What I learned in 2018

I've seen a lot of these posts on Twitter over the past week. It's definitely a useful exercise to think through what I learned this year and I can imagine it to be very instructive when you've got an archive of these going back a few years. 

However, unlike the ones I have been reading, I don't want to review my facts-based learning but instead attempt to catalog the ways in which I grew as a person. These range from personal accountability hacks to how I made my relationships better. Let's get into it.

1. How to have accountability on non-essential projects

When I have a project for class, it's pretty easy to be on top of it. You have a deadline to finish it by. You have some sort of a rubric that defines the scope of the project. You have a teacher that you will have to explain yourself to if you don't finish it. You have a grade that at least in part gives you an objective evaluation of how you did. 

All of this is taken away when you try to pursue an independent project that you're interested in.

I had an idea for such a project – to catalog all the ways I was learning during the summer. A Summer of Learning. The aim was to post a high quality article every day for 10 weeks. What really worked well for me was telling everyone I admire and look up to about the project. This added accountability through social pressure. Whenever I saw these people, they would ask me about the blog and given that this was public, I would have to face embarrassment if I was not staying on top of the daily posts. 

I know that a lot of times these are projects that you do for yourself so it seems counterintuitive to rely on others to remain accountable. Sure, I agree with that in principle. But this works a lot better in practice. 

2. Don't take a break today

The Summer of Learning project was difficult and there were definitely days when I didn't want to write. In a similar vein, there were books like Master of the Senate by Robert Caro that took me months to read. But the satisfaction of pushing through even when I "didn't feel like it" was amazing. 

Here's a helpful mantra that I picked up from Jocko Willink's podcast. If you feel like taking a break, this might be a signal that you are burnt out. Fine, just make sure you don't take a break today. Do it tomorrow. Procrastinate on taking that break. 9/10 times it turns out that you were just feeling lazy in the moment.

3. Putting together effective teams

I've been fascinated by how the different skills and personalities in small groups interact with each other. I've seen this through not just class projects, but through clubs that I'm a part of on campus and through some competitions. I've seen many different configurations in terms of friendships, skills, and attitudes work and not work.

Often it can be useful to define things via their negative. I've found that there's only one constant in the teams that don't work – not having respect for a team member. If one person on the team does not respect another member, nothing else matters. You're done. You might as well close the shop. 

In my experience, this respect does not need to stem from any particular source. You can respect someone for how they dress and you will still get a good group dynamic that leads to a good outcome. 

Note that this isn't a formula for creating a world-class team. I don't think anyone has cracked that general problem. This is just something to look out for in more low-stakes situations. 

4. Give and Take

I read Adam Grant's Give and Take in late 2017 but only got to practice some of the takeaways in 2018. I've really enjoyed the group and 1:1 mentoring I've been able to give to underclassmen at Northwestern. 1:1's are obviously much better but I find a small (5-7 people) group to be almost as effective.  

What I did well was batch any incoming request for help together in the first two weeks of the quarter and follow up with anyone who I have helped in the past to see how they are doing around this time as well. 

I do think that I still need to work on making accessible guides to the most common questions I get asked. I started it with a guide to securing a sophomore year internship but that was pretty much it.  

5. Niche products enabled by the internet

My subscription to Ben Thompson's Stratechery kicked off my interest in brands built around niche products that are being uniquely enabled by the "technology stack" of Shopify, Stripe, Instagram, FB ads, Alibaba and Amazon's FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) program. 

I went deep on this during my internship at Oars + Alps, a men's grooming startup in Chicago. I spent a lot of time on Instagram trying to figure what makes particular brands successful on the platform. This informed a lot of the operational backend work I did for the company. 

In 2019, I want to learn more about how individuals are leveraging these platforms to create successful side-hustles.

6. Making the most of slender chances

I don't generally regret things. But this year, I really regretted the chances and opportunities I wasn't able to make the most of because of lack of effort on my end, however marginal that lack of effort might have been. 

If you don't get an opportunity, it's not as bad. But when you get a chance, you need to convert. 

As I go through next year, I'll constantly remind myself of what Robert Caro said about LBJ's ambition:

"In each of his jobs, he had done “everything”—had lashed himself into an effort in which, an aide says, “hours made no difference, days made no difference, nights made no difference,” into an effort in which he worked weekday and weekend, day and night. And he had “won,” had made the most of each of those slender chances."

7. Appreciating latent relationships

I learned to be okay with relationships that only "activate" once every 3-4 months. I used to worry about losing touch with some really close friends from high school. 

This year, I made a decision to be very straight-forward about it. If something came to mind that reminded me of someone, I sent them a message saying so. If not, I didn't worry about it and just sent a message during holiday seasons. 

I know that there's more nuance to this and I'll probably write about it soon.

8. Taking new relationships to the next level

Most relationships are at the lowest level. This year, I learned that in most cases, it takes is an hour long 1:1 with someone to move someone from an acquaintance to a friend. Not best buds, but someone that you have a background on and can develop a gut feeling for. My favorite way to do this has been through meals

9. Conspiring to make the world better

Easily the best book I read this year was Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. There are so many themes that I found interesting – the limitations of a free press, strategy based on stealth, how to finish things, etc. But the one that has really stuck with me is the idea that a minority opinion can change the world. 

I think too many people are consensus-driven. It's probably for the better in general. But it's important to learn to be okay with making decisions that people don't agree with. I think I took a few steps that gave me an opportunity to practice this but I need to do it more. 

I compiled my full takeaways here from the book here. 

10. Travel more

This year was very light on travel – probably the least I've travelled in last 5 years. This was because of many, many reasons but I don't to repeat it again.  

2018 was a good, solid year. I'm excited to see what 2019 brings!