2014 Annual Review
All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy: and so far is it from being easy to attain to happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to reach it the further he departs from it, if he takes the wrong road; for, since this leads in the opposite direction, his very swiftness carries him all the further away.
We must therefore first define clearly what it is at which we aim: next we must consider by what path we may most speedily reach it, for on our journey itself, provided it be made in the right direction, we shall learn how much progress we have made each day, and how much nearer we are to the goal towards which our natural desires urge us.Seneca, On The Happy Life
A Year of Private Challenges & Victories
2014 was a year of private challenges and private victories. It was a year of family, consolidation, improving systems, and preparing for future projects and priorities.
I didn't write any new books, teach any courses, or do any substantial marketing to attract new readers. It was a year to turn inward, evaluate what's working, double-down on what's important, and prune what's not.
It might qualify as a sabbatical, but it wasn't exactly restful…
On The Care Of Tiny Humans
A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.Jerry Seinfeld
As I mentioned in last year's review, Kelsey and I welcomed our son, Nathan, last October. A little over a year later, he's now crawling, standing up without support, taking his first steps, and systematically removing dishes from our kitchen cabinets several times each day. Lela is four now, is a wonderful big sister, loves books and stories of all kinds, and is working on, in her words, being “the politest girl in the world.”
It's great fun, and it's exhausting.
The Challenges of Parenting
The first year with a newborn is a wash from a work perspective – just keeping things going some days is a challenge. Kelsey and I expected that, and we still accomplished less this year than we planned.
As my friend Ramit Sethi often says: everyone thinks they're different, even when they're really not. Parenting is a challenge for everyone – we’re certainly not exempt from that. There are four major things that make parenting challenging:
Constant interruption. Thinking complete thoughts or having a conversation with another adult becomes much more difficult when the kids are around. (Case in point: while I was drafting this post, I tried describing these factors to Kelsey to see if there was anything obvious missing. We were interrupted over a dozen times.)
Mandatory hypervigilance. Little ones are curious, which means they want to get into things that can be harmful or dangerous. Anything small that’s within reach automatically goes in their mouths, and climbing furniture or circumventing baby gates to climb the stairs when no one’s looking seems like great fun. A significant part of parenting is keeping your kids safe when they seem determined to try all of the most dangerous things in their immediate environment every minute of every day. The price of babies is eternal vigilance.
Asymmetry of destruction. Children can make a mess faster than you can clean it up – by several orders of magnitude. Keeping our home from devolving into a federal disaster area requires constant effort, even with great help. It's easy to feel that you've been cleaning all day, and at the end of the day, the house is somehow still a wreck.
Sleep interruption. All of the above is challenging enough, since it takes so much energy, and you’re never done. Add poor and interrupted sleep to the mix, and the difficulty multiplies. It's difficult to get things done when you're exhausted, and you can’t trust your emotions when you’re running on fumes. Getting enough quality sleep has been a big priority for all of us this year.
It's a lot to manage. We’re taking it one day at a time, making things easier if we can, and enjoying the fun.
"Just For One Day"
One of the common things I've noticed experienced parents tell younger parents is this:
“I wish I could go back and hold my infant child just for one day.”
Aside from the surface sentiment (holding a happy newborn is fantastic), the way it’s expressed is telling, and carries a few hidden assumptions:
- They're assuming they'll be as rested as they are feeling right now.
- It's always only for one day. Not a week, not a month, not a year: one day. Enough time to enjoy it, but not enough to be overwhelming.
Still, we’re trying to be mindful that this phase of life, in the grand scheme of things, is very short. At some point in the not-so-distant future, we’ll wish we could go back and hold our infant children for “just one day,” so we’re focusing on enjoying them now, while they’re still little.
On Managing the Chaos
The changes in day-to-day life have been a particular challenge for me. I'm an introvert. I need time and space to think, and almost all of my work requires significant periods of focused, uninterrupted attention. Our current home situation is the polar opposite: chaotic, busy, and distracting. We both work from home, so we're in the thick it it all 24/7.
That's okay: it's both expected and temporary. Not everything worthwhile is easy.
Still, I like what I do, and I’ve been a bit down about my severely reduced capacity this year. Over lunch one day, my friend, Chris Hutchinson, said something that helped put things in perspective:
"You're making a substantial long-term investment in the life of another human being. That's a big, important job, and it will affect this little person for decades. It's helpful to put your other priorities in perspective: they're important, but they're not that important."
Every part of life includes tradeoffs, parenting included. Some days are tough, but on balance, we’re all doing very well. If I could go back and make the same decisions over again, I would.
At this stage of life, family is more important than work. Josh2014 thanks Josh2009 for building the systems that are now making daily life with a family much easier to manage.
On Making Progress
That’s not to say that I’ve accomplished nothing this year. My day-to-day work has mostly involved working on background systems to reduce unnecessary work, prevent unnecessary problems, and prepare for future projects.
That’s involved a lot of programming, which is by far one of the most valuable skills I acquired in the process of working on The First 20 Hours. It’s the gift that keeps on giving: I have so many more ways to make work more effective and efficient now than I did a few years ago. It requires significant effort, but that effort quickly pays for itself in future effort saved, and increases opportunities for permanent and sustainable improvement.
From a business perspective, this year was an excellent test of the systems I've set up for my business over the past few years - my income is no longer directly tied to the hours I work. Even though I had no new products to sell, no new marketing, and no large-scale promotion, income held strong at a very comfortable level without my active involvement.
As I mentioned in last year’s review, I don't publicly release detailed income figures for my business. (For calibration, think “highly paid executive at one of the largest firms in the world,” or “substantial multiple of the income reports many business bloggers post online”.) My income is still well past the point of financial sufficiency, which I still believe is the only sane way to measure “success” in the financial/business sense, and by all appearances, that level of income is sustainable long-term.
Daily life would look much the same with 10x or 100x the income, which is a good feeling.
A good chunk of revenue is invested back into the business as equipment upgrades, training, and R&D. I’ve upgraded quite a few of my key business systems this year: my audio recording setup, my backup system, and my primary production camera. Tools that improve quality and reduce/eliminate unnecessary work are almost always worth the investment. In each case, I've done a tremendous amount of research for each decision, which I will publish as a resource in the near future.
There’s been a more pressing question, though: what do you do when generating more income is no longer the most pressing priority?
On Success and Purpose
It's been a good year to reflect on what's important and what's not. Part of that is deciding how I want to run my business for the foreseeable future.
There are many things that I could do to increase my income, but almost all of them come with very substantial tradeoffs in terms of freedom and flexibility.
The usual career trajectory of a top-tier nonfiction author follows a generally predictable path: keep writing big books, engineer the launch to make them bestsellers, then cash in via five-figure public speaking and/or consulting with large organizations. Repeat as often as you can, for as long as you can.
If you don’t want to hit the speaking circuit, the second common strategy is to build a personality-driven information product empire: sell multi-thousand-dollar courses to thousands of people, hire a large staff to handle the load, and manage multiple six-to-seven-figure launches every year. (Repeat as often as you can, for as long as you can.)
Here’s the problem: those models doesn’t appeal to me. At all.
I’ve seen what these businesses look like from the inside - I have several friends and colleagues who are pursuing them and doing quite well. Some are happy with these models, and some aren’t. In the best case, it’s a way to make a lot of money doing things you enjoy; in the worst, it’s running on a hamster wheel, and you can’t stop without suffering major repercussions. I have a lot of respect for people who make these models work, but it’s not the way I want to invest my time.
I'm starting to see my role as something between research scientist and public intellectual – my job is to read, synthesize, distill, experiment, and turn the results of that research into something people can use to get better results in day-to-day life. That’s what I enjoy doing, and it's feasible for me to take on projects that academic professors, psychologists, and researchers are unwilling or unable to work on given how they're rewarded – most traditional intellectuals have very little incentive to focus on the important practical topics that I find most valuable and interesting.
I am, in many ways, a self-tenured professor in the best sense of the term: I can choose to work on what's most important or valuable without external limitation, and without mandatory ties to any particular medium. I don’t have to “publish or perish,” I don’t have to attend committee meetings, and no one can fire me or tell me to work on something else. I’m free to choose whatever medium (online text, books, courses, audio, video, programming, etc) fits the project, and free to experiment with new ways to present that information.
There’s a lot of upside in that freedom. It comes with a corresponding downside: no one to look up to, and no one to emulate.
So I’m doing something new in many ways. There's not really a template for this type of career, and I'm learning as I go along. That's what makes it a big opportunity, and what makes it fun.
I'm continuing to work on new books and resources about business, learning, and skill acquisition. The overarching theme for my work is "worldly wisdom" – how to act in ways that are likely to help you produce your desired end results in a way that benefits everyone involved. Part of that is putting your attention and energy to productive use, and part of that is making good decisions and avoiding common errors.
Part of focusing on this type of research means that I'm consciously choosing to up a measure of attention and renown. As a general rule, if you want to be “popular” for various definitions of the term, it's most effective to focus on being entertaining and/or controversial versus being useful. These qualities can certainly coincide, but mass appeal generally comes from entertainment and controversy, not utility.
There's precious little of being an "Internet celebrity" that appeals to me, and that's okay. I've done most of what's involved – major media appearances, viral videos with millions of views, etc – and while it’s been an interesting experience, it's not the best use of my future effort. Likewise, constant travel to speak/consult is the opposite of what I want at this stage of my life, and I have no desire to manage a large staff.
Still, humans are status seeking creatures. I am not exempt from that. That means I have to inhibit certain tendencies. Many things, like attracting major media attention, feel good in the short term, but aren’t the best way to build what I believe will be most valuable long-term.
Instead, I'm going to keep doing what I do best: research, experimentation, and synthesis of universally important and useful topics. I'll make my results available to you in whatever way best fits the subject, and I hope you continue to find that it helps you achieve what you set out to accomplish.
On Future Plans and Priorities
I’m working on two major projects now, which I think you’ll find very useful.
The first project involves two related questions:
- What are the most effective things you can do to improve the most important areas of your life? (Health, happiness, relationships, business, etc.)
- What if we, as a rule, systematically ignore those things because they don’t feel very exciting?
The second project will be a deep look at a new and very modern form of entrepreneurship: creating and running a business by (and for) yourself. It’s a huge opportunity, and it’s easier than you think.
More on both of these topics soon. Thanks for reading, and here’s to a happy and prosperous 2015.
This post was published on January 27, 2015, but it's been backdated to December 31, 2014 for archival sanity. Why the long delay? Because babies.