5 x 5: my 2017 year in review

Last year, I wrote a super long retrospective on things I learned in 2016. I did this to share my learnings and reflect on a long, eventful year. This year, I have decided to throw the old format away and use a list format instead.

The list format is super boring, but is conducive to sharing and giving you lots of information with minimal reading comprehension. Besides, it is the bloody holidays. I know you do not have time to read articles. Don’t you have some shopping to do?

(If you have made it this far…THANK YOU FOR READING.)

So here we go, ladies and gents. You are about to read five carefully-curated categories selected from the brain of James, containing five items each. Everything that is important to me this year boils down to these twenty-five items. There is no ranking system here – item #5 is just as important as Item #1.


Favorite moments of the year


1)      Getting married. This was the year that Donna and I got married. Woo-hoo! First in Bali and then in Vancouver – two ceremonies for family and friends. The Bali wedding was the more spectacular of the two. The ceremony benefited from fantastic weather, beautiful location, carefully-planned logistics, and tons of fun for all. I felt completely drained physically for two weeks afterward, but hey…YOLO. Most importantly, it was a fun occasion to spend with my entire family. It was truly special to see everyone congregated in one location. We came, we married, we conquered. The honeymoon in Hawaii was also pretty good.

2)      Getting into the best physical shape of my life. I did something different this year – I committed to an exercise program and a personal trainer. I stayed with the program for a number of months and did not give up. Stopped making excuses. I stopped the cardio-only regime that was holding me back for years, and started adding weights and intensity training in order to burn fat. Now I have achieved personal bests in several categories, and am feeling stronger than ever when playing basketball. It has been a great boost of self-confidence to know that I am improving, but I also know that there is lots more improvement to be made. What I have learned from this journey is that if something is truly important to you, you make time for it – no excuses. And there is no magic at all. If you do it, you will achieve it.

3)      Making progress as a content creator. I am passionate about a couple of things – building great products, writing, staying active, and playing a competitive card game called Magic: The Gathering. This year I started recording a podcast series for product managers and enlisted the help of friends in the industry to help me out. I am holding out on releasing the series until proper marketing resources are in place. But since the content is designed to be evergreen, I can take my time and give it a proper release when things are good to go. I have also started working on my second book, which is a transcribed book of interviews with Magic players. I am very excited about all of these projects and plan to release them in 2018.

4)      Improving my Magic game to new heights. In this competitive area, I definitely leveled up – mostly from a mental perspective. I am calmer under pressure and have played my best Magic this year. I played decently in some major Chinese tournaments, including a Top 4 finish at a Guangzhou invitational. Next year I am looking to play in some of the bigger North American and European tournaments. I also look forward to reconnecting with a couple of old friends in the Magic community. It is going to be a lot of fun.

5)      Understanding blockchain and cryptocurrencies at a fundamental level. No, not the speculative investment bullshit. Currency is but one application of this game-changing technology. This year I educated myself in this domain and spoke to other folks to learn what’s what. It has been deeply rewarding to do my own homework, think critically, and make informed decisions on my own without subjecting myself to group-think. When I am curious about a subject and motivated to learn, I am capable of quickly absorbing large amounts of information. This year, I am glad that I put this capability to good use. The future is here, and understanding it is critical.


Most humbling moments of the year


1)      Realizing that I was spreading myself too thin, in work and in life. I want to achieve a number of things, and I can be impatient about it. But this year, I really did myself a disservice by half-assing things. I did not say “no” to enough things. There was ego and low self-awareness. Especially over the last couple of months, everything got close to blowing up in my face. I have survived, but from this point forward I need to change how I handle situations with family, friends, and colleagues. If I do something, I need to give it full effort and attention. Otherwise it is not worth doing, and everything suffers.

2)      Falling victim to “analysis paralysis.” Wait, didn’t I just say that I was trying to do too much? In reality, I oscillated between two extremes this year. The radical flip side of “doing too much” was “doing too little.” I entered a weird mental rut in the first half of the year where I became too deliberate and put too many things on hold. It got to this weird stage where I needed to write down a list of ten pros and cons for everything – and that was just to make the simplest of decisions! The opportunity cost was too damaging. Going forward, I have figured out that the best way to combat this inclination is to “time-box” decisions. If time is up, a decision needs to be made, no matter how imperfect it may seem. Easier said than done, but it is definitely humbling to know that I needed to work on this.

3)      Realizing that my spiritual side was running-on-empty, but that others could help me. I went through a few months of self-doubt and self-reflection this year. I got close to depression without stepping over the edge. I started reading texts on Christianity and Buddhism and thought deeply about the meaning of life. What was most gratifying to me was not the texts themselves, or any particular revelations, but realizing that I had friends around me who were willing to talk and help. I have definitely not figured everything out, but that is not the point. No man is an island, and it is important to realize that asking for help is the first step towards real change.

4)      Realizing that I needed to develop my interpersonal skills and strengthen my work/personal relationships. This is truly a work in progress. For all intents and purposes, this was not an easy year when it came to my career or my life. I was not a great manager or leader. I was not a great family member. I did not cultivate or treasure certain key relationships. I did not communicate well with others. Being deliberate, caring, and thoughtful are all things that will help me going forward. As a result, I have committed myself to doing things every week to improve in this domain. (And I will share them in due time.)

5)      Realizing that I was prone to bouts of “mental laziness.” When I love a subject like blockchain technology or competitive Magic, I will dive right in. But when something is important yet uninteresting, I will put it off. I will procrastinate and tell myself that it is OK. This is really bad and has soured my relationships with people. I have had to rely on honest self-reflection to take corrective measures here. There is no silver bullet, other than to devise short-term and long-term goals, and commit to reaching them.


Damn, that was some heavy stuff. Let’s go through a few categories that are relatively easier to talk about.


Favorite books of the year


1)      The Internet of Money, Andreas Antonopoulos. I had read lots of think-pieces on Bitcoin and Blockchain technology before this book, but The Internet of Money unlocked everything for me. It is a collection of Andreas’ best talks – the talks themselves are on YouTube and highly recommended – and definitely worth a read after you’ve understood the basics. The world is changing, and it is important to understand the implications of this technology.

2)      Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari. The history of the human race, boiled down to a few hundred pages. Harari has a gift for describing things in a way that is unique and wonderful. It is entertaining throughout. This book also helped me think about constructs such as currency, human rights, and geopolitical borders in a revelatory way. Nothing short of incredible, although I also blame this book for putting me down a path of seeking true meaning in life – which I’ve thankfully exited.

3)      Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed. A collection of Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns. Speaks to the very meaning of life, emotion, and everything in-between. I laughed, I cried, I was touched. Strayed has a definite gift for words, and a practical view of life that will touch the reader in all the right places. This has now become my go-to book for gifting.

4)      Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, Ryan Holiday. How does one create work that truly stands the test of time? While there is no sure-fire success in life, Holiday does offer some solid tips on how to maximize the odds of getting there. Good reading for product builders, entrepreneurs, and authors – I happen to fit two of these three categories. The book itself may be a perennial favorite for years to come; time will tell.

5)      Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone. Why do we become defensive when we receive feedback? Often, the feedback itself is wasted when emotions impede real progress. It can also be easy and tempting to conflate feedback with the person giving it. In this book, Stone argues that it is the responsibility of the receiver to understand and absorb the feedback in a meaningful way. Stone offers advice on how to navigate this terrain. My relationships with people improved significantly after reading this, and I recommend it highly.


Favorite movies of the year


1)      Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve. My impressions here.

2)      Silence, Martin Scorsese. My impressions here.

3)      Coco, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina.

4)      Atomic Blonde, David Leitch.

5)      The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park.


Favorite albums of the year


They may not have all been released this year, but this was the year that I listened to them.

1)      Malibu, Anderson Paak.

2)      DAMN., Kendrick Lamar.

3)      Trilogy, The Weeknd.

4)      Yesterday’s Gone, Loyle Carner.

5)      Live in Paris, Sleater-Kinney.


Key focus areas for 2018

I was going to share my plan for 2018 under the guise of five key things. But I have decided not to do that.

Plans change very quickly, and things may be different in a few months.

Instead of creating proclamations about how wonderful my 2018 is going to be, I am going to train a few muscles instead:

  • The muscle to be self-aware. To reflect not just for the sake of reflecting, but to take action on bettering myself.
  • The muscle to ask myself why I am doing things. Am I on auto-pilot, or is there actually a legitimate reason to do something?
  • The muscle to remember my failings, and avoid making the same mistakes twice.
  • The muscle to connect with people on an emotional level, whether it be family, friends, or colleagues.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That was 2017 for me, in a nutshell.

2018 is almost here. See you on the other side.





One Comment

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  1. Let’s talk about your upcoming pm podcast and blockchain/crypto (and yes, the tech and not speculation) 🙂
    Enjoyed yet another one of your years in review!


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