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2021: The Courage to Try

A very personal reflection on my work in 2021.

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
9 min read
2021: The Courage to Try

I went over everything I worked on in 2021. It's a weird out-of-body-like experience to look 10 or more months back.

Time is weird.
Time is weird.

But reflection is time well spent. It helps me pin down the most important life lessons so I can get a little better each year.

Calibrating my work

2021 felt like a calibration year for my work.

2020 was the year I started writing and mostly failed over and over again, suffering with enthusiasm.

So, where my 2020 was about mustering the balls to finish anything I'd consider presentable to fellow human beings, 2021's theme was figuring out what my balls are made of.

I couldn't draw that. :D
I couldn't draw that. :D 

Find yourself by trying everything

Hi, I'm Ondrej. I'm a generalist, and I want to pursue 17 different things at any one time.

Anonymous Generalists
Anonymous Generalists

I tried many things this year before deciding to spend most of my time writing.

10 things I tried (and mostly failed) in 2021

(I can think of maybe 7 more, but you probably get the idea.)

The point is: If you read any of my previous reflections, it might occasionally seem like I know what I'm doing, but I don't. And that's okay. That's how learning is supposed to work.

I follow my curiosity into weird places and do what feels right at the moment. Then, once it's no longer working, I stop and try something else.

This learning loop goes on repeat until I inevitably find something I want to stick with for a while because I enjoy doing it so much.

I've been there several times, so I know it works. And, at least for me, there is no other way to find out what I want to do than to try everything.

Try things to figure out what works for you

We already know this shit as 4-year-olds. We grab everything remotely interesting at our perimeter and shove it into our mouths. Tasting stuff. Exploring.

We need to re-learn this adventurous learning-by-doing attitude. (Just maybe with a little less saliva involved.)

Tasting professions
Tasting professions

All these experiments got me to a place where I (for now) know that:

  1. I want to spend most of my time writing.
  2. I want to write about a wide range of topics bonded by the intent to help people live a more creative life full of meaningful work they enjoy doing.

The conclusion seems obvious to me now. But it wasn't for 3/4 of the year. Not until I tried all that different stuff.

Exploration by rapid elimination

We all would sometimes prefer to skip the part of trying a bunch of shit we end up not doing for more than a week, but we can't.

You have to try to know.

The good news is, if you always follow your curiosity, you will enjoy every moment of the journey despite quitting or failing 90% of the things very quickly.

Speed is good while experimenting. The faster you try things and find out what doesn't work for you, the faster you find what you really want to do.


Learn by noticing what surprised you

Surprise is programmed into our brain as a learning mechanism. It's your brain giving you a learning slap.

Surprise is a learning slap from your brain.
Surprise is a learning slap from your brain.

I thought about what I learned about myself through my work, and these feel the most important:

Getting good at anything takes ages

I'm surprised how much work it takes to get decent at any creative craft. I write for 2 years, several hours a day on average, and I still kinda suck.

Or at least it's very hard for me to write anything that comes even close to feeling like, "Damn. I'm proud of that." And when I do, it usually lasts for up to a month and then downgrades to "Not bad."

The only way to improve at anything is to find a way to enjoy being mediocre for a loooong frickin' time: Be bad to get good.

Rules are crucial for my creative survival

There is so much change and uncertainty in doing creative work every day. Without having a system for getting the job done, I'd be dead.

I'm amazed how game-changing these two simple rules were for my creative process:

  • No meetings before noon – I don't do meetings before noon to protect my most productive time of the day. I also don't touch my phone, emails, or anything else that isn't my most important work of the day until noon.
  • Do the most important work first – I'm the sharpest in the morning, and I only have 3-4 hours of deep focus in me on most days. So I have to use my attention and energy well and finish what really matters first. (That is writing these days.)

Reflections are the easiest way to start writing

I didn't see it coming, but the choice to write monthly and then weekly reflections was the best work decision of this year.

Writing regular public reflections is an excellent way to start finding the style and form of writing that suits you. Also, reflections are naturally more personal, which makes them fun to write and read.

So if you would like to start writing (and learning) more, write public reflections.

Money means very little to me

I never optimized for money in my life. Instead, building weird businesses and focusing on learning is my chosen flavor of living.

Learning over money.
Learning over money.

I don't think money is evil or anything like that. Money is useful. (Maybe a little overrated.)

I know I need money to survive and keep doing this work. I'm not secretly a millionaire with writing as a hobby. I'm funding my work through my savings and a small teaching gig which covers only about 1/2 of my living costs.

At least once a month, self-doubts give me a hard time: I wonder if I'm crazy sacrificing thousands of dollars every month from a design job I could have.

But after I calm down, I know this is what I want to do now. And I'm surprised how much I'd prefer to keep doing this while making the barest minimum of $$ to survive rather than sacrificing my creative freedom for extra income I don't really need.

Example: In September, I was designing a course to turn my ideas into a product I could sell. However, I had to stop working on it after a few days because I hated doing it. And I went back to writing.

(I believe you can have both: money and joy. You might just need to sacrifice one in the short term to get there. I prefer to sacrifice money.)

Cool people will find you through your work

I'm blown away by how many incredible people I met online despite doing my usual introvert stuff. Just by sharing my work on Twitter and joining the Public Lab community, I made new friends with peer writers and entrepreneurs all over the world:

They reached out to me, or I to them. On Twitters, Slacks, and Discords, you can message people directly and just start talking. Easy and very much worth doing.

You see someone's work, write them to say hi, and it might be a seed of a new friendship. Cool.


I published 40 articles in 2021

Strangely, it feels like a lot and not enough at the same time.

(If you counted 39 that's because the 2020 year reflection is the 40th bit.)


Leveling up my game for 2022

By trying a million ways to create something, I found a setup that works well for me:

Leveling up in writing
Leveling up in writing

Growing creative confidence

My creative confidence is much higher than it was a year ago, mostly because I proved to myself over and over I can start and finish a piece of writing in a day or two.

That's huge.

I know it might sound like nothing to you, but I can still picture myself a year and a half ago:

  • Sitting in front of an awful article I promised to publish 3 days ago,
  • frustrated and unable to make it at least readable,
  • finally giving up in silent shame,
  • pretending it never happened,
  • moving on to the next project,
  • repeating the same experience.

Ugh. That wasn't fun.

Now, I can finish something without ripping both my arms off in the process.

Incompetence hurts
Incompetence hurts

I call that progress.

I will publish 2 articles every week

My confidence produced an advanced game plan. Starting today, I will publish a new article every Monday and Thursday.

My publishing schedule for 2022
My publishing schedule for 2022

I could talk about why I think I can do it and how I'm going to do it. But the only thing that matters is whether I will actually do it. So let's keep the analysis for after I walked the talk.

I will do my best, and we'll see what happens.

Do meaningful work you enjoy

This is the battleground where most of my writing will exist.

I want to help people live a more creative life full of meaningful work they enjoy doing.

That's why I will double down on writing about the wide range of topics we need to master to make the most of our life and work:

  • Learning to learn better (continual improvement, knowledge management, developing meta-skills, ...)
  • Self-management (life design, productivity, decision-making, resource management of time/energy/attention/money, ...)
  • Creativity (entrepreneurship, building products, writing, ...)

That's it. Thank you for being here with me. It means a lot.

I want to leave you with this:

I'm BATMAAN!
I'm BATMAN!

Have a courageous year.

Try everything.

Reflections

Ondrej Markus Twitter

I write about designing your life around meaningful work you enjoy.