My 2021 year in review

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive....But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
— Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I’ll admit it: I had a huge mental block preparing for this piece.

I tend to overthink things. And I wanted this year’s piece to contain some brand-new reflections. If I keep repeating the same content each year — and this is my sixth consecutive year of doing this — then did I really learn?

Or am I just repeating the same mistakes over and over again?

But here we are.

There’s a lot more that I wanted to write about. I am, however, going to enforce some creative constraints discipline on myself and break things down to my Top Three.

Reflection #1: control my emotions

Intellectually, I know that losing control of one’s emotions is a recipe for disaster. This could be on my own, or through interactions with a loved one, friend or colleague.

I’ve being proud of being able to control my emotions. It goes hand-in-hand with giving other people the benefit of the doubt.

In the past, I’ve held negative emotions inside, let it simmer, and allowed it to dissipate. This year, I’ve “blown up” a fair share of times at a loved one or colleague.

A lot of it had to do with my work situation, and then having that cascade down to a number of relationships. As my startup grows and we are tasked with delivering more, I’ve become more impatient with everyone around me, and myself, in the process.

The dynamics of our market landscape have created sources of frustration, and I’ve lashed out at people.

I’ve blown up at ill-opportune times. I’ve left my empathy for others behind, in spots.

It would be easy to rationalize my behavior as, “I was more stressed this year than I had been in the past three or four years combined.” This is an objectively true statement but it misses a huge point.

The huge point is that much of my 2021 work stress was self-imposed. Anxiety + expectations + self-criticism = the perfect storm.

One mantra I said to myself all year: “if our startup fails and I felt like I did everything possible, then that is OK. If our startup fails and I did not do everything I thought I could, then that is not OK.”

It boils down to the age-old fallacy: expecting that everyone should be more like me, when that is so far from the reality.

My standard is not your standard. Your standard is not my standard. How can it ever be?

Fortunately, reflection comes to save the day. I’ve thought about my blow-ups a lot this year, I’ve spoken to various people about it, and I resolve to do better.

No excuses.

Reflection #2: be social, be honest, be happy

I’ve chosen to be alone for large parts of my life.

I choose not to go to a party; I choose to wake up early for a morning run instead. I choose not to grab after-hour drinks. I choose to play video games and chill at home. I choose solitude.

One of my best friends once asked me in the middle of a party: “James, it’s 10:00 PM. Isn’t it time for you to go home?” And he was absolutely right!

Meeting a whole bunch of new friends, via the Global EMBA program, has changed my outlook on being alone vs. being with people.

I recognize that it’s hard to make good friends when you’re in your late thirties. It’s unusual to interact with a bunch of cool people, outside of work environments, and not have to force awkward small talk.

My classmates and I have experienced the same trials and tribulations via our studies; there is a continuity and shared understanding that’s rare to come across.

B-school at this point in my life was the best decision, compared to 3 or 5 or 10 years ago. I’m in a better position to appreciate these benefits.

I mentioned that I was experiencing high levels of stress this year. Having a solid social group to talk to definitely helps my mental state. I am noticeably happier because of this.

Being alone is a choice. Not being alone, conversely, is also a choice. The friendships I’ve developed this year have made me ponder — should I put myself out there a bit more?

Maybe I was just too comfortable being alone. Perhaps I need to try harder to connect with people, in all walks of life, and not just with my classmates.

We all have our habits. I love sitting in front of my computer. Reading. Playing video games. Writing blog articles. I’ve lived this way for decades.

But maybe it’s fine to mix things up — or at least, once or twice a week. Besides, it’s not like I can go to b-school every year for the rest of my life. (Which sounds terrible, by the way.)

Be social, be honest, be happy. Enjoy the moment and don’t overthink it — what I say, what others might think, internal self-criticisms and self-rigidity.

Remove self-imposed restrictions and be happier.

Reflection #3: cats

This year, we added two new members to the family: Cheese and Burger.

Having cats, for the first time in my life, has made me a more empathetic and happier person.

They are great critters. Cheese is short-legged and scared of strangers, but she is affectionate when she’s not busy sleeping all day. Burger is very athletic with a crazy vertical leap, and doesn’t remember much of anything. He’s wild at heart, but it works because he doesn’t keep grudges like Cheese does.

Both of them have personalities more akin to that of dogs than cats, based on my limited understanding of the animal world. Maybe it will change as they get older, but they hang around us a lot and that’s great.

All the stuff that I thought I’d never do — take them to the vet, change their litterbox, pet them about 1,000 times a day — I’ve done.

Truth be told, I’ve thought about the reality that they won’t be with us one day. And it’s sad, but that’s life. I’d rather give them a happy life than worry about it in the present.

Nothing makes you realize your own mortality like having to take care of other life forms.

It sounds crazy to say that of the three key reflections I had this year, one of them is about my cats. But it’s an important quality of life improvement, and I love them to death.

Extra innings: my “Top 5 of 2021” lists

Each list is in alphabetical order — no attempt made to rank items 1 through 5.

Top 5 advice I received

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
  2. It’s fine to hold opposing points of view. But you still need to state your position.
  3. Put everything in your calendar. Ditch the to-do list.
  4. Think twice — and probably a fourth time as well.
  5. If you make a mistake, write it down. The next time you are in danger of re-committing that mistake, read what you wrote.

Top 5 books

  1. The Barcelona Complex by Simon Kuper
  2. The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
  3. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  4. Indistractible by Nir Eyal
  5. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Honorable mentions:

Top 5 articles

  1. Is Sports Writing a Fun Job? by Ethan Strauss
  2. John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons” by Mike Sacks
  3. Open Secrets by Malcolm Gladwell
  4. QAnon and the Cultification of the American Right by Melissa Gira Grant
  5. Willingness to look stupid by Dan Luu

Honorable mentions:

Top 5 films

  1. Detachment
  2. In & Of Itself
  3. Sicario
  4. Soul
  5. Victoria

Honorable mentions:

Top 5 TV shows

  1. The Boys
  2. Last Chance U: Basketball
  3. Maid
  4. Never Have I Ever
  5. The World Between Us [我们与恶的距离]

Honorable mentions:

How was your 2021? Let me know!




Add yours →

  1. I remember that last year, around the same time, I was reading your summary of year 2020. At that time, I just got to know you and I was already pretty impressed by your self-reflection. Indeed, it is quite easy to make comments on others, but much more difficult to talk about ourself.
    As I am similar to you on some aspects, it is easy for me to understand what you do describe. As a foreigner in China, I think we have the tendency to look for stability. Once we get it, we become somehow a bit lazy and not looking for (any kinds of) new challenges.
    As I shared part of your life in 2021, I was able to see how to change and how you get more self-confidence. You pushed yourself to get out of your comfort zone and gradually, you became a leader of our GEMBA 2020 cohort. I also noticed how you enjoy more each moment !
    You are definitely on the great path and an inspiration for many people !

    Looking forward to reading your 2022 summary 😉


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