of both.
I really don’t say this to boast. If anything, I’m a bit confused by it! What used to be my biggest source of motivation – that “never enough” mentality – is no longer a driving force in my life. To be honest, I’m still not sure what is going to replace that never-satisfied philosophy.
But maybe I don’t need to know. For now, I’ve come to embrace enjoying the present moment and focusing on the process. I’m committing to showing up every day, finding things that excite me, and seeing work as play again. And of course, always keeping you, my wonderful readers, in mind.
My 2021 Intentions
Along those lines, I won’t be setting any “goals” for 2021, but instead will offer the following intentions. I’m excited to continue to see what opportunities and adventures this next year brings!
Prioritize deep, flow-inducing, creative work. I’d like to continue to make more time to research and write in 2021, enjoying the process and following my natural curiosity. This will mean minimizing things like email-checking, keeping inputs low, and saying “no” more often.
Continue to serve my readers, patrons, and clients through my blog articles, monthly research digest, 1-on-1 consultations, and potentially another course or two. I’ll also finally be publishing the results of our AIP study! As always, I’d love to hear how I can better serve you, and what resources would most benefit you in the coming year.
Get back to competitive soccer. If I have any regrets at this point in my life, it’s that I never had the chance to realize my full potential in soccer. It wasn’t something that was realistic to pursue immediately after college, but my flexible work schedule now would allow me to give this a real shot. I’d like to take this further this year and see if I could play closer to the professional level. Besides, soccer has always been a key outlet that supports my academic and creative output.
Maintain a deeper sense of presence. In 2021, I hope to continue to slow down to journal, to read, to meditate, to spend time in nature, and to generally live in a state of joy, ease, and flow. This slower pace of life will ultimately fuel my writing, creativity, and all of my other pursuits.
Continue to cultivate positive relationships. I’d like to continue to build supportive, positive relationships with those closest to me. I’m hopeful that 2021 may allow for more travel and in-person interactions.
A big thanks to all of you for supporting my work, for sharing this journey with me, and especially for allowing me to come back with a full heart after sometimes neglecting the blog this year. Having space and time to turn inward and reflect on what was most important was extraordinarily helpful, and I’m excited to bring a renewed sense of energy back to the blog in 2021!