With 2024 around the corner, my metaphorical “Box of Accomplishments,” sitting here next to me on my very real desk, needs a thorough cleaning. Not because it's full of the things I've proudly completed over the past year. It's not even full of half accomplishments- bits of fanciful projects started with exuberance and abruptly forgotten. No, my box is filled with shameful emptiness... and dust. Lots of dust. I wouldn't have taken notice of it if 2023 wasn't coming to a close and, with it, the inevitable period of reflection.
I'm not a fan of the idea that I should measure my success or progress by the calendar year. The end of the year shouldn't necessarily signal a time to halt and judge how far I've come. Progress is messy and ongoing and isn't constrained by the earth's trip around the sun. Of course I understand why people review themselves at the end of the year- the time does offer a natural pause for reflection. It's just that for me, this process ends up leaving me feeling disheartened, and frankly, it does nothing for my motivation.
But 2023 was, in many ways, different from other years. I can confidently say it was a year during which I did try, but more importantly, I learned a great deal about myself. So, I'm going to swallow my pride and reflect.
I had big plans for 2023. It was going to be a year where I learned to code, where I would finally write a short story while also producing monthly essays. It was to be my year of creativity. Most of all, 2023 was going to be a year of consistency and conviction. So what happened?
Learning to code
I've had a longstanding, troubled relationship when it comes to how I view myself and personal success (the old “nothing to see here”). To produce something, anything, that I could proudly point to and say “I made this” was worthy of pursuing. So, in 2023, I was determined to learn to code.
Making something useful while acquiring a skill was something that made sense to me.
And what could be easier than building an app- I mean, elementary school kids are doing it. Besides, we've all heard it a gazillion times- “anyone can learn to code.”
I've always thought of myself as a logical person- in fact, I like to think of it as my best personal and professional trait. So, it was a blow to my ego to find myself struggling so early on in my coding quest. It was like watching a movie in a foreign language from the middle without any subtitles- I couldn't understand the language, the reasons things were being done didn't make sense, and I felt like I had missed too much to catch up.
I decided that I should learn coding languages that were more basic and more accessible- like the code that makes up websites. But even this proved difficult- in part because there were often times many ways to accomplish the same task, which made building upon what I was learning confusing. Worse yet, I was slipping further and further away from my original goal- of making an app. There had to be a logical starting point (I thought) so I searched for a foundation to build my knowledge upon.
I learned there are basically two types of developers: frontend and backend. And the suggested learning paths one should follow for each are page-long lists of coding languages that read like chemical equations: strings of letters and numbers combined together in ways that defy the rules of grammar.
What started out as a simple task of producing something to stroke my ego had brought me to a place where I felt overwhelmed, lost, and stupid- with a trail of unfinished projects and tutorials in my wake.
I did claw my way through a 3-month course taught by Microsoft on their Power App Platform- something that could be beneficial to my current job. And while actually applying myself and seeing something through to the end was an accomplishment, I never did make an app as I had started out to do.
Writing More, Better
Following the advice of people online to 'stop being afraid and just publish,' I posted my first public writing to Medium in 2023. They weren't wrong about the satisfaction that comes with pressing that 'submit' button. It was a combination of feeling pride combined with “I don't want to do that ever again.” But of course, I did, way down deep inside, want to do that again. There was one very large problem, though- my brain.
My brain is remarkably adept at using analogies and wit to invent narratives- typically at times when it is impossible to expand upon them further (while drifting to sleep, while in the bathroom, in the middle of a conversation when I should be listening, and so on). Upon sitting down, ready to work on an idea, I become the victim of Creative Paralysis.
It is similar to waking up and finding that your arm is completely asleep, so numb it doesn't feel like it belongs to you. No amount of willing it to move will work; the signals from your brain just dissipate into nothingness. There isn't even any resistance- you aren't straining against some invisible force... there's no furrowing of your brow or gritting your teeth. It's a lack of everything, of nothing.
It's the same when I sit down to write. It's the knowledge of having a wealth of ideas and creative energy that I somehow can't access or materialize at the moment. It's knowing that i'm capable but just can't act on it. That the idea is there but unreachable.
Writing this simple essay has been a fight against these sensations (or lack thereof). While unlike with a temporarily numb extremity where, over time, the feeling returns, I'm tired of 'waiting' to be better at writing. I've tried it. It doesn't work.
So What Makes 2024 Different?
2023 is the year AI became infused in almost every aspect of life. Learning new skills has never before been so attainable; the power to not only imagine but to create has been democratized.
But 2023 was also a pivotal year for me, as it put things in perspective. I've learned that wanting to be a developer (app, web, or otherwise) is not enough- no matter what fancy slogans are put out there. There are underlying skills that are necessary. Some of these are intangible and likely unteachable. I'm okay with this.
As for the process of writing, this I know I can work on. Creative Paralysis may keep me from marathon writing sessions, but with patience, consistency, and conviction, those little one-line story ideas could, quite possibly, develop into something I'd be proud to share.
2023 reinforced in me the truth that while not everyone necessarily can, everyone can certainly try.
So, what makes 2024 different?
I feel focused. I know what I want to work on, where to spend my energy, and why it matters.
I feel prepared. I'm not a writer. I'm someone who wants to write- but more importantly, someone who can enjoy the process of writing- with patience.
I'm not heading into 2024 with a to-do list of skills I want to master, or with progress trackers, or deadlines. I won't be working to fill my box of accomplishments but instead will be exploring and enjoying myself through writing.
As I head into 2024, I realize that it's really about enjoying the ride, discovering and playing with creativity, about writing and about myself- and not sweating over a checklist of wins.