The calm within the storm. My 2020 year in review.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

—Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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This is my fifth year-in-review. Previous years: 2019, 2018, 20172016.

I will divide my year-in-review into the following sections:

  1. Mind
  2. Body
  3. Professional
  4. Relationships

Part 1: Mind

I ask myself the same questions each year:

  • Am I at peace with myself?
  • Am I developing my capabilities and learning in the right ways?
  • Am I happy?

Am I at peace with myself?

Yes, at roughly the same level as last year.

Continuing on a key observation I made last year about giving up control. Specifically, I noticed that wanting things done perfectly created an unnecessary amount of anxiety and affected my relationships with people.

Last year, I wrote:

When things do not work out, it is generally a good idea to look into the mirror. Intellectually, I would never expect predictability from the real world, especially when it comes to running something as risky and unpredictable as a startup.

This year unleashed a truly unpredictable Black Swan event like no other: COVID-19. Humanity suffered because of a wholesale change in how we lived, worked, and communicated with one another. Terms like “Zoomer” and “doomscrolling” entered our daily vocabulary.

Giving up control, a mindset that I developed for myself last year, came in handy. Because it is precisely in understanding that control — over other people, situations, and global events — is illusory that we can thrive in this new environment.

I mentally survived this year, as did much of the world, by being flexible and resilient. Being a natural introvert also helps a great deal. I am comfortable staying inside and enjoying minimal “real-world” interactions with people.

There’s a deeper level to all this, too.

Giving up control goes beyond the pandemic. It means knowing that it is not my job to convince others of my beliefs and viewpoints.

I no longer have an overwhelming desire to convince others that I’m right. I live my life, others live theirs, hopefully we get 1% better every day. It compounds.

In relationships that I deem important, I will try to influence. I cannot perfectly control, but I can show others that I care and appreciate them for who they are.

Easier said than done, but I have a lifetime to work on it.

Each year I grow more comfortable with who I am, remove toxic relationships from my life, and do my best to minimize the self-bullshitting.

Honesty + giving up control + constant re-evaluation = progress

Am I developing my capabilities and learning in the right ways?

Entrepreneurship

The best learning opportunities are the ones you dedicate your craft to.

My startup, CardBoard Live, is doing well. In the midst of the pandemic, the esports and gaming industry has grown. Folks are playing, and streaming, more games at home.

I will take no credit for this good fortune. As a company, however, we have done our best to capitalize on a series of events.

We executed on a lot of things this year that I’m proud of. We launched our own streaming service and have enjoyed a bit of traction while spending $0 on marketing. We did it through relationships, partnerships, word-of-mouth effects, and developing a name for ourselves over the past three years.

We’ve had a lot of fun launching streams with content creators on CardBoard Live. Here are two notable ones with great audience participation. Both Kyler and Bryant are awesome people with the “early adopter” mindset that we love.

Startup life is real life, but accelerated to the nth degree. The key to life is — don’t get too high when times are good, and don’t get too low when times are bad.

Life is about basic survival. Survival is about appreciating the good moments and not being discouraged when the inevitable setbacks occur.

The learning opportunity lies in wearing multiple hats as the co-founder of a startup. CTO, manager, marketer, business development person, gamer, (micro-)influencer: these are things that make me excited to wake up every morning.

I love getting into the weeds on stuff; that’s how learning happens. We worked on an email campaign to get people to try the new streaming product. To have 1 out of 2 people read an email you send out is a great feeling.

0% click rate, because we wanted folks to reply directly and not link anything. We received an unreal number of follow-up conversations.

No action item is too small. My co-founder and I will roll up our sleeves for anything. It could be sending out an email, cold-calling, firing off a tweet…you name it.

Necessity breeds invention, and invention breeds resourcefulness. I cherish these learning opportunities.

Back to school! (part-time)

Made a big decision this year to start my Global Executive MBA program (“GEMBA”) at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.

This is a part-time program, and requires a commitment of [2 working days per month] + [2 weekend days] = [4 total days per month].

The study schedule is great because it affords me the opportunity to learn while focusing on the main objective of running and growing my startup, CardBoard Live.

I haven’t been in the classroom for 15 years. But what’s different now vs. back then is that I now know what I want out of my education. I have accumulated a lot of lived experience to help me figure out how best to learn.

The first month, December, has been absolutely fantastic. I’ve certainly made the right choice and my classmates are great. Looking forward to learning from everyone in 2021 and beyond.

I am well aware that socializing is important. In some respects, throwing myself into this environment and having to (gasp!) talk to strangers is my way of challenging myself. I need to get more uncomfortable, get out there, and learn by joining different clubs and social activities.

Books read this year

Sorted alphabetically by author

** = my favorites of the year

Non-fiction

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Cain)
  • This is esports: An Insider’s Guide to the World of Pro Gaming (Chaloner)
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini)
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (Epstein)
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt)
  • Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (Halberstam)
  • Economics in One Lesson (Hazlitt)
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Irvine)
  • How to Be an Antiracist (Kendi)
  • The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (Konnikova) **
  • Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (McDougall)
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Odell) **
  • The History of Western Philosophy (Russell) **
  • Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Sandel) **
  • Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist (Saslow) **
  • Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty (Pearlman)
  • Black Rednecks and White Liberals (Sowell)
  • The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (Taylor)

2020 was a year of philosophical and political awakening.

Amidst the turmoil that is American politics, I felt the need to better understand the language and context behind key issues of debate. In addition to discussing such topics with friends, I took the Moral Foundations of Politics course offered by Yale.

Sandel’s Justice and Russell’s History of Western Philosophy complemented my learning. Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred, a chronicle of reformed white nationalist Derek Black, illuminated much about modern-day America. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explained the primordial lizard brain behind our intellectual positions.

Each book builds on a foundation of self-knowledge. In prior years, my reading of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Harari’s Sapiens created a foundation on which I could overlay these new texts.

Odell’s How to Do Nothing is an extraordinary reflection of what the world means to us. What begins as a celebration of bird-watching shifts into something deeply thought-provoking. It is still fresh on my mind, despite being one of my earliest reads in the year, in January.

Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff is about her personal journey from psychologist to professional poker player. The themes are relatable, even for non-players. I wrote an entire post about it here.

Fiction

  • The Testaments (Atwood)
  • The Stranger (Camus)
  • Red Sorghum (Mo Yan) **
  • Norwegian Wood (Murakami) **
  • Snow Crash (Stephenson)

Mo Yan’s world is surreal, violent, and brutal. It helped me interpret history in a new light.

Murakami is, quite simply, a master. I blew through Norwegian Wood in just a few days. The plot is simple but there are complex layers and themes at work. Wood is my second Murakami novel, and I’ve already purchased two more of his books for the future.

Am I happy?

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

–Mahatma Gandhi

I am happy, as happiness is a byproduct of gratitude.

I am grateful for having survived the year in a good mental and emotional state.

I am grateful for holding on to treasured friendships, and for starting new projects in my life. I’m happy to build things.

Happiness is not going from point A to B. Happiness is the struggle in going from A to B.

It will never be an end state; feeling happy in key moments is enough.

Part 2: Body

The year can be best summed up as “one step forward, one step back.” It felt like a net-neutral situation.

On the one hand, I re-discovered my love of running.

I had struggled with knee issues for the past few years, but this year was a revelation. Due to a combination of rehab work and father time, my knee healed and grew stronger.

I found myself running long distances again. Over the course of the year, I logged over 800 kilometers, or about 500 miles, on the road.

I even completed one half-marathon in Shanghai, and took a screenshot of my route.

What’s so bad about all this?

For starters, I had to re-configure my goal of running a full marathon. I had signed up for one in November, but my body needed recovery close to the race date.

I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk to brave it, and to do what I had failed to do in countless past occasions — listen to my body. I chose not to run the race.

The sweet spot for my running now maxes out at 25 to 30 kilometers, while a marathon is 42 km. I have to accept this fact. Future half-marathons: yes. Marathons: no.

A bittersweet conclusion for someone who’s used to setting goals and, you know, achieving them.

The silver lining is that I’m mature enough to know when to push, and when to call it quits.

Intellectually, I know this to be true.

Emotionally, it still hurts like hell.

The other setback was losing strength. Not hitting the weights consistently, and sticking to indoor stuff like pushups and squats, set me back. My military pull-up reps dropped, and I want to regain strength.

2021 will be the year of regaining my form, cutting body fat, and figuring out more sustainable forms of exercise.

Balance will be instrumental. Not focusing too much on one area of my body, and keeping things fun yet progressive.

Part 3: Professional

CardBoard Live

Very good year.

I covered most of the big milestones in Part 1. We are working on a bunch of new projects that I can’t disclose just yet, but will hopefully be able to announce soon 🙂

Working with the team, and my co-founder Wilson, continues to be a great experience. I’m optimistic for the future.

Podcasting: Magic

The Humans of Magic podcast is my passion project, the place where I can explore my curiosity within a gaming space and community that I love.

Episode releases slowed way down this year, as I ignored the cadence of a regular release schedule. After publishing the book tie-in, I wanted to be more intentional and selective in the interview process.

Still an amazing year, characterized by a “quality over quantity” ethos:

  • Zac Hill – co-founder/COO of The Future Project, ex-Magic designer
  • The Professor – Magic’s biggest YouTuber
  • Bloody – Twitch Partnered streamer
  • Matt Sperling – Magic pro and notable “contrarian/humorist” (a.k.a. the smartest troll in the game)
  • Jim Davis – Magic streamer, ex-pro, #TeamCardBoardLive
  • Reid Duke – Magic Hall of Famer and top-10 player of all time
  • Ally Warfield – Magic streamer and Rivals League member
  • Austin Bursavich – Magic pro, controversial figure temporarily banned for whistleblowing
  • Autumn Burchett – Magic pro, one of the UK’s best players
  • Ellie of the Veil – Magic streamer, notable POC content creator
  • Noah Weil – ex-Magic pro, ex-Magic designer, host of the Gathering Stories podcast
  • Anuraag Das – Magic streamer, most famous person in the Legacy format
  • Dana Fischer – 10-year old Magic streamer and personality, ambassador for the game

Okay, maybe I still did a little bit o’ podcasting. Compared to 2019, this was a down year 🙂

Podcasting: basketball

My buddy Ken and I have started an NBA podcast: The Mashup NBA Show with Ken and James.

Check us out for some extreme takes, crazy tangents, and [why player X sucks].

I’ve been a lifelong NBA fan, and this is a fun excuse to hang out with Ken and share some laughs. It also fires up my brain in different ways.

Part 4: Relationships

Family

This year was much harder in terms of getting together with family and relatives, especially outside of China. Technology helped a lot here.

I’m happy that my immediate family, and in-laws, are doing well.

I’m grateful that for a brief period, pre-COVID breakout, I was able to spend time in Vancouver, Canada with them.

Life is short — call your loved ones.

Friends

Keeping in touch with friends has been good in 2020. I was a never a social animal, and Zoom calls became my natural habitat of being. Social media platforms like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp have helped a lot with communication.

While I’m not the biggest fan of technology’s creation of addictive behaviors, I believe it is mostly a reflection of our intrinsic needs. We have a personal responsibility to manage our habits, and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Continuing on last year’s theme, I gave friends as much unconditional support as I could muster. Relax, give up control, understand that people are people, and enjoy the good friendships.

Not all friendships are good, however. Not all are sustainable. Had to internalize this.

That’s all, folks.

How about you? Let me know how your year was.

Peace,

James

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