Dec 31, 2019 | What I learned this year
The year of 2019 slowly comes to the end. It was a bit of a crazy year, and I learned quite a bit – and this time, it was more of a streetwise rather than bookwise knowledge. Below, I am listing some of the points I learned in the process – which I wish I had learned before yet still, better now than never!
1. My work has value
In academia, they teach us that nothing we do is ever good enough, there is always room for improvement, and that we can always work harder, or more efficiently. In a result, it is easy to undervalue your work, and get persuaded to put on additional hours for little to no money – even if you are in serious financial trouble. When my academic contract expired, I had a hard time asking for any payment for my hard work, and I can openly admit that I agreed for way too much in the last two years. A lot of people benefitted from the fact that I tend to be decent and to finish unfinished projects even when there is no pay-off and the external conditions are hard. It took me a while to start valuing my time properly and tell the difference between charity work, and ‘regular’ work which other people profit from.
2. First, do it, then talk about it
I always tended to first talk about my plans with friends, before I even attempt to put these plans to life. Unfortunately, when you talk about your plans, the dopamine loop in your brain that is responsible for generating the sense of reward and gratification gets activated. In other words, whenever you talk about your plans, you already feel rewarded – before you even try to act upon these plans. In a consequence, you feel less motivated to do the actual work.
This time, I swopped the order, and I started to conduct projects before talking to 30 befriended people around me about what I was planning to do. For instance, only a few people knew that I was writing a book before it appeared online. This worked much better for me, and the work was done much faster than it would have been done otherwise.
3. How to set a company
Setting a company is not hard at all when you think about it – and especially, it is not hard in the Netherlands. In principle, to formally register a company, you just need to choose a purpose, choose a name, visit the Chamber of Commerce, and pay 50 EUR registration fee. Then, you automatically become the owner of a company. It is quite a different question on how to set a profitable company; that’s the whole new level of difficulty. I spent some time among entrepreneurs and I realized that everyone who learns and adjusts their products to the demand on the market, will become successful sooner or later; it is a matter of learning, and of taking constructive critics on board. You need to follow the money: reorient towards the areas of the market where you can produce the most value, and where there is a party on the other side who is willing to pay for this value and has resources to pay for it. It sounds obvious yet many businesses fail because of lack of understanding of this simple fact. I also had to learn my lessons!
4. Little everyday addictions slowly ruin your life
This year I realized how many of your daily habits, are actual addictions which ruin your life slowly and quietly. For instance, drinking coffee is like taking a loan from a bank—you get a portion of energy instantly but after that, you need to ‘pay’ this energy back, and you lose more energy over time than you initially gained.
So, from coffee, through alcohol, to worrying — I am intensively working on removing a lot of poisonous things from my life. Even salary is a poison; as Kevin o’Leary famously said, ‘Salary is what they give us to make us forget about our dreams.’ We need much less to live a good life than we think. I went clean from quite some substances, and after a few weeks, I felt so much better that I felt like I was awakened from a many-years-long sleep.
5. I will never be an employee again, and my life will change accordingly
I started 2019 looking for jobs, and I am ending it with a feeling of certainty that my times as an employee are long time gone. In the process, I noticed that my personality is closer to entrepreneurs than to researchers or any other professional group. Even though I was initially scared of going my own way, the fears started fading away with every day, and in the end, they almost completely disappeared. At the same time, the structure of my daily life and my connections started transforming. So far, the job was the job, and friends were friends – while now, my daily life is more of a project-related odyssey in which new people arrive in my life together with new projects. In a way, entrepreneurship gives a double feeling of risk: on one hand, you need to let go of certainty in professional life, and on the other hand, you need to let go of certainty in private life and prepare for the fact that most of your friends will be rotating, and will come and go depending on the situation – and that you will no longer have time for 8-hour long late-night sessions to chat about the purpose of life by beer with your lifelong friends.
6. When you are doing business, you need to learn how to choose the right people
It is not a secret that business is based on the human factor, and you need to find the right people. However, coming straight from academia, I was not prepared for how often it will happen that people declare to do something, and then do not deliver on what they promised. Researchers tend to always at least attempt to deliver while in business, you can encounter plenty of talking heads who will hustle you into deals without any intention to act upon it afterwards. So, you need to develop a whole new level of knowledge about people, and a whole new level of intuition towards other people. After this year, I decided that, although I adore collaborations, I will make sure that at least some part of my income (such as e.g., income from writing books) will only depend on my performance.
7. A bit about how human motivation works
This year, I participated in a few mentoring- and management-related projects in which I was building manuscripts in a group with fellow researchers or organizing events such as hackathons and anti-conferences. I was working mostly online, and often with people whom I have never met in real life. In some projects, I was the project leader while in some other projects, I was a project member. Some projects were happening in large groups, while some other projects were done in very small groups (as small as two people at times). Some of these projects worked very well while others were seriously delayed and did not work at all. What I learned from all these projects, is that (1) organizing events is often disproportional to the potential—professional or personal—gains from organizing them; as a matter of fact, you can also network by attending events and you do not necessarily need to also work behind the curtains. (2) inviting people to projects in a situation when they are not naturally motivated to take part in these projects, and they do not knock at your door all by themselves, is not a good idea for the most part. And, you should not expect that they will remember about you, and ever do something similar for you. (3) if you are thinking of conducting the project in a large group, the rules should be clear from day one: deadlines, who-is-responsible-for-what, minimal requirements necessary to be listed as an author, a plan for the endpoint of the project, etc. Good projects are not successful by accident; they are carefully planned. (4) do not work with people who are not good at answering emails—even if they know a lot, they will only frustrate you and block your projects.
8. Sorting information is very important for general well-being
When I came back home for Christmas and turned on the TV for the first time in a long time, I was shocked by how negative is the information on the TV news. Only catastrophes, deaths, new bills, quarrels between politicians and celebrities. In daily life, I am trying to filter information as much as I can, and I mostly follow YouTube channels and podcasts which can teach me something useful and/or motivate me rather than TV. I am avoiding all the buzz, even the news about ecology—I just hope that my way of life, including lack of a car, sorting trash and growing lots of plants, is ecological enough, and I do not want to take part in the public discussion about ecology to more extent than necessary.
After this Christmas, I am even more convinced that this is the way to go. How can you be positive about life when your brain is fed up with negative content every day?
9. Haters gonna hate
There will always be someone who does not accept you and your work—and will make every effort to let you know that. 1% of society is haters who react negatively to most of the stimuli that come to their brains. In the past, I felt that there might be ways of screening yourself from haters, e.g., by doing things very useful for society, charity work, being kind to everyone, etc.
I stressed about haters recently, when my book came out. But then, I searched for the Amazon ratings from the Holy Bible—the average was also lower than 5.0. It came to my mind: ‘If God by themselves does not get 5.0 on Amazon, then it is not a disgrace if I also do not have 5.0.‘
Now I know that the minimal 1%-hate level is a constant—a law of the universe—and there is no way around it. The harder you try, the worse it becomes, so the only thing you can do is to accept the situation.
10. I adore talking to people about their careers
As a person who spent the last 8 years working on modeling the human brain, it was quite a turn to change interest to look into people’s professional careers. I always enjoyed talking to people about their jobs, but now I feel like I could do this for the rest of my life. There is so much to do in this space! And, it is so rewarding to be able to advise someone, and see this person smiling, and getting their ideas about themselves! It is also a challenge to do this because you do not have access to the other person’s thoughts, needs and talents; you can only ask them the right questions and hope that they all make the right steps all by themselves. Hard yet so rewarding!
This text is about it on what I learned this year. In the next post after the New Year’s Eve, I will also talk about the long list of the New Year’s resolutions. This is going to be a challenging year! And of course, I wish you all the best and a lot of new things to learn in 2020!