What I Learned This Year: A 2018 Retrospective

By Alex Beal
December 30, 2018

2018 was a productive year for me on several fronts. Below I go through the highlights and enumerate the lessons learned.

1 Health

In late 2017, I was the heaviest I’d ever been. At 6’1" and 228 pounds I had, according to my body mass index, crossed over from overweight to obese. Determined to turn this around, I purchased a gym membership. I managed to go several times a week, but my workouts lacked any structure. I would spend 30 minutes on the elliptical and then hang out in the weights area doing some combination of bench presses and bicep curls (mostly because that’s what I’d seen in the movies). During this time I saw little progress in terms of muscle mass or body weight.

In December of 2017, about a month or two into treading water at the gym, I received an email from 23AndMe about a study investigating how genetics affects weight loss. Eager to try something new, and also contribute to a study I found interesting, I enrolled and was assigned to a low carb group. For twelve weeks, I ate three low carb meals a day, and two small snacks. Rather than counting calories or carbs, the researchers provided a handful of tips and guidelines around portion control and low carb foods (see the appendix). The first two weeks were the worst, but as my body adjusted, it became more tolerable. I was also dropping weight quickly in the beinning, and this motivated me to hang on. Despite the initial success, once I had lost most of my water weight, progress became much rockier. There were several points where my weight would, for consecutive weeks, either stay the same or increase, and this was demoralizing to say the least (see the graph below). I kept pushing through, though, trying to remind myself that it’s the overall trend that matters, not individual weeks, and by the end I had dropped 20 pounds.

These results surprised me. In the past, I had tried two diets. One was calorie counting, and, while effective, this method was extremely difficult. Measuring and recording every morsel made me obsess over food, exacerbating my hunger, and I felt miserable. The second was keto, which is a very low carb diet (less than 20 net carbs per day). This worked while on the diet, but it proved too restrictive, and once I stopped dieting I quickly gained the weight back. Learning I could lose weight without such obsessive tracking or extreme restrictions was a revelation to me. After the study, I dropped the low carb restriction, but still practiced portion control. I lost another 10 pounds over 6 months, until my weight loss plateaued in October, and I’ve roughly maintained that weight since then.

Feeling good about my diet, I started a more structured weight training routine in March. I adopted the 5x5 StrongLifts program, which consists of two alternating workouts that are a combination of squats, bench presses, overhead presses, barbell rows, and deadlifts. I was new to most of these exercises, but the website had detailed descriptions. Weight increases happened linearly, with an additional five pounds each session, and because the program started with an empty bar, this gave me several weeks to concentrate on my form. In the beginning, I was surprised by how quickly I could add weight, and as the lifts became heavier, I was surprised by how much I could push myself. So in general, I was progressing well, but there were a few setbacks along the way. At one point, I was away from the gym for four weeks on business, and lost 20% of the progress I had made. At another point, I repeatedly injured a muscle in my back and had to keep taking time off to recover. At times it felt like I was treading water again. If missing a week triggers a 10% weight reduction, there are only so many weeks I could miss before beginning to move backwards. Despite this, the overall trend was upward and by November I had worked my way up from an empty bar to over 200 pounds on both my squat and deadlift. Since then I’ve been experimenting with other weight lifting programs and have continued to progress to the mid-200s.

So what made this more productive than my initial attempt at exercising? I think having clear and acheivable goals at the gym made a big difference. Rather than doing some cardio and then floating around the weight room, I showed up with a clear plan. I knew what exercises I needed to do and what new weight I needed to hit. This encouraged me to consistently challenge myself. There were many times I thought it impossible to add another five pounds to my squat, but somehow the weight kept increasing. Without a plan, I might have stopped increasing prematurely, or not increased as quickly. The other advantage to a structured workout is that it gives a sense of progress. Doing the same exercises, but increasing the weight, makes it clear that I’m improving, which has been motivating both in terms of seeing how far I’ve come, and having a goal to aim for the next time I’m at the gym. Finally, I think having a plan for dealing with setbacks made it less likely that I’d quit after a bad week. What was the plan? StrongLifts recommended deloading by 10% for a missed week and 20% for longer time periods. While this is a bummer, it at least gave me some guidance about what to do when it felt like I had been completely derailed.

So what about cardio? I’ve continued doing cardio a few times a week. This is much less structured than my weight training program, but I can say that I’m now able to run three miles comfortably. Perhaps in 2019 I’ll try and apply the principles that worked for weight training to further improving my cardiovascular health.

1.1 Takeaways

1.2 Metrics

To wrap it up, here are my final health metrics for 2018:

2 Career

In late 2017 I left my job with a few goals in mind:

  1. Explore machine learning and data science as a possible career path.
  2. Learn about smart contract verification and possibly found a startup.
  3. Force myself to make a career move, and see if a new job could improve job satisfaction.

The idea was to take an extended break from work and explore these possibilities. In the end, I ended up taking about 6 months off. I spent the first few weeks doing machine learning and statistics courses online. I enjoyed this, but found it hard to sustain without some sort of accountability mechanism. I learned quite a bit, but ended up never completing the courses. Part of this was because I wanted to get some real world experience modeling real problems, so I switched my focus to entering a Kaggle competition (a machine learning competition where teams build ML models and the most accurate wins). This competition was immensely helpful in making me realize that the day-to-day work of deep learning was actually quite dreary. I blogged about this comptetition already, but the takeaway is that most of the work was composed of making small tweaks to models and then waiting hours for the models to train. Many tweaks produced no improvements, and successful experiments were very incremental, producing an additional percent of accuracy. Being successful meant orchestrating enough experiments in parallel that you could take the best and combine them into an ensemble model. It basically felt like stumbling around in the dark, and the key to winning was to stumble around faster. Although it was disappointing to learn this, it was valuable information.

After the Kaggle competition, I started to look into smart contract verification. Since college, I’ve been a programming language enthusiast, especially interested in using powerful type systems to prove software correct. I thought that with the rise of smart contracts, perhaps this was software verification’s time to shine. I ended up implementing a toy analysis based on symbolic execution, hoping to eventually apply the technique to a smart contract language, and blogged about it. This was a fun diversion, but I quickly came to realize that applying these techniques to smart contracts was a research problem, not something that could be brought to market quickly and be immediately useful. Additionally, I learned that embarking on these types of projects alone was incredibly mentally difficult. Again, I needed some sort of accountability mechanism, and the researchy-ness of this project left me feeling constantly lost (I suppose this is the steady state of most researchers). I ended up abandoning the project and started looking for a job.

That brings me to my current job at Stripe. I’m happy to say that my job satisfaction is currently very high, but I think it’s a bit premature to start reflecting on this. Perhaps I’ll feel ready for that in my 2019 retrospective.

One thing I will say is that as I get older, I find less and less satisfaction in software. It’s still one of the best jobs in the world in terms of stress, compensation, safety, and intellectual challenge, but I spend less and less of my free time thinking about it. For most of my life, I’ve been driven by forces, external and internal, to produce intellectual acheivements. In school, this was an natural goal: get good grades. Once I got a job, software as a profession also tended to reward this. Learn about the current cutting edge trendy thing! Produce more side projects! Blog about cool tech! Reflecting on this, I see that it hasn’t brought me much fulfillment. Instead I’m finding much more satisfaction in hobbies completely unrelated to technology, like music and cooking, and trying to figure out how to orient myself toward the world–something I suppose others would call spirituality.

2.1 Takeaways

3 Life Philosophy (Spirituality? Practical Wisdom?)

Bear with me here. I promise to not get too misty-eyed, but this post would not be complete without a few words about Stoicism. Since studying philosophy in college, I’ve long been interested in Stoicism as a practical philosophy for life, but I’ve never done more than agree with it on an intellectual level. This year, I began taking the philosophy more seriously and made a conscious effort to integrate it into my day-to-day life. This consisted mostly of reading Stoic texts on a daily basis and choosing a Stoic principle each day to try and internalize. Other exercises included keeping a daily journal, and using it to celebrate the day’s successes and reflect on how any failings could be better dealt with next time. Younger Alex would have rolled his eyes, but the mindset this cultivated has proved useful in dealing with some of this year’s challenges, such as diet and fitness setbacks, the stress of a new job, and the death of a beloved pet.

So what is Stoicism? Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City College of New York, does a better job than I could at explaining it:1

The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that Stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. No, Mr. Spock was not a Stoic (despite the fact that, apparently, Gene Roddenberry imagined the character according to his own, simplistic, view of what a Stoic would be like).

Rather, Stoics taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions–of fear, or anger, or love, say–are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should (or should not) be given “assent,” i.e., should be appropriated and cultivated.

So Stoicism puts emphasis on our internal mental lives, and this was an insight for me. It made me realize that being a good person, and doing the right thing extended to my inner life–to how I chose to interpret the world and react to it. This is what I meant when I said earlier that I spent some time “figuring out how to orient myself toward the world.” The other half of this insight is realizing that this takes deliberate practice, which is another key part of Stoic philosophy. Reading a lot of high-minded texts isn’t enough. I needed to practice daily and make an effort of intentionally applying its principles.

For many people, when they seek guidance on how to approach their inner lives, they turn to religion. I’ve never been much for belief in supernatural powers, and I dislike the concept of blasphemy–that certain principles cannot be questioned. Stoicism is different in that it’s a living philosophy, and is open to debate. There’s nothing sacred about the texts, and this means I can take the bits that are useful (its practical advice) and leave the bits that have been superceded by modern science (parts of its metaphysics). This is another reason why it’s been useful for me. It gives me an outlet for spirituality, while still appealing to my analytical side.

If this interests you, I can recommend William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life and Massimo’s How To Be A Stoic blog, along with his podcast Stoic Meditations.

4 Hobbies

I’ll keep this one short:

5 2019 Goals

I don’t have many concrete goals in mind yet for next year. Mostly I’d like to maintain the progress I’ve made so far. Especially when it comes to health and fitness, it’s very easy to backslide (most people who diet gain all the weight back and then some). In particular, if I could get my weight below 190, I’d finally be out of the overweight BMI category. I’d also like to continue my daily habits when it comes to guitar and Stoicism, and read at least one book a month.

The only new goal I have is a vague aspiration to backpack the Collegiate Peaks Loop. I’d like to do this mostly solo with friends joining for a portion. This is long enough (160 miles) to require supply stops along the way, which is something I’ve never had to do before. I’m also interested to see if I have the mental fortitude to romp through the wilderness alone. I should probably start training yesterday.

That’s about it. I’m a believer in goals coming about organically. Much of the progress I’ve made this year was a result of being a bit of an opportunist–taking advantage of situations when they arise–rather than planning everything out at the beginning of the year. I can only hope that next year will be as fortuituous as this one.

6 Appendix: Diet Instructions

Below are the diet instructions I received from the 23AndMe researchers:

Hi Alex,

Here’s your diet plan in summary form. Do your best to follow it for 12 weeks, starting today! Feel free to save this email, or print it out and put it on your fridge to help you remember!

On this diet, try to aim for…

On this diet, try to limit…

On this diet, try to avoid…

Enjoy 1-2 snacks per day…

If you have a sudden craving, try

Sincerely,

The 23andMe Research Team

7 Notes


  1. Stoicism 101: Ethics and practical philosophy: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/stoicism-101/