Every year, on my birthday, I write a post reviewing the past year in my life and my plans for the future. You can see all the previous ones, starting with my 18th birthday shortly after I began writing this blog over nine years ago.
Unlike most my other articles, where I try to extend an idea with a useful takeaway or insight, this one is going to be pretty self-indulgent, so feel free to skip it. I’ll be back with my more usual writing next week.
A Year Back Home
This year has had a lot more time for self-reflection than many of my previous ones. Near the end of my year without English, I promised myself I wouldn’t start planning a new year-long project for at least twelve months. Part of the reason was to catch up on business projects. It turns out that spending an entire year traveling and learning languages full-time has a negative impact on one’s income.
But part of the reason was also that I was burned out. Korea was country number four and the second Asian language in a row, meaning it wasn’t until the third month where even having simple conversations were relatively fluid. In retrospect it’s not surprising that I was exhausted near the end of the trip, but perhaps somewhat surprising that I didn’t feel tired until country number four. I guess the lesson is that I can do three languages in a row, but not four, without going crazy?
This year, in contrast has been largely free of such stresses.
I haven’t been lazy, though. For this business, I’ve been working hard on two new courses. One, a course teaching deliberate practice for your career with Cal Newport. Two, a learning course to supersede Learning on Steroids. I also redesigned the website and did numerous smaller back-end projects that most readers won’t see but make my job a lot easier.
Despite this, however, my work has felt so easy that I’ve struggled more with feelings of guilt about not working hard enough than stress from working too hard.
I think there are two factors that have made this year feel so easy. First, since the inception of this website I’ve rarely done it full-time. I was a high-school then university student. After I graduated, the MIT Challenge and the year without English. This is the first time I’ve ever had an entire year where there wasn’t some other full-time project demanding my attention.
Second, because of my other projects, I’ve effectively four-hour-workweeked my business accidentally. When you have months, or years, at a time when you can only devote several hours to keep everything maintained, that forces you to eliminate and simplify everything so that the habitual maintenance required is quite low.
Which Goals Should You Set When You Don’t Want Anything?
A lot of the earlier writing of this blog focused on goal setting. It’s hardly a ground-breaking idea—that if you clearly conceive of the things you want and take action towards achieving them—you’re more likely to get it. And, no, I don’t believe the method isn’t without some drawbacks or complications. But good goal-setting and planning methods were a big part of me succeeding in becoming a full-time blogger, doing the MIT Challenge and learning many subjects.
That being said, I’ve had a lot harder time using the same philosophy from my current vantage point in life. I think that’s largely because I already have all the things I want.
I’m earning a more than comfortable income, doing what I love with complete freedom and autonomy. I have great friends, a fantastic girlfriend and I live in a beautiful city. I’ve even gotten into better shape, having had less-than-perfect exercise habits while traveling.
This definitely wasn’t always the case. I think most of my life I’ve felt something was incomplete, to a certain extent. My career wasn’t well established. I was in a new city without friends or a relationship. I rarely felt unhappy, but there was usually something I could easily point to as a goal I could set that would improve things.
I don’t feel that way any more. I’m not sure whether it’s just having achieved most of my past goals, or simply having put myself, often intentionally, through enough struggles to realize how few things are actually necessary for happiness.
That being said, old habits die hard and the desire to use well-practiced tools outside of their domain of usefulness is strong. I definitely spent a lot of time this past year a bit lost, not sure what the replacement philosophy should be.
Despite my feeling that there isn’t much more I want, I definitely don’t want to retire. I still want to pursue exciting, ambitious projects, I just might not be able to approach them from the mindset that I had used before.
One of my big challenges has been trying to decide what the general direction I’d like to move my career into. As a writer and blogger, there are three main adjacent career trajectories I could push myself towards, all with some characteristics I like and some I dislike.
One path is of building a large business. I already have a business selling courses related to learning. This would mean expanding along that vector. An example of someone who has done this exceptionally well is Ramit Sethi, who took a one-man blog to become the CEO of a 60+ employee company with revenue in the millions.
The entrepreneur in me likes this path. I’ve always enjoyed building things that people like enough to pay for them. Having a large business also enables you to take on projects with budgets and scope that I can only dream of.
The downside of this path is that having a business sometimes has poor incentives on developing good ideas. It’s hard to be both an expert at the business and of the subject matter you teach. Even if you could manage both, the business constraints of selling a product and the intellectual constraints of finding the truth often conflict, so there is a greater tendency for charlatanism than in journalism or academia.
Another path is trying to become a serious author. I’ve already written a number of self-published ebooks, but going the path of trying to write a popular book with a compelling thesis for a larger audience also interests me. My friend Cal Newport has done quite well on this path, starting with college how-to advice and moving to well-received big idea books.
The writer in me likes this path. Writing, when done well, changes people’s minds and lives. Writing also has potentially the greatest reach, creating ideas that extend their reach far beyond the people who actually purchase your books.
The downside is that a lot of popular book theses simply aren’t true. Even at the apex of this career direction has people like Malcolm Gladwell largely being dismissed by people who study the topics he writes about.
The third path I’ve been considering is more academic. Going to grad school and studying some topic deeply. The intellectual in me likes the idea of rigor in thinking and being surrounded by a community of people much smarter than myself. The downside is that academia can often be bureaucratic, overly specialized and irrelevant to the lives of regular people.
Of course, the illusion is that these choices are discrete. I could probably pursue some combination of these paths, or a fourth one which manages to avoid some of the worst drawbacks I dislike in each, while preserving the best. Still, I haven’t figured out what that is yet.
My next year will probably be similar to this one: a combination of business and smaller learning projects. I’ll hopefully be releasing the two courses I mentioned in the next several months. I’ll also be setting aside a non-trivial amount of time to do more research regarding the possible future directions of my career (particularly academia, since it’s the one furthest from my current trajectory).
I’ve been learning a lot of cognitive science recently. I’m working my way through these set of textbooks which cover the subject from the lens of psychology, linguistics, neuroscience and computer science. I’ve considered making a smaller, part-time challenge related to that which would give me more to discuss on the blog related to learning.
I’m also eager to travel again, albeit for a shorter duration. I’d love to return to China or Taiwan, to continue practicing my Chinese. I already have some shorter trips planned in Spanish speaking countries, so I can broaden my linguistic abilities.
I’ve started toying around with some new programming projects. My recent language project made it harder to work on anything programming related that wasn’t just simple script. Hopefully if other priorities don’t overwhelm, I’ll have some new things to show in that area as well.
Given that I spend a lot of time learning things that don’t explicitly turn into big, year-long, well-documented projects, I’ve been mulling over possible ways to integrate that more in this blog. Especially since smaller side-projects for learning are probably a more replicable example than the bigger ones I undertake.
Regardless of what happens in the next year, I’ll be continuing to write here and share what I find with you. Thanks again to everyone who has accompanied me on this last year, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the future!