First Half of 2019 Goal Retro

The Backstory

In April of 2018, my first child (Greg) was born. It took a while to sink in, but the biggest thing that immediately changed in my life was a profound sense of being out of control.

Prior to being a parent, it was easy to fool myself into thinking I could control the conditions of my life. It's not that I've ever felt supremely in control, but I honestly believed that I could exert my will over large, abstract things like my career, where I lived, and generally how I spent my time.

But when fundamental elements of life -- things like sleep, hygiene, and marital satisfaction -- are taken out of your hands by a squalling baby, it becomes hard to avoid the fact that you were never in control in the first place.

I spent the six months after his birth wallowing in an ever-deepening realization that plans and effort were futile. None of my pre-kid coping strategies worked anymore. I could't just take a walk to empty my mind because Greg was crying and I told Becca I would take care of him. I couldn't rely on a good night's sleep to rejuvenate me because Greg was waking me up every 1.5 hours to feed. I couldn't listen to music because I should be trying to make up all the lost sleep. I couldn't reduce work stress by catching up on email at home because there were bottles to be cleaned, etc, etc.

I made a list of the most important elements of my life and concluded 5 were significantly worse off after Greg was born. I stopped trying to plan anything because it seemed irrelevant. Often I couldn't focus on anything for more than a few minutes anyway. What good were plans that were whole days away? People told me it would get better as Greg got older, but I honestly couldn't believe them.

Then, late in 2018, a close friend (who also has young children) shared that he kept personal goals for himself and it got me thinking that perhaps I could regain some small vestige of control and predictability. So, in November and December of 2018, I created some goals and I started working on them in January.

H1 2019 Goals

I won't share all the goals publicly because some are quite personal, but after 4 months, I can say that they have been a huge help in regaining a small sense of control again. Here's the abridged list of goals:

Personal

  1. Be less angry at home.

  2. Invest in my marriage through regular action.

  3. Read 6 books, write 1 blog post about my reading.

  4. Get better at playing Battlefield 5.

Professional

  1. Ship the projects I committed to for this half.

  2. Broaden my professional network at work.

  3. Build team culture.

Report Card

Here’s a summary of how I did. I’m evaluating myself early because this week my second child is going to be born and I assume most of this is going to go by the wayside in short order once she’s around:

Exceeded My Goal

  1. Read 6 books. I've already read 11 and this blog post satisfies the second constraint.

  2. Get better at BF5. In January, I had a K/D ratio of about .2, now if I'm trying, I can typically hit 1.5.

  3. Broaden my professional network at work. I originally set the goal of meeting an additional 25 people, which proved too easy and also not valuable. But by focusing on expanding my network, I made choices that exceeded the spirit of this goal.

Met My Goal

  1. Ship my projects at work. I intentionally constrained this to be delivered before I went out on leave, and I hit it.

Did Not Meet My Goal

  1. Be less angry at home. The way this goal was written was great, but it wasn't formed in a way that I could actually make good progress towards it. I essentially stopped trying to accomplish this in January.

  2. Build team culture. I got to February and realized that this wasn't a goal that was worth completing. As a result, I didn't accomplish it.

  3. Invest in my marriage through regular action. I had planned to be more intentional about spending time with Becca and for reasons discussed below, that didn't work.

Summary

So, I had mixed success at the specific goals that I set, but I had very high success at regaining a sense of small-scale control and excitement to achieve things of personal importance again.

What’s Am I Going to Change?

  1. Shorten the goal horizon. I set myself the goal of accomplishing these items over 6 months, but then quickly realized that two of the goals weren't really actionable and/or I hadn't set myself up for success to accomplish them. But to honor the system I'd set up, I'd have to wait another 4 months to change and revise my goals. I'll be changing to quarterly goals on 6/30.

  2. Setup a weekly tracker. I was on-track for my marital improvement goal until about 6 weeks in when I realized the format of my tracker didn't let me see whether I'd actually done something nice for Becca for the preceding 6 weeks. I thought I had, but that didn't feel satisfying or convincing and I lost steam. Next time, I'll setup a weekly tracker so that I can track my progress more closely.

  3. Don't include work goals. I have a separate system at work for tracking my career goals, and the redundancy was more confusing than helpful.

  4. Have fewer goals. I had 7 goals for this six month period and that was probably 2-3 too many. If I can't easily enumerate my goals while walking from my car to the office, I probably have too many.

  5. Add a fitness goal. I avoided doing that this time because in the past, fitness goals just haven't been a good use of my time. Other people claim regular workouts make them feel good. I can honestly say that's never been true for me. But, it's become obvious that if I do nothing, I start actively feeling bad after a while, so I need to do something physical, even if it's not the typical “train for a marathon/crossfit/rock climbing” thing, so I'll be adding that in for next quarter.

3 Things I Learned From Each Book

I decided to make it easy for myself just write out three of the neatest/most impactful things I learned from each book that I read:

The Case Against Education

  1. Almost all of the value of education is signaling, so curricula doesn't really matter. Also, there's no strong evidence that attending prestigious schools (high school + college) have any significant positive impact on opportunities and earnings.

  2. For good to excellent students, it probably makes sense to attend a public university and get an engineering degree.

  3. For average or below average students, college doesn't make sense and learning practical skills (like a trade) as early as high school is a good idea.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

  1. The difference between John D. Rockefeller and other less prosperous businessmen from his generation was mostly luck.

  2. Despite contemporary reporting, Rockefeller was a virtuous person with few vices outside of his ruthlessness in business.

  3. The antitrust breakup of Standard Oil not only failed to stem Standard Oil's control of the market, it was the major event that catapulted Rockefeller from being a wealthy industrialist to one of the wealthiest men in all of recorded history.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

  1. Humans are not built for rational thought. We evolved to impress other primates and pass on our genes. It is a modern conceit that we are capable of making rational choices.

  2. Most rational argument is in defense of intuitive reasoning, not the other way around.

  3. We make almost all of our choices based upon emotion and intuition. We are so dependent upon emotion and intuition that people without the capacity to emote or intuit become fundamentally incapable of making choices and functioning in society.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

  1. The transcontinental railroad was started during the American Civil War and was enabled by the US government and Abraham Lincoln in particular.

  2. Prior to the transcontinental railroad, it took months to travel from New York to San Francisco. Travelers could cut the voyage short by as much as a month by traveling overland across Panama, but for most Americans, the odds of dying from yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, or other tropical illness during the crossing was between 20-33%.

  3. As with most huge construction projects, there was a phenomenal amount of graft, brinksmanship, and political maneuvering required to span the continent.

Master of Doom: How Two Guys Created An Empire and Transformer Pop Culture

  1. John Romero and John Carmack both had troubled youths and started ID software out of Shreveport Louisiana, rather than of the current tech hotbeds.

  2. Shareware was a largely untested publishing path before Commander Keen and Doom.

  3. History appears to have vindicated Carmack's game-engine-first style of development.

Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders the Birth of the FBI

  1. In the early 1920s, oil was discovered in vast quantities under the Osage Indian reservation in Kansas, and made individuals in the tribe millionaires overnight.

  2. Through a system of racism, bigotry, and greed, white landowners and politicians stealthily killed and stole the mineral rights from hundreds of Osage Indians.

  3. The oil fields became exhausted in the 1940s and today the tribe and their reservation has largely been forgotten.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And the Meaning of Things

  1. People who compulsively collect things often treat their possessions are physically part of them.

  2. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to cure hoarding behaviors.

  3. Goat trails is a term that refers to the narrow paths through piles of hoarded belongings that hoarders create to navigate their homes.

Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

  1. Through numerous quirks of geography, the United States is predisposed to having a larger, more dynamic, and more stable economy than any other nation on earth.

  2. Due to technological breakthroughs (fracking, automation, et al) and rapidly aging populations outside of the US, the US will have diminishing incentives to protect and invest in global trade in the 21st century.

  3. The same forces that cause the US to de-prioritize participating in the economy of the world will make it more attractive to live here in the coming decades.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

  1. During the mid-1500s, Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire were fighting for supremacy of the known world in the first ever large-scale maritime battles on the Mediterranean sea.

  2. To secure the western Mediterranean, the Turks needed to capture Malta, but Christian Knights (the order of St. John in particular) held the island despite battles of almost inhuman savagery.

  3. The violence and disregard for human life by both empires contrasts so strongly with our current world views about human rights that certain elements are hard to believe.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

  1. Randomness in all things is the rule, not the exception, and accounting for that fact can often mean the difference between catastrophic failure and incredible success.

  2. It is easy to be fooled into linking cause and effect in complex systems, especially over relatively short periods of time (like a market cycle).

  3. Even what would be considered traditionally "safe" investing strategies incorporate enormous risk in the form of extremely high impact low probability events, that are actually fairly probable when compounded over a person's lifetime. (And example would be a country defaulting on their debt and ruining the currency or environmental degradation causing large areas to become rapidly depopulated.)

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

  1. There is no definitive, reproducible evidence that breastfeeding improves outcomes for children apart from moderate reductions in infant rashes and diarrhea. This includes the infamous Belarus study that claims the opposite.

  2. Sleep training is effective, can be implemented as early as 3 months of age and has no documented long-term negative effects.

  3. Children that talk earlier test slightly higher on verbal skills in high school, but the effect size is not huge.

The Best 3 Books I Read

  1. The Righteous Mind

  2. Fooled by Randomness

  3. Killers of the Flower Moon

Knowing How to Code Isn't Valuable

Silicon valley would have you believe that learning how to program is an extremely valuable skill set that unlocks untold career and personal possibilities. All you have to do, dear reader, is learn enough to sling some Ruby on Rails, deploy your own website, and the world will be your oyster.

Back in 2012, I believed this line of reasoning and began teaching myself to program. I tried everything from Codecademy to traditional textbooks, but couldn't make anything stick. I am extraordinarily motivated, but I found it It difficult to make forward progress. Even after exhausting hours learning the basics, my goal of building products and turbocharging my career seemed just as unattainable as when I started.

This frustration motivated my cofounders and I to start building Code Combat in early 2013. Our goal was to teach the world to code and bring that silicon valley prosperity to everyone. It seemed obvious to us that if we created a product that was fun to play and at least slightly educational, people like me (motivated 20 somethings) would find it easier to continue learning CS and become valuable software developers.

Over the course of two years, I learned the hard truth that knowing how to program computers isn't actually that valuable. The skill that is valuable is wanting to program computers. And that distinction is troublesome for motivated 20-somethings.

Young adults have an incredible ability to teach themselves anything, but they are especially motivated to learn things that improve their quality of life. Often that means earning more money or finding a job with better work/life balance. And so for many people who graduated college with useless liberal arts degrees (like myself), it is tempting to teach ourselves skills that actually make us valuable members of the economy. As in, paid well and sought after by employers.

Programming is a particularly attractive skill to learn because it's very well compensated, in extraordinarily high demand, and doesn't require as many unpleasant work/life compromises as other industries [1].

To many people, then, programming looks like a ticket out of their humdrum career trajectory. All you need to do is learn a bit of obscure syntax, and you'll be raking in the dough while being endlessly pursued by recruiters offering ever-higher salaries.

The reality is more disappointing.

Like most valuable skills, programming is difficult to master. Unlike other skills, however, the barrier to entry is very low and the rate of change is very high. This means that you, newbie programmer, can learn one or two frameworks and languages and be unemployable in a year or two if you aren't constantly learning and improving your craft. To make matters worse, thousands of new programmers and tinkerers are constantly entering the labor market out of inherent interest. Because they want to program and can learn for free, they will outcompete and outbuild you.

This is why coding boot camps heavily screen for people who want to program. And it's why, even with 1-5% acceptance rates, they still have an image problem with their graduates [2]. Companies don't want to entrust their mission-critical backend infrastructure to a philosophy major who is dabbling in programming. They want someone whose desire to program has given them years of experience wrangling complex systems and making them work.

Our initial business model at Code Combat was to educate players enough to be employable. When that failed, we turned to simply discovering players with enough skills to be employable. When that didn't scale, we turned to the real hard work: introducing programming to kids who might otherwise have never learned about it. 

That turns out to be an extraordinarily difficult niche to monetize, but it's what adds the most value. Because of Code Combat, millions of kids who otherwise may have never heard about programming have written hundreds of lines of Python and JavaScript.

It's my profound hope that in 10 years I'll meet a child that was introduced to programming on Code Combat. I imagine that child much like myself: a sort of nerdy kid who fell in love with computers and developed a real passion for tinkering with them. For her, all the silicon valley promises of prosperity and opportunity will be true because she doesn't just know how to program, she will want to program, which is the skill that's actually in demand.

[1] I'm looking at you management consultants.

[2] When we started Code Combat in 2013, most bootcamps were earning money by charging recruiting fees for their students. Today, they have almost all stopped doing that and fund their operations the good old fashioned way: charging tuition. Companies hiring boot camp graduates simply don't value them enough to pay placement fees.