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Year in review 2015

Tin reads my mind:

I have mixed feelings about writing a “year in review”. Often times it feels like a boasting competition. Who collected the most miles, lectures, awards or crossed off bucket list items. On the other hand, it’s extremely healthy to stop, reflect, recap and honestly, just remember the good (and less good) times one had during a year.

Personally, benefits of reflection outweigh any mistaken perceptions some people might have about this kind of posts. And since I’m always pursuing knowledge and wisdom, I won’t bore you with numbers of travel destinations and books read. Instead, I’ll share some lessons learned during the past year and things that have really sunk in.

People in the same room can make wonders

People sketching together.

People who have known each other for a long time often can’t come to a satisfying conclusion or a solution over the phone, email, or video conference. But put them in a room with a good facilitator and, oh man, results happen. Somehow this physical proximity tears down communication barriers and things progress many times faster. Technology is wonderful, but nothing beats face-to-face.

I witness this all the time on meetings, workshops, and design sprints. Some people might argue that “a good team can produce the same results remotely”. Yes, a right group of people can do much, but two things are worth mentioning:

  1. It’s not always possible to hand-pick all colleagues or teammates to work with. Friction in communication is inevitable with some of them. By gathering everyone in one location, it’s possible to design the environment in a way to either reduce friction or completely remove it.
  2. A good team will almost always produce better results in-person than remotely, even though remote work of that team might outperform in-person work of a weaker team.

Proximity ≠ utility

Common knowledge says: if a person is in the middle of something good, he or she will strongly benefit from it. Mastering a language by living in a foreign country or improving public speaking performance by attending high profile conferences are examples that come easy.

It sounds right, but my experience in the past year tells me it doesn’t work that way. I saw many people leave opportunities on the table and also observed many situations where surrounding knowledge didn’t transfer into their heads by itself, although they were hoping it would.

A person in a privileged position has better opportunities and a higher potential to improve, not the improvement itself. To get it, the person has to put in work. A lot of work.

Here are some of my successes and failures this year:

  • I improved my German considerably. It wasn’t because I live in a German speaking area—I know many people who live here for years and still can’t read or communicate in German—but because I practiced it daily. I consider myself privileged because I have better access to resources and native speakers than most other people.
  • I didn’t immerse myself into local communities as much as I wanted to (this is a euphemism for “almost zero”). More than eight million people live in Switzerland, so it’s not like I didn’t have an opportunity.
  • I advanced my work-related skills by learning from my peers and asking for feedback and guidance. Because I was proactive about it, smart people at Google taught me more than I could learn on my own.

Am I defined by my language

It’s a bit terrifying to see how little benefit I get from Croatian, my native language, by living in a foreign country. At work I speak English and the world around my office speaks German (sort of). I read and write in English. To work, exercise, get food and go through my regular day, I don’t need to utter a word of Croatian. I use it only to talk to my wife, my family and my old friends; almost all new people in my life don’t know it. At the moment, it’s just a maintainer of important relationships.

Why am I bringing this up? Because it was during 2015 that it dawned on me I was slowly losing a use for the skill that was honed for 30 years. My question going forward is: “Am I only losing a skill or a part of my identity too?” All people are loss-averse, and so am I.

Setting goals is important for progress

Six years ago I had a minor identity crisis. I was running a small company with my friends and, as it usually happens in that situation, I worked on too many things at the same time. I wasn’t sure if I wanted or needed to improve in programming, design, sales, marketing, or something else. I couldn’t focus, especially on long-term goals. Then I decided to write down my thoughts on what I really wanted to do and use that as a guide.

I didn’t call them goals back then. I called them directions because they were abstract. Only later I started to write down more specific steps and goals. Coming up and sticking to directions was one of the best decisions I made in a decade.

The arrow of progress zigzagging through goals represented as

It’s more important to have direction and momentum than to hit every goal exactly. Goals can be like signposts, showing the way and not just the final destination.

It might be hard to evaluate benefits of setting goals over weeks or months, but I’ve been doing it for six years now and it pays off. I accomplished majority of things I had written down and even if I didn’t finish something, I still made some progress. Writing down goals is good for reflection too. I can go back two or three years, see what I aimed at and where I am now. Although I did it for some time before joining Google, I improved goal setting by observing how Google does Objectives and Key Results.

Goal setting is an old and proven technique. Here are some quick tips:

  • Goals should be SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Goals with at least one factor missing are less likely to be accomplished.
  • Goals can change. Stuff happens. Life is complicated.
  • Goals should be written down and reread every month or two, or before a bigger personal or professional decision. They are not mantras or affirmations to be repeated every day.

2016, I’m ready!

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