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2023: Reflecting Forward

John Nicholas
John Nicholas
10 min read
2023: Reflecting Forward
2023 flow: The guiding principles lay the foundation for the priorities that determine the goals. H/t to creator Jonny Miller for the Reflecting Forward name.

Hey everyone! Welcome to part two of the annual review. A couple of weeks ago I posted my year in review. Today I take a look at the year ahead.

2022 was a wonderful year. It had its ups and downs, but overall it was a year in which I established more autonomy and freedom in my life.

The highs were incredible – I went from being stuck in a dead-end job to creating under my own name, I started a newsletter, I made my first dollar online, Jess and I got a new puppy and I completed my first marathon.

The lows were not as much fun. I went through a ton of job interviews. We lost our dog Pacco. And I suffered burnout towards the end of the year -  a result of working non-stop on my job and creative projects. The lows were not all for nothing though. They forced me to dig deep and go back to some guiding principles I had lost sight of.

I'm excited to build on the foundations I laid in 2022 and use the lessons I learned to guide me in 2023.


Overview

2022: A Year in Review (published last week)

  1. Highlights
  2. Tough moments
  3. Memories

2023: Reflecting Forward

  1. Principles for the year
  2. Priority & Goals for 2023

1. Four Principles

These are the principles I want to live by in 2023.

I. Embracing the identity of my art

… or confidently saying I’m a creator.

I've been writing online for over a year now. Yet I'm still hesitant to call myself a writer.

I get uncomfortable when people ask me what I do. I cower away from the question instead of claiming the space. Oh I'm an actuary. Or I do a bit of this and that. Or I write on the side.

Maybe it's because I'm scared of what people will think. Or I'm scared of offending people - how dare I consider a different path to the norm laid out by society. All limiting beliefs, of course.

This year I want to embrace the identity of my art. I want to say I'm a creator.

I'm hoping this will:

  1. Unlock confidence (it's OK to follow a different path),
  2. Instill discipline (if I'm a writer I better wake up at 6am and get at it every day), and
  3. Shift some paradigms (a career in corporate isn't the only path in life – there are different paths to success).

II. Adopting Beginner's Mind

... or an attitude of experimentation.

2022 was a big year. I set up my newsletter, sold my first digital product, got back into teaching and coaching, built an audience, practiced distribution over social channels, started an online community and found my first paid clients (both inbound).

One way I ‘tricked’ myself into achieving these things was by embracing the Spirit of the Fool, also known as Beginner's Mind. By looking at everything as a learning opportunity, I lowered my expectations. By saying everything is an experiment, I removed the pressure.

Now that the foundations have been laid, I want to kick on and continue experimenting and growing. Even if that means looking foolish at times.

Some experiments I’d like to try this year:

  • Podcasting or interviews: I’d like to interview creators I admire. Thinking of a short 15-30 minute format with questions on their mindset and guiding principles in life.
  • Creating video content: Short 90 second videos explaining some of my key essay ideas.
  • Selling more digital products: a short video explainer of how I approach drawing and visualizations, an online tool to calculate your life expectancy (actuary meets creator) and (maybe) a short book on my rules for life.

I will give myself slack for not being perfect. Starting is better than not trying at all.

III. Practicing Negative Visualization

...i.e. gratitude.

When things went wrong last year with my job interviews I got caught in a trap. I kept thinking – why is this happening to me? Why am I not as successful as person A or as lucky as B? Why couldn't things be easier?

But, if I stepped back and took a moment to look at my situation, I would have realized other people would've loved to be in my position. I have a lot to be grateful for.

I have a healthy body to exercise with. I have a healthy mind to work with. I have healthy relationships that support me through life.

When the going gets tough this year (as it inevitably will on the path of self-employment), I need to remind myself to practice Negative Visualization.

This is an old technique practiced by the Stoic philosophers, whereby they imagined losing the things they held dear. For example, losing their health and the ability to go for a walk. Or losing a loved one. Or losing their sense of hearing or sight.

While it may sound morose, this technique actually leads to more happiness. By imagining losing the things they already had, they stopped taking those things for granted. They cherished their health and loved ones and basic senses even more.

By practicing this technique, we start to want the things we already have instead of yearning for the things we don't. Thereby reducing the gap between what we want and what we have and increasing happiness.

“The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.” ― William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

IV. Getting 3 As instead of getting 5 Bs

... or prioritization.

I like to take on too much. I like to say ‘yes’ to everything. I like to please people. But when I try to do too much, I get distracted and drop the ball on important things.

This year I want to limit my interests and focus on a set of non-negotiables priorities. I’d like to adopt what actor and producer, Matthew McConaughey, calls the 3 As framework:

We can do many things, but we can't do everything. Only some things really matter.

By focusing on a limited number of interests (and ruthlessly cutting distractions) I hope to perform better at the things I pay attention to. I also hope to manage my (limited) energy levels better instead of burning the midnight oil every night to keep up with various pursuits.

By focusing on three priorities, it means I will need to say ‘no’ to other things. I will need to make some cuts and filter through the noise. Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, had one simple rule for this:

Ask yourself at every moment, 'Is this necessary?’

Asking this question has a double benefit. First, many things are not essential and therefore you no longer need to do them. This leaves only the things that really matter - the Non-Negotiables. In addition, you can do the remaining things better by going all in. By saying no to most things and saying yes to the best things, you can get 3 As instead of getting 5 Bs.

Here are some things that are not necessary:

  • Books I don't enjoy. Stop stroking my ego, I don't need to finish every book I begin. There are some really average books out there (especially non-fiction productivity hacks).
  • Newsletters/content no longer serving me. Unsubscribe.
  • Social media. I will try to cut my cheap dopamine hits to 15 minutes per day. Seek higher-level activities, like reading books and essays in my free time instead.

Some tools to help me work with focused attention:

  • Distraction blockers: work and write with the Cold turkey (PC) and Forest (phone) apps turned on.
  • Single tasking: one thing at a time. Writing, then project A, then project B. Not everything all at once.
  • Time boxing: setting my phone timer for 50 minutes. Not allowed to get up or surf the web during my time box.

2. Priorities and Goals for 2023

As for my 3 As – this year I want to focus on three things:

A. Creating. Writing in my personal capacity and creating digital products.

B. Work. Actuarial consulting and content management for two clients.

C. Personal. Health, relationships and sport.

Here are my goals for the year, broadly sorted according to my priorities.

A. Creator goals

I'm looking forward to building on the foundations I've set in 2022. I'll continue to embrace the Spirit of the Fool as I experiment with new projects and ways to promote my writing.

  • Newsletter: write 25 newsletters this year i.e. publish something at least every 2nd week. This is down from 33 last year. I'm going to reduce the cadence until I find my feet juggling my new work commitments for the year. What I have in mind to get me fired up (but I can't control) is growing the newsletter to 600 subs (currently at 260).
  • Essays: publish 15 long-form essays. Got to 14 in 2022. I aim to complete my series of essays explaining my Write of Passage mentor lessons (“Writing Mindset”) and I want to explore storytelling and drawing in more detail.
  • Digital products: build 3 digital products. Current ideas: a life expectancy calculator tool (using actuarial calculations), video explainer of Procreate for Writers, a short book covering my Rules for Life (that you get for free when subscribing). It would be awesome if I could earn $1,000 from digital products (currently at $88 from one Notion template).
  • Video: create 10 short Youtube videos. I've been writing for over a year now. This is the year I want to experiment with video content. The thinking behind this is to increase my serendipity. Some people prefer engaging with video content rather than written content. I’d like to do short, 90-second clips explaining my ideas and essays. Can also cross-post to other platforms (TikTok, Instagram, Twitter).
  • Teaching & mentoring: continue to teach and mentor others and support my readers and community as far as I can. Apply to be a Mentor for Write of Passage again. Help people who want to start their own corporate-to-creator journeys. Whether that means reviewing essays, promoting their work or providing general guidance.
  • Community and interviews: continue the Creating Visuals for Writing community. Aiming for 12 guest lectures / workshops this year (so 1 per month), which overlaps with my goal of interviewing creators I admire. These conversations always motivate me and lead to new writing ideas. Already one down for January and we have another one lined up in February.
  • Twitter & LinkedIn: I've been very inconsistent on the crucial ‘telling’ component of my Luck Surface Area. Doing good work without making noise about it is a missed opportunity. It’s time to promote my work effectively again. Target: 4 tweets per week and 2 LinkedIn posts per month. In addition to the controllable targets, it would be great to grow my Twitter account to 3,000 followers (currently at 850) and my LinkedIn audience to 3,000 followers (currently at ~1,000). Even though I know both of these targets are out of my control, they provide something vague to aim at.
  • IRL meetings with other writers: I met 4 people from my writing community in real life last year (Adam Tank, Tobi Emonts-Holley, Charlotte Grysolle and Leo Ariel). Each conversation was fascinating and gave me a ton of ideas and energy. I'm targeting 5 meetups this year.

B. Work goals

  • Business: register my company. Big goal! Any name suggestions? Haha.
  • Do right by my clients. Serve them and their business goals.
  • Be a good leader in the teams I serve. Be the manager I wish I had when I was a junior. Set aside one hour per week for mentoring and coaching.
  • Move closer to alignment. Make money from the things I love doing. Best example is Sam Harris. He runs a successful podcast (Making Sense) and meditation app (Waking Up) for a living. He can go to anyone he admires and say... "hey, I really enjoy the way you think, do you want to be a guest on Waking Up?" And he gets paid to do it. How amazing is that?

C. Personal goals

  • Reading: read 24 high-quality, thought-provoking, original books. Happy to quit on books that are dull.
  • Running: Last year I did my first marathon in Berlin. This year I've signed up for Paris and Berlin. Can I go sub 3h10?
  • Gym and yoga: Build muscle and flexibility again. Running is great for cardio, but I feel like a scrawny Tour de France cyclist at the moment. Target: 2x gym and/or yoga sessions per week to complement the running.
  • German: Write the C1 exam i.e. Business German. Got B1 in 2021, but now it's time to level up to sign clients in Germany.
  • Meditation: Make meditation part of my daily schedule again. 10 minutes per day Monday-Friday. I always feel clearer and more grounded when I don't skip this habit.

Realm of control

Some of these goals are firmly in the 'controllables' bucket (things I can influence), while others are 'uncontrollables' (things I have little to no influence over).

I'll add more weight to the controllables, while I’ll view the uncontrollables as nice-to-haves. As the Stoics say – we are better served by focusing on the things in the realm of our control.

The uncontrollables are still important though. While I have no control over the number of newsletter subscribers I’ll get or how much I’ll earn from digital products, these targets still fire me up and give me something to aim at. It’s still better to do the work week in and week out (by aiming at something) than not doing the work (and leaving things to fate). I can take steps to move in the right direction. You create your own luck in a sense.

That's a wrap.

I'm excited to review these goals in a year's time.

If I learned anything from my 2022 review, it's that things don't always go to plan. Also – things that seem important now, may become less relevant in future.

I'll stay open to new opportunities and change course if necessary, while staying true to my guiding principles.

Here’s to a year of (focused) creative pursuits!


Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay.

Writing

John Nicholas Twitter

Actuary and creator.

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