31 December 2018

Year in Review (2018)

I’ll try to keep this brief because every time I start writing a post I get mired in the details and eventually think “lol who cares? why am I even blogging?” - This year has been good, I think.

I’ve listened to an unspeakable number of hours in podcasts in 2018, and something that’s lingered in my head has been a re-imagination of “resolutions” (as in, new year’s resolutions), called “yearly themes”. The basic idea is that rather than giving yourself a resolution (or a bunch of resolutions) that you might fail or stumble at, you give yourself a (relatively) flexible rule that should inform the decisions you make. I don’t know if something as vague as themes makes sense, but I agree with the critique that sparked it: resolutions are too specific, too static, and thus too easy to fail for totally justifiable reasons that nevertheless make you feel terrible. I’m somewhere between SMART goals and vague themes, but these guideposts represent things I’m going to try and do in 2019. At some point I’ll probably think of something new that I wasn’t working on, that I should, and I’ll add it. Or I’ll realize that something I’m working on in fact needs revision, and I’ll do that.

I thought about dropping out (pretty seriously, even interviewing at companies) precisely once, which isn’t part of the stuff that made this year good. Or not precisely. Thinking about quitting something I’ve spent a lot of time working toward was rough; it’s not just the feeling of quitting, but the feeling that I was so badly misjudging the “right” path for myself that I had perhaps misused the last few years of my life (years that, until lately, I had thought were good). But spending that time taking other options seriously, and contemplating my life outside of academia, was one of the more rewarding bits of existential doubt that I’ve had. I also had a lot of very serious, incredibly rewarding conversations with a lot of people that I’ve known professionally for a while, but hadn’t had deep, personal, meaningful conversations with.

I had some of the most personally rewarding conversations of my life with a number of people that I admire more than I can put into words; in 2019 I’m going to try and make more of those happen, but under less dicey circumstances.

I went through a pretty deep depression around that time (maybe unsurprisingly), and spent more time thinking not just about mental health in a formal sense, but about my wellbeing overall. If I had to put a single point to this, I wasn’t really taking care of myself. I was just keeping my head above water, and that’s problematic for a few reasons:

  • I wasn’t really getting myself out of the quicksand (or pool, or lake, I don’t know what this metaphor looks like, but I was neck deep and not getting out); and
  • I was just wasting energy - I was spending just enough energy to keep my head above water (okay, this metaphor is donezo), so I was slowly losing my ability to even keep my head above water.

Maybe this is obvious to everyone, but when things aren’t working, treading water really isn’t a solution, and maybe there are circumstances where you should tread water (in non-metaphor terms: keep doing what you’re doing until you find a reasonable-looking opportunity to make some more substantive changes), but I’d strongly recommend a very limited time-frame, and an aggressive cadence of reevaluating things.

Treading water turned out to be a good way for me to sink very slowly; in 2019 I’m going to strive to notice when things aren’t working, and move more quickly and decisively to change that.

I lost 30 pounds (about 13 kg), mostly in the last few months. Bipolar disorder is a hell of a thing, and I’ve been trying to figure out the right words to describe the sensation of hypomania, but pairing it with a description of depression seems both necessary and impossible. Maybe that’s all that needs to (or can be) said about bipolar disorder. In any event, I’ve been cycling more, running a lot more, lifting more weights, and I’m pretty sure I’m in the best shape of my (adult) life. I completed a “metric century” (100km in one ride) earlier this year sort of accidentally (or rather, spontaneously), and recently I got my 2-mile time to around 12:40. I can reasonably consistently run 3 miles in 20 minutes, and my “functional threshold power” has gone from around 180 watts to 210 watts.

Getting in better shape has made me feel better both physically and emotionally; in 2019 I’m going to try to manage my fitness more consistently than I have in the past.

I went to 16 concerts this year. That sounds like an absurd number and I’m honestly trying to wrap my head around it, but you might say I kept receipts (this isn’t going to make sense in several years so here’s a note). This was all part of a radical reassessment of my self-care in the immediate aftermath of that dropout scare, so a lot of the concerts are in the second half of the year (or rather, generally not in the first third of the year). This has been unbelievably satisfying - getting out of Stanford, away from the environment that causes me so much stress, and into a space that has absolutely nothing to do with academia has been thoroughly relieving. If you have the interest, I heartily recommend it. If not, I heartily recommend finding something separate from your work that you enjoy.

Speaking of professional life… I submitted and got in a paper(!). Publishing conference papers should probably be a higher cadence activity (especially given the norms in CS and HCI), but the work I do is inherently slower, and I worry after spending all this time thinking about ways of framing problems and questions that anonymous reviewers will read the compilation of that work and (metaphorically) look at me quizzically like I’ve lost my mind. None of that turned out to be a thing I needed to worry about, though. Now my mind is on the (slightly more distant) future: what my academic career will look like (if anything), how I want to describe myself and be seen by others in my field, etc…

Sure, probably stuff that I should’ve thought about since I got into this program, and arguably stuff that I have thought about for a while, but things that I’m thinking about more concretely and discussing more seriously with my advisor.

I’m beginning to feel like I have a niche - something I’m good at, that not many other people are doing, that needs to get done - that’s crystallizing; in 2019 I’m going to try and figure out that framing and pitch with close colleagues and figure out how best to represent the sort of work I try to do.

So that’s my year in review. Maybe I’ll do this again next year (probably not). Or maybe I’ll do smaller time-spans in review, like quarters- or months-in-review (even less likely). But this has been a good exercise for me to reflect a bit on things I’ve done better this year and that I want to do more of (or less of) next year.

If you have something to say about this, contact me