2016: What I Learned.

 

2016 is coming quickly to a close. With the new year on the horizon, there is no better time to look back and reflect on all that has happened. Consider this piece a study in two parts – I will present what I achieved and what I learned while doing it. In doing so, I aim to create the outline in which I will set my personal goals for 2017.

[If you are interested in listening to an audio version of this retrospective, here is the MP3 link. I had fun recording the audio, and hope that you enjoy the listen!]

I hope that this writing will be valuable to you. I enjoy being honest and direct with myself because it leads to self-growth. I am not concerned with baring my emotions, feelings, and insecurities if it helps you in your own path. I would love for you to derive value in knowing what excited me this year, so that you can keep propelling yourself forward.

That’s not to say it was a year of pure joy for me. I have found myself in various states of self-doubt and self-loathing. That might be my genetic makeup. I have come to realize, though, that it really does not get any better. Real learning and growth comes from challenging oneself and pushing one’s limits. It is easy to shy away from this because it makes us feel vulnerable. The negative feelings will never fade away because I hold myself accountable to a higher standard. I am not content to be where I am now.

What changed for me this year was the strength of perspective. No matter what happened, I picked myself back up and asked the ever-important question:

What’s the worst that could happen?

This simple question brings things into immediate focus. I took solace in understanding that at the end of the day, everything was going to be fine. This operational mantra gave me the courage to reach new heights. I left parts of the “old James” behind, and constructed parts of the “new James” to usher in 2017.

As you read this, I challenge you to think about your own journey. It is not easy to sit down and think deeply about the past; life interrupts us and pulls us into multiple directions. In committing the time to write this, however, I believe that I have worked out a few things in my head. I am confident that you will also derive similar benefits if you take the time to invest in yourself.

Part I: What I achieved

I read 40 books that taught me to think about life differently. I am a voracious reader. I cannot imagine what it is like to not have access to books. Someone smart once said that it’s not the reading of books that’s important, it’s the journey and what imprint great writing has on you. I truly believe that. Great literature has the power to seed new ideas inside one’s head.

It is not the number of books read that matters, but the knowledge absorbed. In the past, I have chased the “books read” metric like a badge of honor. I also stubbornly forced myself to finish books that I disliked, in my quest to extract full value from every book purchase.

My new strategy works like this: extract ONE key idea from a book. If I am reading a work of non-fiction, find the elevator pitch within the book and burn it into my consciousness. The book does not have to be read in its entirety. It can be skimmed and accessed later. One does not have to feel shame at not finishing books.

So when I say that I “finished reading 40 books,” it is primarily about extracting ONE piece of key information that has become part of my mental tool-kit. In practice, I probably read 75% of these books, so if we want to put the actual figure at 30 books, that’s also fine.

Let me give you a few examples of how one singular idea from each book can be powerful to one’s thinking.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE – Running a business means having the balls to know what you don’t know, and to persevere in spite of overwhelming odds. You do this because you cannot fathom the thought of doing anything else in this world.

#AskGaryVee – There are two places to operate in for maximum effectiveness – the clouds and the dirt. Engage in high-level thinking (“the clouds”), but revel in specificity as the situation calls for it (“the dirt”). If you’re in the proverbial dirt, get as specific and good as possible in that domain. Be the best in that domain. Do not be someone who can only operate in the clouds, or only in the dirt.

Buddhism without Beliefs – The world is founded on anguish, and we must accept this as part of human nature.

Anything You Want – Think carefully about why you are building a business or thing of importance. Do not compromise on your core values.

These are just a few examples. I would rather extract 40 solid ideas than to half-ass 200 books without remembering their core message. Quality trumps quantity.

As a corollary to the above, I maintain a “to-do list” of potential books to read. Whenever I hear a recommendation from a friend/article/podcast, I immediately write it down. This helps me maintain a constant pipeline of books in the reading queue without substantial effort.

I have always been comfortable in reading memoirs and business-related writing. This year, I challenged myself to read more fiction, which I have not done for several years. I enjoyed the process of reading about fantastic worlds and characters instead of relying on TV or movies to provide that fuel. A few examples include Hugh Howey’s excellent Wool sci-fi series, or the first book from Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. Rather than force myself to only consume what I deemed to be practical in terms of real-world knowledge, I used reading as an escape. It feels great to find the inherent pleasure in reading.

Alas, I was hoping to have read even more books. Wasting time on Facebook got in the way. There is always next year and there is always improvement.

I wrote and published a book about my twenty years of personal experience in competitive gaming. This year, I wrote and self-published a book called Magic: The Addiction. I released it on Amazon. It details my twenty years of playing a competitive card game called Magic: The Gathering and all of the crazy life lessons I learned from playing the game. The book requires zero knowledge of the game. Rather, it focuses on the pursuit of competitive greatness and the many dark paths that obsessive behaviors can take us.

I am proud to say that I am now a published author. I had a story to tell. I sat down over a long period of time and hashed the details out. I am happy because it took several months of focused work to get there, and it was not easy.

Simply being an author does not excite me, nor does the modest revenue from book sales. Becoming a published author is important to me as it signifies sacrifice and discipline. In achieving this goal, I forced myself to develop new habits that could be carried over to other tasks. For example, I woke up early each morning to write. I cut out social activities from my schedule to make time.

Writing a book is especially challenging with a full-time job. It took me seven months of writing on the side to hit my goal. Each morning, without fail, I wrote. I balanced writing with my career and life obligations. I had to believe that I was capable of writing a book, or I would have stopped short along the way. Fortunately, I had family and friends who supported my endeavor. I am eternally grateful for their support.

I felt moderately excited when sales came in. There is an element of satisfaction in that. It did feel good to receive reader feedback as a form of positive validation. In fact, I still look at reader feedback occasionally as a motivational tool to keep going. In some small but measurable way, I had touched the lives of my readers by writing a story that they could relate to. I had developed a small following of fans, and that was very cool.

More importantly, though, I demonstrated the power of action. A book can live inside one’s head for decades; the true sign of success was releasing my thoughts into the world. My software background told me to not seek perfection. At the end of the day, it was more important to ship something of value than to never ship at all. I did not want to write a book for years on end and never finish it. As a result, I enforced deadlines for myself along the way.

If you are interested in reading about my writing process, I wrote a longer retrospective here. Writing a book put me into my flow state, and is not unlike the first time I crossed the finish line in a half-marathon. It truly felt like a runner’s high. Now that I have achieved it, it has given me a great dose of confidence. I know that I have at least two more books in me. At some point I will make them a reality.

I launched a podcast of 1:1 interviews with interesting people. I have been a podcast junkie for a while, and this was the year that I launched one of my own. Truth be told, I did not know how difficult this would be – but I decided that starting one was better than not starting one.

I took the favorite parts of podcasts I enjoyed – the deeply personal and deconstructive tendencies of a Marc Maron or Tim Ferriss – and brewed up my own version. I decided that as my podcast’s mission statement, I was going to deconstruct people who played the game of Magic: The Gathering. After writing about myself at book length, I was going to turn the tables and find out what makes other people tick.

I believe that each of us has a unique story to tell. The world of Magic tends to focus on the strategic aspect of the game. I decided that I was going to focus on the players themselves. Understanding Magic players’ motivations and learnings is infinitely more interesting to me than what tournaments they happened to win last weekend.

The other advantage of this format is that the content becomes evergreen. If my guests and I discuss current topics, then the episode would grow stale within a few weeks. Having conversations about generalizable knowledge and lessons learned allows my podcast content to be useful for longer periods of time. It also puts less onus on me to stay up-to-date with current Magic events.

In short, I found a niche that intersected my love of Magic with my curious nature. I reached out to people and learned a lot from talking to them. In many ways, recording these conversations publicly was the icing on the cake. I derived incredible satisfaction just from talking to intelligent and awesome people. It also helped grow my network within the gaming community, as guests recommended future guests to interview.

I already had a lot of things going on when I decided to launch this podcast. I thought about the time investment and opportunity costs. But in the end, the decision was founded on the belief that I could learn transferable skills that would help me later on. As a wise man once said, work on projects that will help your personal development no matter how the projects fare. I learned a lot here, even if I never record another show in 2017.

A few examples of skills: audio editing, outlining, public speaking, and interviewing. All of these are capabilities that I have refined through releasing over twenty podcast episodes. They can be applied to other fields and adventures. Just like writing a book, my six months of podcasting experience have become part of my personal repertoire.

Most importantly, I learned to talk to people on a personal level and to get them to open up. I’d like to think that my guests went to new places in our conversations together because I gave them a safe haven to do so. I learned to hone my craft as an interviewer.

The breakthrough podcast episode was when I interviewed Gerry Thompson, a well-known professional Magic player. We discussed personal topics like depression, finding meaning in life, and the difficulty of maintaining friendships. It ended up being the most popular episode in the show’s history. Of course, Gerry made the episode great by virtue of being an incredibly smart and articulate person. But I would like to think that I played a part in that as well. Midway through our talk, as we talked about Gerry’s struggles with depression, he acknowledged that “I got it.” As someone who had never talked to Gerry before the interview, this recognition meant the world to me.

Once you set your mind on something important it becomes impossible to stop the progress. We are fortunate to be living in a world where content creation is democratized and easily available to all. If I could launch a podcast and talk to cool people from halfway around the world, and get them to open up about their life struggles, then what else was possible?

I became a team lead. In my day job, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to become a team lead. This meant that I now had the responsibility to manage a team, and become a people manager for the first time in my life.

This was hard. This might have been one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. I probably sound like a crybaby right now and I don’t care. I felt completely overwhelmed in my first three months on the job. I thought I knew what it took, but I didn’t know what it took. I made a ton of mistakes – mistakes that were ultimately recoverable, but made me appreciate good managers even more.

Here are a few rookie mistakes I made. I did not set the right goals and direction for the team. I did not fight for what the team needed. I did not properly balance managing up (to executives and bosses) versus managing down (to my own team). I failed to avoid the temptation of firefighting situations, instead of setting the team up for longer-term success. I did not take feedback well. I worried too much about things that I could not control.

I could keep going for a long time. Let’s just say that I have a lot of improvement ahead of me. But I have not lost sight of one thing – this is life. This is important. This is growth, the old-fashioned way. You struggle, you fall, and then you stand up.

And herein lies the eureka moment. While I struggled with the role, I am still standing today. I worked to improve. I talked to experienced mentor figures. I asked my manager to give me guidance. I tried to learn from each person. I was not afraid of looking weak in front of people if it came from a position of authenticity, and a genuine desire to get better.

Stepping into the role also made me realize that at thirty-four years of age, I had been under-utilizing my skillset all this time. If I could figure this out now, I could have also figured this out a few years ago. It would have been just as hard, but I would have found a way. There is something in my personality and aptitude that would have allowed me to persevere.

So the million-dollar question becomes – what the heck was I doing earlier in my life, before I became a lead? I was comfortable in being who I was and not seeking opportunities to grow. This is a dangerous situation to be in, because I do not have it all figured out. Complacency is the enemy.

This incremental improvement made me realize that I could do things that I set my mind to. I did not have to hide behind “I am good enough” platitudes if I did not want to. It has made me realize that I needed to stretch myself more. This is only the beginning, and it is my responsibility to figure out how far I want to go.

I set a date for my wedding. I had been engaged to my fiancé for a while, and this was the year that we set a wedding date for 2017. The deposit has been paid and there is no return. And that’s exactly where I want to be.

This is not self-delusion. My fiancé and I had many come-to-Jesus moments this year, as well as the previous year. We had our fights and shouting matches. I was very open in admitting to her, and to myself, that 2015 was by far the hardest year we have ever had together as a couple. We were both selfish at times. We did not handle external pressures well. We felt that some parts of us were incompatible, and a lot of unhealthy resentment was created between us.

In the end, though, we decided as a team that we wanted to take this journey together. We took certain key steps to get there. We shed our tears and spoke openly about issues we had. Issues around finance, respect, sexual intimacy, emotions, and family. We wanted to be sure about who we were, and now we are on a stronger foundation.

It is ultimately about more than setting a date for the wedding. It is about my own maturity and coming to terms with how to love someone. Loving someone means loving him or her in the way that they want to be loved, and not in the way that I want to love them. It is also about managing the right expectations, and looking at myself in the mirror everyday and wanting to do better.

I am far from perfect, but I am trying.

Part II: What I learned in this messy, crazy process that is life

The world does not owe you anything. This lesson was especially eye-opening in light of certain world events like Brexit and President Elect Donald Trump. I saw the echo chamber that was Facebook. I saw the darkness that was online “discourse.” I saw friends go through incredibly traumatic experiences. I saw the world act entitled and petulant, and then transition into how-did-this-happen-I’m-a-victim mode. One thing is clear to me now: it is up to all of us to be the change, and to avoid the self-victimization that has become so prevalent in society.

It starts with all of us. Get off Facebook and start doing. We all need to be the change, one action at a time. I have faith in the human race that we can do better. We can do this together.

Stand up for yourself. I got involved in a few work situations this year where I should have stood my ground. I caved in to the demands of others, and allowed myself to be pushed around. And I felt weak, because I felt inadequate and that I was being manipulated.

Actually, it wasn’t manipulation. Other people had their interests to cater to. It’s a natural thing. And instead of protecting my own interests, I caved in to their interests. It is not even about manipulation because the world owes me nothing, and it is up to me to look out for myself. They had a fair position, and I should have adopted my own stance. In reality, I was not being true to myself, and protecting the interests of those who I really cared about.

This is the only part of this piece where I cannot elaborate and give more detail. It was a series of work-related situations, and I do not want to throw anyone under the bus. It is really my own damn fault that I made things tougher for myself. It is not fair to call anyone else out. I am not a victim. I am someone who has learned valuable lessons, and that is it.

In the attempt to please everyone I ended up pleasing no one. I am weak at mental warfare and I reflected super hard on this. I am going to readjust my approach going forward. I am going to stand up for myself.

Personal health is critical. This is one of those things that rears its ugly head now and again, and then I realize through a series of deja-vu moments: why did I neglect my personal health, again? Every time I failed to stay healthy and stick to healthy habits, I was punished hard.

When I was writing my book, I neglected to exercise because I felt that writing and work were the most important things in my life. Screw exercise, it can wait.

Result: I hurt my back and was out of commission for two weeks.

When I had busy weeks, I neglected to sleep eight hours a day. Screw sleep, it can wait.

Result: I found myself unable to focus and perform meaningful deep work.

When I played basketball, I was too lazy to stretch before and after games. Screw stretching, I’m a warrior.

Result: I performed sub-optimally during games and felt sore for several days afterwards.

This was the year of getting back to basics. I resolved to take care of my body. I wore a mask when it was polluted outside. I went to the gym more regularly. I made appointments for back and foot massages. I slept eight hours a day. And I stretched my legs before playing basketball.

None of this is rocket science. It is simply about caring enough to do the important things over and over again, especially when it is inconvenient or time-consuming.

You are exactly who you associate yourself with. This was perhaps the hardest lesson of all, because the consequences are only apparent in terms of opportunity cost. I am an introvert and not great at making small talk, especially when it is with people that come from different walks of life. I like hanging out with people and talking about topics that I’m comfortable with. So it is difficult for me to seek out new groups of people to exchange ideas with.

But I will re-purpose something that Einstein once said – you cannot do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result. A few months ago, I took a personal inventory and realized that I lacked a strong foundation of friends to challenge me. This year, I really stretched myself to get to know people with different backgrounds. This group includes creatives and entrepreneurs. I put myself out there and got to know a few more people outside of my normal circle. I also thought about people who I had not seen in years but were successful in their walks of life. I took the time and planning to re-connect when it made sense.

What changed in my mind was being more proactive about how to spend quality time with the right people. It was time well spent, because I learned a great deal from friends’ perspectives and what they brought to the table. I urged myself to ask them questions about their career, drive, and personal backgrounds. They made me think differently about the world. I left the safety of making small talk and sought wisdom instead.

The flip side to this is that I also severed ties with people who did not challenge me enough. I needed to be brutally honest with how I spent my time. Some people made me too comfortable. They thought that I was an overachiever. The fact is, I am the farthest thing from an overachiever. I am still learning and trying to grow new wings. I needed to lift off the ground, and this can only happen with the right interpersonal support system.

In short, that covers most of the stuff I went through this year. 2017 planning and goals will be part of a later post. For now, with one month left to go in 2016, I am treating every day as an important event. And I will continue to push myself to take action.

Because why not? And what’s the worst that could happen?

I challenge you, dear reader, to think about what is going on in your own life. I would love to hear how your year has been, and how you plan to enter the next level of personal development and growth. Let us challenge one another to be better people. Let’s grow for the long-term and impact the world in a positive way.

Peace,

James

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