2018 End of Year Review

Reflections

Truthfully, I’ve struggled with what to say about 2018. It’s been a strange and challenging year, less certain and less structured than any to date. I didn’t exactly accomplish what I set out to–2018 wasn’t the year that my business ventures took off, nor the year I qualified for the Boston marathon, or even the year I finally read 52 books. In fact, where my annual goals are concerned, 2018 has felt less fruitful than previous years–I probably deserve a D+ or a C- at best for my efforts.

Yet I hesitate to classify 2018 as a failure. I may not have accomplished everything I had hoped to, but it was nevertheless a year full of adventures–of new places, new people, and new experiences. It was certainly a year full of learning, both about myself and about the world. It was the year I learned to become versatile and adaptable in the face of unpredictable and sometimes uncomfortable circumstances. It was the year I developed a deep faith in my ability to calmly deal with whatever life throws at me. It was the year I confirmed my life won’t spontaneously combust if I step off the well-paved career path.

Goal-wise, I did accomplish a few things worth mentioning this year, however. Though I failed to bring a product of my own to market, I ended up spending a lot of time on consulting projects. I’ve had five different clients of varying sizes, ultimately bringing in more annual income than I expected to. In the process, I’ve learned that even in the absence of a full-time employer, my skill set is valuable enough that I can do just as well as a consulting Chief Technology Officer working remotely as I did as a career software engineer in Silicon Valley. I have discovered I have the power to create the job I had always hoped I’d have at Palantir–learning new languages while working from interesting places around the world, picking and choosing impactful projects that suit my interests, and gaining experience and exposure working on many different things in a single year.

Additionally, after nearly 6 months in French-speaking countries, I’ve gone from too terrified and embarrassed to buy necessities at the local pharmacy–you would not believe how many ways there are to misunderstand someone asking you if you’d like a bag–to conversant with occasional comments that my accent is good for a non-native speaker. In the process, I’ve also practiced techniques for learning and maintaining languages that I’m preparing to apply to Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish. There’s still a long way to full fluency, but I now understand enough of what’s said to me to carry on conversations with French travelers I meet on the road, can watch some French television without being totally lost, can read simple books like Le Petit Prince and L’Alchemiste, and can usually communicate myself without too much stumbling. What’s left is mostly expanding my vocabulary, which I can now do in natural language by consuming books and movies, and more practice expressing myself, which I can do through conversation and writing.

On top of all of that, I have had the good fortune to live in more countries this year than some will have the opportunity to visit in their entire lives. I explored the mountains and jungles of Thailand; I fell in love in Vietnam; I ate gourmet meals in France; I wandered the deserts of Morocco; I enjoyed the beaches of Bali; and I visited the temples and monuments of India.

But perhaps more important than what I’ve seen and what I’ve done are the new insights and perspectives I’ve gained.

I have a better understanding of what it means to love and be loved. I fell in love unexpectedly this year, and that love taught me that my theories about love and authenticity don’t have to just be theories. That love also taught me about how to practice the compassionate love that we often associate with figures like the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK. There was no happy ending, unfortunately, but in the process I learned about forgiveness–how difficult it can be, but also how important it is.

I have a better understanding of the effects of tourism and globalization on the world. I’ve been to places (cough Marrakesh cough) that seem to have sacrificed their authentic cultural identity for profit from staged tourism. Having visited expat and tourism conclaves in various countries, I’ve seen the effects of gentrification–sometimes positive, sometimes negative–on faraway lands. I’ve seen entire local communities and cities change their lifestyle to serve expats and tourists. I have mixed feelings about a lot of this. I’ve begun to wonder if the emigration of the privileged is a form of modern colonialism.

I have a better understanding now of how privileged I am. I’ve lived in deeloping countries and witnessed their growing pains–the poverty and hardship of people as they and their nations struggle to find their place in rapidly evolving local and global economies. I’ve met people in many countries who could never even dream of traveling the way I am now. Sometimes it’s because they’ll never have the wealth–a decade of honest hard work and savings in Indonesia may barely purchase a month of shoestring travel in Europe. Other times it’s because their passports won’t open the doors mine will–for many Vietnamese citizens, acquiring a visa to visit Europe or the United States is little more than a diplomatic and bureaucratic pipe dream. I’ve met brilliant, talented people who deserved opportunities their families couldn’t afford to give them, even with significant financial assistance. These inequities, often a result of simple birth lottery, are hard to stomach. What did I do to deserve what so many will never have?

I have a better understanding now of what it means to be American and how being American has subtly influenced my worldview. I think many Asian Americans, and probably other minorities, too, grow up with a sense of identity dispossession–a feeling of half belonging to a here that may never fully understand you, and to a somewhere else that may never truly accept you. I have to admit, though I know it’s unpatriotic, that at least in part because of that dissonance, I’ve seldom felt deeply proud to be American. It’s been through conversations with people around the world where remarks that an expression, an idea, or an ideal was rather American that I’ve started to become more aware of what that means, both to them and to me. For the most part, I find that I’m proud of these things, and that they’re very core to my personal ideals–things like a belief in self-determinism, a strong work ethic (though some may argue the American work ethic is a bit all-consuming, and I’d agree), and an imperative to have the freedom to choose one’s own path and follow one’s dreams. Perhaps a sense for the deeper American cultural identity has gotten lost in today’s divisive, entrenched, and embittered political rhetoric. It’s taken leaving the country to recognize that that identity is undeniably part of my own, and that I am, in fact, proud of it, even if I don’t completely agree with every manifestation of American ideals.

Goals be damned, I wouldn’t trade precious learnings like these for anything. They and my travels have changed me; I am not the same person I was when I left Silicon Valley and in time I hope that will prove to be a good thing.

Of course, all of this is not without its own great cost. The freedom to travel demands certain sacrifices, and comes with assumed hardships. I’ve had to leave family and old friends behind to pursue this lifestyle, and as is always the case with physical distance, it can be difficult to stay in touch and participate in their lives the same way. I’ve had to put many of my hobbies on hold–cooking, sailing, improv, and triathlons, for example–since outlets for them have been inconsistently available around the world. I’ve had to endure periods of isolation and loneliness, sometimes starved for real, meaningful connection given the often transient nature of friendships between travelers and nomads.

In my darkest moments this year, I’ve felt anxious, depressive, and alone. I’ve worried that I’m wasting my precious time and youth–that instead of deepening relationships, furthering my career, or building long-term financial stability, I’ve squandered my opportunities for some high-minded, pointless, and never ending quest for freedom, truth, and authenticity. And I’ve asked some really tough questions this year like what is the deeper, overarching goal of my life? Of anyone’s life? Of society, and humanity at large? Given that our lives are short and we take nothing with us when they end, what really matters? Everything? Nothing? I’ve gone through my own version of a “crisis of faith”, an ordeal I’ve become fond of calling a “crisis of meaning” as someone close to me used to say.

I don’t have answers or even substantiated opinions to many of these questions yet, and in the darker moments that honestly scares me–I personally struggle to function in a vacuum of meaning or direction. Yet I have conviction that these are, at least, the right questions, and that they’re not asked often enough. These are the questions that define our individual motivations and, more broadly, the motivations of our governments and societies, which exist–or at least, in my idealist mind, should exist–to collectively protect and advance the interests of their individual constituents. If we cannot clearly communicate what we are striving for, and why we are striving for it, I don’t think we can ever hope to attain it. For now at least, I am content to explore these questions. Maybe that’s as much as anyone can ever hope for.

All of this–the goods, the bads, the ups, and the downs–has been an important part of my ongoing journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Things may not have gone exactly the way I wanted in 2018 with respect to my goals, my romantic life, or my career, but I think I’m better for the wear, and I’m certainly not ready to give up in 2019.

Review

  • Running my own business
    • As hard or as scary as it gets, stick with it for the entire year. Don’t take on consulting projects unless they’re actually really interesting, or I somehow really need the money (I shouldn’t this year).
      • Haha yeah, this didn’t happen. I didn’t really need the money but I spent more than half the year consulting. A few of these projects met the “really interesting” criteria.
    • Launch 4-6 (more ideally, 8-12) different projects this year. These don’t all have to be of the same magnitude or significance, but they should all have some monetization plan from the beginning. Learn to scope projects well, learn not to be afraid of throwing something over the fence before it’s perfect, and really get the process down to a science.
      • If we allow for consulting projects here, then my count reaches ~5. Some of these were multi-week projects, others were multi-month projects.
        • Two of these projects are currently in their final stages and should wrap up in early 2019.
        • Two of these have been for non-profits with causes I wanted to support.
      • I didn’t complete a single project that wasn’t client-related this year.
  • Travel
    • Meet new people and have adventures wherever I go. Try to spend every weekend doing something exciting, new, or terrifying. Don’t get so singularly focused on running a business that I become a shut-in.
      • I didn’t exactly follow this to the letter, as toward the end I started to feel burnt out by traveling and FOMO. By October, all I really wanted was a quiet weekend to myself. That said, I feel comfortable saying that obeyed the spirit of this. If anything, I think I could have stood to focus more on my business this year.
  • Mindfulness
    • Attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat.
    • Complete the Headspace Pro series in one continuous streak.
      • I completed the Headspace Pro series, but didn’t exactly do it in one continuous streak. It sort of got broken into several long chunks…
    • Meditate for at least 20 minutes every day.
      • As usual, this happened a lot when I felt it was needed, and less when I felt it wasn’t. I need to work on incorporating this more consistently into my life.
  • Reading
      • Read or listen to 52 books this year.
        • Compared to previous years, I barely did any reading. I read ~18 books this year. Highlights included:
          • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
          • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
          • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
          • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
          • The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
          • The Game by Neil Strauss
            • This one’s controversial, I know. I don’t really agree with the ethic of the pick-up community, but it was an entertaining and interesting read.
  • Compete in the Boston Marathon
    • Complete Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 2 marathon training schedule.
    • Complete Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 marathon training schedule.
    • Complete a marathon in 3.5 hours. (If I’m lucky, I’ll qualify for Boston this year and race next year. Will need to see how training goes, though.)
    • None of these happened this year. Self-motivation problems aside, I found it surprisingly difficult to train for marathons while abroad. In Asia, the air quality and traffic is often too bad to run outside. Additionally, my running shoes wore out and I started to get injured. As I’m very particular about running shoes, I had a hard time replacing them while traveling.
    • While I intend to continue running and maintaining fitness, I think the Boston Marathon may have to wait.
  • Become conversationally fluent in French
    • Spend at least 3 months in French-speaking countries in 2018.
      • I spent 3 months in France, and 3 months in Morocco, where French is also reasonably prevalent.
    • While in French-speaking countries, actively push to have a conversation in French every single day, no matter how uncomfortable, awkward, or broken my spoken French is.
      • I’m not sure this exactly happened, but I made a strong effort and had some fun interactions in French.
        • One very early morning in Bordeaux, I was stuck trying to explain to taxi dispatch over the phone where I was because I was worried my 20-min away Uber would make me late for my bus to Lyon.
        • I taught a kid to play chess in French while at Plum Village.
        • Communicating with my Sahara desert guides in (their) broken French and (my) broken Darija (Moroccan Arabic).
    • I’m not quite conversationally fluent, but I can make conversation in French and, depending on the topic, I can come across quite fluent for a non-trivial amount of time.

If I had to sum up, I think the major blockers this year were a lack of focus, and a sense of either social, financial, or career insecurity. The lack of focus comes from moving around too much, sometimes spending as little as a couple days or a couple weeks in a place before moving on. A lot of my energy went into traveling, and past that a lot of my energy went into dealing with the occasional sense of social isolation. (There were long periods of this in both France and Morocco in cities where there aren’t a lot of nomads and I couldn’t find a sense of community. Breaking up with my ex around when I left for France probably also didn’t help.) I’ve found that there is a threshold beyond which too much discomfort makes it difficult to self-motivate, though where exactly that threshold is likely depends on the individual and how much practice they’ve had gracefully weathering hardship.

In overly uncomfortable situations, my career- and ego-related anxieties got the better of me and I found refuge in consulting work. I’m finding that the security of the consulting work does lessen the discomfort, however–for an entrepreneur, it’s refreshing to have the certainty of building something someone expressly wants and will pay you for. There’s likely a place for consulting in my life, but I hope to do less of it overall in 2019–no more than a couple months out of the year for now, and then only when the project and the pay are interesting.

In 2019 I’ll need to focus more, both by further slimming my list of goals so I don’t spread my energy too thin, and by spending less time moving around. Where possible, I should spend more time in places where I already have friends or know that I can find a strong community to combat a sense of isolation. Co-working and co-living spaces are a good potential solution to this, so I plan to be less stingy about shelling out money for them–the real value of a good co-working space is in its community.

It will also pay in 2019 to solidify some habits and routines that will keep me productive. Especially with the discontinuity of moving around, creating a sense of continuity, structure, and normalcy will be crucial.

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