annual review - 2019

2019-12-27

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~18 min read

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3432 words

As 2019 comes to a close, I sat down to complete another year in review.

I find the few hours these take each year to be extraordnarily helpful. They provide a neat view into what I’ve done and learned in a year while helping me set the stage for the new year.

This year, in addition to completing Rohan Rajiv’s ten question annual review, I added two questions from James Clear’s Annual Review process.

Thank you to both of them for inspiring me to sit down and complete these reviews every year.


Part I - Look Back

1. Peak Moments

1a. What was the theme or peak moment of the year? (One word or line description)

  • Moment: Getting hired as an engineer. Yes, this was going to be a matter of when, not if, but it was still incredible to have someone say “yes, I would like to pay you to write code.” It was both the culmination of several years and the beginning of many more. It’s exciting to be able to point to a moment at which point everything and nothing changes.
  • Theme: Identity. In 2018, I said I’d expand the definition of myself. I did exactly that by adding several new hyphens: engineer, wriiter, swimmer, rower. James Clear’s Atomic Habits provided the language I needed to really realize this shift.

1b. Were there runner up theme or peak moment(s)?

  • Moment: My thirtieth birthday dinner in Montreal with Kate and my parents. A memory that will last a lifetiime and for which I’m extraordinarily grateful.

2. What were my three greatest successes / memories from the year?

  1. Recognized as an employee of the month at Remine
  2. Learning to row and sitting stroke in the boat; learning to swim and completing a 200m non-stop
  3. Vacations to Mexico, Hawaii, and Canada; in particular the Context tours and sunrises in Hawaii

3. What were my three biggest lessons learned from the year?

  1. Focus waxes and wanes. Allow it. Accept it. It’s normal. There were many days, weeks, even month periods where it felt like I was locked in and I would be able to focus forever. Then there were perods where it felt like I couldn’t focus at all. Both eventually ended. Good or bad, I reminded myself throughout the year of the wisdom in the phrase: “This too shall pass.”
  2. Agency. The idea that if I pursue goals which I set I may influence the person I become has been something I’d taken almost on faith. Last year I began to see evidence of it as I acquired new skills. This year, however, really hit the point home that I can influence whom I become as I set goals to learn to row and swim and am now a rower and swimmer. Writing, too, was a step change this year. In all three cases, I stopped being someone who wanted to do a thing and became someone who did that thing. The shift was subtle and it was the product of my decisions. Recognizing that opens wonderful new possibilities for the future.
  3. Paper supremecy. After years of advocating reading books on kindles and iPads, trying to push more and more life into a digital locker, I embraced pen and paper in a new way this year. Every book I read (with the lone exception of The Color Purple), I read as a hard copy. I engaged in conversations with the author and my future self in the margins - never reading without a pen in hand. When it came to articles on the internet, I printed those too and have a filing cabinet full of annotated articles at work.

4. How did the year fit into the big picture or contribute to the dreams in my life?

  • Looking back, it feels as if 2019 was a year in which I was living out my dream. Not that all of my dreams have been realized, but that for this time and place in my life, it’s where I wanted, and should, be. Marriage is everything I could have hoped for. We’re still learning about one another and growing, but we’re doing it together and our partnership is the best thing in my life while providing the foundation on which much else is built. It is easy to look at my friends and neighbors and envy an aspect of their lives - and tools continue to make it even easier to see into others’ lives. I continued to refrain from most social media (LinkedIn being my biggest concession) which helped limit my exposure to this effect, but I think it’s also part of a larger trend in myself as I am more comfortable with who I am - idiosyncracies and all. This was really driven home, when, for the first time as an adult, I went home for the holidays and did not wish for someone else’s life (or an aspect of it). 2019 is the year that I really internalized that everyone’s journey is their own - and it just so happens I am really enjoying mine.

Part II - Look Ahead

1. What are three themes I am thinking about for the coming year? Are there any “process goals” to which I want to commit?

  1. Refine - I want to focus on refining the skills I have and spend less time acquiring new ones.
  2. Reflect - Making the time to pause and reflect on what I see, do, hear, read, and think. I will strive to do this monthly.
  3. Respect - Respect myself and others by never rushing. When with others be with them. When working toward a goal of my own, trust that it will work out - resist the urge to speed up the natural time table.

2. What skills do I want to develop in the coming year? What actions will I take to develop them?

  1. Communication - As in 2018, I would like to improve my written and oral communication. For writing, this will mean that I will write and share something for every day of the year. If I miss a day, I will make it up. The point is the repetitions. Showing up is how I get better. At the same time, I don’t want to consider it a “failure” if I forget to press publish. For speaking, I will do exactly that - speak. I will do so in public and with an audience. My entry point will be Toastmasters and I will begin in January. If I do I know I will be more comfortable in front of crowds.
  2. Meditation - I have talked about attending a retreat for years. Last year I began researching in earnest but failed to make the time. Because I’m human and I like arbitrary round numbers, I would like to do it while I’m thirty - which gives me nine months to make ten days in my calendar.
  3. Fitness - So much of my life is predicated on having my health. There’s plenty that’s out of my control, but diet and fitness are not. I will attend at least one class each month for cycling, rowing, and yoga. I will also swim at least two miles each week to join the 100-mile club.

3. Who / what were my biggest sources of inspiration, learning, and energy this past year? Are they high on my priority list to engage with (if people) or do (if actions) in the coming year?

  • Blogs - A Wealth of Common Sense (personal finance / financial industry), A Learning A Day (life), and Stratechery (business and technology) - while I read others, these three shaped the way I looked at the world more than just about anything this year.
  • Dev.To, Dev Together, and CodingBlocks - These communities were huge for me. They made me feel welcomed and valued.
  • East Bank Club - My greatest extravegence is worth every penny.
  • Family - This year I went on more family trips and loved every one of them. I would love to continue this trend in the new year.
  • Friends - One of the blessings of a new job, even more when it’s in a new industry, is that you can be thrown into a totally new orbit. That was my life this year and I benefitted by meeting so many new friends which helped make this a great year. I did also renew ties with old friends which was special. I would like to continue to put myself out there in ways to meet new people and develop friendships. Also planning to start taking trips with friends - not something I’ve done much of in the past.
  • Frontend Masters - I love how easy Frontend Masters makes it to learn something new.
  • Meditations and Tao Te Ching - I read and reread these books this year. Some of the best examples of books that will shift how you look at the world. My thoughts were noticeably different during and after reading these books. I’d like to make a tradition of revisiting them.
  • Podcasts - Syntax.FM, Art of Product, Ezra Klein Show - While I experimented with not listening to podcasts (and enjoyed that), I also spent a lot of time with these three podcasts this year. Syntax teaches me things. Art of Product inspires me. Ezra certainly opens my eyes and introduces new ideas. Ezra, however, seems to sap energy so I stopped listening to him halfway through the year as I renewed my information diet (I also stopped listening to other current event / news podcasts around the same time).

4. Who were my personal or professional board of directors, advisors, or sponsors this year? How do I plan to engage with them in the coming year?

  • Board of Directors: Sam, Andrew, and Kate were once again my most trusted advisors. It’s such a luxury to have people in my corner to whom I can turn at any time. At a minimum, they should receive the monthly update (which I committed to writing above).
  • Advisors: I will be trying something new in the coming year with Jean as an advisor. It’s a more formal relationship with a dual aim: contributing to the community and developing specific skills necessary for career advancement. We are startiing with a biweekly meeting to pair.

5. What do I have planned for the coming year to prioritize rest and renewal (e.g., holidays, leisure activities, hobbies, etc.)?

  • Trips: Hawaii, Steamboat, and Yellowstone (schedules allowing). A meditation retreat.
  • Activities: Swimming and rowing. Sauna and meditation. Yoga. Toastmasters / Second City.

6. What are my three most important core beliefs or principles? Are my goals for the coming year aligned with these core beleifs?

  • Attention - Be present.
  • Consistency - Show up every day ready to deliver, learn, and grow.
  • Honesty - Be honest to myself and others.

James Clear’s Three Question Version

1. What went well this year?

Engineering

First of all, I started work as an engineer. But starting was just the beginning. I learned so much this year! It’s hard to describe because it feels like there’s still so much to learn and so much I still don’t know (and I’m even more that I don’t even know I don’t know), but every time I come across a problem that I know the answer to, it’s proof that I’m learning because last year I didn’t know how to write even the most basic programs. And because I’ve written so much down, I am also building a reference library for myself in case I forget things in the future.

I really lucked out by landing at Remine. The industry is new and fascinating which keeps the work fresh. Working on a product has allowed me to ask questions of so many different people about how it all comes together that I know will pay dividends in the future and wouldn’t be available in other roles. I also feel like I “snuck in” - I’m surrounded by team members who are more experienced and willing to share, teach, and coach. Yes, I have prepare, research on my own, and, ultimately, ask. But once I do, no one has every put me down for asking or turned me away.

Outside of work, I’ve also found the extraordinarily welcoming engineering communities in Dev.To, CodingBlocks and meetups, like Dev Together in Chicago.

Writing

I wrote (and published) 6x more this year than in 2018. Even better, I ended the year with remarkable consistency publishing every day for the past three months and four of the last five. That consistency helped make up for a lackluster start and end the year with a 70% hit rate.

Month Posts Days %
January 5 31 16
February 7 28 25
March 3 31 10
April 19 30 63
May 19 31 61
June 28 30 93
July 22 31 71
August 31 31 100
September 28 30 93
October 31 31 100
November 30 30 100
December 31 31 100
Total 254 365 70

It’s also why I feel comfortable considering myself a writer at this point. I’m not professional, and I may not be good, but it’s part of who I am. I’m no longer someone who wants to write or tries to write. I am someone who writes. This type of identity shift was a major theme for me this year (noted above).

Reading

At the beginning of 2019, I set a goal to read 24 books. As of today, I have completed 35. It was a year when I started knocking off some of the classics that I’d wanted to read for years and finally got around to: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (two translations), Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ The Manual, and Seneca’s Letter From A Stoic.

Kate and I started the year with a habit of waking before work and reading on the couch before work. We let that slide as the year dragged on, but it helped start the year on the right foot and I look forward to resuming it as a practice in the new year.

We’re also on year two of not having a TV in the house, and while it hasn’t eliminated our consumption (iPads are marvelous inventions), it has helped limit it, creating space to do more reading. I don’t see us buying a TV for a while.

Health

My health and fitness accomplishments are probably some of the achievements I’m most proud of this year. Learning new skills like rowing and swimming give me so much more flexibility in terms of what I can do when I go to the gym.

Swimming in particular was fun because I went from an absolute beginner, unable to go more than a length of the pool, to making a routine of going to the gym and, if not easily, at least capable of swimming hundreds of meters continuously. I even added flip turns toward the end of the year - though more practice is needed there.

Exercise, like writing, also became something I did with consistency. I stopped trying to go to the gym and became someone who goes to the gym. A subtle shift, but one for which I cannot overemphasize the importance.

In many ways, the gym was the clearest demonstration that when I set a goal and execute against it consistently over time, I can change who I am. It was a powerful lesson.

“Leisure Plans”

Early in the year, I read Cal Newport’s, Digital Minimalism. One of the ideas in the book was to craft a “Quarterly Leisiure Plan” to find activities, particularly outside of professional development, that will stretch your conception of yourself.

I adopted a variant of this and while my most recent one, focused on public speaking, failed, through these plans, I learned to row and signed up for a course which got me into a boat and onto the water and to swim.

As noted above, these were some of the most fulfilling personal experiences I had all year and I’m excited about continuing to use these plans to shape my time in the future!

2. What didn’t go so well this year?

While there’s a lot to celebrate, not everything went swimmingly.

Writing

Despite my consistency in writing this year, I had some stumbles. Two in particular that provide lessons for the future.

The first was the weekly memo I started writing in the middle of the year. The idea was to send it out every week with a new essay and some links. I was not necessarily trying to grow an audience, but merely create a space to reflect and try to distill ideas into something valuable which I could share.

The cadence proved too much for me and after slipping a few weeks into biweekly newsletters, I gave up altogether in the fall.

I still like the idea of writing an essay and sharing it in a way that’s distinct from my regular blog, but I need to be honest that I cannot dedicate the time necessary to produce an essay with the regularity which I’d be proud of.

Perhaps monthly would be better. Perhaps even that would be too much pressure.

For now, my focus will be on simply showing up.

Last year, I also set a goal to investigate which posts were successful and using those findings to influence future writing. I shied away from that approach despite seeing others use it to great success. I chose instead to focus on writing what I would find helpful and worrying less about algorithms and others for the time being. Writing is the beginning of a conversation, but that conversations is fruitful only if two things occur:

  1. Others read the writing
  2. Others find the writing worth engaging

I don’t think I spent nearly enough time this year thinking about the person with whom I’d be conversing when I wrote.

Reading

When I finish a book, I failed to transfer my notes out of the book. I failed time and again to syntehsize the lessons. Because of that I risk losing the lessons and diminishing the value of reading in the first place.

The final step in reading, the distillation of the ideas continues to evade me. The few times I tried this year, transfering my notes took me hours and exhausted me thoroughly so that when it came time to think critically about the notes, I had no energy left.

As with most things, I believe the most important part will be to get started. I do not need to jump straight into the most refined process. I need to have a process I can refine.

With that, I hope to begin the new year by synthesizing the books I read into three takeaways. Yes, it will require that I spend time thinking about the book (which is the point), but I won’t need to pour over each page to transfer each important idea.

I can skim the book to find the biggest ones and write about them.

Public Speaking

Another goal of mine for 2019 was to improve my public speaking. In particular, I wanted to speak at a conference.

Early in the year I decided that I was not prepared to do that and ruled myself out. I did not respond to any RFPs. I did not raise my hand.

While I think it’s a reasonable assessment for a class of talk, I am disappointed that I allowed my fear to dictate my actions. In particular, by focusing only one type of talk (a more technical one), I deprived others of areas where I could provide value.

Whew, that’s all I have for now. Happy New Year and see you in 2020!


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!