Some years feel like a wild struggle to get all the pieces of your life's puzzle into place. Then there are years where everything falls into place, in a single; effortless move.
2020 was neither: in fact, it was a raging fire of unexpected twists and turns; a year so far down the 'change versus stability' scale even I had to re-tailor my yardstick. A year full of failures, surprises, new beginnings and sad old deja-vus.
Most of all, 2020 was a wildly eventful year - like a high-octane Hollywood movie taking place in the comfort of my living room. So, what the f**k happened?
Last year I wrote: "There's nothing I would change about my job in 2020, and I'd very much like to stay at my current employer and work on all the things I'm excited about for next year."
In 2020, I quit my job.
There are three overlapping reasons that explain this U-turn, which have also defined the wider economic landscape this year: the pandemic, scale, and global growth.
First, this pandemic. As we sign off on 2020, the global repercussions of Covid-19 have just barely started to materialize - but if Pfizer's and Moderna's promises hold up in 2021, and we go back to 'normal', a lot of people will have to understand that 2021's normal is radically different from 2019's. I saw this with clarity, and I really didn't like my employer's new normal; so I started wrapping up my projects in late September.
Second point: scale. My employer became one of Europe's tech success stories during the Covid crisis, leveraging an irrationally bullish market to double its workforce in less than a year (and more than quadruple since my joining date).
I tried - and largely succeeded - to 'grow with, not through' the company, but as the global headcount passed 2000, I realized the company I was excited to work for in 2019 was just not there anymore. Much like adding four extra wheels won't make your car double as fast, scale isn't inherently good. I hope that at a certain point in my career I will be able to see what works when scaling - this year, however, I had a crash course in what doesn't work, so I left.
Third and final point: growth is global. I firmly believe the biggest challenge of the 2020s is going to make sure enough people - especially in underdeveloped global areas - are given tools and leverage to shape the global economy, and be an active part of it. We have a real possibility to further build the global economic engine in a direction that is good for the world at large and not for a few monolithic players. Despite its significant size and involvement, the leadership at my employer was not interested in building this economic engine - or profiting from it -, instead priding itself in being a fast follower. That is significantly different from the dreams the company had when I joined, so I decided to go look for true innovation at some other place that is not just content with following.
Despite leaving, from a product-driven standpoint I did exceed my expectations again: last year I wrote that I would work on "our two main products for the 2019-2020 cycle". I actually ended up doing three products in this cycle, two of which in a leadership position, and delivered on all three.
That's why mostly everyone at work was very surprised when I resigned. I loved my job in 2019, and to be fair I did so throughout 2020, working with passion and purpose until the very day I left. I left on good terms, my counter-offer was very generous, and I'm still in touch with my colleagues - my friends.
Yet I would also have preferred not to leave. I wrote about my experience on the job market here, and yeah, it's a jungle out there. As I prepare my boarding passes for next year - first for Europe and then for Asia - I hope to be as excited about work at the end of 2021 as I was in 2019 - with 2020 an unfortunate blip on an otherwise great track record of passion and drive at work. And I'm very excited about my next gig.
Four damns out of five.
Last year I wrote that I would not see my (European) friends as much, because I'd move to Asia. As it turns out, I didn't see my friends as much because I moved into my living room, where I was locked in for most of 2020.
This global pandemic had a very large impact on everyone I know. Some weathered the isolation better than others. Some had to postpone marriages, or graduations; new jobs, or big moves. Some lost their loved ones. Some were lucky and left untouched by the plague, so they planned trips to Disneyland or Cape Town, living as if nothing had happened.
I saw this all happen in real time, because of the very strong bond I have with a very large bunch of people - a bond that, as I wrote last year, does not require "the familiarity of a routine to carry our friendship into old age". I didn't see my friends face to face a lot, but they were with me throughout the year, day in, day out.
In 2020 I was often alone, but never lonely.
Five damns out of five.
In 2020 I fell in love.
I've gone out with a significant amount of people, dated a few, hooked up with more. I've seen (some) people in happy relationships; I've seen (a lot of) unhappy relationships, but most of all I've seen people that were so scared of being left alone with their thoughts for a time, that they just looked for someone they could settle for instead and squeezed into a two-some, letting the pressure of life naturally twist each other into a tangle of companionship.
So here's my own love story instead. I met the person I love on the internet while looking for a hookup in the middle of a global lockdown. Neither of us was thinking about a second date, but then the game I was supposed to play was delayed, and her friend canceled dinner - so we both had nothing better to do. By the third week, we pooped with the bathroom door open. Fourth week, keys to each other's houses. How's that for a Hollywood romance.
There is no infatuation in this love; we didn't spend every waking moment together; we didn't make plans for life and we definitely never finish each other sentences. We never fought, although we sometimes did cry; we never argued, although we discussed for hours. We did not travel to faraway places, appear in each other's Instagram, or buy each other expensive gifts. She did not try to change me, nor did I: we just enjoyed our differences. Even though this relationship will probably end, I loved every moment we spent together.
In 2019 I wrote "I think the greatest predictor of successful relationships is how much effort you want to put in to make it work.". As it turns out, I was wrong: effortless relationships very much exist - they are just few and far between. And the relationship we built in 2020 is truly foundational; there is love here but also the promise of building something together.
I'm just not entirely sold on the freedom to solidity trade-off.
In 2019 I wondered whether I could build a successful relationship. As it turns out, the relationship built itself in an exceedingly remarkable way in 2020: this is truly the best I could do, and there's nothing I miss in my partner, or I would change in the relationship. The question for 2021 - as I move across continents - is: is this truly better than going solo? The jury's still out.
Either zero or five damns out of five.
In 2019 I wrote about my health. In 2020, a global pandemic killed north of half a million people in Europe, with almost 2 million deaths worldwide. We're still far from an end to this global Plague.
Some people I loved got it and never recovered. Remarkably, I haven't yet - and neither has my family. I am grateful for that and hope we keep being that lucky.
For many people in the western world, this year is the first stark reminder that death can knock at your door when you least expect it. When I lived in the developing world death was very present - people live with it. But in 2020 Europe, it's easy to think we're invincible.
We really aren't. So I won't talk about health, except to say this: hug your loved ones. You never know what can happen tomorrow.
In 2019 I wrote that I didn't get around to improve my Chinese or hardware engineering skills because I traveled too much. Since I spent 2020 in lockdown, by now I'm probably fluent in Mandarin, right?
Of course not. Like many other people this year, I've found out that being confined into one's home does not make for a rewarding - or prolific - productive environment.
That said, I did learn a lot about cryptography; brushed up on my machine learning, truly started to understand (and write about) product management; I did take a significant number of outstanding pictures, wrote a lot, played more videogames than I've ever done before - even in VR! - and so much more.
Pixar's latest masterpiece - a movie called Soul - has a very significant quote: "[the hobbies you love] really aren't your purpose - they're just regular old living". Even in such a weird year, I've managed to keep living - and be entertained, amazed and moved - by all these things I've tried. Who cares if I don't speak Mandarin (yet)?
Five damns out of five.
In 2019 I saw Hong Kong, China, Japan, Brazil, Australia and Singapore to name a few. In 2020 I saw my living room, my studio, my bedroom, and my VR headset.
In 2019 I wrote that I'd be in Asia by 2020. As I write this there's three days left in 2020 and I'm still not in Asia, so unless I pull a major Phileas Fogg, it's safe to say this year disappointed on that front too.
That said, I did get to see places I didn't even know existed - all at biking distance from my glorious apartment in Amsterdam East. And, as borders reopen in 2021, I will travel again: first to Northern Europe, where my next job is located, and then - if all goes well - to Singapore, where I plan to spend the next few years focusing on the neighboring countries and markets.
That's next year - 2021 - and I'm excited and hopeful about the places I'll see and the people I'll meet. But it's hard to deny that 2020 was a bit of a letdown in terms of moves - planned and unplanned. You win some and you lose some - and 2020 with its closed border and Asian Fiascos definitely belongs to the latter category.
One damn out of five.
In 2019 I worried about being able to deliver on my promises at work, about the ability to move to Asia, and wrote that "I was able to handle every curveball that life threw at me". 2020 finds me in a very similar situation.
I'm starting a new, more involved job at a company that is just as successful - but much more ambitious - than my previous employer. I wonder if I'll be able to help them achieve their lofty goals.
I am still planning to move to South East Asia - and the stars seem well aligned this time around - but let's wait and see.
And yes, 2020 threw me (and us all) plenty of curveballs: I quit my job, but found something better. I fell in love, but I'm not sure how the relationship will survive next year's moves. I didn't travel, but I moved countries (again). I managed to spend more time with my family, but less with my friends. And of course I was part of a once-in-a-generation crisis for the second time in my lifetime. It feels like they're getting more frequent, isn't it?
But amongst this uncertainty and the many question marks that still remain in my head about 2021, I am still passionate about what I do and optimistic about my future. Compared to the millions of people who struggled greatly in 2020, I have nothing to complain about. I am once again incredibly lucky, and here once again, charging once more unto the breach, deeply insignificant in this very large world of ours, but very aware that this isn't just water: it's a wide open ocean.
So here I come.