2023 Year in Review: Of Ambition and Aliveness

While waiting for the Zoom call to start, I took a few deep breaths. In a few minutes, I would get to interview one of my role models; someone who had changed millions of lives through his writing, had only one employee, and, like me, began his journey with a weekly newsletter. The guest was James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits and the 3-2-1 newsletter.

The interview had special significance because the publisher of Atomic Habits had agreed to publish my very first book. However, nobody knew.

I’m half Algerian and, despite my scientific training, years of exposure to superstitious beliefs from my mother and grandmother meant that I couldn’t share the news until the contract was signed.

This was January 4th, the year had barely started, and I already felt nervously excited, but also slightly off balance. Writing a book in English while completing a PhD and running Ness Labs…

Wasn’t I trying to bite more than I could chew?

Let’s rewind a little bit to understand how I ended up there. This is my 2023 annual review, but now that the risk of attracting the evil eye should be gone — I’m not 100% sure how it works — I can finally share the events that led me to writing a book.

Gradually, then all at once

The newsletter was born in 2019 out of a public pact to write a hundred articles in a hundred weekdays. “I started this experiment to get back into writing and to find my voice. I’m not a native speaker, so writing in English has always felt intimidating. I believe there’s no better way to learn than to actively practice,” I explained at the time.

I had no idea this experiment would change my life.

At first, the change was gradual; the kind of subtle life improvements you didn’t know you needed. The newsletter helped me create a daily reading and writing practice. It became a forcing mechanism to crystalize my thoughts. It connected me to interesting minds from all around the world, some I now have the privilege to call friends.

These changes alone would have made it worthwhile to write online, which is why I’ve always been a strong proponent of learning in public. But a bigger change was around the corner.

All of a sudden, in the spring of 2022, publishers started reaching out. I received three separate inquiries from editors asking if I’d be interested in writing a book. I was over the moon; this had been a lifelong dream!

But not so fast. Coming from a world where you could get up, choose an idea to write about, and hit publish by noon, working with traditional publishers required a radically different sense of timescales.

First, you need to write a book proposal. Next, find an agent to send it to publishers. Then, you have to go through interviews and several rounds of negotiation with the ones that are interested.

All in all, this process took more than six months. And that’s before you even start writing the actual book!

Through it all, I felt a distinct kind of tension which took me a while to recognize — just like you have to swirl your tongue around an unfamiliar flavor. It was a tension between doing and being, between drive and presence, between ambition and aliveness. Part of me wanted to let life unfold; the other part craved to be in the pilot’s seat and go all-in on this creative project.

For the first months of 2023, I fought hard to resolve that tension. And my body fought back. I had trouble sleeping, craved sugar all the time, and ended up caving in and turning to alcohol once again as a quick fix to numb my overworking mind.

Then, through what felt like digging myself out of a pit — journaling, plant medicine, breathwork, more journaling — I came to a realization: I didn’t have to resolve that tension. The desire to explore, learn, and grow is not at odds with fully connecting with the present.

“I’m ambitious,” I wrote in my journal. “My ambitions are to live a full life, contribute interesting ideas, and nurture healthy relationships.”

All of the sudden, the painful tension turned into a gentle oscillation, which has since then guided much of the creative process for the book — a book about being driven and being present; a book about doing things that motivate you and inspire you; a book for people who believe that ambition and aliveness are two sides of the same coin.

Yesterday, I printed a first draft of the entire book, which I will bring with me to Paris over the holiday to read and annotate. I can hardly believe the weight of it in my hands — it’s real! And I’m so excited for you all to read it when it comes out.

The birth of a neuroscientist

With the exception of a small percentage who write full-time, the vast majority of authors, including myself, have other projects going on. Beside the book, I have largely focused on my doctoral studies in psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London.

I’m fortunate that I have two amazing supervisors who are fully aware of my other projects and let me organize my time as I see fit. Their trust and flexibility has been crucial this year. (Ellie, Vincent, thank you!)

So, how does one become a neuroscientist?

Everything you’ve heard is true: it takes a lot of energy and patience. This year, I learned how to use new machines in the lab and look at data in different ways. I saw a brain being cut open for the first time. I guided participants through experiments and designed new methods. I published my first papers and presented my own research at an academic conference. I taught my first class to undergraduate students.

You know the meme with the dog saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing”? That’s me. Every week brings a new challenge, whether it’s something I’ve never done before or something that didn’t work as expected. And, most weeks, figuring these things out gives me immense satisfaction. (except when it’s figuring out how to fill a grant application, that’s never fun)

There’s still so much I want to learn. Some of my projects for next year include helping curate a special issue about neuroeducation and host an exhibition at the intersection of art and neuroscience. And, if all goes well, I’ll write my doctoral thesis and defend it.

I also have lots of ideas for after the PhD. I’d like to make neuroscience a lot more accessible, and for the lab to be a place where people with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences can come and contribute, regardless of their academic credentials. Stay tuned.

No one can whistle a symphony

I was told that writing a book would be lonely — and sometimes it is. You do sit alone in front of a screen for long periods of time. Still, I’ve felt supported by so many people this year.

The newsletter had 55,000 subscribers at the end of 2022. As I write these words one year later, more than 95,000 curious minds receive my essays in their inbox.

When I have questions, members of the Ness Labs community always answer with insightful comments and suggestions. Some of them are currently beta reading the first draft of my book. I conducted dozens of interviews with others. We also had a lovely picnic meetup in London this summer and a breakfast meetup in Austin this winter.

I’m obviously biased, but I think this is one of the smartest and kindest corners of the Internet and I’m grateful I get to access this little mastermind.

Authors who have been where I’m now have generously shared their hard-earned wisdom. My editor and agent have been amazing sounding boards. The folks at Ultraspeaking helped me overcome my fear of public speaking.

Last but not least, none of the work I do would be possible without the wonderful team at Ness Labs — they make magic happen in the background so I can focus on writing.

I’ve somehow managed to spend some time with my loved ones, even if it’s never quite enough. I visited my partner who lives in Singapore. I spent a few weekends with friends in Lisbon, Marseille, Alicante, and Brittany. We celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday by taking a family vacation in Vietnam for two weeks.

Meeting people in person has become much more important to me lately. Besides a few meetups, I attended three bigger live events hosted respectively by Anna Gát + Dan Shipper, Rand Fishkin, and Nick Gray. Each time, I left those events re-energized, my mind brimming with new ideas.

I also did lots of things by myself: beautiful hikes, harmonica classes, drawing, dancing.

Not everything went smoothly this year. I had planned to launch a TikTok account back in January but haven’t started yet. I wanted to re-record my Collector to Creator course as a series of high-quality self-paced videos, which didn’t happen. My mental health was rocky at times.

But I can trace back almost every struggle to a stubborn desire to figure things out on my own. Next year, I want to become better at reaching out for help when I need it. I want to spend more time connecting with people both online and in person. I want to keep on surrounding myself with curious minds.

I’m still feeling slightly off balance at times. It’s a continuous dance between focusing on the present and exploring my dreams, a delicate undulation between the inner and the outer, between stillness and momentum. There’s joy in this dance. And there’s no greater joy than dancing with others.

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