Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I despised tradition.
Every other holiday came with the pressure of getting together with relatives and checking all the boxes: excessive food, excessive conversation, and an unhealthy focus on other people’s opinions.
It took me a while to break my reflex of immediately associating tradition with social and emotional pressure.
The biggest change happened when I decided to start my own traditions, like the article I now write each year for my birthday. I started doing it at 30, continued at 31, and now I’ve reached the third “episode” of the series.
This year has been especially eventful with losing my beloved grandmother, working to build my freelancing business, celebrating two of my best friends’ wedding, and everything in between. It had a few very powerful highs and lows but, at the end of the day, I managed to find a stronger balance, something I’m very grateful for.
It really helps me to sit down and reflect on the past year and the new lessons I learned along the way. The habit of pondering on everything from how I do my work to the type of relationships I choose to engage in has had a BIG positive impact on me. I’ve improved my clarity of thought, avoided bad decisions, and gained the ability to internalize wins and finally enjoy them.
So here’s where I stand at 32, peering into the next year with curiosity and a stronger sense of self identity.
If you’d rather listen than read, I’ve created an audio version of this article that also packs some extra bits and pieces, not originally included.
1. Cultivate an identity outside of your work roles
This is one of the things I’ve been talking about consistently in the last few years in one to one sessions with my former teams, with friends or people I sometimes mentor.
I did this without planning, when I started a blog, 11 years ago. The moment I started creating content for myself, whether it was on the blog, on Twitter, LinkedIn or anywhere else, that’s when I started to build a recognizable identity that wasn’t tied to a specific job.
Of course, the jobs I had in the past 12 years helped strengthen this identity, opening up new opportunities to cultivate my interests, skills, and mindset. But I never stuck to just doing the work… at work.
I constantly put in hundreds of hours in personal projects where I had the freedom to create and experiment with concepts and tools:
- a blog
- a newsletter
- a podcast
- participating in organizing events
- being an active contributor to various communities, etc.
Fully immersed in the fantastic experience that is #DefCamp!
Check out the hashtag for snippets from the conference action. https://t.co/HoAYYRnmQO
— AndraZaharia (@AndraZaharia) November 8, 2019
If there’s one thing I regret is that I didn’t go about cultivating this identity more intently, with a plan and some goals. I think it would’ve helped me make progress faster but, at the same time, I fear it might have felt like work instead of something fun, challenging, and rewarding. So maybe it’s better than I went with the flow.
Resource: Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. Sunk costs.
2. For better mental health, don’t tie your identity to your work
This was a big and tough one for me.
While I knew that where worked or what I worked on at any point in time didn’t represent my entire identity, it was difficult for me to find strong anchors outside the professional things I did.
This year I had a breakthrough while working with Andrei Rosca, a fantastic coach (more on that below). He taught me some ways to cultivate as strong of a sense of achievement from personal accomplishments as I did from professional ones.
Resource: In the same context, I also remembered of the importance of acknowledging the emotional labor I do and that it’s part of my efforts.
This has become a strong source of balance for me.
3. “Know your value. Respect your value. Cultivate your value.”
This was a key takeaway of mind from Merry Miller’s speech at the kick-off event for the StepFWD pre-accelerator.
The representative of the US Embassy in Bucharest gave an incredibly inspiring talk about the first struggles for gender diversity in tech and other male-dominated sectors.
She emphasized the fundamental role of cultivating a balanced sense of self-worth. She discussed this in the context of a growth mindset, in which “value” is cultivated through constant practice, feedback, and improvement.
Resource: For a broader and deeper understanding of the topic, I recommend Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset“, one of my top reads for 2019.
4. (You can) Get rid of your anxiety
Another massive breakthrough I had this year was managing my anxiety and, ultimately, drastically reducing it.
It happened when I worked on it with Andrei Rosca, the coach I mentioned previously.
Here’s a bit of background to explain why this was so important.
I’d had had about two dozen therapy sessions before working with Andrei. While they helped me cultivate a sense of self-awareness and accelerate self-growth, the sessions didn’t have a more definitive impact. I regained balance for a few weeks but, when push came to shove, I’d experience the same anxiety levels as before.
When I started my coaching sessions with Andrei, he gave me fantastic tools to work with on my anxiety, fears, and other issues I wanted to overcome.
One of our most valuable talks was around managing anxiety. That’s when Andrei showed me an exercise created by David D. Burns that literally changed my life. It helped me reduce my anxiety from 90% to about 10% which blew my mind!
It took me a while to realize that I could help myself this way. I continued to repeat the exercise until it became a mental habit. Now, I use it whenever I need to evaluate situations and my reaction to them in a way that’s fundamentally better and healthier for me.
Andrei also taught me how to set up systems around me that would reduce my decision fatigue and avoid overworking to avoid triggering anxious reactions. They worked incredibly well for me and still do, months later!
If you’re struggling with anxiety, please know it’s something you can get under control and, ultimately, get rid of. It’s important to find the right person who can guide and support you through this process.
Resource: Get to know David Burns’ work in this thought-provoking interview for Stanford Mag.
5. (You can) Relieve some of the pressure
These small achievements piled on top of each other this year. I can really feel the compound effect of the effort I put into working on myself.
Along with my anxiety, I also worked on some childhood issues (gotta love those!) that I finally managed to get much-needed clarity on.
With a stronger understanding of what is in my circle of control and what’s outside of it, I started to relieve some of the pressure I’ve been putting on myself since… forever.
I gave myself permission to enjoy the ability I now have to adjust my schedule as I want to. I also gave myself permission to not feel bad when I say “no” to something, instead of saying “yes” and ending up depleted as a consequence.
It’s been truly liberating and it’s freed my mind for better, more nurturing thoughts.
I still have a lot to improve on but now I have a healthier way of doing it which makes all. The. Difference.
6. Work on your habits
Two of the things that have played an instrumental role in my growth this year are:
- working on my eating habits with Carmen Albisteanu, an experienced food coach
- and starting running with 321sport.
I started tracking everything I eat with MyFitnessPal again and the 118 days streak* helped me turn this into the habit of making wiser choices.
Carmen’s guidance and tested-in-the-real-world insights made a huge difference! She gently reminded me of healthy, nutritious options and, most of all, helped me work on some of the issues in my perspective on food and its role in my life.
The 321sport community was also instrumental in making running a fun experience where you got to connect with good people. It’s the first time I feel I’m part of a sports team and I’m thankful I get to make this an important part of my life.
Good, healthy habits are powerful anchors during times of deep, fast transformation, the likes of which we’re living now. I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can achieve if I improve my habits so I’m going to keep investing time and energy in strengthening them.
Resource: If you’re interested in learning more about habits, I recommend Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit“, a book I picked up from Cristina that I absolutely loved!
There’s another aspect to these two habits too.
*Cristina is my hero with a streak of over 1300 days! 😳
7. Question your reactions and beliefs – from serious back problems to running
I never thought I’d like running or ever call myself a runner. But here I am, 70km in total later, able to run 4km without stopping and actually enjoy it!
It may not sound like much but for me it’s an achievement I’m really happy with.
Quick background: in 2015 I threw my back out after 7 months of cross-fit. It was caused by a combination of factors which I wrote about on my Romanian blog. One of the things the doctors told me then is that I was, under no circumstance, to run or do any high-impact activities. They told me I had a herniated disc and that I should go through mandatory physical therapy to keep the disc from getting more damaged.
I did that and tried a few more things but it felt limiting the entire time. I’ll share the whole story in an article dedicated to this topic.
Fast forward to 2019, when I said I wanted to start running. I took precautions, starting slow and making an appointment with a knowledgeable doctor to see if it would be a healthy choice both in the short and long term.
After a fresh MRI and an examination with a great, experienced podiatrist, I found out that my back was in a much better shape than previous doctors had told me.
Indeed, there are some protrusions but they can’t be called a hernia. I can run, not long-distance, but up to 10km/day without the risk of damaging my spine.
Naturally, I have to do other things to keep my back strong, so it can support my spine’s health but I have more freedom to move than I initially thought. That and no excuse to lean on if I get lazy.
I wanted to share the summary of this story because I believe it can help others. Always keep your mind open to doing things differently, to questioning the status quo. For some issues, you should seek better answers.
8. Harness the power of accountability
One of the very best habits I picked up in 2019 has been doing a monthly accountability meeting with two of my closest friends.
Cristina wrote about our accountability meetings, outlining how they work.
Having someone to keep me accountable for the commitments I made to myself and others really improved my decision-making. Having these deep, thoughtful conversations helped me take on less work (and avoid being overwhelmed), say no to a proposal that would’ve been bad for me, and generally make wiser choices.
We also made it a habit to celebrate achievements big and small in these meetings, reminding one another of the work and heart we put into everything we do.
This process has had a huge positive impact on me, making me really glad we decided to start having these meetings.
9. Do all the uncomfortable things that come with being your own boss
Looking back at how I managed myself over the years, it’s blatantly obvious I’ve never really been a good boss for myself. I overworked myself, put too much pressure on myself to be great at everything, take care of everyone, and make sure things run smoothly in whatever circumstance.
When I started freelancing, I had the tendency to do the same, especially since I had a new business that depended solely on myself. For the first 6 months of 2019 I worked 10 times harder which paid off but also depleted me.
I know from my previous management experience that I would’ve never done this or asked this from my team because it wasn’t healthy. So I had to reevaluate how I managed myself.
I used a combination of coaching, reading, reflection, various tools to manage my productivity (such as putting everything I have to do in a calendar and assigning a dedicated time for everything), and frequent talks with friends (the accountability group, the Shine Crew I’m part of that came to be because Tiffany Da Silva set a great example).
Once I started adjusting things, the process became a bit easier. The challenge of being your own sounding board, of managing all the aspects of running a business takes a lot of work, self-coaching, and constant effort.
But, honestly, I really enjoy it. This is a good place for me and I welcome the challenge. I chose freelancing with rather realistic expectations based on research and I’m glad I did. For me, it works really well.
It’s not all smooth sailing all the time and, honestly speaking, I don’t think it’ll ever be because…
10. Good work is never easy
By the end of this year I’ll have written and edited around 1/2 million words in 2019 alone.
I’ve also recorded around 40 hours of audio and video interviews.
And while I don’t have a clear way to track this, I’ve read over a thousand articles/reports/playbooks for research according to my estimations.
I wanted to share these numbers to shed a light on the amount of work that being a content marketer entails, of which I love every bit!
Easy things – I never liked those. I thrive doing difficult work, I love working to understand complex topics and explain them to someone else. I love working with my clients to figure out a stronger positioning, to help them connect with the right customers and grow their business.
I don’t want to delegate everything and just become someone with an administrative role. When people work with me, they expect me to be involved and this is way I’ve chosen not go to the agency path.
Knowing that good work is never easy is important to acknowledge, in my opinion. Personally, it helps me set realistic expectations. For me, the objective is to create something valuable, not to build the perfect process to run things with as little effort as possible. Some friction, some struggle are good, like Vitaly Friedman, Smashing Magazine co-founder said last week at GPeC. That’s where growth happens.
Certainly, some things are worth automating or standardizing, but they’re never the important aspects.
And there’s another thing about good work worth considering…
11. Do work that doesn’t scale
Good or great work is rarely scalable.
Because I’ve been working in tech for a decade, I’ve seen people try to automate everything. But some things cannot be automated, things like doing customer discovery, building relationships or figuring out positioning for a company. They take emotional labor and critical thinking which machines cannot replicate, based on our current knowledge of what is possible.
In marketing in general and content marketing specifically, many people are struggling because growth hacks, formulaic approaches, and “recipes for success” don’t work anymore.
Customers’ standards are evolving constantly and, in this context, non-scalable work is becoming increasingly important for growth because it produces better than average results.
What’s more, replicating success is highly dependent on people, no matter how great tech gets.
Their ability to teach and motivate others to pursue excellence (while also preserving their morals) is essential.
However, convenience, commoditization, and the network effect have chipped away at people’s drive to strive for personal growth in a way that helps them excel both in personal and professional matters.
Those who are ready to do the difficult work of bettering themselves, of living through growing pains and making something of them – they will be the ones who will thrive and enjoy a life lived to the fullest.
This has been my experience so far and it’s also my hope for the future. I’m committed to making this effort day after day. I’ve made my choice.
Many people are struggling because growth hacks, formulaic approaches & recipes for success aren't working anymore.
Ironically, non-scalable work is becoming increasingly important for growth because it produces better than average results.
— AndraZaharia (@AndraZaharia) October 29, 2019
12. Carve a place for yourself
Understanding where I can make the biggest impact with my particular set of skills was extremely liberating.
For years I’ve been playing so many roles that I couldn’t define my main one. You could say I didn’t have a strong positioning for myself. 🙂
I wanted to gain more technical info around key cybersecurity concepts. I wanted to go deeper into SEO. I worked to improve my knowledge of key concepts in psychology and neuroscience. And the list can go on for a while!
I thought I had to be great at all of these if I were to do valuable work.
While my belief hasn’t changed, how I practice this belief has. This year was a turning point for me from this perspective too.
To maintain a stronger balance and make the most of what I can do, I decided to get comfortable with learning about some aspects on a need-to-know basis and I focused a lot more on talking to people who specialized in those particular aspects. Both have helped me gain depth faster and (in)validate my assumptions through other people’s direct experiences. Plus, I got to learn a lot more than I would have on my own.
Bit by bit, I carved a place for myself.
One evening, a few weeks ago, I realized something while talking to my better half: I am now doing full time what I used to do as a passion project:
This big-picture view helped me internalize that, at least for now, I’ve found my place at the intersection of what I’ve always loved: humans, tech, and how they shape one another.
13. Stick to your path
About 3 months after I started freelancing I got a proposal to join a startup… as an employee. Naturally, I had just started on my own and had barely had a chance to explore how it worked and what I could achieve as a company of one.
However, the opportunity seemed really interesting, so I engaged in a series of conversations to figure out if this could be an unmissable opportunity.
Throughout these conversations, I felt pressured to drop everything I was doing and conform to someone else’s expectations and business needs. It didn’t take me long to realize this was not the kind of person I wanted to work with, irrespective of my role.
Thankfully, my years of working with and for startups had taught me to distinguish over the top promises from what’s feasible. Also, the years I’d spent working on myself gave me the confidence to trust it was much better to pass on this proposal, without regrets or fear of missing out.
It was a bit like renewing my commitment to building my own business in a time when I really needed it. It felt empowering.
It’s been around 7 months since that moment and every step along the way confirmed that I made the right choice.
That’s why I’m taking this opportunity to strengthen how important it is to carve and stick to our own path. Save for rare exceptions, other people will always try to determine you to fit their plans and expectations. Getting swept up in that can chip away at your own identity and leave you confused and second-guessing yourself.
If you work to cultivate a strong sense of self, you’ll also improve your ability to make decisions that benefit you in the long run. Worth doing especially if you feel like you’re missing out on instant gratification in the short term.
It’s worth sticking to your path.
14. Remember that people are behind everything
No matter how big the company, no matter how evolved the tech, no matter how great the processes – the most valuable experiences and achievements happen when people work together.
Behind every product and service you use there are people working to make it and improve it. Most of the things we take for granted in our lives (and sometimes we take A LOT for granted) hides layers and layers of complexity. Understanding that people are behind everything can help us cultivate empathy and curiosity, abilities that make us better when we interact with others.
For example, it blew my mind to find out how Shazam started and evolved straight from its founder Chris Barton. There’s an entire story around it which I’ll write about soon but the gist is this: it took an enormous amount of persistent effort to build AI in the early ’00s and create the ecosystem around the app for it to become what it is today.
You may find it absolutely normal to tap on your app and find out which song is playing but there’s a huuuuge backstory to it.
Just keeping this in mind as I go about my day helps me avoid taking things for granted, and respect other people’s work just as I wish they respected and understood mine.
Resource: Give first.
Keeping a student’s mindset.
Not letting ego get in the way.
These three things have made a huge difference for me for more than a decade.
In practical terms, I see them as contribution the communities I’m part of, to my profession.
Seeing myself as a contributor instead of an expert makes a big difference because it keeps me from getting complacent.
It also helped me connect with people who have the same mindset and principles which is the single most important experience I could’ve hoped for.
Andra, you're an amazing bold and fun interviewer! I'm so glad the impromptu "satisfaction interview" example worked out to include. (I'm totally going to check out a Roomba now. 😆🐈🐾)
— Angie Schottmuller (@aschottmuller) November 6, 2019
This brought me opportunities the likes of interviewing incredible people like Ryan Holiday.
— AndraZaharia (@AndraZaharia) November 5, 2019
I’m still taken aback by how all the dots ended up connecting to make a moment like this happen.
The biggest sense of achievement still comes from doing the work for me but I don’t deny that experiences like these make me especially grateful.
16. Detach from outcomes
My last lesson for my 32nd birthday is this: after all is said and done, detach from what happens to your work after you ship it.
Avoid getting conceited and think you (can) control everything.
Avoid obsessing over what people make of your work, bad or good.
Focus on what you can do to give your best.
Consider a third option: working towards a place where you’re not worried about anything that happens. Whether your business fails or your boss fires you, you are still you. And because of that you will be fine. Just like you always are.
Ryan Holiday’s wise words can provide a starting point to cultivate a lasting legacy that doesn’t depend on trends or mass adoption. It can keep you from the slippery slope of wanting to be everything for everyone.