Jan 15, 2021 | My Biggest Little Achievements of 2020 — Part 2
My Biggest Little Achievements of 2020 – Part 2
Last week I posted 10 of my little wins of 2020. And now to the bottom of things! My biggest little achievements of the previous year are as follows:
10. I Learned Just To Do My Thing Under The Radar Instead of Seeking Attention
In 1933, W. Mahler discovered that once you announce a (planned) solution to some problem in public, it becomes less likely to actually execute this solution (the original article is written in German, but you can read about the concept in Gollwitzer’s book chapter (1982). This is because, by announcing your plan and getting acknowledged for it in public, you charge yourself with the same dopamine that you would otherwise get after you complete and present the project. In a way, you get dopamine on credit.
Even though the fact is known for almost a century now, not too many people make use of it. The reason is very simple: of course, it’s more pleasant and easier to share news about everything you do, even before you do it. Who doesn’t like to be praised! I used to be a praise-seeker too, as I’m within this 90% of the population that gets motivated by being praised rather than being criticized.
Yet, this year something changed: I said, “Stop!” to this dopamine addiction and finally started doing my key projects under the hood. Again, the point is not to protect the project from the competition, but rather, to protect me from procrastination. And it works as expected, as I’m down to the gallows and working on my projects instead of just chitchatting about them with friends and getting excited about them over and over again.
For the same reason, some time ago, I decided not to apply for grants, prizes, awards, and limit my usage of official media to the necessary minimum rather than chasing for likes. I decided to focus on deep work, building bonds with people, solving their problems, and building a business on that basis instead. And if you choose this path, then for a long time you fall under the radar — and no one will really notice your presence. But then, slowly but steadily, the stars will align: your exposure will start growing and at some point, the growth will become exponential.
9. I Accepted That I Cannot Change Certain Things About the Outer World
This one sounds trivial, yet I was bargaining for a long time trying to ignore certain truths about how the world works. For instance, the fact that if you want to write books for a living, in the long run, you need to build a following and be present online — just sitting alone in the woods and writing won’t be enough to achieve your goals. The same holds for a person who aims to analyze the job market — if you aim to talk to people who really pull the strings in the job market and have a real impact on its shape, you need to be perceived as important enough, or otherwise, they won’t bother. So, regardless if I want it or not, I need to keep on building my network — you need to make some compromises in virtually every job, and this is one of the compromises I need to take on my path.
8. I Finally Defended My PhD Thesis
Why can I say… it took me quite a while. Ever since my contract expired in late 2017, my priorities have been slowly shifting beyond academia, which made timely defense much more difficult. What is your level of motivation to finish your research projects, especially those that you don’t even believe in, once you are not paid anymore and not even planning to get back on this career path in the future? No wonder that research was losing competition against other adventures in my books.
When I was rereading my PhD thesis before the defense, reminding myself about all the popular concepts in the fMRI research for the first time in two years or more, it all seemed really simple — much simpler than in the times when I was working on this topic as a PhD candidate. I’m still not sure if it is because taking a long rest from some problem makes such a massive difference, or perhaps because everything looks clearer when you look at it from beyond a bubble.
But then, the big day has finally come — my long-awaited PhD defense. It took place online on Thursday, 18th June 2020. It was not a defense of my dreams I must say; I didn’t stand on the podium in the Radboud Aula just as all the PhD graduates whose PhD defenses I had been attending since 2011. Officially, I had that option, but I would need to stand on a podium in an empty Aula as all my committee was about to connect from abroad. So, I chose the easier way instead: I stated at home, and I was sitting in my own room, praying that the internet doesn’t go off during the defense. It didn’t.
I thought that stressful moments usually feel like forever, but in this case, the defense felt to me like it was five minutes instead of an hour. I didn’t even notice when it was all over. Perhaps I was in a state of shock or so… Anyways, if you ask me how I felt at my defense (or afterward), I would say that I didn’t feel anything in particular. These was for at least two reasons.
Firstly, the circumstances were much different from what they would have been without corona, and it made the whole experience awkward rather than joyful to me. What also added to the level of awkwardness was that my Dad — who trains kids in chess — gave me some pre-defense advice that included watching some stupid movie before the event. Thus, right before the defense, I watched the stupidest movie I could come up with — which happened to be “The American Pie” — and that has put my mind on a really weird track. Furthermore, in the Netherlands the PhD defense is a formality — you don’t really need to worry about your title once your PhD thesis gets approved. So, it’s like watching a movie while already knowing the ending.
Secondly, I had very mixed feelings about academia as a working environment at that point, which I also expressed in the post entitled, “Why did I REALLY leave academia? Top 16 reasons.“ I feel there is lots of misconduct in competitive science, and knowing what I know now, I don’t want to be a part of it. For this reason, graduating from a PhD didn’t feel like a success.
Altogether, it’s hard for me to describe how I was feeling. Very, very awkward indeed.
7. I Stopped Playing Ego Games
When you set a company, your thinking changes and it’s not all about how you feel anymore. It’s literally like having a baby — that’s what many people were telling me before, and now I experienced this on my own skin. So, ever since I registered a company, I started avoiding conflicts in my professional life like fire. I know that it’s not about me anymore and that any conflict might affect the image of the company.
You know, if someone offends you or mistreats you, theoretically you should talk back and stand your ground to be respected. But, once you have your own business, it’s usually a better decision to disconnect from the abuser on a good note. Sooner or later, you will bump into every single person once again, and any long-forgotten conflict can backfire. Diplomacy was always hard for me in the past as I felt obliged to clearly communicate what my standpoint was, and what I was unhappy about. It was partially because, in academia, you can’t just avoid people; once on the research contract, you need to stick to the same people for years, regardless if they are competent or not. Fortunately, now I have a choice and I can maneuver from almost any situation without starting a fire.
So, before I say anything in anger, I always think, “Is this worth it? Do you want to be right, or do you want to solve the problem?” And, I usually step back and choose another path.
6. I Founded My Niche
The job market is chaos right now. The corona crisis evoked major changes in its structure, and in the scope of competencies that are in demand right now — and it’s only the beginning, as we didn’t enter the financial crisis just yet.
How to approach the job market and create a viable product in such conditions — as a small company and on a low budget? I knew that it must be something based on the intellectual property rather and something I can distribute online rather than a physical product. I also had a number of other personal preferences for my dream project, such as, for instance, the following:
Something positive that lifts people. Something that solves very human problems rather than building a technically sophisticated gear of software that is yet another novel IT project,
Something that is naturally interesting to me, so I can think about it when I open my eyes in the morning and when I close my eyes in the evening,
Something that allows me to use my analytic mind, but not necessarily requires doing higher mathematics or coding from me as I know that other people can do it better,
Something that is on the edge of a few disciplines, just like my own mind,
Something I can conceptualize and manage by myself so that I don’t need to find a co-founder straight away,
Something related to an interesting research problem,
Something that doesn’t require capital at the start,
Something that allows me to understand the world a little bit better,
Something that allows me to meet beneficiaries of my work,
Something that allows me to intensively network,
Something that concerns a lot of people and has a broad potential impact,
Something that is not in direct competition with other projects in the space but rather, it solves a brand new problem,
Something that allows me to live my dream lifestyle (more about it in the text below),
Something that doesn’t bind me to one place, and I can technically move anywhere if necessary,
Something that creates chaos (in a good sense), namely changes people’s thinking about something important,
Something congruent with the current trends in the market, namely all the work and communication going online,
Something that allows me to chase the bunny, namely a project that is never really finished,
Something that allows me to meet interesting people on the way.
Needless to say, it is not easy to find all these qualities in just one project! It took me a while, but eventually, I found a project just like this, and I’m working on it now (more on this topic later this year). And in general, I observe my friends whose companies fall apart and who start with the new company on the very next day every time… and I feel that thinking about the project beforehand and taking your time to choose the right initiative is the key. Otherwise, it’s just learning by trial and error, and life is a bit too short for that.
5. I Set Some Long-Term Goals
It’s funny how people often tell you “you should prioritize tasks better — it will make you more efficient!” But, nobody tells you that once you set your goals right, you will never have the problem of time allocation again — as you will always naturally prioritize doing things that bring you closer to your goals. So, I have finally developed a clear, unclouded vision of what I want for life and what type of person I would like to become.
Why didn’t I just do it before? It bugs me sometimes… Perhaps it is easier to develop a vision for yourself once you have lots of time for it as it was for me this year. Now, I see this picture in front of my eyes every day; it keeps me going and prevents me from procrastination. Highly recommended!
4. I Sticked To My Decision Not to Listen to Other People’s Opinions Any More Than Necessary
Of course, sometimes you should listen to others. But you also need to know when not to.
For instance, after I released my first book, many friends asked me why I didn’t make a typical cover for a self-dev book — namely a simple, ugly cover with a short title typed in huge, garish capital letters. Instead, together with a graphic designer, we put together a (in my eyes, really pretty) fairytale-style cover that evokes some emotions in most people who see it. People were telling me over and over again: “No one will buy this book, because it is not what sells,” “This cover is misleading to the potential buyers as it suggests a different type of content than it is.” But, I didn’t want to make my work any uglier just because it was expected of me, or because it was “a standard.”
Instead, I preferred to think from the perspective of a customer. And, I had a gut feeling that it was worth to make the cover pretty because many people will be willing to buy it as a gift. In what circumstances do you even buy books in the first place, especially the paper cover copies? While passing next to a bookstore, do you think, “Oh, such an appealing book, I must read it now!,” or rather, do you remind yourself about the fact that books exist mostly before Christmas, or when a birthday of your good friend is coming? On those days when you are frantically looking for a gift? Or, when you read some useful book and it comes to your mind, “This friend of mine, Debra, would like this one too! I will make her a surprise and get one for her too.”
And it was a right hint! People who bought my first book, “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks,” were often telling me through Twitter and other social media that they got extra copies as a gift for their students and friends. I also noticed from Amazon’s stats that very often, packages of 2-3 copies were sold at a time. So, thinking about my second and my third book, we made pretty fairytale-style covers again. Now, I am quite convinced that I will never change this decision and keep my style intact. And, I am getting more and more convinced that it was a good decision as this uniqueness helps to both sell and build a personal brand.
Furthermore, I am happy now that I didn’t listen to friends who advised me to blog at Medium as it allows for more direct monetization of content. Having your own blog is a long way to spread content, but in the long run, it gives much more freedom, opportunities, and long-term gains. I’m also happy that I didn’t listen to all the people who were telling me that I need business partners and/or collaborators to pull off my projects. I had a clear picture in mind of what I wanted to achieve this year. I made a plan in January, and I was proceeding according to the plan at my own pace. And, I more or less reached all the targets that I’ve set for myself without the necessity to manage any people for now. I adore collaborations and group projects, and I’ll definitely do that again. However, after the financial losses I had to bear in the recent years, I preferred to create a business model with a minimal number of modes of failure first — and it requires excluding the human factor from the equation as much as possible. And, I am very satisfied with this decision now when I can secure my own income by myself.
3. I Finally Accepted The Things About Myself That I Cannot Change
At a certain age, you also come to the point when you learn that there are certain things about yourself that you cannot change. Sometimes, you need just a little unexpected stimulus to start thinking about it for real. This year, I suddenly got such a stimulus while watching “Call Me by Your Name” by Luca Guadagnino (2017). Although the movie is about two men figuring out the feelings for each other, and I’m not even gay, this movie resonated with me on some levels. There are certain things about myself that I cannot change, so perhaps it’s high time to admit that rather than trying to change that.
For instance, I finally came to terms with a fact that I am a generalist and that it will never change. For my whole adult life I tried to satisfy other people who believed that since I was good at maths (or at least, I was better than the general population), my life mission was to sit somewhere in a dark cubicle and solve some complex and abstract problems that perhaps 50 people in the world care about. While now, I finally shut the door behind the cubicle and accepted the fact that — however scary this is — I was made to do something else. Namely, to get down to the street and solve very human problems that are of interest to the general population. Life isn’t easy for generalists as the job market is much more welcoming to specialists these days — at least at the early career stages. Wherever you go, you need to first prove yourself as a specialist and pave your way to more senior positions where you can show your ability to look at problems from the helicopter point of view. Yet, I don’t have a mind of a specialist and rational arguments why it pays off to be one, won’t change anything for me. High time to just accept the fact.
2. I Quitted With Alcohol and Caffeine After 16 Years
Does it sound like I was a junkie? Well, I guess I was. I spent the first part of my youth at the interfaculty studies, and the second one in academia where you have (1) lots of stress and pressure on results, (2) flexible hours. This deadly combination allows living as a highly functional alcoholic without getting uncovered for years or even decades. If you are too stressed or too bored to do something, just drink and it’s fine again. And how to best put yourself together after the night of drinking? Coffee! Literally 15 cups per day. I tried to quit this lifestyle at very many occasions but usually, my abstinence lasted for a few weeks, and then things were getting back to “normal.” It’s hard to struggle against yourself, and I was losing this fight for so many years!
So, I was functioning like this for the whole 16 years before the corona crisis has finally hit. At that point, in March of 2020, it became obvious that the crisis will last for some time and that I have to radically change my habits or otherwise, I will become emotional wreckage. So, I decided to change my habits by cheating on my own brain and going for the placebo effect. Namely, I started drinking decaf coffee as well as alcohol-free wines and beers in place of my usual drugs. And it has finally worked for me! — if you have problems with quitting as I used to do, I can definitely recommend this technique.
I also have to say that the world without alcohol is different in many ways—but you need a few months to notice the effects of abstinence. Then, the sky has a different color. Red becomes redder, green becomes greener. The reality becomes more of itself as if some curtain has fallen. Quite an amazing detox feeling.
Last but not the least, I reconnected with my father. He was never really gone from my life in 100%, but he wasn’t present either. He used to have a parenthood style of not getting involved too much, and he was almost always on travel. And even when he was at home, mentally he was still a chess player and not a father. Competing for his attention with chess was just impossible! When I was born, he was just in the middle of a game of chess. He picked up the phone, learned that he just got a newborn daughter, and then… came back to the game — and he still won! How focused do you need to be for that?
This year, I discovered that even though I’m not into chess, we have many things in common, mentally. Both my parents graduated from engineering from the Technical University of Silesia but their professional careers have differed ever since. My mother followed the path related to her engineering degree and has become a corporate person who spent the last thirty years in large companies — working her butt off, selling her soul for the corporate salary, and climbing up the corporate ladder. My father, on the contrary, chose to be a free bird. He didn’t pursue any jobs related to engineering but rather, he chose chess as his way of life.
Now, after my PhD contract expired, I found myself at the crossroads where I had to choose my own way. I could just choose to become what I was trained to do for the last 15 years, namely to go for a Postdoc position in human neuroimaging with a mission to become a faculty member one day, or, to go for a Data Scientist or a Machine Learning Engineer position — which my resume qualifies me for. I had good credentials, and I would be guaranteed a steady, decent income from day one. But instead, I decided to do it like m Dad once did: to start anew, build my expertise from scratch, and do something close to my heart — namely, to become a career advisor. And, this job is a crazy ride with lots of ups (as mentioned in the post, “Why is it cool to work as a career advisor?”) and downs (as mentioned in the post, “Should you consider working as a career advisor?”).
Once I noticed more similarities between us, and once my Dad got sick and started paying attention to the world beyond chess, our relations improved. If there is someone with whom you had bad relations (or, no relations at all) for the last thirty years, and then all of a sudden it gets much better, then you will know how well it feels. And that’s probably the best feeling you can ever experience — the feeling you get when you reunite with someone.
* * *
So, this was my 2020 in a nutshell – the top 10 of my biggest little achievements of past year. It was a long and weird year that allowed me to develop the right mindset for my further personal and professional growth. Long live Welcome Solutions!
* * *
Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2021). My Biggest Little Achievements of 2020 — Part 2. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/my-biggest-little-achievements-of-2020-part-2/