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Five Big Lessons I Learned in 2019

Well friends, here we are at the end of another year. Another decade! It feels a little weird knowing we’re about to enter the 2020s when I learned in grade school about “the roaring 20s,” of course in reference to the 20th century decade. Makes you wonder if we’ll have our own version of a roaring 20s.

This year was undoubtedly one of the biggest in my entire life. Naturally, my forthcoming transition to becoming a machine learning engineer is one piece of that, but I wouldn’t even consider that the biggest thing adjustment to me. Actually, the biggest adjustment for me had to do with my spiritual life, which is well chronicled in other blog posts elsewhere.

But yeah, between the machine learning studies, spiritual stuff, and simply being a dad to two beautiful, rambunctious little toddlers, I learned a LOT about life this year. In this post, I’m going to take a break from the more technically-oriented knowledge I’ve shared recently to focus on a few general life lessons I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. They’re general enough that I hope you also can apply them to your own lives.

Alright, so with no particular order in mind, let’s jump into what those are.

1. Learning accelerates itself through inertia, if you allow it.

This year alone, I’ve completed 4 AWS certifications, 5 Udacity nanodegrees, 10 Udemy courses, and wrote over 70 blog posts. Those numbers are a little staggering to think about! I’m often asked how I’m able to learn so much. Part of it is that I’m insane (tee hee), but the honest to goodness truth is that learning can create a massive snowball of inertia if you let it.

For example, many people will earn something like the baseline AWS Cloud Practitioner certification and choose to wait something like six months before pursuing the next AWS Solutions Architect - Associate. Well, here’s the thing… there’s so much overlap between those two exams that waiting will likely cause you to forget and have to relearn a lot of former material. Keeping the ball rolling on learning sustains that inertia by not having to relearn certain concepts over and over. So yes, it might seem like a lot to take an accelerated learning path like I did, but actually… it wasn’t too bad!

2. Clear thinking is more important than intelligence.

I more or less ripped the wording on this one from a tweet recently shared by Naval Ravikant, but that’s because it really is so true. The way I define “intelligence” here is essentially having the capacity to learn ever increasingly complex ideas. Obviously, you’ll recognize this as a value highly esteemed in higher education. But what is less discussed is clear thinking. Now, I was tempted to call this “common sense”, but common sense implies that one should be able to understand an idea without having to think about it at all.

Clear thinking more is this idea that you can actively apply logic to understand complex ideas even if you don’t understand everything that underpins those ideas. The biggest example I can think of this is learning almost anything in the IT field. Yes, it is certainly helpful to understand how to provision resources in a cloud environment, but you are far better served to logically understand WHY you would provision certain things over HOW exactly that is done. (And I recently wrote a long post on how to logic this out through a basic IT mental model.)

By applying clear thinking, you accelerate learning at those lower level “how to” details, too. I also wrote another post not too long ago demonstrating how memory is formed on top of meaningful associations. Clear thinking demonstrates that “how to” details are far more memorable when they can be easily associated to ideas you already understand on a more basic level.

3. Deconstruction of ideas is only served well by a later reconstruction.

We’re now starting to get more into what I was talking about with my own spiritual reformation, but it’s interesting how strongly this applies to things like political views as well. This particular idea here comes from Father Richard Rohr and his metaphor of the three boxes. What I want to focus on is how important it is to push through that second box of deconstruction to the third box of reconstruction.

Unfortunately, I spent most of my 20s being a cynical downer. Less overtly, I would judge this or that as being negligible or stupid without trying to reconcile those thoughts in any meaningful way. What I eventually came to grips with is that that deconstructive cynicism only made me a hollow, depressed person. Eventually, I learned that seeking beauty through later reconstruction and reconciliation was not only possible but very, very fulfilling on pretty much every level in life.

Through my own experience, I now see how we as a society fall into the same deconstructive trap. Yes, it is absolutely necessary to challenge the status quo, especially when it is harmful, but if you don’t seek some end goal of reconstruction and reconciliation, you just become embittered and angry. Trust me, that’s not a place you want to remain in long. I wish I would have learned this a whole lot sooner than I did.

4. You haven’t questioned everything until you question that which you hold most dear.

Again, this is another of those lessons learned from my spiritual reformation. I naively used to think that I was truthfully being open minded toward new ideas, but this year showed me how truly wrong I was about that. In dying to my ego, I laid down ideas I’ve held onto pretty much ever since I was born and started to see so many things around me I had blindly missed. These were ideas I never dreamed I would have ever let go of, and I am still astounded how much those old ideas held me back from learning some very beautiful things.

Of course, this concept extends well beyond the bounds of spiritual matters. In a sense, we’re biologically inclined to NOT challenge the status quo of our own lives. The neurological “default mode network” seeks to maintain homeostasis in our lives even if that means reinforcing things that may be inhibiting us from being better people. So yeah, it’s kind of hard getting out of your own way.

For me personally, it was a long coming acceptance that the ideas I held onto just weren’t working. But I’ve since learned it is indeed possible to transcend your ego without having to go through painful experiences like I did. That said, I hope that you can learn this lesson from me without the pain, friend.

5. Life is largely what you make of it.

As one of my favorite video game series (Assassin’s Creed) likes to put it: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” For as much hubbub as we make about human ideals, it’s sort of undeniable that humanity has placed a lot of meaning on what we objectively can’t verify as being any more than patterns of molecules. Truly ask yourself, why is it that this clump of molecules that forms my hand is any more or less important than that clump of molecules that form a piece of pizza?

It’s super easy to get caught up in the melodrama of our lives that we forget to see that how we behave is largely a reaction to how we perceive reality. Of course, this isn’t at all to discount heinous acts like human trafficking. But by and large, most of us here in the West dictate our own life outlook. Our lives generally aren’t as bad as we make them out to be. You have more power than you may realize on how happy you are in life.

I would generally consider myself to be a much happier person than I was four years ago even though my life really hasn’t changed all that much. I still live in the same town, work at the same company, and hang out around the same people. My life didn’t change due to circumstance; my life changed due to my outlook on those circumstances. I hope that’s good news for you, especially if you think you have to turn your life on its head in order to be happy.

Well folks, that wraps up another year of blog posts for me! I hope you’re as excited as I am for what’s to come in 2020 and wish all the best for you in all your endeavors. I’ll see you again with a fresh batch of posts coming almost right away in January. Until then, I wish you all a happy new year!

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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