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2019, in review

While the world was going crazy about Brexit, Trump, and all the other good and bad things happening out there, for me 2019 was about discoveries, sad and happy alike. Most of them were deeply personal, and will not land on the blog pages, as they bear little value to the wider world.

But as I finished up a 10-page long personal review in my notebook, I figured that some of those discoveries may be worthwhile sharing in a “de-personalized” form, in case someone else finds them handy. After all, I certainly do not wish anyone to discover them in a way I did. Better read a blog post.

So here they are, 19 of them, to be precise. Be warned: it’s an eclectic mix that probably only makes sense to me in its entirety.

Things I’ve realized

At first, I wanted to call them “Things I learned“. But that would imply I have made all the necessary adjustments in my life stemming from these realizations, which is absolutely not the case. It has been a year of discoveries, not mastery, after all.

Relationships

Sometimes, I feel like I could give some advice on relationships by now. Which is laughable, given I am no relationship expert; all I have realised are basics. Basics that I wish I learned at the age of 21, not 31. Basics that make me think that there is a lot of value in having school education about it. Because otherwise, you learn from your own mistakes. Which is incredibly painful for everyone involved.

1. To love vs. to be in love. To me, the realization of the difference between the two was by far the most impactful discovery about what a relationship actually is. I can’t put it better than this article by Kris Gage does. Seriously, read it.

2. Trust, honesty, safety, commitment, and happiness is what makes a relationship right. Relationships are, after all, bargains between two (or more!) people to share a life. Society- and self- imposed expectations on what a relationship should be are bull. All that matters are the fundamentals.

I love reading NYT’s Modern Love and Gottman’s Real Relationships columns for that reason. While some of the stories there are way too extreme for my taste, even the weirdest polyamorous relationships are built on the same principles. In fact, I’d argue they often are even stronger as they can only build on that and not on society-imposed shortcut-like behaviours.

3. Relationships can be approached as a project. I was told this at one of the darkest hours of late 2018, and it was intended as a challenge, a contrast to work. At first, I took it almost as an insult. Relationship, this feeling-based thing, compared to a highly structured approach to solve business issues? It made no sense. Then I read the first-ever relationship advice book in my life. And it made all the sense in the world.

Relationships not only can but should be approached as projects. Otherwise, how can they get better over time?

People make new year’s resolutions all the time, define goals for the next year. I think it’s a great idea to do the same for relationships. Not in a sense of having a goal of “go to Hawaii”, but rather having goals that actually address the key – how to make the relationship itself better?

Work

I work in consulting. It’s actually been 10 years already. It’s a rewarding job (not in a financial sense here, though it definitely is financially rewarding, too), which is the only reason I stayed that long. In the past year, I moved away from the typical client-serving role to a more internally focused one. This gave me some perspective, which led to the following realizations.

4. Predictability of your day matters a ton. Seriously, when people talk about jobs, they primarily think about working hours. In my case, working hours have always lingered at 45-55 hours. More than they could be, but never extreme. Yet, it often felt like work was life, at times. It was due to the constant stress associated with unpredictability. Last-minute client requests. New data arriving at 4 pm. You never really knew if your plan to leave at 5:30 pm will work out until pretty much 5:30 pm.

In my new role, I can sometimes plan an entire week of work ahead! It makes a world of a difference. Even if I still end up with early/late conference calls due to timezone differences and some overtime hours.

I think that unpredictability is the most underestimated source of stress in this line of work. You think you get used to it, you think you handle it well, but trust me, when it disappears, you notice a huge difference. Huge. The thing is, I believe that with the right effort and approach, unpredictability can be reduced significantly without sacrificing anything that truly matters.

5. Four burners theory. I think this is one of the most elegant ways to put the simple truth: you cannot have it all. If you want to be good at work, you will have to trade it off against something else (health, friends, relationship). If you want to be really good at something, you may even need to sacrifice two other areas.

If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice.

One of my favourite internet quotes

You have to make these choices consciously, otherwise, life will make them for you. And you have to be realistic. You may think you can beat the odds and have it all, but in all likelihood, you probably can’t. Instead, you should be constantly adjusting your burner choices as your life priorities change. All of them bring unique benefits to life, and none can replace the other.

6. Actively remind yourself about all areas of life. Even if you choose to prioritise certain “burners”, you have to make sure to remember to get yourself to experience the others. To remind yourself why they are unique and cannot be replaced.

Let me illustrate with an example from work. I often get overly excited about challenges in the office – after all, I enjoy what I do. However, if I give too much time to it, I forget how fun it is to have a casual Wednesday night out at a cinema. Or what a great feeling is to wake up fresh at 8 am on a Saturday morning.

I am a person who seeks pleasure anyway, and so what I do? I take more of what is familiar. More work. That is how an endless circle starts, bringing everything from diminishing returns to satisfaction to all kind of bad things in the other, neglected aspects of life.

I find it very easy to slip into this circle, though. It’s addictive.

The only way I found to avoid this spiral is to approach it in a structured way. Schedule a Tuesday movie night. Make sure to get out of the city at least once a month over the weekend. Surround yourself with people who will drag you unexpectedly to various experiences, just like work unexpectedly sucks you in on some evenings.

The first long weekend trip I did this year I came back enthralled. The experiences over those 3 days were so much better than anything at work over the last 30 days before that. After that, I naturally longed more for such experiences. I came to recognize that every hour in the office is an hour less for something else.

As exciting work is, it is not worth enough to completely forgo wonderful weekends spent talking to strangers in hostels. Yup, that’s my kind of thing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

7. Time is an ultimate priority. This is not strictly under work, but it fits here. And it is really that simple. Prioritising means taking the time. All the “quality time” vs. “total time” blog posts are just tweaks. Hacks, which are worthless if you do not have fundamentals right.

Understanding where you spend your time will give you a sense of your priorities. You can compare them to your intended priorities and see where there are gaps (see the four burner theory above).

Once you have that, you either admit yourself that your actual priorities are different (which is ok – honesty to oneself is crucial!) or you start adjusting.

8. The world is not fair

This one is hard to summarize (and I feel the blog post is already getting much longer than intended.. you’re only 30-40% through yet!). And it’s very subjective. But it helped me make sense of what is happening in the world. And remain sane while trying to answer questions like “what’s the point of all this?” It goes something like this.

Most of us, people, are flawed in our own ways. 
We all try to do our best, but those flaws mean we're not perfect.

It doesn't excuse us, and it is our duty to be better.
But it does mean that the world is unfair.
It is unjust. There is no point in pretending otherwise.

Admitting those flaws doesn't make us weaker, it makes us stronger.
It also explains why we need interventions on a systemic scale to account for the cumulative effects of individual flaws.

This view allows me to remain an idealist. To be optimistic. To strive for better. Yet I do not have to wear rosy glasses. I accept that we have a broad range of issues. Some of which are bigger than individual flaws due to multiplicative effects.

The gender gap is a good example. We don’t need to be individually misogynistic to end up in a world with a real gender gap. Accepting that allows moving on to problem-solving instead of getting stuck at “I don’t hate women so why would this be an issue?”.

Affirmative action is another one. It makes no sense from a pure merit perspective. But once you acknowledge how much is down to luck and hidden biases (see here, here, and here), it suddenly becomes a trade-off worth considering.

9. To be a good person, you have to fight for what you stand for

I dislike conflict. To the point where when a new flat tenant tries to twist the agreement to avoid paying money, my first instinct to let them have it instead of standing for my cause.

But I now realize you have to stand for what is right. Just doing it right yourself is not good enough. To call out people is necessary sometimes. To stand up and say what is not said is needed sometimes.

This principle is found in the most unexpected places. You may think about it as very personal value, but both Google and McKinsey, two very different leading companies in the world, both have “obligation to dissent” as their core principles. Surely it means something.

10. MAKING DECISIONS FEELS GOOD

Similar to conflict avoidance, I used to not like making decisions when I am not certain about outcomes and, in particular, when none of the outcomes is perfect. I would wait, delay, and eventually, it would just become going with the flow. I was good at that – going with the flow.

This year, life forced me into decision making. And I realised – it actually feels great to decide. It feels good to take that weight off your shoulders. In the worst case, you learn from bad decisions, but at least you learn.

Early in the year, I was too keen on some decision-making though. There are a few decisions that involve other people that I really regret. As time passed, here are a few mental frames that I found that helped me (I hope!) avoid more bad decisions:

  • Ask yourself if you are likely to regret this. I stole this from Mark Manson blog posts. It really works in many situations. Especially if you ask it both ways. (e.g. “will I regret doing this?” and “will I regret not doing this?)
    
  • Ask what would you do if you put yourself last. The Internet is full of advice on how to stop putting yourself last, but I have the opposite issue. I can be inconsiderate to others. Stopping myself and saying “what would I do if I considered others first?” helps me understand the conflicts in the decision making, and focus on figuring out if what I am doing is right. Now, I do not think you always need to put yourself last. Not at all. But sometimes, you do. And really, in those cases, it is not about being second. Or third. It’s about being last. As if the impact on you does not matter at all.

Stuff that matters

Hooray, you made it to the second section of the blog post! I am moving away from life advice to slightly more tangible topics.

11. CLIMATE CHANGE

Can I afford not to get involved? Will this be what I regret the most when I reach old age? That I did not do anything?

The question I wrestle the most during slow evenings on a sofa

It all started with Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, the scariest book I’ve read this year.

Well, to be precise, it all started with Planet Earth videos that I got for Christmas a few years back. I wasn’t initially super excited about them, but slowly I fell in love with our planet and David Attenborough. But up until 2019, I was primarily sad about what is happening. Fearing I may no longer get to experience the Great Barrier Reef as I did back in 2014.

After reading Uninhabitable Earth, This is Not a Drill by Extinction Rebellion, and generally spending more time to get myself more up to speed with the latest research, I feel like climate change is the most complex, most pressing issue of today’s world. One that also has the most dangerous property. It is slow, eating the world away bite by bite. Sure, Australia may be burning. But it’s barely the tip of the iceberg.

Various groups are doing a great job in raising awareness. We may soon reach a point where everyone agrees that climate change is an emergency. But if you look ahead, it’s even scarier. We do not yet have the answers on “how”. I do not think we realise what it will take. Whether we will need to give stuff up, and what it will be. We do not realise that our humanity governance system is simply not designed for solving such fundamental issues. We may be getting there in agreeing on the question, but we are far away from agreeing on the answers.

12. Travel

Travel was a really big one this year. While I am no stranger to visiting different countries, this year was a year of discovering the joy of connecting with people while on the road. In the past, travelling primarily meant seeing places, getting immersed in the local culture. But not so much people.

Whereas this year I:

  • Spent a night in an AirBnB of a 80-year old Japanese couple who spoke no English (and I speak no Japanese), but we had a 2 hour long Google Translate-enabled conversation that involved the husband showing me printouts of 70’s newspapers documenting the visit of President Carter to Japan.
  • Popping into a small cafe by a bus station in a non-descript town only to end up meeting the owner who happens to be a professional photographer and who kindly scribbled a parchment of kanji addressed to me and all Lithuanian people.
  • Meeting a travelling couple who work as ocean floor cartographers, learning tons about their work and getting a postcard with a mapped ocean from one of their expeditions.
  • Having conversations until 2 am in hostel living quarters with staff, a Dutch man who plays at illegal techno parties, and other memorable people.

Travel made 2019 so much richer. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it.

13. Friends

Studies find that younger generations have fewer friends. I was definitely one of such examples. This year, I literally put it on my new year’s resolutions to make friends.

And, by now, I can say it makes a difference. Friendships do not replace the main relationship of your life (which is hopefully a friendship, too!), but they definitely complement it. It feels good not to feel awkward to bring up more personal topics to people and be able to hear their opinions.

Habits

14. Sleep

I read Why We Sleep early in the year. I have seen the book heavily criticised recently (apparently the author used a number of unsubstantiated facts), so I am a bit conflicted about it, but I have to say it still made a big positive impact in 2019 for me. I became more conscious of the impact (lack of) sleep has on me. I still struggle to achieve 7-8 hours of sleep consistently, but when I do, the world is different. And I am different. Seriously, living on 6.5 hours is just not worth it.

14. Sports

I rediscovered basketball this year. And, for the first time in my life, have actually stuck with going to the gym. Not consistently, admittedly. Similar to sleep, it is amazing what a difference it makes. I drag myself out for a run every time I start feeling unhappy with the world. And guess what – the next day is so different. Not to mention the pride when you start with barely being able to run a few kilometres without dying to thinking about a 5km run as a normal thing to do a couple of times a week.

15. Journalling

Here is a secret. I am only able to write such a long blog post because of my note-taking throughout the year. I filled in 3 notebooks this year. I started making monthly summaries, defining goals for the next month. My notebooks are my church, my go-to place for advice. I definitely credit journalling the most for being able to persevere this year.

So many times, I was able to get never-ending thoughts out of my head by simply writing them down. I found answers and solutions to the most pressing issues by simply writing them down. I found inspiration by simply writing my goals down. I remembered to do things simply because they were written down.

Best thing ever.

16. Smartphones

Do you know how much you use your phone daily? I didn’t, really. Up until I installed an app to track it.

2.5 hours every day, on average. It’s amazing. Imagine if you got additional 2.5 hours a day? Even more on weekends?

Now, it is not that simple, of course. Some of the usage time is productive. But 2019 was the year where I understood how addictive smartphones are. It’s the year I started charging them for the night far away from my bed, and it makes such a difference when you do not go to sleep with one and do not wake up with one. I started using screen time management features to block apps after their limit is exceeded. My screen turns grey at 9 pm and it feels so good.

I am still at 1.5 hours, on average. And I know that my smartphone usage is one of the best proxies for my happiness. If there’s a week where it is up, you can bet I am not having a great time. Is it causation? Only partially, and in both directions. But the mere fact that it is so difficult to get phone usage below 1h, on average, tells me there is something wrong with them.

A great read about smartphones, if you are not convinced, is here.

Arts

17. Books

I have mentioned a few books already, so it will come as no surprise that books made my life in 2019 much richer, too. It is hard to make a top 5 or 10 list, given how different the books were and different circumstances they apply to. I read 23 books in total, and pretty much everyone was worth it.

It was also the year I started reading non-fiction books, and, surprisingly, they were among the best ones. Already mentioned Why We Sleep, Uninhabitable Earth, This is Not a Drill, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. I should additionally mention the Snowden’s Permanent Record, which was really inspiring and frightening at the same time while serving a healthy dose of idealism.

As for fiction, it’s a really hard choice to list the best ones.

Lord of the Flies and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are likely the ones that made the biggest long-term impact. Stand on Zanzibar was not as great but in a similar direction.

The End of the Affair, Conversations with Friends, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and, to some degree, Norwegian Wood, were helpful to make sense of human relationships (or, rather, realise how little sense they make, sometimes).

Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Slaughterhouse-Five were the most emotional ones.

Finally, A Darker Shade of Magic and Provenance were great stories to immerse into.

18. Songs

When I die, I would like to think there will be a playlist of music. Music that could be the soundtrack of my life. This year’s playlist would definitely include:

  • Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics. Because everybody’s looking for something, and whom I am to disagree?
  • Bad Guy by Billie Eilish. Duh.
  • Mercy by Duffy. Because you got me begging you for mercy.
  • Supreme by Robbie Williams. Because what are you really looking for? Another partner in your life to abuse and to adore?
  • Wicked Game by Chris Isaac. Because what a wicked thing to do. What a wicked thing to say.
  • Violently Sad and Beautiful by Sodagreen. Because, I suppose, life is violently sad and beautiful.
19. Bohemian rhapsody

But one song deserves a special mention. Because it’s a f*cking masterpiece. It could be the entire soundtrack altogether.