2013 Annual Review
Inspired by Chris Guillebeau and James Clear, I have decided to formalise that age-old end-of-year tradition of reflecting on the year just gone, in preparation for what's to come.  But firstly, I think it's worth mentioning that my approach to this process is somewhat looser than that proposed by Guillebeau. At a different time in my life, I would have relished the opportunity to review and plan to the level of precise and measurable detail that Guillebeau achieves.  What kind of quantitative scientist would I be if I didn't enjoy a good spreadsheet?  To be fair, setting specific goals and detailed plans to achieve them can be an effective path towards achievement and personal betterment.  Like most people, I started setting goals for myself that were far too vague, hard to quantify, not time-framed.  Then as I got older, I took the SMART acronym to heart and started setting goals that met every criteria - specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-framed.  This approach worked, for a time.  But my personal approach to goal setting has changed remarkably over the last three years, thanks largely to my karate practice and lessons I've learned from (my perceptions of) the good and bad examples of others around me.

I have learned to resist the pursuit of success. I don't chase awards of achievement, status, or titles. I focus now on behaving honestly, chasing challenges, loving well, living fully, and doing interesting work, and I find that success finds its own way to meet me along that path.

Maybe that sounds a bit fluffy, like some new-agey zen talk that could easily be construed as a cop out.  But I have found that living out this mindset is hard work in reality, far more difficult than setting and pursuing concrete goals.  To fully implement this approach, I have to let go of goals, I have to learn to love the process and its challenges more than the conquest.  But the hardest part is re-calibrating my perception of success.  I have been sucker-punched so many times this year by apparent failures, and it has only been the passage of time and the support of great friends that have helped me to see these failures as markers of progress in and of themselves.  These failures have taught me that forward momentum is not progress if it is in the wrong direction.  And standing still or turning back are not always signs of weakness, either.

Having said that, allowing myself to be flattened by failure has demonstrated to me the immeasurable power of family, as I define it.  When I have had nothing left within me, the people I love have stepped up to the plate, scraped me off the floor, and shown me why this life is worth living.

What went well this year?

Karate.  I graded to black belt in December.  I've already written plenty about it here and here, but suffice to say it was a massive highlight, and so satisfying to reap the fruits of my labours in the 14 months since I graded to brown belt.

Travel.  I went on two international trips to present my research at conferences, which gave me the chance to visit Spain for the first time, return to my second home to catch up with old friends in London, and re-visit Thailand after more than a decade since my last trip there.

I love and I am loved, and that is enough.  I am surrounded by great people who love me for who I am, who believe the best lives within me, and who never give up on me even when I give up on myself.  And I love these people to the end of the earth.  This year has taught me the power of these words, this feeling.  I have come to understand that loving deeply is its own reward.

Training volume and consistency.  At the start of 2013, I decided that I wanted to finish the year fitter than I have ever been.  Since my knee reconstruction in 2006, my training has been patchy - good for short stretches, non-existent at other times.  But I knew that I would have to work harder than I've ever worked in order to put myself in contention for a December grading.  While I don't know that I am fitter than I have ever been, I have definitely come a long way since the start of the year.  I have been training with great consistency over the last two months in particular, and within physical exertion I have regularly accessed much-treasured mental space.  I've also done some things I never thought I'd want to do nor agree to do!  In April, I paddled 16 km of the Yarra as part of a relay team for the Marysville 2 Melbourne.  This year, I've done continuous 5 km runs for the first time in my life, and recently knocked off my first 10 km run (in under 60 min too!).  These distances are unremarkable for some, the pace even moreso, but for someone who hates running, I'm going to call it good :)

Diversity of work.  I am really proud of the variety of projects that fit under the umbrella of "my work".

As a PhD student, I get to embrace the challenge and the privilege to create new and useful knowledge.  This year, I had one manuscript accepted for publication - my first journal article and the first publication from my PhD research.  But my favourite part of my studies has been the chance to interact with athletes and coaches.  It has been some of the most fulfilling work of my career to date, and these experiences confirm for me that the applied environment is where I belong as a sports scientist.

Interestingly, one reason I chose to pursue this PhD was the chance to develop a suite of analytical skills, firstly to pursue my research questions and secondly to make myself more useful in the increasingly data-driven elite sport environment.  The way that these things go, my research questions morphed over time, and the analysis skills I acquired and refined became largely irrelevant to my PhD.  However, not all has gone to waste; I have been fortunate to work on several other projects this year that have allowed me to use my analysis skills to help push these projects forward.  It's rewarding to know that my earlier work has culminated in a useful skill set for others.

Beyond the research environment, I have found a teaching groove this year which I think has come from a change in mindset, a realisation that we who teach have the incredible privilege of opening young minds and inspiring them to explore infinite possibilities.

Lastly, I get to use my internet powers for productive good.  Despite having coordinated the online marketing projects for Inspire Fitness for the last three years, I am still amazed that I get paid to do this work primarily because I am familiar with online environments (read: I spend too much time on the internets).  To be honest, I never thought that all those late nights spent on Yahoo! Chat would ever result in paid work...funny how these things turn out!

What didn't go so well this year?

PhD progress was slower than I'd hoped.  I missed lots of deadlines and did not progress my PhD as quickly as needed to finish up at three years.  Looking back, there are many things I could have done differently to finish at three years.  Chief among them?  Taking more time to consider how many projects I had on the go at once.  Then again, I had very rational reasons for choosing to work the way I did in 2013.  Earning a solid income was an imperative due to financial commitments which I could not have met with my scholarship stipends alone.  Overall, I work better when I have a few major projects to keep my mind occupied.  And I said yes to lots of work that I truly enjoy!  Seems like there are many people out there who don't love what they do, who complain about their roles and responsibilities.  But I have been so fortunate in my working life to date; I've only ever done things I've been passionate about, and when that passion has dried up, I've been able to stop and re-direct my energies elsewhere.

It is a privilege borne from my parents' hard work: migrants from Cambodia who came to Australia with literally nothing, who had to take whatever jobs were available to them in order to support a young family with two children (my brother and sister), and eventually me when I came into the picture as the third.  Both started off with factory work, where my mum would stay until her retirement.  My dad transitioned out and became a driving instructor, which was more fulfilling for him than the factory environment but made little use of his medical qualifications from back home.  It is humbling to think of my parents' sacrifices, and it is thanks to them that I am armed with a solid education and an independent mind, both necessary ingredients for me to pursue the work of my dreams.

Failing to meet my three-year deadline also taught me lessons that I couldn't have learned otherwise:
  • There's a reason why not many people submit their PhD theses on three years...it's really hard!  Was it overly ambitious to think I could finish mine in three years?  I still maintain that the goal was achievable, but my stop-and-start approach to it this year was never going to lead to ultimate success.
  • I can work myself to the bone, and it makes me mean.  There are so many things that are more important in my life than my PhD, and while I love what I do, I don't love it so much that I want to pursue it at such steam that my personal relationships suffer. That said...
  • I'm ready to go out and make a bigger impact on the world (but not before I finish my PhD).  I don't think I've ever felt so motivated to finish my PhD than I am now, because I am so excited by the prospect of what lies in wait outside the academic bubble.

Letting people down.  I consider myself a trustworthy person, but there were times this year that my idea of myself was inflated beyond reality.  I made promises and I broke them.  Promises that felt small enough to bend for the sake of a reaction, a story, a laugh.  But I learned that there is no such thing as a small promise.  I'm so grateful that the people I wronged were willing to forgive me, but the process of forgiving myself is a long road.  At this point, I think I am more trustworthy than I've ever been, but only because I let people down this year and I hate how my betrayal made them feel.  Being trustworthy is not a one-and-done proposition, it requires ongoing effort and whole-hearted intent.

Repeated battles within myself.  I went through some real rough trots this year.  Spans of weeks were marred by deep sadness and disappointment in myself.  I don't regret these down periods, because it was during these times that harsh introspection led to great personal growth, primarily by doing away with the parts of myself that no longer serve my current values.  More than ever, I am humbled by who I thought I was, assured in who I actually am, and comfortable in the knowledge that I have so much to learn about myself and my place in the world.  Nevertheless, the dark times were hard.  Some days, I couldn't get myself out of bed.  Other days, I wandered around in a haze, willfully submitting to the numbness as an escape from pain.  It has not been so long since my most recent dance with the devil, and with a mind that defaults to cynicism and self-deprecation, I am sure it won't be my last.  I will take it as a sign of 25-year-old wisdom that I know to not glorify the darkness.

What am I working towards?

Daily practice.  I am continuously tinkering with my daily practice.  I find it helpful to have daily rituals to punctuate my day; it centres me and helps me focus on effort, intent, and simplicity.  For example, I cop a bit of flack for my meticulousness when it comes to brewing coffee.  But its delicious effectiveness as a caffeine delivery system aside, I am so dedicated to the ritual because it gives me multiple opportunities throughout a day to slow down and practice mindfulness.

I used to keep a daily gratitude journal - just a simple list of 3 or so things that I am grateful for on any given day - and I'd like to re-introduce that into my daily practice going forward.  In addition, I am looking forward to greater regularity with my meditation practice.  In the final months of my black belt grading prep, I experimented with brief meditations for the primary purpose of more closely connecting my mind and my body.  In the process, I came to appreciate the mental space these meditations afforded me to work through my crazy thoughts in a compassionate way.  Finally, I have always wanted to be able to communicate in French, to be at least conversational and maybe fluent one day.  I have been chipping away at it for years, but if I am to really make a big leap in my French comprehension, then I need to immerse myself by living in France (a dream of mine, but not within the scope of my immediate plans) or committing to regular French practice here at home.

Finishing my PhD.  I've already written plenty about my PhD in this review, so I'll keep this one brief.  The aim is to submit my thesis in the first half of 2014.

Saving up for international travel and / or moving abroad.  Though dangerous it may be to cast my gaze beyond my PhD, I can't help but glance ahead at the wide open road.  I know as much as the next person about where I'm headed next (which is to say, I know nothing), but if things pan out as I'd like them to, then I will hopefully find myself in steady employ overseas in the second half of 2014.  Between now and then, I'll need to be a bit more considered with my expenses so that I can finance the big move, if and when it happens.

Maintaining training consistency and intent.  This one's pretty straightforward: I just want to keep doing what I'm doing.  Over the last two months, my training has been great because I have made progress with every session...even in those sessions that felt rushed, poor in technical execution, revealing the considerable flaws in my fitness.  By keeping a detailed training log over the last two years, I am better able to put my training into perspective, and I search for the lesson in every session - which means that even the shitty sessions represent progress.  I'm looking forward to further improving my fitness, to extend the limits of what I am physically and mentally capable of enduring.

"There's no rush to get to where you're going."  I want to get better at taking the long-term view of life.  As an action-oriented person, I often want to do things immediately, to act and then see change occurring before my eyes.  But as ambitious as I am, I love the variety in my life, and I don't think I am willing to give that up just to get somewhere quickly.  Which leads me onto my next focus...

Re-commit to living a full life.  A few years ago, I realised that all I want from this life is to say that I have lived it fully by pursuing new experiences while thinking and acting in accordance with my values.  But trying to live fully makes some parts of life really hard.  For instance, I have experienced intense despair and near-violent anger in the last few years. For someone with a non-confrontational disposition, it is frightening and humbling when these feelings manifest within me.  But the darkness is necessary; I think of all the love in my life and the hard times make me appreciate it all the more.

So I know that pursuing a life fully lived is exactly what I want for myself.  But I am a little older and wiser since I first made this commitment, and I understand now that living a full life means to plumb the depths of all experiences.  I could choose to steel myself, to harden up in order to survive the ups and downs.  But is there a more fruitful path?  I have vacillated on this topic for much of this year, and I'm sure it will continue on into the future, but I think the most beneficial approach is a mixture of being kinder to myself, opening up to the ones I love, and letting go of expectations.

Giving back to my community.  This year, I learned an important lesson about giving: it is the common denominator in all of the work that ever mattered in my life.  Wherever my professional and personal interests wander, the value of my contribution has always come down to how helpful I have been to others.  I have found many ways to contribute to the world that immediately surrounds me, but I would also like to devote some of my time and effort to contributing to the wider community.  I'm not sure what the best avenue(s) might be, but I'd like to make use of my skills and education to help those in need.

Continuing to get better at communicating.  Another skill set I've been chipping away at for several years.  Though my tendency to dominate conversations with rambling is less frequent than, say, when I was a self-centred teenager, the terrible habit still rears its ugly head on occasion.  My ongoing work is to get better at listening, to be more attentive to both verbal and non-verbal language, and to "sit with" conversations for longer so that I can more accurately absorb its important messages.
All in all, when I think back on the adventures I've had this year, I smile, then I grin, then I laugh!  It has been a fun and funny year, a year of pursuing adventures, of risking big mistakes, of great personal growth...a year I will not soon forget.  Great friendships have stayed true, some have even become stronger, and I am catapulting into 2014, propelled by the excitement of change and the unknown.

Thanks 2013, you've been a good'un.