The three most important things I learned in 2017

2017 has been a wild year, to say the least. From waking up wondering if closed-mindedness was becoming mainstream to waking up wondering about the likelihood of nuclear war, to waking up in any one of over a dozen countries, there has been something remarkably unstable about 2017 (even for me).

But amidst all the shifting there was also something very grounding about 2017. I married an amazing woman and I finally found satisfaction in a day-to-day office job at Postmates. From starting the year as a remote freelancer in Hong Kong to ending it hanging shelves in our new apartment in Oakland; both change itself, and the adaptation to less change have taught me a few things. Here are some things that come to mind.

The attainability of freedom

When I was a teenager, my family and I were visiting Yosemite National Park where I met a freelance photographer for National Geographic. At that moment, I knew I wanted to have a job that I do from anywhere and allowing me to drift wherever my life might take me.

Overlooking the tea plantations of Sri Lanka as clouds slowly filled the valley below –  while auditing an ecommerce site – I realized that it had actually happened. I had clients who were willing to pay me a fair wage and didn’t mind if I was in Sri Lanka, Israel or the Moon as long as the quality of work was good.

What made this work was the same things that make any client relationship work: communication and dedication. By the time I was in Sri Lanka, I had worked remotely for them for this client for several months in Hong Kong. I had made sure that I was responsive to email in the evenings and early mornings and willing to take phone calls at 11 pm. And to be fair, by the time I was traveling, I was working only up to 20 hours a week. This ensured that I could remain extra-dedicated despite beach and jungle time while keeping rice and curry on the table.

It was great while it lasted but with fiance and a wedding on the way, this life was short-lived but real nonetheless.

The importance of disconnecting

When I look at my phone today, I see my emails, Instagram feed, and Coinbase losses in what Android developer mode calls “monochromy.” This is part of an effort to do something that was introduced to me by Tristan Harris, former “Design Ethicist & Product Philosopher” at Google who now runs The Center for Humane Technology. The effort is to use my phone as a tool, not a drug. It might sound crazy until you really acknowledge how well product designers and analysts are optimizing for our continued use of their products. Constant, continual use is what they want, and coincidentally, constant, continual use is a good way to describe addiction.

My black and white phone screen, quite surprisingly, has had a massive effect on my interest in continuing to pop in and out of apps when I open my phone. That and killing all the notifications that “aren’t from people” has been a great release from the expectation of instant gratification. It has been extremely freeing.

It can be grounding too. Last year, my then fiance and I decided to charge our phones outside of our bedroom at night. This too affected a remarkable increase in our communication with each other. We are now married and oddly I recognize more and more each day how important that relationship is to foster and maintain. There is no post on Facebook that is more important than one word exchanged between us. It’s true. But it’s strange that we have to remind ourselves.

The importance of forgetting

Javascript- whatever you thought you knew doesn’t matter. Now, even my dog has opinions on transpilers and he scoffs at me for using jQuery. That is the story of technology and the paradigms that come and go with it. I can confirm that this is true in life as well.

Holding on to things, as I learned when I moved into a 400sq ft. apartment in Hong Kong makes it hard to acquire new things. Holding on to old data is costly and it makes finding relevant data slower and more difficult. Holding on to old ideas takes up room for new ideas.

Early on at Postmates, I became aware of a lot of records in the database that were either inaccurate or had no value to users yet we were serving these records as pages nonetheless- asking Googlebot to crawl them and often allowing them to be indexed for searchers to find. These pages didn’t do anything besides shift Googlebot’s crawl budget away from the high-quality pages on the site.

I’ve never taken so much pleasure in cleaning. We disabled 10’s or 100’s of thousands of records at a time and gradually we watched as Googlebot hit these 404’s and gave up on its futile effort to index the bad pages. So far, we’ve seen crawl behavior shifting- crawl volume has not decreased overall but the number and frequency of good pages being crawled have increased. By discarding the bad, the good came to the light.

Change is not always that easy. Sometimes discarding is more difficult than making an API call. Sometimes clearing space means profiling, inspecting, and reconciling with what exists. I’ve come to believe that this, more than acquiring new information is the important part of growth.

This last year, as new models of acceptable male behavior, have become popularized, normalized, and sometimes flat out exposed, I have looked into a “Black Mirror” of sorts and seen what a lifetime of intentional or even passive ignorance becomes. Inspecting and reconciling with the signals of this ignorance has lead to a cognitive dissonance between what I know to be right and what I was comfortable believing. It was jarring to reconcile with my egalitarian principles and the societal norms that I had taken advantage of and implicitly endorsed. Clearing away the old junk brings more good to light.

This was also, in part, why I found the need to disconnect. I got tired of breathing the same air in my little corral of the Facebook graph. I got tired of seeing only what I was expected to agree with and I became suspicious of feedback loop that self-corrected me into a narrow view of the world. This began to look like the same conditions that lead to the societal norms I mentioned above. I wanted to leave room for something different- something outside of this little world to explore.

If you follow this blog or, you know about my passion for learning. I write it because it helps me learn and it encourages others to explore. My hope for 2018 is the same as my hope for this blog- that open-mindedness and an explorative nature spreads. I look forward to exploring React and getting involved in the tech education community here in Oakland. I hope that you consider leaving or making a little space for some exploration too.

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