2010s: Rising from the Ashes. A Decade in Review
I love this quote and how it encapsulates the gift of beginnings—perfect for the start of a new year. I hope this year is as powerful as it seems with a number like 2020. Before I impose my hopes and dreams on this year, I want to take some time to look back and reflect, not just at 2019, but the last 10 years. This decade was my own personal reinvention tour: I rose from the ashes not once but twice, and found my feet by the end of 2019. Join me as I get personal in this decade in review.
2010 - The end is here
2010 had the potential to be a successful year. I was in the middle of getting my masters degree in international relations at IE Business School in Madrid. I was finally living in the city I loved—not teaching English—exploring life with my new international classmates, and working hard towards a career pivot. After spending the previous summer in Palestine, I wanted to move away from a background in sales and marketing and move towards something more fulfilling, maybe work in education or development, go back to Palestine or my father’s home country, Iran. By the end of the program I hoped to have clarity and an opportunity to work in Europe or the Middle East.
But this was not meant to be. I had an epic 30th birthday party, ready to embrace the new decade (in both senses) with open arms. The life abroad that I had been chasing in my 20s was becoming more of a reality. However, a month later I woke up to the biggest shock of my life: my father had unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack. He was 53 years old.
This was my first close encounter with death and it completely redefined my life. Never again would I be able to experience life in the same naive way. The rest of the year is mostly a blur; I’ve recently discovered that it’s called griever’s fog. I was going through the motions of life, numb and disconnected.
Things I do remember: cutting my hair very short, celebrating Spain’s victory in the World Cup in Madrid; graduating from IE, and moving back to Houston. This was not the life I had hoped for, but the reality was that I was 30 years old, back in my hometown that I desperately wanted to leave, living in my parents’ house with my grieving mom and 18-year-old sister, and working a job I didn’t enjoy—and to be honest, wasn’t very good at—all while being surrounded by decades of memories and simply trying to get on with life. Maybe next year will be better, I told myself, how can it get any worse?
2011 - Survival mode
Griever’s fog followed me into 2011, but I was optimistic about eventually leaving Houston and returning to my life abroad. I hated my job—the role and environment chiseled away at my self-esteem—so I turned to what had always lifted me up: trying something new. I had the crazy idea to try out for a local play, even though I had never been on a stage in my life; just auditioning sounded thrilling. I ended up getting the part and found myself in a show running for seven weeks.
Other highlights of that year included celebrating my 31st birthday in New York City, adding a four-month-old chihuahua named Khloe to our family, and getting laid off from said awful job. Yes, getting laid off was a highlight; I was finally free, collecting unemployment and planning the next phase of my life by applying to jobs around the world. I kicked off funemployment with a month-long, solo backpacking trip to Colombia (my mom’s homeland) and visited relatives, many whom I had never met.
I scored an interview for a job in the UAE and flew to London for the first round of interviews, but was crushed by a rejection email a few weeks later. My confidence had already been chipping away and it now cracked into pieces.
My mother put our house in Houston up for sale and moved to Austin with my sister, who was about to start her first year of college. We were all embarking on new paths and leaving the heaviness of Houston behind. I tried to keep my head up during my job search and took advantage of my free time by accompanying a good friend on a road trip to Miami. The trip was cut short due to the second biggest shock of my life. My mother was in the hospital after suffering a stroke; she passed away 48 hours later. She was 54 years old.
I temporarily moved to Austin to be with my sister and act as a kind of guiding force in her life. And the last few months of 2011 were spent navigating the legal system (note to all: get a will) and going through my checklist of “what to do when someone dies,” aka picking up the pieces of life that continue after death: a mortgage, property taxes, car notes, bank accounts, credit card bills, medical bills, phone plans, etc. It felt endless. I went from someone who had happily escaped real responsibility in my 20s to becoming the matriarch of my nuclear family with a long list of liabilities, seemingly overnight.
2012 - Dust yourself off and try again
There was no space to grieve; not with a neverending mess of paperwork and responsibilities. I started 2012 in detective mode, getting to the bottom of every loose end my parents left behind. Luckily, the luxury of unemployment gave me time to focus without the added pressure of a job, but it was a steep learning curve into adulthood.
I never planned on moving to Austin and wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay. As the paperwork finally came to an end, I started focusing on myself. Everything I accomplished in the past few months gave me a big confidence boost, and I got another wild idea: training for a triathlon. Having NEVER been an athletic person, this challenge couldn’t have pushed me further out of my comfort zone. This was the first time I had ever swam, ran, or cycled. Training taught me discipline, gave me a routine, and ultimately led me to complete my first race.
After the race I rushed off to Israel to dip my toes back in the world of international relations. Finally I found myself back in the Middle East. I scored a six month internship at a women’s co-op in a Bedouin village in the desert. I was the only foreigner among 9,000 people and lived with a local family. But I only lasted three months. Removing myself from my reality back in Austin gave me perspective: death had deeply changed me. My experience in the Middle East felt much heavier this time around, as my naiveté no longer shielded me from the weight of witnessing oppression on a daily basis. I needed to be in the light for the sake of my own wellbeing.
I moved back to Austin, and for the first time in a long time lived a very conventional and quiet life.
2013 - Expansion mode
Even though I never wanted to live in Austin, I was where I needed to be. It was a nurturing place for me, and I was finally able to shift the focus back onto myself.
I ran my first half-marathon, chartering into new territory of self-growth. I was in awe of my strength and physical capabilities and the benefits of training spilled over into my daily life. My days were structured; I felt energetic and strong, physically and mentally. I began to fall in love with running. I picked up a regular yoga practice and started meditating.
I was on a personal journey of self-improvement and discovery. One of the gifts of death is that it left me with an impulse to experience life.
I auditioned for Family Feud with my siblings and cousins. We made it to the second round but didn’t make it to the finals in Atlanta. I finally scored a full-time job! It wasn’t in international relations—Austin is a tech town—but I joined the HR department of a vibrant, young tech company, complete with a ping pong table, beer on tap, and free snacks. It was the best office job I’ve ever had.
Missing the diversity of Houston and my time in Palestine, I had another random idea: I wanted to dance Dabka, a native folk dance from the Levant. Surprisingly there was a student-run Dabka dance troupe at the University of Texas at Austin, and these college students took this 33-year-old in with open arms and taught me to dance.
I rocked my second triathlon and emerged with a new sense of empowerment and ultimately sense of self. I got into trail running and spent much of my free time on local trails, chasing the high of running in nature.
As light as I felt, there was one thing weighing me down: my relationship. I happily ended a year-long relationship that no longer served me and was ready to take on 2014. I headed to Iceland for the holidays and rang in the new year in New York City.
Enjoying the Blue Lagoon with my siblings in Reykjavik, Iceland.
2014 - The reawakening
My life had become predictable, monotonous, and routine—everything I had always run away from—and I loved it. I was happy with my job, and I spent my free time training and downtime reading or watching TV. I didn’t have many friends in Austin, I didn’t feel connected to the people, but I didn’t mind a slower pace of life since I was working on me.
One of my proudest achievements was running my first marathon. I had come a long way, from couch potato to athlete. I loved running so much that I had signed up for a “runcation” through Morocco. A trip to run through Morocco? It sounded right up my alley with a mix of travel and running, plus it fell on my birthday; the perfect adventure to kick off my 34th year. I extended the trip a few days to meet up with friends in Madrid, as I hadn’t been back since graduating four years prior.
Little did I know that this trip would change my life. I met Annette (who later became the co-founder of She Hit Refresh) and spent a week looking at my life from a different perspective. The four short days I spent in Madrid reawakened a part of myself that had been dormant since I left. I felt electrified. I had finally adjusted to a conventional life in Austin, and I thought I was done with the overseas adventures that had consumed me since I was 17. But upon my return home, I felt like a part of me was missing.
It was a time for reflection. I had a good life in Austin. After all, I had everything: a home, a great job, a routine, comfort and ease. Yet I felt disconnected; I was living Groundhog’s Day and making the best of a situation that I never actively chose. Over the next few weeks the voice in my head got louder and louder. I toyed with the crazy idea of moving back to Madrid. What would I do there? Was I too old? What if it didn’t work out? But it didn’t matter; the seed was already planted. I was moving back to Madrid.
I planned to move by the end of the year but after being promoted at work I decided to stick it out and not make a rash decision. I wanted to see if the feelings were fleeting, but I also made an exit strategy just in case.
I had traveled more this year than any year since moving to Austin. The old me was back. I tested the limits of my “unlimited vacation policy” at work with one last trip; another Christmas adventure abroad with my siblings— a tradition we started after our parents’ passing.
2015 - The rebirth
I loved my new role, but the pull of moving to Madrid was so strong that in May, I quit . It was happening—I was moving to Spain! Before leaving I completed a yoga teacher training, one of my bucket list items. Now all I had to do was wait for my visa to be approved.
I went to Montpellier, France to study French and did a three-week Eurotrip with Annette and a friend. I rounded out my summer with another “runcation” in Bend, Oregon.
After my visa was approved, I joined the North American Language and Culture Assistant program to teach English at a high school in Madrid. Teaching wasn’t ideal since I did this when I was 26 and I was now 35. It felt like a step backward, but it was getting my foot in the door for a life abroad. I gave myself one year to find something that was more aligned with my long-term goals (first I had to figure out what those were) or else I’d move back to the U.S. I was not going to get stuck teaching English for years on end just to live in Spain.
It took two weeks to find a room in Madrid and I was so lucky to have Helen (center) as a roommate. She also had just moved to Madrid (from the U.K.).
I hadn’t felt this alive in years! No longer being responsible for my sister or having a 9-5 office job, I felt like a weight had been lifted. Being in Madrid again allowed me to explore who I was and reflect on how my life had changed over the last five years. Despite not knowing what my plan was—or maybe in spite of it—I felt the boundless opportunities of hitting refresh.
2016 - My big break
It was time to renew my teaching gig and I still hadn’t found a job despite applying left and right. But luck was on my side: after two interviews I was offered a job at a Spanish start-up to work on their marketing team. Best of all was that they would sponsor my visa! Getting a Spanish work visa is difficult for Americans, so I was stunned. This was big!
I was back in an office and trying to navigate the work world in Spanish—a language I hadn’t fully dominated. It was equally exciting and exhausting, and pushed me out of my comfort zone daily, especially when I was blindsided and told that after only two months on the job I was now my team’s new manager.
I discovered Tinder and started dating again, but quickly decided that men were not my priority; I wanted to build my own world in Madrid before creating space for a partner. I started running again and completed another half-marathon as well as the iconic Athens Marathon (read about my experience here).
But the most exciting event of the year was my brother moving to Madrid. I also started my blog Wanderlicious, which was a turning point in my life. The vegetarian food blog started as a hobby, but it became my sandbox to dabble in the world of blogging and social media marketing.
I didn’t realize it yet, but the skills I gained through this experience were going to create a new career and identity for myself.
2017 - Making space
I was overworked and underpaid, and made the bold move of quitting my Spanish office job at the start of the year, without another job to fall back on. I was now unemployed with no income and my visa status was in flux. Resistant to teaching English and finding another poorly paid office job, I wanted to find a remote job. The marketing skills I gained were in-demand, so maybe I had a shot!
I spent my free time applying to jobs and working on Wanderlicious. I was really getting into blogging and wanted to meet other bloggers like myself. When I couldn’t find an existing group, I decided to start one. The Madrid Blogger Network was my first community. The idea was to meet monthly and learn from each other. Needless to say, it was a huge success—February 2020 will mark three years of the community!
I decided to dip into my savings and gift myself a trip to Thailand for my 37th birthday. Annette came along, but by the end I was pretty stressed about being out of a job for three months (although it wasn’t for lack of trying). I started to doubt if I ever would find a remote job and the thought of moving back to the U.S. crossed my mind. Birthdays are a time of reflection and I was definitely wondering what I was doing with my life.
And then, just a few days after getting back from Thailand, I scored an interview with an American company to work in marketing and sales; I got the job! This was the break I needed, my entry into remote work. I put my new remote position to the workation test and took my work with me as I dashed across five European countries over five weeks. It was a fun, at times stressful, solo adventure that showed me slow travel is the only way I enjoy working on the road.
In November I started my second community, She Hit Refresh, which gave me purpose. I was in a good place in life; I had overcome my professional, financial, and existential challenges of the year. Although I had much to be grateful for, I fell into a negative headspace and had trouble getting through it. Loneliness, a long winter, changes at work, and a few other external factors had worn me down. I was beginning to feel uncertain about my presence in Madrid. Was it really working? Was I missing out on opportunities in the U.S.?
I went home to Houston for Christmas, where I had a beautiful time with friends and family, then I rang in the new year with my cousin in New York City. Feeling so connected and loved was what I needed to be able to shake off those dark feelings.
2018 - The reinvention
I won’t go into much detail for this year since I did a full recap in my 2018 Year in Review. It’s worth a read—it was the most transformative year I’ve had since living in Spain, maybe the most transformative of the decade.
The determination I had to rediscover and reinvent myself abroad finally paid off. I discovered what I was good at, and gained a deeper sense of purpose. I discovered that I was creative, and tapped into an endless fountain of energy and ideas that I could pour into my communities.
2019 - Look how far we've come
It was another phenomenal year with more firsts. In January I launched the She Hit Refresh podcast, an idea I had been sitting on for two years, and finally forced myself to commit to at least six episodes. It was a hit—we’ve now released 25 episodes!
The Madrid Blogger Network celebrated two years and I scored a big sponsor, the web hosting platform Siteground, to provide our community with food, drinks, and a venue for our monthly events. The Facebook Community Leadership Circle in Tel Aviv, Israel invited me to present to their community, a milestone as my first international speaking experience. In April I celebrated my 39th birthday with the irreplaceable friends I’ve made in Madrid. I hosted the first-ever (sold out!) She Hit Refresh retreat in Morocco, which exceeded all expectations! This was a turning point for SHR; it went from being a hobby to being a business.
Careerwise I was really enjoying my new remote position, but I kept my options opened and interviewed with two well-known organizations. While I didn’t get the jobs, it marked just how far I’ve come. Two years ago I was just learning about social media marketing and now I was being considered to represent companies on a global scale.
2019’s focus was investing in myself. I spent money on self-growth and said yes to many opportunities, including moderating a panel at the first ever Green Tech Festival in Berlin. It was an honor to be invited and another major accomplishment. Looking to learn from like-minded women, I joined Digital Nomad Girls (DNG) at their annual retreat and spent time with two incredible business owners, Jenny Lachs of DNG and Sienna Brown of Las Morenas de España.
One of my proudest moments this year was moving into my own apartment! Since moving to Madrid I had lived with roommates to cut down on living costs and dreamed of the day when I could afford my own space. After four years of hard work I finally bridged the gap financially and found the perfect place in the city center—my hard work paid off!
I invested in a new website for She Hit Refresh, but even though I outsourced the work, there was still a lot for me to do. I definitely earned my solo trip to Italy and treated myself to two places on my bucket list while reveling in some much-needed downtime.
October marked one year of co-leading the Facebook Community Leadership Circles in Madrid. Once again I had pushed myself out of my comfort zone, but leading a community in a different language and culture required a lot of energy, and ultimately I had to walk away. I was now running four online/offline communities after joining CMXConnect Madrid as their co-host. My plate was too full and something had to give before I lost my sanity.
I connected with Annette in Munich and crossed Oktoberfest off my bucket list. She Hit Refresh celebrated its two-year anniversary and announced a second retreat in Morocco!
As the end of this whirlwind of a year approached, I felt drained. The endless travel and multiple projects had taken their toll and I wanted to slow down. I told myself that 2020 will be different: I will do less, spend more time in Madrid, and make more room for myself. I’ve ended a long-distance relationship which reaffirmed my commitment to my life in Madrid. This city has been so good to me and I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be.
The end is just the beginning
After reliving the last 10 years through this post, I noticed just how different the two bookends of my decade are. The first two years were the darkest of my life, and I experienced them in a fog, going through the motions of life while being simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. In contrast, the past two years have been a gift, the brightest of the decade, and I’ve lived them with clarity, intention, and an abundance of joy.
If this is the kind of growth that can happen in a decade, I can only imagine what the next 10 years will bring when I’m starting out on top!