2020 Year in Review: Chaos and Community

This year was both the slowest and the fastest of my life. Some parts feel like a blur, others feel like they lasted forever. First, I lost my grandmother. I want to mention it straightaway in the introduction of this annual review, as it has been the most defining event of my year. Losing someone you love is a terrible experience; it is also one of the biggest catalysts for self-reflection—probably up there with having a kid.

As the old African proverb says: “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” My grandmother couldn’t read nor write, so in her case, a library of memories and ideas that were stored in her mind did burn to the ground. This realisation is partly why I wanted the rest of 2020 to be a year under the sign of knowledge—asking questions, learning new skills, connecting ideas. I have managed to achieve some of these goals; even though my thirst for knowledge has grown exponentially in the process.

In terms of achievements and sources of happiness, here are the key highlights of the past year:

  • Completed my MSc in neuroscience from King’s College London with distinction (I haven’t officially celebrated as I’m waiting to receive my diploma in the post);
  • Grew the Maker Mind newsletter to more than 25,000 subscribers;
  • There are now 280 articles on Ness Labs (I haven’t counted how many were written this year, but probably half of them);
  • Launched the Ness Labs community, with now more than 1,500 members, dozens of events, and the best energy (I genuinely think it’s one of the kindest corners of the Internet, but I’m obviously biased);
  • Thanks to my first ever recurring revenue, I finally managed to lower my financial reliance on consulting and freelancing;
  • Became more comfortable with exploring my own mind and discussing spiritual topics, something I used to struggle with.

This is my third time conducting an annual review (here is 2019). I’m grateful for this opportunity to record the events of this past year, reflect on my experience, and reset for the next year.

When nothing goes to plan, make a new plan

In 2020, nothing has gone to plan—in the best and worst ways possible. At the end of 2019, I had created a spreadsheet to track my travel plans. Thanks to the ability to work from anywhere, it was going to be an exciting year where I’d get to explore the world a lot more. (spoiler alert: remote work got a little bit too remote)

The main highlight was going to be a two-month backpacking trip across South-East Asia with my dad. We had booked the tickets and had started planning an itinerary. I already had a few friends lined up to meet in Vietnam and Cambodia, and I was excited to hang out with the maker community in Indonesia and Thailand. I had also been invited to speak at and/or join a few conferences in Mexico, Italy, Spain, and Taiwan. I was elated!

Well… I don’t need to tell you, none of this happened. In January, my client in Taipei called me to let me know the conference I was supposed to attend, the biggest local event in the gaming industry, which was supposed to take place early February, was cancelled at the request of the Taiwanese government. At the time, I didn’t grasp the implications of such an official decision. It would be easy in hindsight to say that I was one of the few ones to understand the early signs, but I wasn’t. It’s only when we started hearing rumours of lockdown in other countries that I thought maybe something big was happening.

While I have been working from home for several years, self-isolation is a different beast. All things considered, I did pretty well, at least from a mental health standpoint. I’ve always been happy staying at home, reading books and working on my computer. At first, I made many plans to fill all the extra time not occupied by social events and spending time outside. I started learning Python, I bought a candle-making kit, and a big set of pencils to start drawing again. That also didn’t work out so well. While I had more time, I didn’t have more mental energy—quite the contrary.

I’m happy for everyone who managed to come out on the other side of lockdown with a bunch of new skills, a fitter body, and a clearer mind. But people in my family were dropping like flies—we lost five family members to coronavirus—and, like many people around the world, I was just trying to say afloat.

In my case, I learned to be kinder to myself, and to embrace the fact that productivity is not an end goal in life. There are still a few things I’m happy I achieved during this weird period of time: I learned how to cook, I built an even stronger relationship with my life partner, and I kept on studying neuroscience—graduating with a distinction.

Finding calm in community

An amazing achievement I didn’t expect at all this year was the creation of the Ness Labs community. If you’d told me that by the end of the year we would have more than 1,500 of the most curious, most generous, kindest minds on the Internet all gathered together and driven by the same thirst for knowledge and creativity, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I didn’t plan for the Ness Labs community. It was born out of the obvious loneliness we all felt during lockdown. From idea to launch, it took about a week. I’m incredibly grateful for all the creator tools available to us that make it possible to launch such an empowering platform with minimal technical know-how. Today, there are virtual events happening almost everyday, and I have met some of the most interesting people in the world through this community.

People keep asking why I didn’t build the Ness Labs community using one of the most common platforms, such as Slack or Discord. The reason is: I wanted to create an oasis of calmness in a sea of chaos. Using Circle as the platform for Ness Labs has allowed us to foster a culture of thoughtful, asynchronous conversations.

Another group of people that has shaped my 2020 is the Roam community. How Conor and his team have managed to gather some of the brightest minds around their product is absolutely incredible. Creators, entrepreneurs, researchers, knowledge workers… While everyone’s using Roam in different ways, the same curiosity flows across all its users. I didn’t expect a digital product to be such a highlight of my year, but Roam actually is.

A spark of spirituality

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of spirituality. As a teenager, I was pretty nihilistic—and depressed. This is not something I tend to talk about, and I’m quite hesitant to include it in this annual review, but here’s to personal growth and talking more openly about our mental health: I tried to commit suicide a few times when I was younger. One of the big reasons why I have a tattoo on my right arm is to draw attention away from my left arm.

For a very long time, the way I was coping with depressive thoughts was to just bury them under a mountain of creative work, stimulating conversations, and interesting reads. By keeping my mind busy, I was avoiding falling into the black hole of dark ideas that have filled my thoughts for most of my teenagehood. And, well, it worked alright. I probably could have kept on going like this for the rest of my life.

Another reason I have always been resistant to the concept of spirituality is my family background. I won’t get into details here, but some people in my family are or were very—very!—religious, with strict ideas as to what is right and what is wrong, and how one ought to live their lives. These notions go against most of what I believe, both ethically and scientifically. But, as it feels obvious to me now, religion is not the same as spirituality.

This year—perhaps because of the forced solitude, perhaps because I lost a loved one—I have become more comfortable sitting with my thoughts. Something that didn’t work: picking up meditation. Despite my conviction it is one of the best habits to build, I still haven’t managed to create a meditation routine for myself. Things that worked: conversations with friends, books about the natural world, Borges, walks in parks and forests, psychedelic experiences, journaling.

I have also started experimenting with lucid dreaming by recording my dreams every morning, and I finally managed to “wake up” within a dream for the first time. I’m still a long way off managing to control my dreams, but I’m excited about the possibilities. I have read that some people manage to train for stressful real-life events using their dreams, and to design beautiful experiences for themselves with just the power of their minds.

Past me would have thought this is just a lot of woo-woo, but 2020 me feels genuine curiosity. Despite my love of hard science, I have a strong desire to leave any preconceptions behind, and to explore these territories with an open mind. The commonality between science and spirituality is the will to ask challenging questions.

Platform for playfulness

Many people have a low opinion of what they call “lifestyle businesses”, but I’m proud of what I have achieved in a pretty short window of time with Ness Labs. When I wrote last year’s review, I had gathered 6.8K email subscribers in six months. Today, 25.3K people receive my weekly newsletter. 6% of them have joined the private community—that’s more than 1,500 members (almost 1,600) as I write this. Beyond the numbers, what I’m proudest of is the culture of this community. People are kind, curious, and supportive.

A good chunk of people joined because of the Collector to Creator course. It’s hard to measure, but I think there is a 60% completion rate—way above the usual 5% completion rate for online courses. But what’s even better is that most of the students joined for the course and stayed for the community.

As I have mentioned last year, I’m a big fan of working in public, but not a fan of announcing my goals. However, I’ll make an exception for this one: I’d love to host a couple more cohorts of the Collector to Creator course next year. Beside the opportunity for additional income, the main reason I want to run the course again is because it has attracted the best kind of people; the kind of people I want to be part of the Ness Labs community.

Ness Labs is the business I run, but it’s much more than that. It’s a personal laboratory, a playful platform for self-examination, a safe space for discovery and knowledge. I don’t know yet what the specifics will look like, but in 2021 I want to keep on exploring that space.

I honestly have so many thoughts as to what I could improve in 2021. Being more mindful of my time and mental energy, getting more comfortable saying no, calling my mom more often are among the few ones that come to mind. But after such a strange year, I don’t feel like being too prescriptive.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. In reality, though, life isn’t always up and to the right. If there’s something 2020 has taught me, it’s to appreciate the detours; to enjoy the weird pit stops; to collect unexpected memories. I don’t know what next year will look like, but I’m excited to keep on exploring the labyrinth that is life.

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