2022 year in review
This will be my first year in review inspired by David Perell's 2021 year in review and his writing. 2022 was full of themes and experiments that I'd like to reflect on and use as feedback as to how I'd like to structure 2023.
I've organized this piece under headers to help split up my thoughts but I've done my best to summarize actionable insights at the end of each section.
comfort vs. exploration
2022 was the year of exploration. I started this trend of exploration in 2018, when I experimented with jumping roles and industries. I shifted from digital healthcare to blockchain consumer apps and also did several hops from data science to product management.
I spent 2018 to 2022 at a small but influential startup called Gitcoin, a masthead of the Ethereum space and a champion of open source public goods. There, I worked in a data and product capacity, and was able to achieve the jump I imagined from both healthcare to blockchain and data to product. I left Gitcoin in 2022 because I felt like I got comfortable. I had settled into a very familiar rhythm and it was time to break out.
For anyone curious on how to make these particular "career" moves or adopt this type of experimental mindset, my mantra was to just "start doing and being" in the smallest capacity that I could. I wrote a short tweet thread about this using a cake analogy. 🎂
What I haven't really talked about is the amount of introspection necessary to come to the conclusion that I had grown comfortable. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to leave comfort in pursuit of something more exciting because there's the chance of failure. We all say that we'd rather fail and have an experience than to never have failed (kind of like "loved and lost rather than not have loved at all") but really, no one likes to fail. My thinking is that if you're not failing, you're not stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Looking back, I still don't have great advice as to how to determine when you're comfortably comfortable. It's just this feeling you get. When your mind wanders to the conclusion of "oh, should I quit my job?" or "I'm not feeling the excitement anymore", then that's usually the start of it. In some instances it can get better, but the feeling usually doesn't go away unless you're adept at listening to your raw intuition and actively work to uncover the source. I found that I was not only a master rationalizer, but a distracted participant in my life. The combination of the two were powerful veils that kept the simulation going. It would take a real shake up to break me out of it.
experimenting with work
The first experiment was doing product consulting and freelance work instead of a full-time job. Back in 2021, I had started an LLC in preparation to work in such a capacity. It was really a structural setup to serve in multiple organizations, but really, it was just doing multiple freelance gigs. The premise was:
- do a chunk of work or consult
- get paid
- leave (and not be involved in company politics)
Taking this plunge was an uncomfortable one. My next paycheck was not guaranteed. My success or death was completely reliant on the quality of my work, but also my skill at sourcing clients. Benefits? Healthcare? Payroll for yourself? Financial planning? Bookkeeping? Taxes? All up to me.
It was here that I learned that the structure of my freelance business and the content that I worked on mattered. Product management as a contract or consulting service doesn't work well because part-time work doesn't allow enough team bonding and context gathering. Working on a product is a full-time thing. Engineers, designers, and writers can work on discrete portions of projects, but product people can't, unless you're highly experienced and have the necessary skills to advise but not execute. If you are one of those people, then your value is your judgment, and perhaps investing is a better career choice. So from the start, this "part-time" issue plagued the long-term viability of my supposed business.
There are different methods to earning money, and for the most part, I will admit I still have never broken out of the "I trade my time for money" deal. Arguably, most traditional jobs or careers are like that. The only way you break out of it is by creating, and even then, it's not guaranteed. Not too long ago I would've said starting your own business (entrepreneurship) is the only way, but as witnessed above, it's not really a business unless you've created leverage. My work was still a time for money trade off. Creating something - art, writing, an app, or a real-life product has degrees of leverage mainly because it disconnects time from earnings. Owning assets like equities is leverage as well.
To help bolster this point, here are some categorical examples I like to give:
- hourly job - paid for their time at a fixed rate
- salaried job - paid for their time at a fixed rate
- salaried high paying job (e.g doctor or lawyer) - paid very well for their time at a fixed rate
- salaried job with equity (e.g tech) - paid for their time at a fixed rate, but leveraged with the inclusion of equity - there is the potential of a high payoff, but company valuations can be out of their control
- project or contract based freelancer (e.g tech) - paid for their time, but offers some time and rate leverage
- project or contract based (e.g performer or actor) - paid for their time, but offers leverage through publicity, brand, royalties, and reach
- creator - paid for their content, which has the potential to be highly leveraged, since you have ownership and can achieve publicity, brand, royalties, and reach
- investor - paid for their judgment, which has the potential to be highly leveraged, since the output of investing is owning equities, but again, there are plenty of variables out of their control
I always wanted to "do my own thing". It was actually doing it that exposed me to all the experiences of running a business. It was 10x easier for me too because I didn't have any employees, and I still found it annoying. I settled into a rhythm, but it still felt like a fuck ton of overhead that I didn't want to deal with. I had a realization that I was still selling my time for money. Doing this was essentially a W-2 full-time job with more flexibility, but now I had to do a bunch of bookkeeping, hire a CPA, fuck around finding benefits, and deal with business fees.
Working as a freelancer and consulting is trading time for money. Creating value and then selling that value to customers - that's a business. It's my belief that the latter would feel more uniquely satisfying to me, but I am not entirely sure. I'm not afraid to admit that I didn't really have a business in the truest sense of the word. I'm not regretting the experience though. In order to truly understand what something is like, you just have to do it.
I look forward to future ventures.
rollin' with jiujitsu
In March of 2022, I took a hard look at some of the things I already cared about and was highly engaged in. This was the beginning of the second experiment.
My primary obsession was (and still is) jiujitsu. I started as a timid hobbyist about five years ago, and with every year, I upped the amount of training that I did. After the first year, I caught the competition bug and started training as much as I could, sometimes twice a day in order to accelerate my growth. In my off-time, I would study film and investigate my own competition performances to shore up gaps in my own game. I even held memberships at two different gyms so I could train with different strategies and partners.
Jiujitsu is one of those special sports where the best of the best are not gate kept from the normal population. It wouldn't be an easy thing to set up a 1 on 1 game with Michael Jordan or any number of current NBA superstars. But jiujitsu? There always the opportunity to train with the best if you're at the right gym.
I asked myself, what would it be like if I trained like a semi-professional and competed as much as possible?
With the extra time I had in 2022, I went full-bore, upped training to 8-9 times a week and competed 1-2 times a month. I was making great progress but never seemed to compete very well. My mindset was objectively weak and my performance was spotty. This led me down a long rabbit hole on sport psychology and mindset in the hopes of gaining every conceivable piece of insight to improve myself. Looking back, it was a pretty pedantic way of learning, and I'm not quite sure if it all stuck in the way it was supposed to.
Competing and doing well consumed me, and it started to ruin the experience and the original fun I sought out in the training room. I went so far as to classify the years of hard work, my performance, and my own view of myself as "absolute trash". It was not pretty. There were tears, frustrations, and complaints, many of which I tried to keep to myself. My response was to hit it harder. Re-read psychology books, re-up my training time, and study more film. The results were still disappointing and to this day, it's been a barrier I've been unable to break.
I'm not one to give up, but there comes a time to re-evaluate what's been working and what hasn't. I realized that my Instagram habits had a strong mimetic effect on my desires to compete and win, drowning out what I felt was my stronger capability, which was more the joy of pursuing effective jiujitsu and some teaching. I have yet to see how this develops.
As the year closes out, I've definitely given myself a little bit of breathing room. The harshness of the constant self-battering did take its toll. I don't know where I've landed on competition, but my feelings about it are now a bit more muted and distant. I do anticipate continuing to do them in the spirit of constant improvement, but perhaps there's a better way to approach it. I'll have to learn how to manage my expectations and disappointments better, but that's part of the game.
The biggest learning was that I'm my worst and harshest critic. This was a defining year where my own psychology consistently put me in mental traps that I could not escape without help. There is a budding attitude change somewhere in there, an approach on expectations and an understanding of my own limitations that's probably needed, but at the moment, I don't wish to overthink it. I'll let it unfold as 2023 plays out.
I already know I won't quit, ever. But I for sure lost a sense of play and lightheartedness about the whole thing. The aim is to regain that sense of play but balance it with the seriousness and purposefulness of what I want to give and get out of jiujitsu.
The last major experiment in 2022 occurred shortly after me and my partner's 9th anniversary in June. To celebrate, we ate at Birdsong, a two-Michelin starred restaurant for our third time.
I had always been curious about the culinary world. Back in 2011, I did a day-long stage at the world renowned Spago, but didn't end up taking the job offer because I needed to finish university. The itch remained throughout the decade, and I scratched that itch by doing side projects, cooking at home, and starting an experimental supper club in 2019. I talked to chefs turned entrepreneurs and lawyers turned chefs to better understand the motivations and transitions from each end. I applied to several places for stages, but COVID had devastated the industry, and the hiring situation was generally dicey.
After dining at Birdsong, I got my hands on the business card of the chef de cuisine. It was actually my partner who had the balls to ask for me (perhaps I had grown despondent and shy as the years went on - another attribute to talk about later). Several emails and a phone call later, I was locked in for a month-long stage. This remains one of the positive things about the culinary industry. It doesn't matter who you are. If you can show that you're capable of learning and have some degree of passion, then you're a viable candidate. This time around, I believe the differentiating factor that helped me get a foot in the door was the fact that I was familiar with the menu and displayed a recurring interest in it.
I've detailed my experience at hand in several Twitter threads and on my site, but I did my best to be courageous in the face of this new experience. It was rare for someone to jump into a 2-Michelin star environment and not massively fuck it up, especially someone with no prior industry experience. At the same time, the kitchen was always where I felt confident and comfortable, at least at home. So, my own expectation was simply to be helpful. I was proud to hear that at the end of my stage, I produced net positive outcomes for the restaurant, which led to an eventual discussion for a part-time or full-time role.
I decided to do it part-time in order to have enough space to focus on my consulting business. The whole point was to experience something different even though I had read first hand about the hardships of the kitchen. My mind thus far had been polluted by the experiences of others: stories of mid-life career changers, chefs who switched to business school, IT workers who turned to the kitchen, and the hundreds of cooks and chefs in internet forums who "regretted or loved working in the industry." For the longest time, I allowed these thoughts to inform my own opinion of the culinary industry instead of experiencing it first hand. Now, it was MY chance. And I did it for six months.
The primary lesson was that you don't know what something is like until you actually go off and do it. You have to live it, to feel the essence of what you're doing to really understand if it's something you're purely addicted to, or if there's a surprise shit sandwich you're not willing to eat. Most times, it's not black and white, and well, that's what makes life difficult, meaningful, and colorful.
The second lesson I learned was about commitment. There were some days where I felt that taking the responsibility part-time was a mistake. Having one foot in and one foot out made me a somewhat unreliable worker at the macro level, even if I was pretty good off the bat with "keeping the standard". With any craft, focus and repetition is necessary. Showing up and having good focus makes it easier to receive and ask for more responsibility. More responsibility means more learning. I stunted myself in this aspect by stretching myself in too many directions.
Lastly, I learned that I have a "grass is greener on the other side" mentality. When I was in the kitchen, there were times I was stoked to be there, but other times where I felt like I just wanted to get back to the jiujitsu training room or get further on some of my product consulting work. Similarly, when I wasn't in the kitchen, there were times when I felt like my consulting work was useless and my life was devoid of a certain deep sense of meaning, and all I wanted to do was to get back to the hustle and bustle of service. It seems I just wanted what I couldn't have in the moment, and that was a frustrating outlook that I still observe to this day. That mentality colored my experience, and soon enough, working at the restaurant began to blend into the realities of normal life.
My last few days in the kitchen ended just before the new year. It's been an interesting ride, and it's an experience that will shape the years to come, whether or not I end up in food. I sense that the end of this chapter may come to a bittersweet end, but there's much room for a sequel.
depression & mental health
I experienced the harshest and truest depression that I had ever faced in 2022. The last time this occurred was back in 2015 at the end of my graduate studies, where the gloom of New York, the loss of friendships, and the lack of meaningful work put me in a deep spiral. I had tried therapy briefly at university and after university, but it was a very short-lived six to eight months of treatment. The minute I had a short-term fix, namely a new job to escape to, I decided the cost wasn't worth it and decided to bail.
For the most part, I have a generally negative view of talk therapy and medication. Learning to "cope" was infuriating, because that just sounded like coming to terms that I was sitting in my own filth. The acceptance in that kind of situation just didn't seem right to me. Why should I accept that? I'd rather dig deep into why I'm sitting in my own filth in the first place, and why negative loops keep happening over and over again - not to just find ways to ignore the squish in my underpants.
Fast forward to 2022, with the stoppage of consistent, meaningful employment and into the unknowns of freelancing, I jumped into what felt like an exciting time. I had good relationships, a friend network, and engaging hobbies, but again, something felt off. I had a consistent feeling of apathy. Some days, I still do. Anhedonia was my self diagnosis. I didn't have a desire to commit suicide, but if life ended for some supernatural reason, "I'd be okay with it". There wasn't much to look forward to. So, for some of 2021 and most of 2022, this was my mind prison.
My partner pleaded for me to find a therapist and also consider medication. My reaction to medication has always been that my condition was not due to a "lack of [medication]", so it seemed to reason that path wouldn't be the right one. Luckily, I did give in and restarted therapy, this time with someone that had a more holistic, psychoanalytic view rooted in art and dialectical behavioral therapy. It focused more on understanding my past behaviors, my upbringing, and my shadow selves instead of the common treatment of learning how to cope.
Asking for help was a huge step in my continuing recovery. For those who feel like therapy hasn't produced results, please try again. Understand that the first couple thousand dollars might be used trying to find the right fit but also the right approach. It's taken me years to understand that things like this take time because humans are messy and have all sorts of baggage. It takes time to untangle habits, find someone willing to work with you, and to accept changes that bring uncertainty. There were long periods of time where I felt like I was backsliding.
One thing I'm learning to reconnect with is the ability to interpret my bodily signals and intelligently incorporate them with the rationalizations that occur inside my head. Coming from a practical upbringing and an analytically-heavy educational background, my tendency is to break everything down into black and white, right and wrong, pros and cons. Sometimes, that feeling of dread that comes from deep within your stomach and manifests as a tightness within your chest is information that you need to listen to - that even though it's a "good opportunity", that this a "good person", or that something is "the right choice", it just doesn't fucking feel right, and that should be a red alert.
Some call this gut feeling their intuition. Everyone has it. The difference is how well someone is able to actually listen to it. Some of us (me) have been conditioned from an early age in a world of "shoulds" and have spent years ignoring that intuition, and instead, doing what we think is rational.
With the help of my therapist, I've worked to bring myself in alignment with my own bodily sensations, which has helped kick off a deeper discovery of who I really am and what my needs really are.
In addition to that, Matt Mochary and Lenny Rachitsky, some product leaders I follow, have recommended doing a type of "energy audit" on a micro and macro level. The macro level is to pursue the activities that "give you energy" and provide positive bodily feelings. The micro level is asking yourself every hour on the hour, "was that past hour 'green 'or 'red' in terms of energy?" Do I feel more energized and excited, or do I feel depleted and dejected? Over time, the aim is to delegate away or stop doing things that are energy red, and do more of the things that are energy green. I like this kind of thinking, so alongside my continuing therapy plans, I'll be performing these purposeful energy audits.
removing social media
This year, I removed all social media apps from my phone to keep a low information diet. I do have a digital box labeled "fomo" on standby, so if I decide to re-download any of these apps because I can ONLY reach certain friends on certain apps, then the app will live in the fomo box for a bit before I inevitably delete them. The box name serves as a reminder of what I'm doing.
My M.O has always been to make checking social media as difficult as possible, which meant I opted to not use any apps and instead, access many services through the mobile Safari browser. It helps me default to no notifications and purposely adds friction. The whole idea is to make you think twice about pulling out your phone. It forces you to contend with questions like "do I really want to type in the web address, fiddle with my password, and view it in a weird mobile browser screen?" Nah, I think I'll sit here and stare at the wall until my partner gets back from the bathroom and I can resume our conversation.
I took it a step further. I enabled content restrictions on my mobile phone so I can no longer access most social media websites from the Safari Browser. I've also downloaded an iOS app called "Intent". It kills the personal feed on Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube. Instagram and Facebook were already blocked from a website perspective, so using Intent in my case was really to kill my YouTube feeds. This way, anytime I show up to YouTube, it would be to specifically watch content I was subscribed to. No more mindless scrolling.
Social media's only benefit to me is to message the friends who prefer to stay on a particular platform or who have created groups I care about. In order to access it, I still check social media on my laptop, but I use a Google Chrome Extension called "News Feed Eradicator" which again, nullifies all the personal news feeds on multiple apps. This way, when I do use Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, and LinkedIn - no feeds are shown. They remain purely messenger apps.
Some vices remain. I have yet to browser block Reddit and Twitter on both my desktop and mobile phone, but I've never downloaded or used either app. I have to keep WhatsApp around because you're unable to use the desktop version of it if you delete the app.
Why all the shenanigans though? I learned that things like Instagram and Facebook have a powerful mimetic effect on me. The photos, videos, and reels heavily influenced the things that I thought I wanted. It started leading me down paths that didn't give me energy, and I was constantly comparing myself to others. I suffered greatly because of this, and each instance of jealously lowered my gratitude and took me days to recover.
Twitter and Reddit have served more as news sources and places to search for opinions and stories. There's still probably some mimetic effect in play, but text-based reading has less of an effect on me than visual social apps.
The solution for me is to discontinue using these products until I can manage my own psychology. Simple as that.
writing in public
Alongside all of this parallel experimentation, 2022 was the year I really took to David Perell's concepts of working in public, creating content, and building your own brand.
I do quite a bit of writing on my own for documentation purposes, but never seemed to find the right audience or platform to share it with. This really was mistake number one. The first step is to just hit publish and keep publishing.
Immediately after leaving my full-time job, I had the time and space to start frank-chen.com. I got my initial inspiration from Andy Matuschak's working notes. My site wasn't publicized to a huge extent but I published working maps of content, linked concepts I was thinking about at the current moment, and also threw up thoughts that straight up were incomplete.
To my surprise, people still found it, and it provided fodder for interesting conversations with strangers. You could say it increased the surface area for serendipity, helped me find several clients, and landed me a couple of job interviews.
I've done stints of shared writing before, starting with a food science blog back in 2012 and two Substack newsletters in 2017 and 2019. All of them are now deprecated. Looking back at it now, it was probably because I just didn't really put in the work, and I had a "build it and they will come" type of mentality, which really meant that my strategy was luck.
Many of my past efforts had the overarching goal of "how I would get more readership", which meant I was in pursuit of a goal, wasn't doing it for myself, and therefore, wasn't having fun. Writing becomes very difficult in that mode because you're no longer doing it for the right reasons. You're not scratching your own itch.
Working in public has the benefit in that it helps to clarify my own thinking on whatever topics interest me in the moment. When I hit publish, it's a checkpoint that tells me it's reached a point where I think it's minimally digestible (although I'm learning it doesn't even have to be that either).
This view represents a shift in my thinking. Before, I would've started with external validation on what I should be writing about or who I should be writing for. This time, I started with helping myself. Even if no one else reads my writing, I will, and if it helps me, great. If it helps someone else, then that's a cherry on top. If it helps enough people where there seems to be a particular niche that I'm adept at helping with, then that will be a time to consider purposely doing more.
Writing has gotten me into the habit of creating everyday. I see it as helping myself everyday. As a side benefit, I'll build up a portfolio that perhaps could end up being my own brand. But that kind of thinking trends dangerously close to more "external validation", and I wouldn't say I'm ready for that yet.
The lesson here is to make things fun. Scratching my own itch gives longevity to the things I do.
2023 and beyond
I'd like to narrow my focus in 2023 to just several themes.
Continuing to heal myself feels like a necessary path. I've tormented myself for the better half of 30 years, and there needs to be some degree of self-care and untangling of destructive habits.
Build the muscle of listening to my bodily intuition. So far, I know I am capable of these sensations, it's just a matter of how I've conditioned myself to ignore them or rationalize them away.
2023 will be the year of having fun. If I'm not having fun with something I'm doing, then I'm sending it packin'. Cool shit only. Another way to say this is to land on the outliers more often on the midwit spectrum. TLDR, don't fucking make everything into a rationalized, practical, analytical, artless exception. Experiment, try shit, do things just because they sound fun and feel awesome.
I've enjoyed writing in public and sharing my journey whenever I can. This will continue. Perhaps I'll try other media as well.
Above all, be unapologetically yourself. We're all in the process of figuring out who we are. Let's all try and have some fun while we're doing it.