At the end of each year I take some time to reflect and to write out new goals and resolutions for the coming year. This exercise is about more than just the goals themselves, though–it’s about really taking a moment to check-in on my growth and to find alignment between my values, how I choose to spend my time, and my overall life direction. These words were written to inspire a future, struggling version of myself to stay the course and keep pushing to grow despite bouts of discomfort or laziness (both of which are natural parts of the journey).
I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and for the last couple I’ve chosen to make my goals public here on my blog. I don’t publish these to show-off, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers–if you spend 20 minutes reading this blog you’ll quickly realize that, while I have some strong convictions, I’m very much a work in progress. In fact, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that not every goal I’ve ever written down here has been accomplished. (Fortunately, though, many of the really important ones have.)
I publish these in the hope that, if I’m lucky, my journey to improve myself and an account of what I learned along the way will inspire or enlighten even just one other person. I hope that by writing about living my ideals and leading by example–with all of the bumps, blemishes, and bloopers left in–I may lend someone else the courage, the discipline, the perseverance, the authenticity, or even just the awareness to start living their own. Life is about the journey, and this is how I make the most of mine.
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2016’s theme was discipline, concluding in an Ironman triathlon. 2017’s theme was courage, culminating in leaving my job to pursue my own path. 2018, in a sense, is going to be a combination of the two. There are two main areas that I really want to work on:
- Learning to deal with uncertainty, and to fight against my instinct to plan and control everything.
- Learning to identify, trust, and follow my authentic inner voice.
Learning to Deal with Uncertainty
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
–The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr
We spend the first two decades of our lives with an abundance of externally-defined structure. Grade school, high school, and college all provide relative rigidity with our parents, our teachers, or our majors delineating a path forward and giving us a definition of success to strive for. Then we graduate, and suddenly all of that structure evaporates. In the vacuum, the game becomes about defining meaning, purpose, and success for ourselves, before learning to apply them in the face of life’s fundamental uncertainty.
There are two primary ways we learn to cope with uncertainty: 1) creating, finding, or borrowing structure so that we have control over what we can control and 2) learning to let go of the need for control over things we fundamentally cannot control. Both methods are important, and they involve different and opposite skills: the former requires that we learn to be a proactive and creative force in our own lives, the latter that we learn to go with the flow and not burden ourselves with what we can’t control (e.g. the past, the vast majority of the future, how others think and act).
In my limited experience, most people I’ve met excel at one of these strategies, but not both. In fact, in a funny way, those who naturally excel at one strategy are often awful at the other–when you have a hammer, everything kind of looks like a nail. Personally, my hammer has always been proactivity and control (that’s why I started writing these goals in the first place); acceptance and going with the flow has always been a weakness. Ideally, one masters both of these strategies. Once that’s done there is a third challenge: learning when to apply each strategy for maximum effect.
In the past, I’ve written a lot about courage and discipline. In fact, last year I wrote, “I believe that I need two main virtues in order to accomplish everything I want in life: the courage to dream, and the discipline to execute.” I don’t think I realized it then, but those virtues map pretty well to the methods of dealing with uncertainty I just described: discipline involves creating and following through on structure, while courage requires a learned acceptance of the things we cannot control so we can function despite fear.
Though I still have a lot to learn about both courage and discipline, and though I’ve made a lot of great progress in the last couple years, I’m realizing now that a piece has always been missing from my thesis: learning how to use courage and discipline together, and when to apply one over the other. As it is, my instinct is still very much to control, plan, and analyze. I think in 2017 I learned a bit more about how to let go, but I still struggle with when to let go. Finding or creating opportunities to practice this skill is one of my top priorities in 2018.
Learning to be Authentic
Learning to deal with uncertainty is a little like learning to sail a boat: you have to learn how to trim the sails and weather different conditions at sea. Ultimately, though, you could be the best sailor in the world and never get where you’re trying to go without some means of navigation. Authenticity is our means of navigation on the capricious sea of life; it’s the compass needle subconsciously guided by our deepest values, and the north star that lights the way to who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do. I believe authenticity is one of the highest pursuits in life, not because there’s some pot of universal truth or meaning at the end of the rainbow, but because it’s the path that maximizes individual long-term happiness realized through integrity and self-actualization.
Sometimes, however, the compass spins or the night sky is cloudy, and we can’t seem to find our way. This is because the concept of authenticity is complicated–certainly more complicated than “just being yourself,” as the platitude goes. There’s a multitude of different influences in our lives–our parents, our peers, our significant others, the culture or environment we grow-up or live in–that can passively or actively push our internal compasses away from true north. Completely avoiding any of these influences on our lives is impossible, and not entirely desirable: sometimes pieces of external influence create resonance, shedding some light on what we truly value. Other times, though, our internal compasses point us in directions that lie in direct conflict with where external influences would have us go. When this happens, one of two things occurs: we choose to go someone else’s way, thereby learning to wear a mask; or we follow our inner voice, moving us closer to our authentic selves.
That process is, of course, also not as easy as it sounds. The more external voices there are and the louder they are, or the meeker our inner voice–if, for example, we aren’t very secure about ourselves–the harder it can be to identify, trust, and listen to our inner voice. Ultimately, I think the goal is to be able to remain true to self especially in the presence of strong external influences. Personally, this is something that I’ve struggled with quite a bit in my life to date, and there have been a few key points where I’ve caught myself walking a potentially inauthentic path, not the least of which led to my leaving Palantir and Silicon Valley.
I’m very much still learning to trust myself, to feel internally rather than externally secure in who I am and who I choose to be, and to follow my internal compass. I think that these are among the most important things I can learn in life, both because I believe it’s the path to truly internalized happiness, and because life is full of stories about the archetypes played out by the alternatives: the entrepreneur or creative who regrets never believing in herself enough to take a chance; the ego-driven playboys, businessmen, and politicians who believe attention or money lead to happiness only to find themselves feeling hollow inside; and the go-getters who climb the corporate ladder in a desperate desire to “get ahead” without ever stopping to wonder what it really means to be ahead.
How will I pursue the two priorities outlined above?
- Running my own business
- As I’ve been learning for the past few months, trying to get a business off the ground is sometimes overwhelmingly uncertain. By continuing to pursue this path, I think I place myself in an environment where I have no choice but to apply both courage and self-discipline, and where I must learn to accept the occasional inevitable negative outcome that I cannot really control.
- Being self-employed means that I’m solely responsible for setting my priorities, giving me the freedom to pursue work, growth, and meaning the way I want and at my own pace.
- Learning to create value on my own will help me to learn to trust myself (or, perhaps, require that I learn to trust myself). I think there’s also no baser sense of personal security than knowing that if I have to fend for myself in this world, I can.
- Key results:
- 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).
- 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.
- I’ll be moving around a lot in 2018, and I think doing so will help to create an environment chock-full of uncertainty. I expect to encounter situations I couldn’t predict, and I think this will challenge me to learn to find the balance between acceptance and proactivity.
- Traveling around to new places, meeting new people, and encountering new perspectives will give me opportunities to learn more about what I’m drawn to.
- Pulling myself away from past influences, including my parents, my college peer group, my existing friends, Silicon Valley’s culture and environment, and all past and current romantic interests will help to turn down the volume on the external voices that sometimes drown out my own voice.
- Key results:
- 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.
- Mindfulness has and continues to be one of my most important mental tools for learning to deal with uncertainty. My mindfulness practice has taught me skills to accept my thoughts and emotions, as well as other external situations that I can’t otherwise rationalize away or control.
- Many of the same mindfulness practices useful for accepting external situations are also very useful for accepting myself. The more I accept myself, the stronger my inner voice becomes.
- Key results:
- Attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat.
- Complete the Headspace Pro series in one continuous streak.
- Meditate for at least 20 minutes every day.
- Uncertainty and Authenticity
- Books exist for pretty much every topic imaginable. Some books I’ve read have addressed topics relating to uncertainty and authenticity directly. Others have characters and plots that explore questions and themes that are central to my own life, and so are inspiring, or instructive, or at least thought provoking. Still others, simply introduce me to new ideas and new perspectives I might not have otherwise considered (and some of which I’d never have found by just meeting people). The more of these I’m exposed to, the more I get to see what I do and don’t resonate with, refining my internal compass.
- Key results:
- Read or listen to 52 books this year.
- Uncertainty and Authenticity
I have just a few other goals unrelated to this year’s primary objectives:
- Compete in the Boston Marathon
- Exercise is an important part of my health and happiness, but I’ve found that I honestly don’t do well with just exercising 30 minutes a day to stay healthy. I need something larger than that to work toward, or I don’t end up putting my heart into it. I’ll also be moving around a lot next year, and though other exercise equipment may not always be readily available, running is pretty much always an option. As a runner in high school, and now a post-college amateur endurance athlete, qualifying for the Boston Marathon represents a huge accomplishment in speed, not just endurance. (Qualifying times for my age and gender require running a full marathon at an average pace of 7:00/mi.)
- Key results:
- 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.)
- Become conversationally fluent in French
- This is part of a larger desire I have to learn several foreign languages. This time, though, I actually have a one-way ticket to France in May 2018, and I’m going to need to work on my French both before and during if I want to survive/thrive while I’m there.
- Key results:
- Spend at least 3 months in French-speaking countries in 2018.
- 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 purposefully trying to keep my list of goals leaner and more focused this year, so I’ve cut several threads from 2017 that weren’t totally completed. Rather than overtax my focus and willpower, this year I’ll narrow in on a few larger things, and will consider throwing in more if I seem to be totally crushing it with lots of time left in the year.