At the end of each year, I spend a few hours thinking about my goals for the next year. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been sharing them with all of you, partly to keep myself accountable, and partly because I think it’s fascinating to see how other people around me think about their goals and personal growth, and I think some of you might be curious about my personal approach.
How this works (for me)
I’ve changed the way I think about these goals over the years, and I’ve arrived at a format that works best for me. Rather than set one or two “resolutions” for the new year, I usually break down where I want to be by the end of next year into a bunch of different parts, and try to set precise, measurable yes/no questions that describe my goals.
This year, I’ve got 10 goals. But I’m only going to be sharing 8 of them here (the other two are more personal and not really interesting).
Besides being as unambiguous as possible, another thing you may notice about these goals is that a lot of them are ambitious. And I think that’s okay. I think goals are most effective when they’re just a bit on the right side of impossible. Regardless of whether or not I hit these numbers and results, they push me to being where I want to be, and setting that direction is far more important to me than actually hitting the targets, which are pretty arbitrary.
Although there are still a few weeks of 2018 left, from this past year’s goals, I think I’ve only really fully achieved 3 or 4 out of the 10 goals I set for myself. I’ve come close to 3–4 more, and I’m still pretty far from the others. But I think this is the right balance of attainable-to-impossible goals. It keeps me on my toes, and pushes my boundaries in the right places.
Lastly, I think my goals are also unique in that they’re phrased additively (make something, reach some target, take some action) and not preventatively (stop doing X). That’s definitely not because I don’t have problems to fix in my day-to-day life (let’s not even begin with my sleep schedule 👎). But I don’t think it’s really helpful to phrase goals in terms of what I should stop doing. If I want to stop doing something, it’s always because it’s keeping me from being able to do something else that I want to be doing. And I phrase my goals in terms of that, what I want to be doing, rather than what’s keeping me from it. It’s a personal preference, but I think it keeps my attitude more positive and my goals more encouraging.
So, with that, here’s the list for 2019.
The 8 Goals, in no particular order
Build a business that’s cash-flow positive (that means it’s not losing money, roughly). Entrepreneurship has been one of my biggest passions for a long time now, but I haven’t really put in the effort to create a business that’s repeatable and sustainable yet, mostly resorting to other kinds of mentorship and smaller technical roles inside startups. But there’s no substitute for actually doing it. Whether I end up build atop Studybuddy or build something else entirely, I want to create a sustainable business, make all the mistakes in the process, and learn as much as I can from it.
Meet at least 3 new and interesting people every week. As more and more of my day to day work becomes less about just building something great and more about sharing new ideas and stories with people, I’m feeling more than ever the importance of relationships with people, especially with people outside of my primary areas of work, people working on problems or studying in fields I know little about. I find that these are the people that make me learn the most and connect me to the most interesting opportunities.
Either A. release an EP, B. self-publish a book, or C. publish 50 videos before 2020. This definitely leans on the “impossible” side of the curve on this list. But both releasing an EP of my improvisational pieces and self-publishing a book have been on my list of goals for at least a year now, and they’re both staying on. In general, I feel like my being back in school has constrained the amount of time I dedicate to creative work, and I’m hoping keeping these items top-of-mind this year can help me re-prioritize creative work like composition and writing higher up my list.
Give at least 3% of my before-tax income to charitable causes. This is the third year I’ll be committing myself to a 3–4% donation minimum, and I think it’s something everyone should consider. It’s a more organizing way of giving, and it creates a framework for me to think about how to give to organizations and initiatives that create the most impact, instead of wondering about how much to give. Once I’ve committed a specific dollar amount, rather than asking “should I donate $XX to this organization?” I’m asking “what organizations are doing work that I think is most valuable or in need of support?” It leads me to be more thoughtful and educated about what organizations I donate to, and how that money’s spent. I also like knowing that my privilege in being able to find well-paying work is in part directed to helping others find new opportunities.
Create 50 different pieces I’m proud of, across photography, cinematography, digital art, composition/improvisation, and longform writing. If I could do one thing for the rest of my life with guaranteed income, it would be to compose and perform on the piano. I absolutely love creating music, and I’m trying to sharpen my skills in photography and creating video and digital art. And as Ira Glass notes, the only way to get better at creative pursuits is to make lots of stuff. So create lots of stuff I will. 50 pieces is just under one every week, which I think is just a bit higher than what I’ll be able to do if I push myself.
Build and release a project in a bunch of different languages / tools (Go, Rust, C, Swift, Flutter, PyTorch). This is another one that’s been on my to-do’s for a while. While I was at Spensa working full-time in front of the terminal, I felt like I was learning something new about building software every week. But as I’ve left the post and moved onto other things, I’ve been feeling more and more like I’m just reusing the same ideas over and over again when I’m writing code, instead of experimenting with new technologies and learning new ways to think about problems. If I make it a priority to learn new technologies and experiment, I think I’ll get back to learning more than just reusing the same designs and patterns when I’m writing code.
Arrive at some kind of proof-of-concept or sharable result in one of a few more research-heavy projects I’m working on. I’ve been tinkering with a few different side projects that are less creative and more researchy for a few years now. One is a reformulation of General Relativity against a different topology of space and time that simplifies the current theory, another is a method of training neural networks that borrows from biology (specifically, local credit assignment and dynamic synaptic depths), and the third is about home automation using gesture recognition. These have been hard to make progress on, because they’re unbounded — its hard to see where they end, so it’s hard to work on them when I have just small chunks of time. But I want to make some meaningful progress on at least one of them this year, because I really do enjoy just diving deep into hard topics, and these projects give me reasons to do just that.
Less reading articles and essays, more reading books. One of my biggest goals in 2018 was to read more books. But what I’ve realized since I’ve set that goal is that I read more than I give myself credit for — I probably routinely read 5000 words a day. But most of those words are published online, not printed on the page. As much as I’ve learned from reading what other people have to say about what’s going on this year, I’m definitely missing out on what people have had to say about the last few thousand years. I want to read more pages, less pixels, and although I’m not sure how to quantify that yet (I’ve tried just the number of books read, and that’s never worked out to well in the past), I’m still putting this on my list of goals to keep it at the top of my mind.
How I’m keeping on top of it
Goals aren’t worth much unless it’s easy to remember and follow-up on every once in a while, so I’ve made an extra effort this year to make it as easy as possible to reference.
I have the 10 bullet points written down in my notes app, and I’ve put a link to that page of my notes on my home screen on all my computers and phones, so I see it whenever I unlock one of my devices, and when I want to check up on it, it’s a tap and a click away.
As I did in 2018, I’ve also scheduled a reminder on my calendar every couple of months to check in with my goals for the year, see how I’m doing, and make any course corrections I need to keep myself on track.
For this year in particular, I made conscious effort to ensure that these goals aren’t about external validation or factors I can’t control. I think goals that are phrased in terms of external factors, like acceptance into specific groups or winning specific competitions, are effective at pushing you forward, but also create negative stress, and leave room for ambiguity, because there’s so many factors involved that you just don’t have control over. But when you create specific goals around things you can control, it’s obvious how to get there, and when you don’t reach it, it’s straightforward to reason about what went wrong, which makes it easier to correct and keep going.
At a high level, these goals aren’t about the specific targets or actions themselves, but more about setting a general direction for what I want to do in the next twelve months, and where I want to be at the end of it. I think these longer-term goals give me a chance to think more critically about what kind of work I really want to be doing long-term. This year, I want to devote way more time to meeting new people, getting back into research, and working on creative projects I love. And if I can do that, regardless of how many of the ten goals are crossed-out come next December, I’ll be happy.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, A computer for the rest of us.
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