“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A Year Of Reflection & Troubleshooting
Every year, I publish an annual review. I highly recommend it as a practice: reviewing past years is a way to remember where you've been, what you've done, and how you've grown. (Here are my past reviews for 2014, 2013, and 2012.)
2015 was a year of turning inward, deciding what's important, and finding answers to pressing personal issues.
As in 2014, most of 2015 was a sabbatical year: I worked on a few personal projects and planned for the future, but I didn’t write any new books, teach any courses, or do any substantial marketing to attract new readers.
Part of my sabbatical was to spend more time with my family: my son just turned two, and my daughter turned five. They'll only be tiny for a short period of time, so it makes sense to downshift on the business for a while and enjoy it, as well as earmark a substantial amount of energy for the challenges of parenting two toddlers. Now that Lela & Nathan are older and a bit more self-managing, I'm shifting out of sabbatical mode and back into production mode.
The other part of my sabbatical was to—for lack of a better phrase—figure out what the hell was wrong with me.
Resolving My #1 Health Concern
It's seldom discussed, but almost everyone has some sort of pressing personal issue that affects their day-to-day life. Often, it's related to health: physical, mental, or emotional. Even though the effects are dramatic, it can be weird or uncomfortable to talk about, so most people don't.
I'm no exception: I've struggled with chronic fatigue for a decade.
And finally, after ten years… I discovered what caused it, and how to fix it.
This is a big topic, and worthy of an essay of its own, so I'm posting it as a separate discussion to make it easier for other people in the same situation to find and reference.
Here's the post: Debugging Dysthymia - Overcoming Chronic Fatigue
For purposes of this annual review: I fixed my #1 health issue in a way that appears to be permanent and sustainable. For the first time in a very long time, I'm sleeping well and have enough consistent physical/mental energy to support a high level of output.
If this was the only thing I accomplished in 2015, I'd consider it an extremely good year.
That said: it's been a frustrating problem, this year more than most. I didn't discover the fix until October, and I lost months of what would've otherwise been productive capacity.
One of the things I'm looking forward to most in 2016 is having the energy to complete a few major projects I've wanted to do for a long time now.
Making Your Own Tools
I also spent quite a bit of time programming this year. At this point, I probably qualify as a legit intermediate-level full stack Ruby developer: I learned a lot about database and key-value store systems like Postgres and Redis this year, which expanded my capabilities significantly.
One of the reasons I'm drawn to programming is that it's one of the few skills that really stretches my systems thinking skills. When you program, you have to think about all of your inputs, the desired output, how different parts of the program interact, how the process could potentially break, and what you're going to do if (when) an error occurs.
You also have to consider how the program will be used: the purpose of the system, what it should do (and not do), and what the desired output looks like in terms of both visible artifacts and user behavior.
Even then: programs change over time. How are you going to improve the system? Can you make future improvements easier? Can you ensure that future changes don't break existing code by testing it before you start using it?
All in all, I feel like my investment in programming has far-reaching implications in terms of what I'll be able to accomplish in the decades ahead, in much the same way that working on The Personal MBA drastically expanded my knowledge and capabilities in permanently useful ways.
Here are a few of the many ways that programming helped me this year:
- This website, as well as the other websites that I run, are now running on version 3 of my own content management system. The new system is easy to use, easy to maintain, secure, extremely fast, and resilient to most of the common issues high-traffic websites face. I built it from scratch, and I'm very proud of it: it's going to make setting up and running my websites much easier and less frustrating, without sacrificing any of the advanced capabilities I need to do my job.
- I wrote my own basic website analytics system from scratch over a few days.
- I saved Kelsey (my wife) over a week of manual effort by writing a tiny program to transform a malformed-but-important spreadsheet into a usable format. Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes of which was troubleshooting weird edge cases.
- I open-sourced one of the components of my website system (a Sinatra/Redis caching helper) to help other developers. One of the best things about programming culture is that there's so much open source code available to use and learn from, and I wanted to add my own (very small) contribution to that wealth of knowledge.
I feel a bit like an apprentice metalworker who's working to create his own set of tools. It's a good feeling.
Deciding What I'm NOT Going To Do
2015 was a good year to reexamine my priorities. Due to my long sabbatical, nothing has really changed from a business standpoint: my books continue to sell well without my active involvement, so cashflow is not a huge concern. (Books can act like annuities if you develop and market them in a smart way: you do the hard work once, then reap the rewards over years, potentially decades.)
That gives me a nice, clean slate to plan future efforts. I have the freedom to do anything, but I have to exercise care, or I risk getting more of what I don't want: stress, overwhelm, and being in a position where I'm forced to do things that I don't value.
After a lot of consideration, here are the most valuable uses of my productive effort:
- Research on valuable long-term projects
- Experimenting when research calls for experimentation
- Sharing the results of my research with others (via writing or other forms of media)
- Spreading the word to make new people aware of my work
- Programming to make tools that support my efforts
That's it, really. They aren't necessarily the most enjoyable things I do—I often find writing difficult, but worth the effort—but they're the most valuable things I do in both the short and long run. They're also unique strengths I've developed over the years, and not things that are easily delegated to others.
So I'm committing to doing these things, and very little else. If I want to focus my productive time, I need to be a lot better about saying no to things that are not on the list. Things like:
- Traveling to conferences
- Public speaking engagements
- Giving interviews outside of narrow windows (like releasing a new book)
- Pursuing traditional forms of media, like television and radio
- Informal advising
- Fiddling with social media
It's a hard choice: I like doing most of these things, but it's not really a decision unless you choose to make a tradeoff. Each of these activities is extremely disruptive to higher-value activities, so they have to go.
I'm going to say no to many more things this year. It's necessary if I want to do my best work on things that matter.
On Future Plans and Priorities
I'm in the middle of my next book, which is the entrepreneurship extension to The Personal MBA. If you're interested in starting your own business, but don't quite know where to begin, you'll love it: the book will cover everything you need to know to start your own profitable business from scratch, without funding, co-founders, connections, or prior experience.
I'm also considering launching a new project related to the book. I can't go into detail yet, given the stage of development, but I have high hopes that it'll give budding entrepreneurs a way to get help on their most pressing problems in a smart, timely, cost-effective way.
If you're interested in either of these topics, stay tuned via email (click the "I Enjoyed This Post" button below to sign up): more details to come shortly.
Here's to a happy and prosperous 2016!
This post was published on January 6, 2016, but it's been backdated to December 31, 2015 for archival sanity.