2021 Year in Review: Making Friends with Fear

At the end of last year, all I was craving was calm and stability; my mind was hoping for an uneventful year, nicely ticking along, made of moments of rest and reflection. To say that things did not go to plan is an understatement. Calm and stability are definitely not the right keywords to describe the past twelve months.

This year, I got married, made my first hires at Ness Labs, and started a PhD. None of this was planned. For seven months, I did not have a permanent address. I lived out of a tiny suitcase, relying on the generosity of friends letting me crash in their empty flat while they were away, or on their sofa if they were around. It was messy, unpredictable, and sometimes tiring.

And that’s okay. Life rarely goes to plan. I have become a firm believer in the four rules of planning as articulated by Captain Cold, a character on the show The Flash: “Make the plan. Execute the plan. Expect the plan to go off the rails. Throw away the plan.”

I’m privileged that my mental health has been strong enough and my support network functional enough that I could allow myself to be flexible and at least try to embrace whatever life sent my way. For this, I am deeply grateful.

This is my fourth public year in review. Here are the main highlights:

  • Unexpectedly got married to a wonderful human being;
  • Started a PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience with two amazing supervisors, researching how different brains learn differently;
  • Hired the first employees at Ness Labs (special shout out to them!);
  • Grew the newsletter to 37,000 subscribers and the community to 2,500 members;
  • Gave a TedX talk despite my excruciating fear of public speaking, and it actually went well;
  • Turned down two opportunities from big French publishers;
  • Quit smoking;
  • Got pretty close at times, but I didn’t burn out.

And, in case you’re wondering, the inspiration for this year’s theme came from this article I wrote for the beautifully crafted PRESENT magazine:

Present Magazine - What happens when we make friends with our fears

Wondering and wandering

At the beginning of the year, my life partner was offered his dream job in Singapore, which is more than 10,000 kilometers from London, where I am based. That’s more than 6,000 miles. Direct flights between London and Singapore take about 13 hours. And the current travel rules are particularly stringent there.

At first, I thought: well, Ness Labs is fully remote, I can work from anywhere. Why not just move there? But after finishing my Master’s degree in neuroscience, I was increasingly often thinking about conducting my own research, which would mean pursuing a PhD.

I imagine that some doctoral degrees can be undertaken remotely — for instance, philosophy and journalism make a lot of sense — but, in the case of neuroscience, laboratory work would mean I would have to live wherever my university would be. When I started looking at potential supervisors who could be a good fit for the kind of research I was interested in, it became clear that this place would probably have to be London.

My partner had a job offer on the table for a role in Singapore, and I had an inkling that I wanted to pursue a PhD in London. Somehow, we didn’t have to talk about it for long. We knew I would not be able to be happy if I forced him to stay in London so I could follow my dreams, and he would also not accept to let me abandon my own dreams to move to Singapore with him. So we decided to both go for it.

In order to give our newly minted (very) long-distance relationship a decent chance to succeed, we looked at how we could make travel between the two countries as easy as possible. That meant getting married. There were only a couple of months between the decision and the ceremony. It was a tiny wedding. Lots of people we love were not there, but everyone we love was in our thoughts, and we had lots of fun — if you can, I highly recommend attending a French-Algerian wedding, it’s not every day you can eat couscous while drinking champagne!

My partner moving to Singapore also meant we had to leave our apartment in London, which was too big for just one person. I still didn’t know whether the whole PhD project was going to work out, so I didn’t want to sign a new lease. Luckily, each month, serendipity and the generosity of my friends decided to team up and miraculously make it work. While I didn’t have a permanent address for most of the year, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about where I would drop my suitcase next. I am incredibly thankful to my friends.

Finally, in September, after a lengthy application process, I received an email from King’s College London letting me know that I was accepted as a PhD candidate, starting in October. I was both exhausted and over the moon. The first thing I did was to start looking for a place to call home, which I have found. (it has a big brick wall, I hope you will agree is a massive bonus!)

I’m typing this on the train from London to Paris, as my partner is sitting next to me, and we are about to meet with our families and spend the next few weeks trying to make the most of our time together before he goes back to Singapore. While I’m usually all about trying to anticipate anything that could go wrong, I’m somehow super confident about this crazy thing we are going to work on together for the next few years. Wish us luck!

Sustainability over growth

Running Ness Labs while pursuing a PhD and maintaining a long-distance relationship — sometimes I wonder why I can’t just move to a small cottage in Scotland to read books, write, take long walks, and not have to worry about a thing in the world. Which, incidentally, was something I was planning on doing for a few months earlier this year. But, remember what we said about plans?

I also had big plans for Ness Labs. None of them came to fruition, but other amazing things happened. I wanted to launch a few cohort-based courses, significantly grow the newsletter and the community, and create partnerships with educators to expand our portfolio of learning opportunities.

Well, I barely launched anything, the newsletter grew from 25,000 to 37,000 subscribers, and the community from 1,500 to 2,500 subscribers. These numbers are not intrinsically bad, they are still going “up and to the right”, but the growth was much slower this year compared to last year.

I know I said earlier that my mental health has been strong enough, and I really mean it, because I have been dangerously flirting with burnout this year. Between getting married, not having a place to call home, starting a long-distance relationship, and wondering whether I would get accepted for the PhD, I have no mental energy left to promote Ness Labs the way I did last year.

Instead of focusing on cold numbers, I hired a wonderful team, and spent a lot of time creating processes so everyone would be comfortable bringing the best of their expertise to our community. This, too, was not part of the plan, but I think it was the best decision I made for Ness Labs so far. I’m so happy the business can now sustain itself even when I need to take a bit of time off, all because I know I can count on these wonderful humans who care about our mission as much as I do.

Growing Ness Labs in the conventional sense of the term is not my end goal. I want to keep on building one of the kindest, safest corners of the internet for curious minds who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. Of course, the more people we help, the more measurable impact we will be able to have. But we can do a lot of good by simply being sustainable as a business, without chasing exponential growth.

I also said no to some enticing opportunities. I was approached by two big French publishing houses to write a book about one of the topics I care about. Some ideas we discussed included networked thinking, tools for thought, divergent thinking, and, of course, mindful productivity. After lots of reflection and asking friends who had published successful books for advice (if you are reading this, many thanks again!), I decided to not pursue these. I do want to write a book in the future. But that book will be written in English — and hopefully decently successful so that it gets translated to French!

Next year, I want to focus on the personal growth of our community members — who we call Nessers — by offering even more opportunities to learn, to connect, and to grow together. When building a community, what really matters is to create a healthy flywheel where people get so much value they naturally turn into ambassadors.

I have already seen lots of Nessers share their love for Ness Labs on Twitter and elsewhere, and I want this to keep on happening. Both because it makes me happy, but because it means we are doing a good job. That’s plenty already.

Safe but scary

Did you know that public speaking is one of the most common phobias, shared by about 25% of the population? In some surveys about common fears, public speaking ranks higher than death. I can’t say for sure whether it scares me more than death, but I am definitely part of those people who are terrified of public speaking.

So, after two years of giving talks on Zoom in my pyjamas from the comfort of my living room, you can imagine what happened to my anxiety levels when I accepted to give a TEDx talk in Zurich — they went through the roof.

Rationally, I know there is nothing that dangerous about getting up on stage and talking to people who came together to hear about what you have to say. But, whenever I need to give an in-person talk, my whole body revolts: stomach cramps, racing heart, nightmares… Everything in me screams that, no, we absolutely do not want to be here.

It was the first time ever I was asked to learn my speech by heart. No slides, no notes, no teleprompter. Just my memory to rely on, with a tight timing so you cannot just memorize a few bullet points and ramble through your key ideas. In a TED talk, every word must count.

Because I was invited to talk at the event a month before the actual date, and because I was still in the middle of looking for an apartment while crashing on a friend’s couch, I only started working on my talk two weeks before the event. Still, I have never practiced this much for a talk before.

Every morning, I would print a fresh copy of the script, then practice it in my living room, and write down any edits that would help the story flow better, or make the content clearer. I would then incorporate these changes in the document on my laptop, and repeat the process the day after.

Once the script itself was stable, I started practicing all the time. I really mean it… All. The. Time. When I opened my eyes in the morning, I would try to say the whole thing before getting out of bed. I talked to myself in the shower. I talked to myself while cooking. I talked to myself while walking on the street — with my mask on so I would not look too weird. (pro tip I only learned about afterwards: AirPods work as well so you can pretend you are on the phone)

And I think that’s why something magical happened. When I got up on stage in Zurich, all of my anxiety vanished. Of course, it helps that the TED audience is known to be particularly kind and curious — if you are reading this and were in the room that day, thank you! — but I think the preparation really contributed to mastering my fear.

This experience, and this year in general, taught me that fear can be a powerful compass to identify potential areas of personal growth. Fear is a flashlight pointing towards experiences that feel outside of our comfort zone. Instead of frightening us away, it can guide us towards unexplored territories, and help us accomplish things we may not know we are capable of. Fear can be a self-discovery tool. Fear can be a friend.

This year was about learning. Learning to embrace my fears, learning to let go of my plans, learning to trust things will work out in the end. It was also a year under the sign of unlearning — mostly unlearning to focus on business growth as a measure of success, and unlearning to choose illusory certitude over healthy uncertainty. Whatever it brings, may next year be another year of learning, unlearning, and relearning.

P.S. This didn’t feel like it deserved its own paragraph, especially because other areas of health have been quite meh and boring, but I just want to give myself a pat on the back and write it down so it hopefully hasn’t changed by the time I write my annual review next year. I quit smoking this summer — yay, me!

P.P.S. If you want to conduct your own year in review, you can download my free template here. No email address required.

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