Last year I posted mostly numbers from the year of 2015. This year, more text, fewer numbers.
In 2015, I focused on developing a reading routine. I kicked the news habit years ago. I found the tidbits of incoherent information with no trunk to associate it with difficult to remember. On the contrary, the books and in-depth articles I read, I often found myself coming back to. In 2015 I managed to read and listen to a total of 40 books, but I wasn’t happy with the retention. By the end of the year, it felt like a race to an arbitrary finish line rather than a pursuit of perspective. The majority of the books of 2015 were business books, a bias I was looking to combat this year. My friends often tease me that my English vocabulary is hilariously skewed by business jargon since English became my day-to-day language. I will call an apartment storage locker an “anti-pattern”, and struggle with vocabulary related to a non-urban setting such as an ice-fishing excursion to a friend’s hometown or a visit to my girlfriend’s family’s tobacco farm. In an effort to both improve vocabulary and retention, I started meditating on improving absorption of books and other sources. The obvious first step is to kill the goal of N books per year. By no means was that wasted, I needed that to prove to myself it was possible for me to read 40+ books a year. I still haven’t found the killer knowledge digestion routine, but I’ve used a combination of tools that have certainly helped:
- Discussing with friends. I overlapped with friends on some books from this year, which often sparked conversations. It’s curious how differently some points resonate with others, that I completely glanced over. I’ve found this valuable, and hope to foster more of this in the new year.
- Writing reviews/summaries. I’ve written reviews for a handful of books over the year on Goodreads. This hasn’t been as effective on memory as I would’ve liked it to, but certainly is better than nothing. It’s more useful as a way to refresh the contents of a book, than as a mean to force long-term memory.
- Commonplace book. Inspired by Ryan Holiday, I started keeping a “commonplace book” in Workflowy of passages I found curious. A repository for later reflection. The sources vary widely: conversations, articles, podcasts, books, Kindle highlights, ideas, .. any source of knowledge you can think of. They’re quotes, rough ideas, and pictures. For a couple of months in the beginning of the year, I sat down every morning and spent 10-30 minutes writing about one of the pieces in the commonplace book. I keep coming back to the ideas that unfolded in that writing, and this is a habit I’m going to make another effort to cultivate further this year.
- flashcards. Reviewing flashcards have been a wonderful habit to build for recalling more factual information. As opposed to more abstract ideas that I have found difficult distilling down to flash-cards. More on this technique in a second.
- Taking notes. For primarily audiobooks, I experimented with taking notes while listening. Similar to writing reviews/summaries that usually came from Kindle highlights or hand-written notes, I didn’t find this as effective as I thought I would be (unless it landed in the commonplace book). At least, the mere writing doesn’t make an effect. Reflection later does, but that’s a harder habit to build.
- Re-reading / re-listening. When re-visiting content this year from previous years, I was astonished. From books and podcasts I thought I had forgotten everything from, every so often an idea was presented that I had found myself repeating almost word-for-word without being aware of their source. This sparked some confidence that I hadn’t forgotten everything.
With 2015 being the year to improve uptake, 2016 was a year with experiments in retention, and 2017 will be honing in on the tools I’ve found the most effective in 2016 while keeping uptake high. This year I read 30 books, among my favorites were:
- Between the World and Me. This is the first book that has made me cry. The perspective is required for everyone. My short review.
- High Output Management. This is a book about how to spend your time most effectively. It’s not just for the managers. Stepping into a manager role this year, this book became my rock. I have spent hours writing about themes from this book in my Commonplace book. My review.
- Never Split the Difference. A book from an FBI hostage negotiator about how to negotiate. This is not just a book about getting what you want, it’s a book about finding out what other people want. It’s a book about effective listening. This book gave me tools I will continue to hone this year in stronger communication. My short review.
After having tried to get into the habit of flashcards for a couple of years, this year I’ve been doing my flashcards nearly every single day. At this point, they’re a staple in my learning arsenal and I have found them very effective. When I went to Brazil earlier this year, I decided to learn as much as I could about the country before going. If you don’t know anything about what a museum has to offer, for instance, it tends to be much less interesting than if you’re recognizing things you’ve only read about. I studied Brazil and created 100s of flashcards about its history, its people, its cuisine and its culture. A year later, due to these flashcards, I still remember why Brazil has the largest Japanese population after Japan, how Brazil got its non-violent independence, and the rough economic history of the country from Brazilwood, to sugar, to coffee, and so on. This understanding of the country made conversations with locals much more interesting.
As I kept reviewing my flashcards every morning, the number of cards kept growing. I started using them for food. Before going to a restaurant, I’d look up all the items on the menu I had no idea what were and create flashcards for them (I still don’t understand why restaurants insist on using fancy culinary words that most of their diners won’t know). I’ve started learning the trees and flowers of Ontario and when produce from celery roots to apricots are in season.
When studying a fact-heavy topic, I’ll usually create a handful of flashcards to help retain the knowledge long-term. I’ve found it freeing to study things here and there with the confidence that I’ll still remember a good chunk of it a year later. When traveling to Mexico in December, I started learning the 650 most common words to kick off learning Spanish. Unfortunately, work became quite intense at the same time, not leaving much excess energy to actually learn the grammar—but it’ll certainly help when I dig deeper into the language (and was quite helpful on the trip too).
Reviewing flashcards is now an ingrained habit, and it’s already helped me tremendously. Anki, the app I use for flashcards, reports that I have 4286 cards. I hope to reach 10,000 this year!
In the beginning of last year, I noticed a tea shop that had opened across from my apartment. I didn’t know much about tea, but I had heard of fermented tea (pu-erh or dark tea) and wanted to try it. I came in and got schooled hard for 45 minutes on tea by the owner. I walked out dumbfounded with $100 worth of tea equipment and leaves in my arms. I was taken aback. How could someone know so much about something I knew absolutely nothing about? Fuelled by this healthy dose of Sunday intimidation I sat down, read two books on the topic, and wrote 2,000 words of notes and compiled a total of 3 questions to ask him next time in hopes he’d respect me just a tiny bit more. A couple of months ago he asked me to watch the store for 10 minutes while picking up his kid and wife. Pretty proud of how far we’ve come.
Now I track religiously which teas I drink, how I brew them, and how they taste.
By the end of last year, I started working on the “Pods Project”. The mission of this was to not run one massive Shopify in one datacenter, but create the ability to run many tiny Shopifys all around the world. (A talk about this) After a month of pondering about the project, imposter syndrome showed its face as I was tasked with building a team to tackle the problem. As with Sunday tea reading binge, I started consuming as much content as I could on leading a team and project. This is when I developed the aforementioned habit of writing every morning. I would write about problems that arose on the team, how to best lead a long-term project, and how to help people grow. It helped a lot. Over time, the team grew, to its peak of 7 people. A month shy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the ultimate exam, we shipped the project after a year of hard work. I am extremely proud of the team and humbled by the growth I have seen by all members of it. In 2016 I learned so much about managing a team and project. I screwed up a lot of things, and did some things right. There’s considerable room for improvement in 2017, and I hope the rekindling of the writing habit can accelerate this.
Additionally, in 2016 I started an internal Podcast about what people in the company are working on to get a peek into more corners of a fast-growing company. You can read more about this in this post.
While cooking has always been a hobby, I feel that 2016 marks a year where I’ve developed more than in the past. In the Spring with a group of friends, we kicked off “Around the World Cuisine”, go to random.country, and hold a potluck dinner centered around this theme. I have found inspiration in the theme of touring the world’s cuisines with respect to the local seasonal ingredients. I have started a personal project where I hope to get through as many countries as possible in the next year. For each country, I cook a dish for I need to find someone from that country to sign off on the dish. Additionally, I want to read a book from each of those countries to complete it. I track all of this in Airtable.
As for flashcards, Airtable has become a sharp tool in my toolbox. It’s the backbone of my tea explorations. I use it for keeping track of what I cook, how it went, and how to improve. As I venture through the world of cheese, I keep notes on each one I try and what I like about them. I use it to build vocabulary and have integration between Airtable and my flashcards. Book recommendations passed by friends are recorded in Airtable, and it’s used to catalog ideas.
In tandem with the refining of my cooking, I’ve been extremely happy with my health this year. I’ve kept my habit of strength training 3 times a week. Walking for hours with audiobooks and podcasts during the warmer months. My favorite tool is fasting by skipping breakfast. Even during the Christmas months, it kept the scale amazingly stable.
I’ve traveled significantly less this year than last, which was too much airplane time. In the beginning of the year I went to Brazil, extending a conference visit with vacation. Rafael Franca showed me a great afternoon and night in Sao Paulo, with the traditional eats and customs. I spent lot of time reading and writing, and had an overall enjoyable time, despite losing my passport an hour before an international departure from Rio to home (and somehow recovering it from a cab 5 minutes before gate closure) and getting my phone ripped out of my hands by a kid on a bike in a ‘safe’ neighbourhood of Sao Paulo the week before (while I was taking notes to an Audiobook, the habit I mentioned before). I did a handful of trips to Montreal and Toronto with friends (and compiled my culinary recommendations on the Truffle Grater website). In July my girlfriend and I went to Eastern Canada, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, to visit her sister, aunt, and uncle, hike, relax and mostly importantly eat lobster. In September we went to Spain, Barcelona, driving through the Pyrenees and ending up in San Sebastian. It’s a stunning area, and San Sebastian might just be my favorite culinary destination in the world currently.
The Basque tapas bars are of ridiculously high quality. In December with 5 friends I went to Mexico City and Oaxaca. Mexico City’s tacos I wanted to return back to after a fantastic trip in 2015 with friends. Oaxaca to taste Mezcal from the heart lands and indulge in mole (traditional robust Mexican sauces made of 10s of ingredients, especially chiles).
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