Year End Review 2020

January 17, 2021 • ☕️☕️ 12 min read

I took part in Forte Academy’s The Annual Review workshop last weekend. I’ve experienced the the beneficial effect of review cycles (weekly, monthly etc) on the accomplishment of my goals and dreams many times during the last year.

Yet I’ve also experienced how hard it is to follow through and stick with them. Reviewing 2020 filled me with excitement but also with trepidation. This is why I’m eternally grateful for the community of 100+ people who attended last weekend. It still surprises me how much more I’m able to do when in the company of inspiring others.

I had lots of breakthroughs and insights during the two days. On Saturday we learnt about the importance of looking back before we look forward. In this post I want to share my 2020 successes and the lessons I learnt along the way.

Rediscovering Online Education

Online education clicked for me in 2020 (ba-dum-ch 🥁). I’d done online courses before and they’d been helpful, but that impact was dwarfed by the effect they had on my life this year.

Timing helped a lot. The forced clearance of schedules that we all went through meant that I had plenty of time to focus on learning.

And perhaps my age helped too. Leaving my twenties behind not so long ago, it’s become clearer just how limited my time is. This growing awareness brought about a change of paradigms. Before I would spend a lot of time to save a little money, now I’d much rather spend a lot of money to save a little time. There’s a cliché that says that you can always make more money but never more time. This year that became an embodied way of looking at the world for me.

Before I would try to get my learning fix from free sources, seeing no sense in paying for materials that I could find on YouTube. And I learnt a lot this way. The main drawback to this approach is the lack of coherent strategy. When embarking on a learning journey (say learning how to use Notion), the path ahead is full of unknowns unknowns. Where’s the best place to start? What are the foundational principles which everything else builds upon?

For learning to be efficient, what we need at the outset is a map for our journey, in other words a curriculum. Without this we’ll get lost, go down dead ends, or go round in circles. The danger then is that we’ll blame our lack of progress on a lack of ability and give up.

The courses that I’ve taken this year, have guided me along a clear path through the dense forest of material. Even with this clear guidance, the learning journey is demanding. I see no reason to make it harder than it needs to be. What the best teachers have done is gone and explored the territory, with all the blood, sweat, and tears that that process entails. These explorers have provided me with so much value that right now, I can’t think of much better ways to spend my money.

Art of Accomplishment

The course with the most transformative impact was The Art of Accomplishment. This was my biggest surprise of the year. I already knew that I could learn to code, write or increase my productivity online. In other words, I knew that I could pick up knowledge. What I didn’t know is that I could take part in a course that would develop my inner wisdom.

The AoA team created a powerfully held container, where along with 50 others I would have insight after insight into the unhelpful subconscious patterns running my life. These weren’t just conceptual realisations, they were moments of deeply embodied knowing into the ways I create suffering for myself.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough I had was becoming aware of how my young self learnt that to be loved and accepted he would have to be of value to people. That it wasn’t enough to just be me. And how that belief still drives my actions to this day. How in most of my everyday interactions I feel a subtle pressure to be in the know, to give good advice, to appear smart.

That pressure keeps me from being authentically me. Having to know and to be right is tiring. I now see the wonderful freedom that comes with not having to keep up this facade. By dropping it, I am able to be more vulnerable. I can admit that I don’t know and slowly I start to dismantle the identity that I’ve built up. Not only that, but in not knowing I’ve been more willing to listen to others. And the group intelligence I tap into when I listen is so much vaster than anything I could hold in my head.

Those are just a few of the discoveries I made. Months after the course, I still feel I’m integrating the lessons learnt. This acceleration on the personal growth path would not have been possible without the amazing people I was surrounded with. The community that formed over 8 weeks in the summer was one full of love and acceptance. With this loving container, and the willingness to show up and be vulnerable the amount of connection was unbelievable.

Tiago Forte (who helped to organise the course but was also a fellow student) summed this up well in his recent year end review:

The concentrated attention of a large group of people is a kind of energy beam of healing, capable of slicing through years of frozen emotions like the Death Star’s laser beam. Seeing the faces of dozens of people sending you nothing but acceptance is impossible to hold back. It breaks you open like a dam bursting. There’s no defense mechanism in the world capable of deflecting so much love. This kind of focused group attention has been used by religions for ages. We are at heart a social species, and when you declare something publicly, whether it’s a painful personal truth or a promise to deliver on, it is infinitely more real than something whispered quietly in the privacy of your head or a journal.

That it all happened over Zoom is still hard to believe. It’s opened my eyes to what’s possible online today. Considering we’re only at the beginning of the online education revolution I feel very excited about what’s to come.

Starting a Blog

Starting this blog is what I’m most proud of this year. Not because it’s amazingly written, or has a huge readership. I’m proud because it was something I was scared of doing. When I set myself the goal publishing 10 posts in a year, I had no idea whether I would actually go through with it.

Like all accomplished goals, it now seems easy. After all, it was just writing a few hundred words every month and hitting publish. That’s just part of the story though. The interesting part lies below the surface. It’s the emotional barriers that I had to overcome so that I could hit the publish button.

I imagine that these barriers were more daunting for me than for most people (granted I have a limited perspective, only being privy to my own insecurities). From a young age I learnt that it was better to keep my head down, that being seen wasn’t good. The reasons for this were complex and not something I’m ready to express in public, for now it suffices to say that my life was ruled by shame for a long time.

When you’re in shame, you believe that you’re a bad person. Of course this isn’t a conscious belief, it resides much deeper than that. The way shame survives is by not being spoken. It tells you that you must hide parts of yourself because if anyone ever finds out you’ll be rejected.

For a long time I believed that I had to keep secrets. I thought that I could keep aspects of my life compartmentalised, believing they would have no impact on other pursuits. I felt like I had it all under control. Yes I got terrible anxiety whenever I was the centre of attention, I felt unable to speak up in meetings, introductions going round the circle filled me with dread, but you know “that’s normal, everything’s fine”. It’s only with hindsight that I see how naive it was to believe that keeping parts of myself hidden wouldn’t affect other areas of my life.

It was only after a lot of personal growth work that I was able to put 2 and 2 together. It’s moments like these that the limits of rationality become obvious. As humans, we’re emotional first and foremost even if our thinking mind loves to pretend otherwise.

The truth is that unhelpful behaviour patterns that I picked up from a lifetime of hiding don’t disappear overnight. This blog is part of the continuing process of coming out into the light, of being seen. And that makes it the accomplishment I’m most proud of in 2020.

To find out more about how shame works, I highly recommend Brene Brown’s work

Lifestyle Minimalism

I watched a video a few years ago about lifestyle minimalism. The premise was that in the modern world our schedules are way too full and because of this we hardly ever get time for contemplation and reflection. Therefore just like material minimalism, it’s beneficial to reduce our calendar to the bare essentials, to the activities that bring us joy, whilst leaving lots of empty space in it for more introspective pursuits.

The concept resonated with me. Yet this resonance didn’t have much of an impact on my behaviour. The idea sounded nice on paper but life and FOMO got in the way.

Well, lifestyle minimalism was enforced on all of us this year. Because I’d been exposed to the concept I embraced it rather than resisted it. A caveat here is that it was easy for me to embrace this way of life; the pandemic didn’t have a huge impact on me or anyone I love, I worked remotely before, and my work opportunities increased rather than decreased. I’m also an introverted nerd who loves being in front of a computer.

The sudden lack of social obligations and pressures, or in other words the new autonomy on how to use my time was just what I needed this year. Most of the things on this list would not have been possible without it.

The deeper self awareness that the slower pace allowed to emerge is reflected in how my habits changed. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved walking, yet it’s not something I’ve done much of in the past 5 years. Now it’s part of my daily routine and it’s been a refreshing rediscovery.

Linked to walking is the exploration I’ve undertaken of my local area. It’s crazy to think that I’ve lived in East London for 3 years and I that I hadn’t explored approximately 95% of it. I discovered many hidden gems around me that I was blind to. I stumbled upon some amazing running routes, giving me a break from the same loop around the same park I’d run for years. Now, every run I go on is different to the one before, but all make use of the incredible green spaces in and around me. I’ve developed a deep gratitude for the variety and number of parks in London.

I also connected with family members who I hadn’t spoken to in years. Every time I would try to call before I would feel guilt and nervousness at being MIA for so long. During normal times there is too much distraction to feel these emotions. Having more time allowed me to feel and process them, and to realise that I wanted to reach out no matter how it went. This led to beautiful moments of connection.

I’ve spoken before about the sabbatical I took at the start of the year. In some ways, lockdown resembled a year-long sabbatical for me. I’ve had the time to devote to more inner work. The mental space to take a more elevated look at my life and the direction it’s going, and the time to learn tools that have allowed me to bring more intentionality to charting this direction.

Notion LifeOS

Another huge win for me this year has been creating a life operating system on Notion. I’m aware that’s a ridiculous sounding term, so what exactly do I mean by life operating system? Well other terms for what I’m referring to are “your digital second brain” or “your own personal Wikipedia”.

I prefer the term LifeOS, partly because I’m a nerd, but also because the metaphor of an operating system illustrates the impact this system has had on my life. In computer talk, an operating system can be thought of as the core app on which all other apps run. The better this core app functions, the better the apps on top of it will function.

Similarly, I’ve found my Notion system to be the control tower from where I can direct and optimise every other pursuit in my life. It is where I plan out my day, keep all my todos, connect those todos to higher level goals, keep a list of films that I want to watch, podcasts I want to listen to, scribble ideas for blog posts, link those ideas to highlights from books I’m reading, track my habits, and much much more.

Another reason why I prefer the term operating system is because of the systems thinking approach that I have taken to build it up. For this I owe a huge debt of gratitude to August Bradley’s incredible YouTube series and course. Above I listed a few of the parts that make up my system on Notion. Listed out like that, it doesn’t seem very impressive. I’d imagine that most people have their own way of keeping these lists. However there is a magic that happens when these disparate parts are brought under the same roof and start interacting with each other. Systems thinking has a name for that magic: emergence.

Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviours emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. — Wikipedia

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it will be a butterfly. 🦋 — R. Buckminster Fuller

The two quotes above give you a taste of what emergence is. And the most exciting that I’m seeing emerge out of my Notion system is creativity. I already spoke about how my biggest win of the year was starting this blog. Well, investing time and attention on my LifeOS is making the writing process more enjoyable each day. The more enjoyable it is, the more I want to write and share with people. Creativity is starting to become a part of me. I could never have predicted this at the start of the year.

It really does feel life magic.

Read with Audrey

My work on Audrey has felt like the convergence point for my numerous interests. It’s been a sandbox for playing with all the ideas, concepts and theories from courses and transforming them into tangible results. I’ve loved observing this process and it’s a reason why I’m so passionate about online skill acquisition.

I love being exposed to new frameworks and paradigms for their own sake. I derive pure enjoyment playing mental gymnastics with them. Yet I’m also aware of my tendency to get lost in abstractions. To fall for theories that sound good on paper but that have little relevance to real world problems.

Working on Audrey, I’ve been able to put these abstract ideas to the test immediately. Seeing how they come alive in a variety of circumstances and contexts has been fascinating. It’s allowed me to see their wide applicability and to thirst for more shifts in my thinking, forming a wonderful virtuous cycle where theory augments practice which in turn augments theory.

The clearest example of this is my use of Notion. At the start of the year I had no idea what this tool was capable of. Doing Marie Poulin’s Notion Mastery course I was able to begin the implementation of my LifeOS. Proving to myself just how powerful this tool could be, I began to see how I could use it with my team to improve our processes.

Yet the jump from individual to team wasn’t clear. Here I had to bring in concepts from systems thinking and design thinking. I was building a system for the team, but how could I know what they needed without user research? Doing this research employed the deeper listening skills that I developed in Art of Accomplishment. I realised that the best user research happens when I seek to disprove all my assumptions and this was impossible without empathy.

I built the simplest solution taking a lead from design thinking (and going against my tendency to overcomplicate). With Notion I could build the solution in front of my colleagues’ eyes. This meant that the feedback loop was much shorter than what I’m used to with code. I could tell whether I was heading in the wrong direction straight away. The practice was showing me the wisdom behind agile workflows in a way that I’d never grasped in 5 years of working as a developer.

What I love about my work on Audrey is how diverse it is. I am able to bring different aspects of myself to the fore as different contexts arise. I consider myself a generalist (as opposed to a specialist), having a wide range of interests. This year I’ve found the playground to nurture the multiplicity within me and that makes me happy 🤓