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2019 Retrospective // 2020 Goals

It's that time of year again! Continuing my recently-started tradition of goal/OKR-setting and self-evaluation (previously: 2018, mid-2017), it's time to see how I did on my goals for 2019, which I picked a year ago rather haphazardly, scored rather arbitrarily, and have listed below in no meaningful order:

  • Make a Mango Street style vlog [4/10]
  • Do (run?) a triathlon [2/10]
  • Wake up earlier on average than I did in 2018 [8/10]
  • Get a six-pack, rawrrr [3/10]
  • Read 26 books [13/26]

I'll do a breakdown of the scores I assigned above later in this post. But first, I'm going to move the goalposts, and I assure you it's not because I only scored an average of 4.4/10 on those goals above.

Lately I've been thinking about what drives people. Let's assume that you've satisfied most of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and now you're just dealing with the self-actualization peak at the top of the pyramid. For some people, they find meaning through work, and you can tell by the number of hours they work and/or how late into their life they work, e.g. even when they could be retired already. For others, they find meaning through fostering meaningful connections with people (wholesome!). For some chunk of the population, they're caught in a rat race and always trying to be the best compared to others/peers. And finally, some people just want to have fun—life is about maximizing personal happiness.

I've distilled my ideal motivators into the list below. Keep in mind that there's a difference between my ideal ordering of these motivators, and the ordering that I actually execute.

  1. Leave the world a little bit better than I found it / make a positive impact
  2. Have some fun while I'm at it
  3. Constantly self-improve

Motivators 1 and 2 don't need a why and are somewhat in conflict with each other, e.g. one could dedicate their life to making a positive impact but that usually involves sacrificing having fun. Motivator 3 is in service to both 1 and 2, in that self-improvement could enable more impact-making, and could also be fun if one derives pleasure from self-improvement (which I do).

When I wrote out my 2019 goals, I wasn't thinking about them in this framework, which is why none of the goals relate to motivator 1, but that doesn't mean I sat around and did nothing this year…

Motivator 1: Make a positive impact

By make a positive impact, I refer to increasing QALYs in the world. In 2019, the main things I did in this area were:

  • Work on self-driving cars, which I believe will substantially reduce the number of people who lose their life to car crashes every year. (35,000 Americans and 1M people worldwide die in car crashes, and 94% of crashes are due to human error.)
  • Donate $18,000* to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides malaria-preventing bed-nets to developing countries. According to GiveWell's analysis, that translates to approximately 8.64 deaths averted.

*Effectively $18,000: $6,000 of my own money under a 3x matching program.

Expanding on the second point, I make the claim that most software engineers (and probably others, but I'm picking SWEs as an example since most people I know are SWEs) should be donating some chunk of their income to effective charities, but I'd hypothesize that most are not. I don't want to dedicate this whole post to soapboxing, but I'll quickly run through several arguments of varying strength for donating to effective charities, or just donating anything in general:

  • On donating anything: The average American in the $100K to $199K income bracket donates approximately $4,200 in a year. Are you above or below average?
  • On the cognitive bias of only caring about things that viscerally affect you: If you were wearing a fancy suit and saw a child drowning in a swimming pool, you would save the child even though it would ruin your suit, right? What difference does it make if the child is right in front of you versus thousands of miles away, and you could make the exact same tradeoff (ruin your suit, save a child)?
  • On donating to effective causes: Given that you want to do good, not every charity is the same. GiveWell is a charity evaluator that researches the charities that will, essentially, save the most lives for your dollar. Put another way, donating to the Against Malaria Foundation or GiveDirectly will improve outcomes for more people, and in a significantly greater way, than donating to e.g. your local arts program.


Virtue signaling out of the way, in 2020 in addition to maintaining what I'm doing above, I'd like to volunteer for an organization to help people learn to code. Teaching is something I'm passionate about—I was a teaching assistant for the AI and ML classes while at Berkeley, and I'd love to get back into it again.

Motivator 2: Fun

  • Make a Mango Street style vlog [4/10]
  • Do (run?) a triathlon [2/10]

Goal: Make a Mango Street style vlog

My favorite photography power couple is, of course, Mango Street. I think they really nail the storytelling aspect of their weekly vlogs and the production quality is on point (recently it looks like they started using a film crew…I guess that helps). For 2019, I wanted to dip my toe further in videography and make something of a similar caliber. Did I succeed? You be the judge:


Now since that was a backpacking trip, I didn't bring my gimbal so every shot was handheld. I also made this cinematic of a hike a group of us did at Alamere Falls; for this one I heavily utilized the gimbal so everything was buttery smooth:

alamere falls

But of course the tradeoff here is that there is no storytelling, no narrative. Personally, even if you imagine smashing together the production value of the latter with the story of the former, I don't think I'm there yet. I need to learn how to write shot lists, or otherwise "see" all these interesting angles that filmmakers alternate between. And the next trip I take, I should ban myself from photos and force myself to only shoot video in order to really improve.

Speaking of photos, I think I killed it this year, if I do say so myself. That's mostly thanks to doing exciting things, like trips to Yosemite, Barcelona, Shanghai, Chicago, etc., cycling multiple times a week during the early mornings with Fat Cake Club, and having friends who are amazing at cooking who host weekly dinners.

TODO insert some collage of some sort. Could just be a grid of the IG stories archive, or maybe grouped by city/subject

Goal: Do a triathlon

Spoiler: I did not do a triathlon this year. But I did run two half marathons and bike a lot. Let's take a closer look.

In the running department, I ran the Yosemite Half in May and the Berkeley Half in November. The Yosemite Half was a minor disaster: the course is primarily downhill, yet I still bonked at mile 10 (of 13.1). I fared a bit better on the Berkeley Half with a PR of 1:43:28 (average pace 7:54/mi—just under my longtime goal of 8:00/mi). Notably I did both races with basically no training: my total running mileage this year is a paltry 82 miles. To force myself to run more, I've already signed up for the 2020 SF Full Marathon, which probably requires training, so next year we should see more miles.

In the cycling department, this year I rode 2,607 miles, which is more miles than I've ridden in any previous year since I started cycling in 2015. Woohoo! I also did two centuries (up from one in 2018): day 1 of The Coast Ride in January (133 miles and 6.8K feet elevation gain) and Levi's Gran Fondo in October (100 miles and 8.7K feet elevation gain). I also shaved off nearly two minutes from my Hawk Hill time: by the end of 2018 my PR was 9:50 with an average heart rate of 168bpm, but now my PR is 8:00 flat at 147bpm. Faster with a lower heart rate, now that's what I call a win-win. Finally, while I only made it out to 9 Fat Cake rides in 2018, I did 42 FCC rides in 2019! A positive trend—next year I'll aim for 3K miles and increased participation in FCC (at 52 weeks and 2 rides per week, 42 rides is still only 40% participation).


Something I want to do in 2020 is to exhibit my photos in physical spaces (e.g. coffee shops). I take a lot of photos, but they just end up on social media and then fade away. I've long wanted to get large scale prints of my photos into cafes or similar spaces, and it's about time that I make that happen.

Motivator 3: Constantly self-improve

Three of my 2019 goals belong here:

  • Wake up earlier on average than I did in 2018 [8/10]
  • Get a six-pack, rawrrr [3/10]
  • Read 26 books [13/26]

Goal: Wake up early

Why wake up early? Well, it's the less extreme version of taking cold showers—it's an exercise in discipline, to see if I can do something that's somewhat painful if I try hard enough. Also, I feel more productive and accomplished when I've already done something before most people are up, and that feeling holds throughout the day.

How do I track my sleep? I don't do anything super fancy here—I track when I go to bed and when I wake up with the Bedtime feature in the iPhone Clock app. (You basically tell the Clock app when you're planning to go to bed and when you're planning to wake up and it does small adjustments based on e.g. how much you snooze and whether you're using your iPhone past your bedtime. That last one is a key first-party advantage: I had built an app, now defunct, called Go To Bed that did basically the same thing, but it could never automatically figure out start and end times.) I exported that data using the HealthFit app to Google Sheets and wrote a quick script to deduplicate the days where I pressed snooze. The result? In 2018, my average wake-up time was 8:19 am, but in 2019 I brought that down by 32 minutes to 7:47 am. I call that a success.

But did that earlier wake-up time result in less overall sleep? Surprisingly, no: in 2018 I averaged 6 hours and 39 minutes of sleep per night, while in 2019 I averaged 6 hours and 44 minutes per night. So that's actually a positive delta of 5 minutes per night!

Goal: Get a six-pack

To be honest, I didn't really try to do this one. I don't have any striking "before and after" photos because I have neither a before photo nor an after photo. And I love food too much to diet. But for what it's worth, Strava says my fitness more than doubled this year: I started this year with a "fitness score" of 24 and now I'm at 58, and if it's been a couple hours since the last meal and I flex, you can start to see the outlines of a six-pack. So that should count for something, right?

Goal: Read 26 books

Part of constantly self-improving is being a life-long learner, and reading books potentially gives me fresh new perspectives and also is a sanity check to make sure I that my attention span can handle more than a few tweets. This year, I read 13 books—not quite 26, but probably more than I read in 2018 (I wasn't on Goodreads until this year so I don't know for sure, but then again if I wasn't on Goodreads was I even reading?).

One thing I'm a bit disappointed by is the post-book-reading experience—since I'm not in any book clubs, I haven't found a good way to discuss good books (or hate on bad books). So I'll just do it here. My favorite books this year and some of my favorite quotes:

  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: I first read this book in 2005, and I couldn't relate to it back then—I was too young! Rereading it, I think it's a poignant rendition of the American-born Chinese (ABC) experience. The story follows four mothers and their daughters as they navigate assimilating into and growing up in San Francisco (SF doesn't play a huge role in the novel but it's neat to be able to recognize the street names). Amy Tan absolutely nails the vignettes, sprinkling in details from the classic Asian parent's high hopes and dreams for their kids ("when I failed to become a concert pianist…she finally explained that I was late-blooming, like Einstein, who everyone thought was retarded until he discovered a bomb") to their pride ("I had to accompany my mother on Saturday market days when I had no tournament to play. My mother would proudly walk with me, visiting many shops, buying very little. 'This my daughter Wave-ly Jong,' she said to whoever looked her way").
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: I love The Daily Show, and Trevor's autobiography doesn't disappoint. He brings a witty and lighthearted take to growing up as a mixed-race kid during apartheid: "Some might say we lived like poor people. I prefer 'open plan.'" Ever the entrepreneur, Trevor ran a "cut the line at lunch" business by sprinting to the start and ordering food for people who paid him. As Trevor describes it, "I was an overnight success. Fat guys were my number-one customers. They loved food, but couldn't run." Later Trevor would move on to making bootleg CDs, with the hilarious justification "if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?" The whole thing is an engaging read, even as it deals with heavier topics such as when (spoiler) Trevor's step-dad shoots his mom!
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama: You may be familiar with Michelle's husband Barack Obama, but Michelle is an insanely accomplished individual in her own right. This autobiography follows her formative years growing up in Chicago, where she endured a 90-minute (!) commute to school, and continues on to when she Barack and subsequently offers an alternative lens into his campaign and presidency. But the most powerful passage of the book describes the dangerous rat race of chasing success and never considering, in her terminology, a swerve: "This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn't-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people's high regard can feel too costly."
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: I actually watched the documentary at Sundance before I read the book. The documentary sucked, but the book (which the documentary is based on) is a page-turner and a glorious piece of tech drama. You'll experience tons of schadenfreude as you learn what went wrong at Theranos, the startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes that promised to run a spectrum of blood tests with just a pinprick of blood.

Other self-improvement

I dedicated a fairly significant chunk of my time in 2019 to taking classes part-time at Stanford towards a master's degree. Since I work full-time and still wanted to pursue other hobbies, the pacing worked out to one class per quarter. I took classes on topics which I hadn't formally learned or where I needed a refresher, so things like compilers, reinforcement learning, optimization, and generative models. It's been an interesting experiment, and one year in (and 2.5 years to go) I'm continuing to reevaluate the pros and cons of continuing.


In 2020, I will exclusively take cold showers. Just kidding, the actual goals are probably just to iterate on 2019; it would be nice to get 7 hours of sleep per night, for example.

Quantified Self: Fun facts

I track most of the things that I do: restaurants I visit, meaningful interactions with friends, hours slept, miles cycled, where my money goes, etc. through a combination of Swarm, Gyroscope, Apple Watch/HealthKit, Strava, Google Sheets, Clarity Money/Mint, etc. I think the trends this data reveals is really interesting to look back on, so here are some fun nuggets:

  • Step count: 3.4 million steps, up from 2.1 million in 2018
  • 111 visits to Ritual Coffee Roasters (up from 17 in 2018). Ritual represents 52% of all my coffee shop visits this year. Also, a funny story…I usually give my "Starbucks name" of "Dylan" whenever I order something at a business, but now the baristas at Ritual have remembered my fake name since I go so often, but I don't have the heart to correct them.
  • 36 visits to Arsicault Bakery, proportional to the increased number of Fat Cake rides I go on
  • 13 distinct airports, up from 10 in 2018
  • Cities visited in 2019, international first: Shanghai, Barcelona, Madrid, Montreal (for ICRA), New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Park City (for Sundance!), Phoenix, the Lake Tahoe area, etc.
  • 1,106 meaningful interactions logged in the friend spreadsheet. What's the friend spreadsheet, you ask? See the 2018 retro for details.
  • 24 visits to cocktail bars, up from 12 in 2018. This stat looks like it's doubling, folks. Most visited: The Beehive, since it's conveniently located a stone's throw from where I live.
  • $2,361 spent on Uber and Lyft, which averages out to be $6.46 a day. Now granted, this does include JUMP bikes and scooters (which Uber owns). But it's fair to say that this is a large amount that I should reduce in 2020.
  • 15 visits to the climbing gym, down from 59 times in 2018. Since my yearly membership is O($1000), each visit is now ~$66 instead of the ~$17 it was in 2018. Eek!
  • 14,381 photos taken between my Fujifilm X-T2 and Sony A7Riii, up from 8,889 photos taken on my Fujifilm X-T2 in 2018. Yield rate (number of picked photos divided by all photos taken) of 11.3% versus 9.6% in 2018. So slightly less spray-and-pray! (Maybe I should try film photography, that would really teach me.) I think the uptick in quantity can be attributed to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate fundraiser events I photographed for The Next 50, an organization that aims to make politics more accessible for young people.
  • 12,127 iPhone photos taken this year, up from 4,723 in 2018. This uptick is probably due to Fat Cake.
  • 68703 messages sent/received in 2019 across iMessage and Facebook Messenger, which is about 188 messages per day. I calculated this stat with Converscope, an open-source personal chat history analysis tool which I'm building and which I'll talk more about soon!

Meta: On Audience

Retrospectives are meant for one to reflect fully on what did and did not go well. But writing for a public audience definitely changes the overall tone and content for better and worse. One thing I'm forced to do more of is to provide relevant context for the reader, which also means answering more of the why questions and crystallizing some of the reasoning behind my decisions. This is a good thing! On the other hand, there are topics I'm not comfortable discussing openly, such as career goals or dating, and so those don't get the written reflection treatment. And to some extent a piece like this is plain old bragging dressed in the language of the "work-hard, play-hard self-help book" culture. But ultimately, I do think this piece is an accurate reflection of a chunk of my personality, and it's valuable even if it's not the whole.

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