2018 Annual Letter

To you, the reader:

I wanted to thank you. Time is what allows permanent to become accessible to a wider audience. Timeless works of art, like the Pyramids or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, are solid, rooted to the ground and to our memories. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whenever you are, thank you. You make this letter robust.

We humans can’t grasp time completely. We can count things, and given the right instruments, we can compare whether an event unfolds in more or less ‘time’ than other by counting units of it; but we can’t grasp time. We are only indirectly exposed to it. We can only experience it one second at a time.

This manifests throughout our calendar. In reality, what a calendar represents is an agreement, a convention used to be ‘in sync’ with our peers: “be here at noon”, “tomorrow is bank holiday”, “we go to mass on Sundays”. Nothing is stopping us from turning everything upside down, like the French did after the Revolution, and start over in 22 September 1792, I mean, 1 Vendémiaire of An I, with each day divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds.

Nor are we good at grasping what the future holds. We talked about the Blackberry, but history is mined with examples of people getting what is coming all wrong: luckily, there are no remains of the thousand years of Third Reich anticipated by its leader.

It is always dangerous to prophesy, particularly, as the Danish proverb says, about the future.

That is why, in this letter, I’m not addressing what does the year ahead look like. It’s time to reflect on the past, but not dwell on it. After all, memory is faulty.

This last year has put my stress levels to test. In perspective, these are the situations where I usually learn the most. For some, the trenches is the only place where learning happens. However, like pills, it’s all about the dose, and my intake was too high. As I’m only human, this took at toll on me. I feared misery.

The best antidote that I could find was laughing about it.

Against this backdrop, I was likely to be open-minded about unconventional ideas about work. One that resonated with me is that the score will take care of itself, that the day-to-day habits are what get you going, what make you better. If there is a way to predict the future, is by forming habits today that will likely be kept tomorrow.

This aren’t new ideas. Mindfulness and relaxation did take a central role at some point along this year that has expired, and I am grateful for that; looking at my past as a prologue, and focusing on the present is another key takeaway from 2018 that I bring to 2019 with me.

With a focus on the present, I channelled my mental energy towards side projects. I woke up every morning, and before work, I code. I learn stuff here and there, building skills, but first and foremost building a habit of exposing my work to outsiders, to have skin in the game. It was helpful for me to realise that I could apply that to other areas of my life: cook better, clean the house more thoroughly, and call my family more often, really engaging in a conversation with them rather than replying monosyllables to my parents. Again, focusing on what is going on, rather than something else in the past or in the foreseeable future, is what set experiences apart from the mundane existence.

This had another unexpected consequence: the strength within. The capacity to endure long periods of stress, and thrive. But it’s time to look after my mental health, and so it becomes a priority for this year that is breaking out to do just that.

I’m unaware of the people I’ve reached this year for the first time, reaching in terms of mentoring, engaging rather than simply touching. People trump processes: how we speak and what we talk about are superior to what you know. That’s why the Feynman Technique, about which we have talked about in How to Read a Book, is so crucial: it identifies what we know with what we communicate. One cannot happen without the other. Language is, thus, essential to ourselves, because that’s the raw material of thoughts; essential to our peers, because that’s how they can replicate our thinking; and essential to our decision making, because societies tend to vote around only one or two topics, and the language used to frame those topics pervades the whole debate.

That’s why art is what you make of it. Throughout history, art was a vehicle of story telling: things happened like this. But upon the invention of the photography, paintings need not tell what the reality was anymore; technology outsmarted the painters. What was left was the poet inside the artist, and his ability to express what is unspeakable. Artists must be aware of tiny details in order to create an emotion out of concrete materials.

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. […]

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Tractatus

Communication is a two-way street. And I take as an axiom that I can communicate better, because human knowledge has terms as its raw material. Dreams that aren’t communicated are forgotten. It’s also my last big takeaway: that humans know because they can speak; otherwise they’re simply wolves in the wild.

It’s calm now; that’s because we all agreed that the 1st of January would be, for years to come, time to spend in refuge. Habits as future signals, focusing on the present and knowledge as both the vehicle and the content of what we say are my takeaways from 2018. I wish that all your goals for this year are worth the effort that you’re making.