Looking through photos from this year and I found this, from my 10yo in January.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) December 6, 2020
This would have been a *much* better version of 2020. pic.twitter.com/BLX7Ljxf58
My goals coming into 2020 were:
- Continue to find balance and do more of the things most important to me.
- Get better at dealing with intense but important conversations.
- Run a marathon or longer on trail.
I accomplished all three!
But 2020 was way more complex than these three goals. It was kind of a four-act play for me, generally in this order but not without blurry edges:
Act 1: I felt like I was crushing it early in the year.
Act 2: Ummmmm I don't know if you remember this but we had a global pandemic and racial injustice crisis last year and neither will end soon.
Act 3: I curled into a ball and focused on self-care.
Act 4: My health-meter filled back up and I got back to crushing it somehow.
There were some rough spots in 2020. There were also some resounding personal successes. I hesitate to celebrate the successes without first acknowledging the privilege I have in writing a recap of 2020 that doesn't once involve my life, livelihood, or humanity being threatened. But successes are meant to be celebrated so here we go.
You made it this far — we must be best friends and you must be here to read the whole thing!
Act 1: Feeling pretty good
No more tech lead
I started 2020 by stepping down from a tech lead position at Artsy. For a lot of people this would feel bad, but for me it felt amazing. I thought a lot about how I enjoyed spending my time as an engineer and how I didn't, and I found that being a tech lead prevented me from doing the things I wanted to do. I envisioned the role including a lot of pairing, unblocking, and mentoring, but really it was more about strategy, planning, and to be blunt, meetings. It was scary to step down only months after getting the opportunity but doing so enabled me to do more of the pairing/unblocking/mentoring that I'd looked forward to.
I also got to repeat my fave CodeMash activity — drinking beers in a hot tub with Cory House and Victor...geez Victor, you're one of my favorite reasons to go to CodeMash and I don't know your last name. I missed this a lot this year.
Some local speaking
I knew with my intentional focus on myself & my family that I wouldn't be speaking at many conferences, so I focused on speaking at local meetups. I talked about how we're using Cypress at Artsy a few times — including once in Chicago, right before things shut down around here. My friend Ben skipped work to take the train down with me. I didn't know what I was doing and made us take the sloooooooowwwww train. I think this is the last time I went to a bar.
Maybe you haven't noticed but technical articles are pretty few and far between on this site. Somehow I put out two in early 2020.
- I wrote an article about working with variables in Cypress tests. It surpassed an old ranty article about SSIS to become my most popular article ever according to Google Analytics.
- I wrote about a strange project to build a CLI in my browser search bar using Netlify Functions.
I hit a 30-day streak for meditation! I'd wanted to do this for years but I'm the kind of person who finds routines to be sooooooo booooring so this was really hard.
Not surprisingly, once the pandemic hit I basically stopped meditating. More surprisingly, I haven't really picked it up since. It's okay, though — I've discovered that running and cycling are meditation for me, so I just make sure to do them once a day instead.
Act 2: FFFFFFFffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu what just happened?
And then it became apparent that COVID-19 was a real thing. Everything shut down, including my big scary thing of the year, a trail marathon I'd signed up for.
And then it became apparent that our country was built on a rigged, unfair foundation. Amidst a backdrop of continuous race-based injustices, we begged our local "law enforcement" to stop lashing out at our community. Some people worried about property destruction; we worried about the fact that our 9 year old wouldn't go to bed because she was afraid of tear gas blowing in the windows, and that our local "law enforcement" didn't know how to communicate in ways that didn't involve beating people.
And health problems, woof. I got wrecked by a large kidney stone — my wife had to drop me off at the ER at 2am. I stumbled in on my own, doubled over in pain, and she drove off because that's all she could do. My aunt (unsuccessfully) battled cancer. My mom (successfully) battled cancer and an aneurysm.
What. A. Mess.
I tried speaking at online events, thinking it would help me feel normal again. It was really hard to connect with people. I'll speak virtually again for events that are especially meaningful to me, but I don't intend on spending a lot of time speaking until it's possible in person again. To be honest, I'm not even sure I'll put a lot of time into it then, either. This part of me might have broken.
It was hard to focus on writing, amongst other things. I found a bit of outlet sharing productivity tips on Twitter.
I wrote up some Really Good™️ remote work tips:
Remote working tips that no one seems to want to talk about:— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) March 11, 2020
And "this one neat trick" for falling asleep when your mind doesn't want you to:
An article came up for me in my news aggregator about "this amazing one trick that will help you fall asleep in minutes." The trick was basically (1) lay down, (2) calm down, and (3) fall asleep. Like "draw two circles, then draw the rest of the f'ing owl" but for falling asleep.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) March 27, 2020
And a summary of how I use Todoist to manage my day (when I'm successful at managing my day):
Act 3: Let's talk about me some more
Recently my therapist helped me recognize this thing that I do to cope when the world around me is screaming — I (figuratively) curl into a ball and hide under the covers and pretend the world doesn't exist outside my bed. Figuratively speaking. Though it at least partially originates from the night my cousin died when I was 9, and I literally curled into a ball and hid under the covers to escape the screaming in my house.
Anyway....I curled into a ball and hid under the covers for a lot of 2020. I focused on me, and the things I could directly control.
I made some art
I'd wanted to explore watercolors for a long time, and now I had time to do it:
Kinda kitschy but happy fall I guess?— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) October 2, 2020
I'm still in love with watercolors (but fell off the wagon for the summer). pic.twitter.com/3wW1UzfRRX
I wish I could say this remained a regular part of my life, but it hasn't. I pick up the brushes and pens every now and then, but not more than once a month.
We got another cat
We named him Todd because we thought it'd be funny if he shared a name with that guy everyone knew in high school. The name turned out to be appropriate. Also he has white armpits.
Things yelled at our cat Todd today:— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) July 25, 2020
"Stop stealing my beef jerky Todd!"
"Get away from my muffin, Todd!"
"Eat your own food, Todd!"
"Todd, why are you sleeping on that bag of trash?"
"Give me back my BLT Todd!"
It's like we have our very own college roommate. (But cuter) pic.twitter.com/CvR04wt9te
I wrote a bit
I wasn't terribly prolific with my writing, but two of my all-time favorite articles came out of this period.
- I got to brag about all my amazing coworkers in an article about including context in PRs. Communication in PRs is a topic I've been really interested in for the last year or so. I'm currently working on a followup to this article.
- I did some reflecting on why I'm a slow developer. This article did really well on dev.to, and I made their "top 7" articles that week. They gave me a sticker for it at the end of the year.
I beat the hell out of my body
The July trail marathon I'd signed up for in January was cancelled in April. I wasn't sure if I should keep training, or stick a fork in it and try again in 2021. I decided to keep training, figuring I had the time anyway.
Earlier this week, my big race of the year was cancelled. I'm going to keep training anyway, because runs like this are everything to me right now. pic.twitter.com/HJtVXO8r6T— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) April 26, 2020
This training became my everything. It was the most consistent I'd ever been, at anything. It was a lot of time to myself. I felt like there was so little I could control, but for 20-30 miles a week I knew I would go to the woods, run until my body screamed, and drink a protein shake and/or beer afterward.
I eventually ran a marathon on my own, in scorching heat. I was disappointed by my performance in the moment, but the experience of training and then "racing" was the absolute highlight of 2020 for me.
Woof. This was really hard. I planned poorly. Not enough water stops, way more elevation than estimated, I completely forgot that there was a three mile section through a sunny meadow (it scorched me. Twice.), and I fought cramps for the last 7 miles.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) July 25, 2020
B4 & after: https://t.co/PhghgybnUw pic.twitter.com/vbBMazDlnj
I exercised a lot in 2020, including a 62 mile ride through hilly southwest Wisconsin in October:
Epic skip day today. 100km on the bike in southwest Wisconsin. 4000ft of climbing, too many cows, ladybugs, and woolly bear caterpillars to count.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) October 6, 2020
(And full on leg cramps at mile 59 but we don't have to talk about that) pic.twitter.com/d1TKuG5bS4
By the end of the year I'd racked up almost 3000 miles of running and biking.
Many things about 2020 sucked, but one way it didn't: I ran almost 900 miles and biked more than 2000 miles this year. More than 200 miles further than I'd ever run in a year, and almost 800 further then I'd ever biked in a year. pic.twitter.com/pnISuxaRDU— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) December 31, 2020
As my wife says, and as has become a mantra for me during the most intense moments of training:
Choosing your own suffering is the ultimate privilege.
I tried to become a better listener
There was a point where I wanted to quit seeing my therapist this year. She convinced me to start treating it more like a practice and I stuck it out.
My biggest breakthrough this year was finally grasping what it means to listen. I left one session feeling extremely grateful that I had this person that I could just talk to, and they wouldn't judge anything I said, and there were no old patterns we'd fall into that left at least one of us not feeling heard. Almost instantly I felt sad because I realized that I did not provide that for my wife or kids. I read two books about listening before my next session.
My most significant takeaway came from the book I Hear You, which among other ideas stressed the importance of validating someone's feelings. The idea that you don't have to agree with someone to validate their feelings seems obvious now, but it was a significant conflict for me until I read that. I still struggle a bit with this, but I've gotten much better at it.
Act 4: I can't control the wind or the waves but I can steer the ship
Late in 2020 I started to emerge from my bubble. My first order of business:
I tried to find a community
Without in-person community events, I wanted to find a community where I could meaningfully contribute. I joined Blogging for Devs, a community built by Monica Lent for developers looking to expand the reach of their blog. It's a great community but it didn't work for me. I felt like I was not consistent or experienced enough to contribute to the group. It also helped me realize that I was looking for a group of people that I felt closer to from the start.
My good friend Amanda kicked off a weekly call with engineering managers and leaders from the Milwaukee area. This was what I was looking for. For a couple months I hung out once a week over lunch with 4 to 8 peers and we talked about challenges we were facing. 10/10 would do again. This is the most connected I've felt to people since in-person events were a thing.
I also hung out a number of times with my friend Michael and the community he's built in the Cincinnati area, and I felt pretty connected to all of them too. By the end of the year, Michael and I decided we each wanted an accountabili-buddy for our community-based goals, so we started meeting every other week. This has been going really well.
I remembered I was an active participant in Artsy's culture
Late in 2020 I got one of those "do you have a few minutes?" messages that prompt you to hold your breath. They make you think you did something awful, you're being let go, or someone is about to tell you they're leaving.
In this case it was the latter. The person that most embodies the Artsy culture — my dear friend Ash — was leaving Artsy.
There's another pattern I've repeated throughout my career in which I start a new job, enjoy and take advantage of the culture, but kind of forget that I'm an active participant in it. It's not until a few significant departures that I suddenly remember that I'm not just there to enjoy the culture, I'm there to help feed it.
Ash's departure kicked me in the pants this time. I lost sleep the first night after he told me, wondering what was going to happen when he was gone. He was the culture.
The next night I lost more sleep...but this was different. I started thinking about all the gaps that Ash was leaving, and how many of them were gaps I wanted to fill.
Since I joined Artsy, I figured that when I left it would be for a job in developer relations. That seems like the logical progression given my favorite parts of my job are mentoring, writing, teaching, getting people unstuck, etc. That second night of restlessness it struck me that I don't have to leave Artsy to do this stuff. I can just do this stuff.
The next week I and a few others started Artsy Engineering Radio. I decided to pick up Ash's writing office hours after he left. I started putting more time into the Relay learning curriculum that a few of us are putting together. I found the courage to tell my manager that I wanted to spend as much time doing this kind of work as possible.
In fact I probably asked permission 15 more times. I volleyed between feeling fearless to do whatever I want until someone complains, and feeling needy for approval. At this point I've got all the approval I need and I'm doing more of what I want to do instead of what I thought was expected of me.
It feels pretty good.
In 2021 I'm rethinking how I approach goals. I'm not planning for specific outcomes — I'm planning for habits and practices. Like....
- Writing more frequently. How frequently? More than before.
- Lowering my personal bar for creating content. I'm starting by allowing myself to publish incomplete thoughts instead of fully composed articles.
- Running and cycling regularly. I doubt I'll match my mileage from 2020 given I won't be doing a marathon, but that's fine because I just want to do it regularly.
- Eating better. Yeah...for real. I avoided alcohol and sweets for January 2021 and it was easier than I thought it would be. I'm going to limit my intake of garbage by giving myself a garbage-food-budget each week.
Phew. We did it! It only took me 3000 words and somehow you read every last self-indulgent one of them!
Wishing you all the best in 2021, friends.