What your favorite holiday present says about you

During the holiday season, it is normal for gift-giving to occupy a chunk of mental space. News sites and social media influencers galore are constantly posting annual gift recommendations that are hard to ignore. On Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, you can find a retrofitted electric WV Bug automobile or an Hermès skateboard while Walmart is offering great deals on composite footballs and colorful Bunjo Bungee Chairs.

Some of my friends find more joy having their kids pick out toys to be donated to those in need, while others focus on gifting experiences instead of material items. Beyond the focus on purchasing the perfect items, I started considering what gifts have been most special in my past.

The one that topped the list arrived in 1977. Back in those days, I was an earnest, slightly goofy kid obsessed with outer space. My love affair with all things cosmos had been brewing for several years, sparked by the clay model of the solar system I made for a third-grade science project back when Pluto was still part of the club. I loved visiting our local planetarium in Columbia, South Carolina. The original Star Wars movie came out that summer, and it blew my mind. When people asked what I planned to do when I grew up, my 11-year-old self proudly proclaimed, “a space engineer,” which would somehow involve designing groovy rocket ships and then being the astronaut to pilot them.

My parents knew about this passion of mine. When I would go outside and stare at the night sky, I was convinced a falling star, or perhaps an alien aircraft, would suddenly manifest. I’m sure they weren’t surprised when I talked about wishing for a telescope of my own to better view the universe. It seemed like a pipe dream though, and money was tight. I would have been happy with books or the Charlie’s Angels board game.

Then, when we opened our Hanukkah gifts that year, I spied a rectangular box with my name on it. I eagerly unwrapped that sucker and found a portable telescope inside. My heart burst with excitement. I took it outdoors immediately to explore craters on the moon and whatever other delights the night sky had to offer. It was the most meaningful gift of my childhood, indirectly transforming the trajectory of my life.

For starters, I felt seen and heard. Giving me a telescope didn’t fit the mold of what most young ladies asked for back in the day. But rather than gift me with something more stereotypically “girly” at the time, my mom and dad listened to my heart’s desire and made it happen. When your parents are both working full-time at the family delicatessen, and you are competing for attention with two rambunctious younger brothers, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. However, in that moment, I felt completely acknowledged. Not that my pre-teen self would have had the insight to fully understand what that meant. But it is certainly clear to me now.

Receiving that telescope also reinforced the importance of dreaming at an impressionable age. While my lack of aptitude for more advanced math courses a few years later swerved me away from the “space engineer” career track, I never stopped imagining what was possible. That love for outer space grew into a larger desire for exploration of the world itself, for storytelling, and for helping others find and activate their potential. In my own way, I began reaching for the stars.

I also discovered a talent for public speaking that yielded national recognition. I became the first person in my immediate family to receive a standard four-year college degree. I built a career that today lets me help build better cultures, brands, and places to work. After hours, I’m writing a book to help people get unstuck and thrive in our post pandemic world. And that’s all while still finding the time to visit interesting planetariums when travel is possible and go all fan girl over world-building books, movies, and TV shows. My childhood telescope is the gift that keeps on giving decades later — for what it unlocked inside of me.

What holiday gift changed your world? Perhaps your first laptop prompted a future career in coding, a pretend and play teaching set created a desire to educate others or a set of Spice Girl dolls encouraged your love of singing. Think about that item and how it made you feel. Loved, important or valued? Did a certain gift prompt you to dream about a different way of life? Is there any inspiration you can take from that favorite item that might change the way you think now?

Taking a moment to consider these questions can help you craft a better, more fulfilling path moving forward.

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