2020 and 2021 in review

Posted December 3, 2021 · 6 min read

It's almost the end of 2021! The fresh snowfall in Toronto, the Christmas lights adorning its houses, and the early nightfall all have me feeling contemplative about the conclusion of the last two years. Since graduating from university in April 2019, I've changed and learned so much. I hope that this post, where I share what's been happening in my life, is one that challenges and encourages you as well.

The last two years

2020: a year of growth

If I could describe what 2020 was like for me in one phrase, it would probably be accelerated growth. My goal for the year was to essentially kick-start my life as a working adult, since I had just started my first software development position in October 2019.

Over the course of 2020, I:

  • learned a lot about web development,
  • improved my diet and started a regular workout routine,
  • took three online courses,
  • began investing in index funds,
  • helped my older sister plan her wedding,
  • finally got my G2 license,
  • started a relationship,
  • and moved out into an apartment in Toronto with my friend AR.

It was a year of beginnings, but occasionally at the expense of other parts of my life — for example, I didn't blog at all, and I spent less time with friends than I would have liked.

Reflecting on it now, I think that part of my drive to "accomplish" so much was the feeling of uncertainty that COVID brought. With so many things out of my control, I redirected my attention to things I could control, like what I ate and how I spent my free time. There was also a vague sense that the opportunities I once took for granted were now scarce, and if I wanted to attain them I had to be in the best possible physical, financial, and intellectual condition that I could.

Inside my mind, I had constructed the following deductive argument:

  1. If I am enough, I will be shielded from bad things.
  2. I am not shielded from bad things.
  3. Therefore, I am not enough.

My solution, then, was to try as hard as I could to make myself better, without realizing that "fixing myself" wouldn't suddenly immunize me to harms in the world.

This self deception managed to persist for the year... until I hit 2021.

2021: a year of maintenance

The beginning of 2021 was a perfect storm: the second wave of COVID and its ensuing lockdowns, spending almost every waking hour in a 750 square foot apartment with my roommate, the cold and dark of Canadian winter, and the sudden loss of remaining areas of my life to optimize.

Unlike my compulsive productivity the year before, my motto for the season was to just be alright. I made myself a simple checklist of things to do daily — like go for a walk, write in my journal, and talk to a friend — and told myself that I didn't have to improve at all over the winter, just implement habits to prevent myself from falling to pieces.

That winter, and then the rest of 2021, was an exercise in maintenance. I had exhausted the things that I needed to do, and was faced with the things I needed to keep up:

  • I didn't need to tweak my workout routine - I "just" had to wake up and work out, even if I didn't feel like it.
  • I didn't need to check the stock market daily, or research what to buy - I "just" had to stick with my strategy and avoid actively interfering with my portfolio.
  • I didn't need to browse apartment listings or find furniture on Kijiji - I "just" had to keep my living space tidy, clean, and comfortable.

I placed the word "just" in quotations above because for me, this year has illuminated that maintenance is as important and challenging as growth. Although I have a less impressive list of things accomplished in 2021, I have a deeply fulfilling sense that I'm learning to sustain a rhythm of living that feels vibrant and enriching.

In a book that I recently finished reading, How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, the author discusses an artist named Mierle Laderman Ukeles who wrote a "Manifesto for Maintenance Art" in 1969. The manifesto distinguishes between what Ukeles identifies as the death force (separation, individuality, and dynamic change) and the life force (unification, the eternal return, and equilibrium). Ukeles' art challenges the valorized notion of growth at the expense of the equally necessary task of maintenance and emphasizes the work required to sustain stability and regeneration.

The challenge of balance

One of my closest friends, RG, likes to remind me that growth isn't a tidy arrow pointing up and out — it's a complicated process that often involves plateaus and steps backwards.

When I started at my job, I would differentiate between "good days", when I was making progress on my codebase and adding functionality, and "bad days", when I was combing through articles online and trying to make sense of what I needed to do next. Eventually, I realized that my "bad days" weren't bad at all — they were less satisfying, but crucial for making progress. Once I accepted that getting stuck wasn't a personal failing but just part of the process, I was more gracious to myself and would even get excited knowing that I would probably have a breakthrough the next day. I'm now trying to extend this practice of acceptance to more areas of my life, knowing that it helps rather than hinders me as I grow.

The second years of high school (grade 10) and university (sophomore year) were both the hardest for me. I'm proud of myself for making more of an effort to lean into what this second year of working was teaching me, rather than trying to fight against it. Although I still struggle with it, it certainly feels freeing to unclench my grasp on what "should be" and open up my hands to whatever is in store for me.

Moving forward

To summarize, I think that my primary focus over the last two years has been:

  • to construct a solid foundation on which I can confidently begin to build the rest of my adult life, and
  • as I progress, to learn to enjoy being a work-in-progress.

After reading this article from the 80,000 Hours career guide and comparing it to what I've been learning, I feel good about where I currently stand. To put it more clearly, I feel as though I have a decent understanding of how I want to live my life.

That said, the last few months have been characterized by a feeling of being unsettled. In the summer, I rediscovered effective altruism (my friend HM had directed me to 80,000 Hours in 2019) and began seriously questioning what I want to do with my life.

It's as if I was pushed out to sea on a sailboat. Now that I've figured out how to competently manage the boat and keep myself alive, I'm faced with the question: where do I want to go?

I've been spinning in circles a little bit, jumping around between rules of thumb about how to decide what to do: "do what makes you happy", "live for something bigger than yourself", "follow your passion", "do the most good you can do", "minimize your regrets"... you get the idea. I have an inkling that at some point these will cohere in my head, but for now I just feel overwhelmed and adrift.

My temporary conclusion is that I should try to do something challenging and interesting, talk to as many cool and kind people as I can, and continue to learn and (hopefully) begin to figure out everything else as I go.

If you're reading this and feel like you have anything valuable to impart to me, email me! By definition, it's no longer an unsolicited opinion :) Joking aside, I'm genuinely interested in hearing from as many people as I can, ranging from "here's exactly what I think you should do and why" to "I have no idea what to do either but I feel you and I hope we both figure it out".

Many thanks

As I look back, I feel especially grateful to certain people that have shaped these two years:

  • Mom and Dad — for giving me everything I could possibly need and more.
  • LC, ER, OR, RG, AO, and RA — for your love, friendship, support, and joy, always.
  • SM — for your encouragement and honesty when I needed it most.
  • AL — for being a privilege to love.
  • AR — for wisdom, patience, and being a good influence on me.
  • HM — for seeing something in me I didn't know was there.

What's on my heart

These are the verses that have been weighing on me this past year and as I look to the future:

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

— Luke 12:48b

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

— 2 Corinthians 9:6

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

— Matthew 10:39

The call of my heart right now: I want my life to matter. I want to be in tune with myself, with the people I love, with my communities, with the physical and temporal context that I occupy, with whoever or whatever is beyond me. I want to be challenged and to grow through those challenges. I want to fully inhabit and taste every moment of my own existence. I want it all to mean something.

I am so abundantly blessed — my hope for my life is to bless others.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you all the best in 2022.


Julia Cooke © 2023