Photo: by David Elikwu, in Accra, Ghana

20: One long year later

Newsletter 🗞 Jan 18, 2021

We can all agree that 2020 was awful, but I learnt a few things worth sharing and am making a lot of changes to how I approach life.


Before we get stuck in I just wanted to thank you all for subscribing, supporting and sharing this newsletter over the past year. We’ve already passed the mark of 500 loyal subscribers, and each week these issues are read by a wider audience of up to 3000. It’s crazy to think that this experiment of learning publicly started in Jan 2020, and despite my hiccups in consistency, there hasn’t been a single day since August 2020 that someone wasn’t reading something I wrote here.

Please continue to share these issues when you find them useful, and reprimand me when you don’t. All feedback is welcome and I’m grateful for everyone who took the time to email or tweet me with kind words in the past year. You’re awesome.

You can’t convince me that 2020 was a good year

I don’t want to do a typical year in review - if you read as many newsletters (like this one) as I do, you’re probably sick of them. Despite any personal growth or achievements in 2020 I could never bring myself to characterise it as a good year. It was horrific.

That said, it’s been almost a full year since I started this newsletter, so I figured it’s still worth sharing the biggest lessons I’ve learned, and things you can emulate to make the most of the year ahead.

Start on the right foot

I’m excited to see where life will take me as I step further out of my comfort zone and embrace the nexus of things I love x things that serve me. Productive deployment of mental and emotional resources will be a major personal theme in 2020.

That’s an excerpt from Issue 1. Such wanton optimism. In fairness I do think I lived up to it. 2020 was an emotionally draining, unpredictable and dare I say it - unprecedented year. Despite technically having more time at home, it was also an extremely challenging time for me to maintain the focus and discipline needed to produce a weekly newsletter and podcast.

Don’t take the status quo for granted

Last year I proclaimed that I had fallen out of love with the idea of concrete goals and resolutions, and that it was sufficient to continually review more esoteric goals I set for myself in 2018.

The things I’m most proud of in the last few years were nowhere on January’s horizon. I know I’m in an accelerated growth and development phase of my life and keep that in mind with the tasks and opportunities I choose to undertake. I set soft personal goals (minimums rather than ideals) on current projects because hard targets can often feel like a ceiling on my aspiration. Instead, I’ve simply pinned my “Goals for 2018” note to the top of my notes app and I read over it every year as a reminder of the principles I want to be led by. They’re targets of character rather than achievement.

In retrospect this approach largely assumes a status quo of continual progress, and if there’s anything i’ve learnt from 2020, it’s not taking status quo for granted.

I previously wrote about productivity and the motivation myth, explaining the flaws of relying purely on motivation to accomplish tasks, but on a macro level I now see that I’d fallen into a similar trap with yearly planning. What gets measured gets managed, and this year I’ll be doubling down on that mantra.

Commit to the extra-ordinary

2020 was definitely the year I threw myself off any cliff I could find. If I saw a challenge, I said yes. Did all these things go as planned? No. Did I do them anyway? Yes. Doing what must be done, and holding myself accountable for challenges I set myself was a personal theme, and the resulting successes are largely owed to habits I wrote about in Issue 12. Throwing caution to the wind has its consequences, but they often don’t compare to the lessons you learn. Here’s some crazy things I did this year:

  • In January I started this newsletter - writing publicly and consistently under my own name for the first time. I also relaunched my personal podcast ‘The Knowledge’, while starting a second podcast ‘Travel and Turn Up’ with two amazing co-hosts and fellow travel entrepreneurs, Jide and Tiffanie.
  • In July I walked 100,000 steps in a day (with just a month to prepare). That’s 81km, or two back-to-back marathons. It took over 18 hours and I nearly covered the equivalent distance between London and Luton TWICE. It’s possibly the most foolhardy thing I’ve done in years and I would never do it again - but I survived! My ‘highly scientific’ training regimen involved walking more than 14km for the first time in my life, then walking 30km twice the next week, and then 50km the week before I was meant to walk the full 81km. Again, to be clear, this was a very stupid plan and I don’t recommend anyone ever doing the same with such little preparation.
  • In August, within a week of announcing it, I launched Democratic Republic, selling direct-trade coffee sustainably sourced from across Africa. In the first week we had orders from 6 countries and 4 US states. I don’t know how these amazing people found us, but they did. Then they came back for more, and they brought their friends! (If you haven’t tried our amazing coffee yet, you know what to do!)
  • In September I officially transitioned from BigLaw to tech with a full-time Chief of Staff role at one of the UK’s fastest growing tech startups.

In November, as part of a challenge to make £1k in 2 weeks set by my entrepreneurship programme, I tweeted a poll asking who would be interested if I started a wine business. Four days later I launched one. In the next four days we made £1.5k and by the end of the week hit £3k in sales. The wine business will go from strength to strength this year as part of Democratic Republic. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s in high demand so stay tuned for the next release!

  • There were no grand proclamations in December but by this point, Travel and Turn Up was a top 10 travel and culture podcast in at least four countries, my other podcast had passed the 6k listens mark despite not publishing for several months, and most importantly of all, my wanton and oft dangerous exploits had connected me with a variety of amazing minds around the world. I recorded over 100 podcast episodes, sent an ungodly number of tweets, got to engage in a lot of great conversations and had a tonne of amazing feedback. I couldn’t ask for more.

Even when you don’t know what lies beyond the horizon, it’s often worth making the leap. Take calculated risks, learn powerful lessons, and document as much as you can.

Show up consistently

It takes some audacity for me to say this knowing that I haven’t had consistent output in every creative medium this past year, and I won’t hide behind my struggles with anxiety in that regard either. That said, when you start with first principles, it isn’t the format that matters so much as the goal. By staying true to my goals day by day regardless of format, I’ve received compounding returns.

For context, my primary aim in starting this newsletter was to share as I learn. The same goes for my podcast and most of my online presence. So when I didn’t podcast I still wrote newsletters. When I didn’t write newsletters I wrote threads. When I didn’t write threads I wrote tweets. When anxiety, procrastination and writers block struck, I delivered continual output through lower-stakes mediums. Simultaneously, I doubled down on my inputs, i.e. how much I learned and absorbed. Over the course of the year I increased my yearly reading target on Goodreads from 25 to 40 to 52, and then broke that final target by reading 60 books.

My Goodreads reading record showing I hit 60 books for the year 2020
My Goodreads reading record showing I hit 60 books for the year 2020

Some of the habits I established early in the year survived the pandemic largely due to my unnecessarily competitive nature - I’m currently on an inadvertent Duolingo streak of 200+ days because my pride is on the line every time I fall to the bottom of my league.

Conversely, some of my best habits were my least consistent but I capitalised on momentum. There were periods during the year where I didn’t pick up a single book, and there were three separate weeks in the year where I read 6,7, and 8 books respectively. I was cognisant of my end goal throughout and doubled down when I felt strong currents of intrigue and alertness.

At many points, my concentration waned. It took me several months to finish one particular book, and the odyssey of completing it involved buying it in paperback, ebook and then audiobook, and almost burning my house down when I fell asleep listening to the audiobook with a sausage roll in the oven. Something that helped throughout was a very intentional journey of publicly sharing my wins and losses, and living on the accountability of that community.

If you want to go far, go together

We are at our most potent when in service to a higher purpose. I don’t say that to be esoteric - it’s scientifically backed. By focusing on something greater than ourselves we can surpass seemingly immovable physical and mental obstacles.

I’ve touched on the accountability of strangers being a stick with which to flog yourself into animation, but it’s also a great carrot. I focused on providing value to others rather than writing/speaking as a presentation of ego, and as a result have been exposed to continual feedback from people who have benefitted from what I’ve shared, and been guided on how I can further serve them. Living in servitude to others can be a great motivator, although you’ll have to find a balance in prioritising personal wellbeing.

I spent most of 2020 holed up in isolation, suffering through a series of city and nationwide lockdowns at the incoherent whim of Britain’s ramshackle government. Despite this, the presence of friends and advisors has been of incalculable benefit. From my writing group to ex-colleagues, co-hosts and close friends, I can’t underestimate the value of having people who you trust that will hold you accountable and bring out the best in you by asking the right questions and having your best interests at heart even when you don’t.

My restless spirit often makes me a hammer in search of a nail, and the objective counsel of those around me allows me to channel that energy to productive ends. Being a solo operator has definable limits, but with more rope and stronger knots you’ll be surprised at what you can lift.

When I spoke at the Warwick Africa Summit I shared a Xhosa proverb I have come to love: ‘Inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili’. You must inquire from those who are ahead of you where the buffalo has been sighted. Lean in to the wisdom of your peers, and share your own learnings with those around you. Devote yourself to serving others. Often, the fastest way to reach your goal is helping others to reach theirs.


If you liked this you might like these issues:

If you learned anything worth sharing in 2020, I’d love to hear from you. Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

A man standing alone on a beach in Accra, Ghana: A photo by David Elikwu,
Photo: by David Elikwu, in Accra, Ghana

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Peak Performance by Brian Stulberg and Steve Magness - impulsively bought. I made copious notes from this book, and will very likely read and refer to it many more times in future.
  2. The Poppy War by R.F. Huang - recommended. This has been correctly described as possibly the best grimdark fantasy debut novel in history. After consuming this book in just over a day (not by choice, I couldn’t put it down) I sat and lamented the fact I may never be as good a fiction writer as Huang was at age 20.
  3. Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov - read. I saved the final instalment of Isaac Asimov’s trilogy until Dec 29 and it was well worth the wait. A great end to the trilogy that arguably defined science fiction.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • The Office - It seems like there is a fundamental rule of the universe that I must be several years late to almost any great series, but I finally gave the US version of The Office a second shot and yes, it is pretty great.
  • Lupin - a fun Netflix mini-series. Trigger warning for anyone suffering from cinematic xenophobia - it’s in French so you’ll need subtitles.

Resources:

  • Audible - people keep asking how I read up to 8 books a week and I’m going to keep telling you that Audible is the best thing since sliced bread. Make the most of the daily/weekly deals and start your digital stockpile!
  • RescueTime - it’s either awesome or downright scary to know that RescueTime has tracked 3,820 hours of my time, but I’ve been using it in the background over the last few years to get a weekly overview of how I’m spending my days.
  • Judge My Spotify - a lovely AI bot that had this to say about my musical taste:

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