Every year since 2014, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. If interested, you can check my past reviews for 2016, 2015, and 2014. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously. The idea is to create a roadmap for the year ahead — not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year.
To begin the process, I simply ask myself 2 questions and try to come up with at least 6–8 answers to each:
1 — What went well this year?
2 — What did not go well this year?
The main part of the planning session focuses on the year to come, but before looking forward I spend at least one of the days reflecting back on the year that is ending. I can usually identify a number of answers for each question — successes and failures, times where I was happy or proud and other times where I knew I felt short.
Next, I’ll review all of the goals that I set the previous December, and write out the results. Did everything happen as I expected? Probably not, but it’s interesting to compare results with expectations and see what overlaps and what diverges.
This leads to the next, longer state of the planning process where I look ahead to the forthcoming year, carefully thinking about which projects I’d like to pursue and which actions I need to take to ensure their success.
What Went Well in 2017
Graduating from College:
The past 4 years spent at Denison University have been an interesting rollercoaster for me. I wholeheartedly enjoy all the academics, social activities, and relationships with peers and professors. Most important of all, I am extremely happy with my last semester in college. Academically, I took a couple of interesting classes in Environmental Psychology and Public Speaking, finished a hard Computer Science course in Data Structures, as well as explore my interest in Big Data & Data Mining with different independent study groups. Socially, I had a blast hanging out with my roommates and hosting parties for my fraternity. Every weekend, my room was filled with people having fun together and I have never felt more alive in all of my adulthood. Those are great times to be missed.
To reflect on my whole college career, I would rate it an A-; as I have significantly expanded my intellectual capacity, made life-changing relationships with other people, and also left a presentable impact to the Denison community. There were definitely a couple of things that didn’t go as planned, but for the most part, I am really satisfied with my undergraduate experience.
This is a major achievement for me this year. Fitness has always been in my need-to-improve bucket in the past couple of years. I finally have the available time to commit to this habit after finishing college. Since September, I have been consistently exercising every single day and experimenting with a variety of workout plans. I want to share my workout schedule here after so many iterations and learning from fitness gurus on the Internet:
- For Strength Training, I hit the gym every weekday morning and allocate each morning to a core muscle group. To be specific, I exercise my Chest & Abs on Monday, Back & Calves on Tuesday, Shoulder & Abs on Wednesday, Legs on Thursday, and General Upper Body & Abs on Friday. I focus mainly on compound exercises such as Bench Press, Deadlifts, and Squats as they generally work out the whole body instead of individual body muscles. Check out Ben Greenfield’s workout plan if you are interested in digging into the specifics.
- For HIIT Workout (High-Intensity Interval Training), I spend afternoon weekdays doing 15-minute Full Body Ripper and Furious Fat Burning routines as recommended by Brandon Carter. These are awesome activities that make you sweat and keep your body lean over time.
- For Cardiovascular activities, I bike for 30 minutes and swim on average of 500 meters daily. Especially for swimming, I follow the game-changer Total Immersion approach and have been able to swim effortlessly ever since getting started.
- In order to accompany this new fitness routine, I also research a ton on eating diet. One of the more popular diets I have been trying for a while now is Intermittent Fasting, which is scientifically proven to help lose fat, increase energy, and improve cognitive function. Basically, I only eat 2 meals a day, lunch around noon and dinner in the evening, while skipping breakfast most days with the help of coffee, tea, and water. Personally, I feel stronger, leaner, and more explosive even though I eat less.
- Finally, I also try out taking cold shower as research has shown that helps increase alertness, refine hair and skin, stimulate weight loss, speed up muscle soreness and recovery, and relieve stress altogether.
This is another highlight of my year. I finished a total of 13 online courses covering a wide range from machine learning and statistics to web/mobile development and computer science systems.
- Ruby on Rails for Web Development, where I built a Pinterest-inspired web app using Ruby on Rails framework.
- Build a Twitter-like App with Django, where I built a simple web application modeled after Twitter using Python Django framework.
- Meteor and React for Real-time Apps, where I learned Meteor JS — a unique framework to make a fast and interactive web app in just a few hours.
- Learn and Understand NodeJS, where I gained a deep understanding of NodeJS — the rapidly growing web server technology that powers cutting-edge web development.
- The Complete React Native and Redux Course, where I got a further appreciation for React Native — an excellent solution of developing mobile apps in a fraction of the time it takes to make an equivalent iOS/Swift app.
- Developing Android Apps, where I learned the best practices of mobile Android development.
- Machine Learning, the classic Andrew Ng’s Coursera course that provides a broad introduction to machine learning, data mining, and statistical pattern recognition.
- Statistical Learning, an intro-level course in supervised learning with a focus on regression and classification methods.
- Deep Learning, a good introduction to the bleeding edge of machine learning. I learned how to train and optimize basic neural networks, convolutional neural networks, and long short-term memory networks.
- Neural Networks for Machine Learning, a fantastic course taught by Geoffrey Hinton about artificial neural networks and how they're being used for machine learning — as applied to speech and object recognition, image segmentation, modeling language and human motion...
- Introduction to Operating Systems, a graduate-level course that teaches the basic operating system abstractions, mechanisms, and their implementations.
- Introduction to Computer Networking, an introductory course on how the Internet works including the principles of how to design networks and network protocols.
Building Technical Projects:
In addition to learning, I also actively worked on side projects to build a technical portfolio and sharpen my programming skills. Below are the 7 notable projects that I spent at least 20+ hours each on to build from scratch:
- Technical Interview Prep — Over the summer while preparing for technical interviews, I did well over 250+ coding problems in C++ from a variety of sources such as LeetCode, HackerRank, Cracking the Coding Interview.
- Sunshine — I learned to use Android Studio and built a cloud-connected weather app that displays real-time weather information.
- React Hacker News — This is a React and Redux application that queries into HackerNews database and lets users find relevant content based on their search terms.
- SoundCloud Client — Another React and Redux application I built consumes SoundCloud API. Users can login to their SoundCloud account and listen to their tracks on the app.
- Emoji App — A simple “Emoji” game I built with NodeJS and CosmicJS.
- TweetMe — A clone of Twitter I built using Django (Python), jQuery, and Bootstrap CSS.
This year I only read 10 books in total, but they are all of very high quality: Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Tom & David Kelley’s Creative Confidence, Alec Ross’s Industries of the Future, Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Adam Grant’s Originals, Robert Cialdini’s Influence, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, Marc Benioff’s Behind the Cloud, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and Dan & Chip Heath’s Made to Stick.
Besides from books, I have spent the past few months reading technical reports from O’Reilly, a wonderful resource to learn about deep insights in technology and business. It covers a wide range of topics including business & leadership, data, design, hardware & IoT, programming, security, and web development.
I only wrote 9 blog posts this year, but 2 of them “The 10 Statistical Techniques Data Scientists Need to Master” and “The 10 Deep Learning Methods AI Practitioners Need to Apply” had thousands of views and brought tons of traction to my Medium blog.
Listening to Podcast:
I started listening to podcasts over the summer and ever since then have become so addicted to it. At the moment, I’m listening on average of 20+ different podcast shows every week. They typically fall under Technology (Programming, Design, Product, and Data), Business, and Self Development. I want to share my list here and would highly encourage you to give at least a few of them a listen:
- Entrepreneurship: Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle School, Ryan Robinson’s The Side Hustle Project, Gerald Adams’ Leaders Create Leaders, NPR’s How I Built This
- Self Development: The Tim Ferriss Show, Lewis Howes’s The School of Greatness, The Kevin Rose Show
- Technology & Business: Software Engineering Daily, a16z, Inside Intercom, This is Product Management
- Data Science: Data Skeptic, This Week in ML & AI, Talking Machines, Linear Digressions
- The O’Reilly Series: Radar, Data, Design
What Did Not Go Well in 2017
I didn’t achieve the biggest goal I set out for this year, which is getting a job in the US. I applied to many Software Engineering, Product Management, and Data Analytics positions in tech companies all over the US. Now it’s a long and winding story stretching out 3 months of summer with hundreds of applications, phone and onsite interviews, coding challenges, take-home projects, networking events, coffee chats etc. To cut it short, I tried every single online job platform, every professional connection I have on LinkedIn, and every single combination of job-seeking strategies I have learned over the years. And I still failed. Lack of Credentials. Not Enough Experience. Did Not Reach the Technical Bar. Not Currently Hiring. Not Sponsor Visa.
But I learned a ton. I realized what technical skills I need to be more qualified. I figured exactly what the next steps I need to take. And most importantly, I found inspiring stories of people who had gone through similar struggles like I did and later on succeeded in achieving their goals. No pain, no gain. This experience led me to a new phase of self-discovery, preparation, and intense focus that I have never experienced before in life. It is okay to make mistakes but it is unacceptable to not learn from them. And I’m learning from these failures. Every Single Day.
Although the earlier part of 2017 was great socially for me on the last semester in college, I didn’t socialize at all since May. As I am now completely focused on working towards new goals and developing new habits, I need to make some tough sacrifice with my social life. True rigor takes practice and resilience. Everything I do now is training. Every area of my life affects every other area of my life. And I’m willing to stick to that governing principle and ignore everything else that does not matter.
As I focused more on results-driven activities such as learning and daily habits this year, I didn’t commit to any enjoyment-driven activities such as travel as much this year. I usually explore 8–10 new places every year; however, this year I only checked out 4. I cruised around Philadelphia and Washington DC towards the end of last year during the break, spent Spring Break in March at Fort Lauderdale/Miami, and visited a buddy of mine in Boulder in early April.
What Am I Working Towards
Next, I start looking towards the future, based on goals that are set by a category. Here are the categories that I use: Career, Education, Learning, Writing, Travel, Spiritual, Health. I try to set an average of 3 to 5 measurable goals for each category.
1 — Education:
In the past 4 months, I have been working on applications for graduate schools in the US — from studying for the GRE, asking for recommendation letters, crafting the statement of purpose, picking schools, and everything in between. I plan to do a Master of Science degree in Computer Science, with intended research on Artificial Intelligence. AI has leaped to the forefront of global discourse, garnering increased attention from practitioners, industry leaders, policymakers, and the general public. Inspired by the exponential growth and tremendous impact that AI is bringing to our connected 21st century, I believe that a strong graduate education in the subject will turn my passion of building technologies that solve real-world business challenges into reality.
2 — Career & Learning:
After graduate school, I want to work in the industry either as a Machine Learning Engineer or a Data Scientist. To prepare for that, I am keeping up with industry developments through reading research papers, taking MOOCs, contributing to GitHub projects and competing in data science Kaggle competitions. To be battle-ready for technical interviews, I plan to study up algorithms, system design, and machine learning concepts extensively. Finally, I am also thinking about starting some sort of side hustle that can potentially turn into a business. I’m not totally sure what exactly it will entail, but I’m confident that my entrepreneurial desire will make it happen.
3 — Writing:
A very important goal that I set out for 2018 is to write more. I have always focused on developing my personal brand and work on my online presence ever since going to college. Actively blogging is the surest way for people to find me online, see what I’m about, and contact me if needed. Therefore, I aim to post regularly every Monday and Thursday and be consistent with it next year. I’ll keep writing about technical topics including data science, computer science, programming as well as non-technical things from book lessons and life experience. Ultimately, I want to generate higher tractions to my personal website as well as get more followers on Medium.
4 — Travel:
I hope to commit to traveling more this upcoming year. For now, I am planning to visit some East Asian countries and possibly Australia during the summer. If I come back to the US during the fall for graduate school, then I will certainly have other vacations planned.
5 — Health:
I will definitely continue to exercise regularly, constantly testing new workout plans and food diets. For strength training, I’ll focus on lifting heavier weights (at the moment, I’m able to bench 150 lbs, deadlift 175 lbs, and squat 165 lbs). For HIIT Cardio, I’ll focus on making constant progress towards lean gain by working on my form and keeping them short. For swimming, I’ll keep pushing my limits of how long I can swim per day. Finally, I’m thinking of getting back to playing tennis after a long time not picking up the racquet.
6 — Spiritual:
I have practiced the 3 habits mentioned below in the last few months which prove to be tremendously useful to nurture my spirituality. I will keep practicing them in 2018 as they are extremely effective to grow my mentality:
- Reading books: Every year I read about 8–10 non-fiction books about business, technology, and personal development. This year, I aim to read about 25 books with broader genres and wider topics.
- Waking up early: I have been going to bed at 10:30 PM and waking up at 5:30 PM every single weekday over the past 3 months (not much fluctuation in the weekends). Shifting from the nocturnal mode in college to an early riser has allowed me to get less tired, be more lively, and get more work done.
- Listening to podcasts: As mentioned earlier, I have been addicted to podcasts over the last 6 months. Not only can I keep up with news in the tech industry or learn great career and personal advice, I can also implement practical knowledge and access to the resources given by the podcasters. I’ll continue listening to more podcasts in 2018 and see how much more I can learn.
Theme for the Year
As I’m working on my annual review, I also try to add a theme — the summary of the whole year (What’s it going to look like? Who will I be for the next year?). 2016 is the Year of Magical Thinking for me because I traveled all over the places, 2017 is the Year of Transition because I focused on returning home in Vietnam after 6 years away in the US. My 2018 is going to be The Year of Productivity — in which I completely focus on learning important technical skills, creating original projects, as well as developing critical personal habits. I certainly expect myself to operate at a much higher level.
I would highly recommend you to do your own annual review. It’s a great exercise to self-reflect and plan out your life. We tend to overestimate what we can do in an average day but underestimate what can be done over the course of a year. Looking at a whole year in review, you may be surprised at everything you’ve accomplished.