Pen{g}sieve Vol 7: My 2021 Annual Review

Three weeks ago, I attended the Annual Review Workshop from Forte Labs. This is another first-time experience for me — taking a weekend off to reflect on the past year and define goals for the new year. This post is the outcome of the workshop.

Lessons learned in 2020

It is hard to lead without a title, but the ability to do so is true power

I used to believe that leadership is measured by how many people are obliged to listen to you. Isn’t it why a lot of people are so focused on climbing “the ladder”?

Then last year I became an IC in a new job, started a blog, and explored a side hustle. As I no longer had a team to prop me up, I learned first hand that leading without a title, the status, or resources is so damn hard. In the year of downsizing to a team of one, I stopped giving directives and learned to lead by influencing.

As some of my friends question my decision to go back to IC, it now makes perfect sense: you first learn to lead with a title, then learn to lead without one.

Do not focus on the outcome, focus on the system that generates the outcome

It was during the interview preparation that I observed that my ability to learn had not improved for a very long time. After taking the course Learning how to learn, it downed on me that there is always the next level to any skills, even the basic ones such as the ability to learn. But once one reaches a certain level, it is a handful of fundamental skills, not the trendy practical ones that define one’s innate ability to perform. I call it the system.

I now believe that once one’s system reaches the next level, success at that level becomes almost inevitable. That belief now gives me a calm confidence — no matter what I do, be laser focused on improving my system, then “the score will take care of itself”.

Exploring negative emotions helps one grow, sharing vulnerability builds true connections

Pain + reflection = progress

— Ray Dalio (The Principles)

I was completely ignorant of the role of negative emotions in self-understanding and growth until I read Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability. After exploring my moments of vulnerability, I now believe that vulnerability is a valuable thing. Facing vulnerability allows me to grow in strength and complexity; sharing it allows me to connect with others at a much deeper level.

2020 in retrospect

How would you characterize the last year for you

2020 is a year of renewal, i.e., a year where I put my first mountain back on track and discovered my second mountain. It is also a year where I cultivated new identities - a software engineer, a life-long learner, a budding blogger, and a habit geek.

What were your favorite memories?

Too personal to share. But most are either moment of genuine human connections or experiencing an optimal inner state. Sometimes it is as simple as walking Leo on a sunny morning, listening to my favorite songs, and singing aloud.

What was your gratitude list?

Too long to share. There is always gratitude towards the rock of my life and my lucky circumstances. There is also gratitude towards small gestures of kindness from people familiar or not at my moments of vulnerability, e.g., interviewing, transitioning to a new job, participating in a new community, or even sharing a new post.

I am especially grateful towards B, who stuck with me until the end of my last job.

What was your biggest surprise?

That I became a person of habits and systems in just a year.

I recently listened to Tim Harris’s interviews with Seinfield and Phelps. I realized that I completely got what they were talking about. To some extent, we are doing the same thing, building our systems through intention and deliberate practice to excel at our games.

What brings you the most joy?

  • Writing

  • Sharing my thoughts and hearing people resonate with it

  • Experiencing the process of solving a complex problem with mental clarity

  • Having a good conversion and experiencing moments of true connections

  • Emerging in performing arts (music, movies, plays, etc.)

Where did you invest your time last year?

Build my system, build relationships

What stories from last year are you letting go of?

Success as defined by status, title, or how many people you manage

What risks did you take last year?

Change the job, reach out to others, share my thoughts publicly.

What compliment would you like to have received?

When people say my blog resonates w/ them

Goals for 2021

What one word or phrase would you like to have as your theme this year?

The Beginner’s mind

What are the big questions you are holding for this year?

Will I be able to control my time in a highly competitive, fast-moving company?

What do you think your biggest risk will be?

Staying inside my comfort zone, Not having as many rich experiences as I could have, not having control over my time.

What are you looking forward to learning?

Story-telling (especially to tell a joke)

What is one as yet undeveloped talent you are willing to explore?


Which goals will you commit to this year?

  • Write Pen{g}sieve for a whole year and reach 500 subscribers.

  • Help 10 people (family) renew some aspects of their lives as a health coach.

  • Introduce more play and new experiences to my life, and know 10 new people who can push me outside the comfort zone.

  • Achieve impact on the new job without losing control of my time.

  • Improve my parenting skills, influence my kids to build their systems.

  • Improve personal well-being to the next level (i.e., health, energy, and style).