Hello! My name's Justin. This is my annual review for 2022. You may also be interested in last year's.
I am, as I write this, in the best shape of my life. “Best shape” is, admittedly, vague and somewhat subjective; I could rephrase as “I am lifting more weight than I ever have before and am a better boulderer than I’ve ever been, and also don’t have as much body fat.” (I am also in the point of my life where I don’t care much about that final part; the main thing that decides when it is time to start losing weight is when the alternative option is to replace my wardrobe.)
I set a goal last year to join the 1/2/3/4 plate club; I managed the first two, which I find a little entertaining because I would not particularly associate myself with upper body strength. (As of this writing my maxes on squat and deadlift are 285 and 345 respectively, so not too far off but certainly more than a month’s work. So half-credit!
I could be harsher on myself than I am going to be. The chaos of the first part of this year - moving, traveling, leaving Stripe - broke a lot of my habits when it came to healthy living, and in May I was not living up to my standards. We both dieted pretty strictly over the summer, and by August we were back to a place where we felt good about our bodies and our habits.
The only real 'new' thing, health-wise, is that I started bouldering again after three or four years off. There's a gym within biking distance that I've started going to with a few friends, and it makes for great active recovery work amidst a lot of lifting. Bouldering, in many ways, feels like the opposite of lifting. Progress is tangible but not quantifiable; discrete and staccatto rather than monotonic and linear. I am not really a "good" boulderer — I am still mostly flailing around on V3s and V4s, and my training goals are such that I'm fine with that. That being said...
To everyone’s continued surprise, Haley has not called off the engagement; despite me dragging her to a completely new city and forcing her to indulge me in many a hare-brained scheme (a square-foot garden; a row house; a fifteen-minute drive from her soon-to-be in-laws) she remains stubbornly set on changing her name to Duke.
I am still not quite sure what I have done to deserve such luck and fortune; I can only resolve to not take such things for granted.
Telemachus is our corgi; he turned two in September. He is a perfect dog.
Dog is perhaps the operative word. He is no longer a puppy; he occasionally cosplays as a goblin, as a sandworm, as one of many a fantastical and bizarre creature, but he has aged. He sleeps; he cuddles; he sniffs and fetches. We are past the point of needing to walk him two miles a day; there are no tantrums, no accidents, and very little discipline.
How much do we love Telly? We make our dogsitters stay at the house so he’s comfortable. He is a spoiled dog; he deserves to be spoiled.
I wrote 22,000 words in 2022. That feels pretty good! I didn't have a goal; in fact, I am tempted to feel bad about my writing output in this year. I think part of this is a teensy, tiny existential crisis: Why do I want to write? There are a couple reasons:
There is... nothing that I'm particularly proud of having written.
On the other side of things, I spent some serious time tinkering with the scaffolding of this site: migrating it from Jekyll to Next and switching from Airtable to flat files. Both of these were done with the idea of 'modernizing' the codebase and having some fun learning new concepts (bleeding-edge Next and MDX); I succeeded on those fronts, but this codebase is frankly a bit of a mess at the moment.
In February - what feels like, literally, a lifetime ago - Haley and I packed up and moved from Seattle to Richmond, Virginia. I grew up here; she grew up in Northern Virginia (some of my readers will know the phrase “NoVa” well, and hopefully all of them will correctly associate it with the appropriate level of disdain.)
It has been pretty dang lovely. Richmond is not a city for which many people have a ready mental image. Think of it in much the same vein as any of the “C-tier” East Coast cities (your Charlestons, your Ashevilles, your Providences); it is small but much larger than it used to be, with a couple capstone corporations running de-facto jobs programs, a booming student population, a number of “hip” businesses importing culture from New York on a twenty-four-month delay (or more precisely importing it from DC on a twelve-month delay, which itself imports from New York on a twelve-month delay.)
Our cost of living is half of what it was in Seattle; we live in a gorgeous neighborhood, walking distance from a half-dozen great breweries and two very good coffee shops and an Aldi and a Whole Foods; my parents are a fifteen minute drive away, and Haley’s parents are a scant ninety.
We miss Seattle; we love Seattle; we are so, so happy that we find ourselves in Richmond.
I work on Buttondown full-time now! (You know it’s serious when I change my Twitter bio to “founder”, because being a full-time independent businessman means I have to indulge the hackneyed affordances of online thought leadership.)
Buttondown had a good year in terms of outputs. MRR is up a significant amount; I completed some serious technical projects and the codebase is in a great place; there are some logo customers who I’m really, really thrilled about being able to count as users.
I did not do many of the big picture features or meta-work that I really wanted to do. I am, again, not going to beat myself up too much over this; two-thirds of the year Buttondown was very much a “thing on the side” and the past three months I’ve spent trying to build personal tactical discipline rather than commit to any very big strategic moves.
Still, this will change in 2023. This is the first time I’m entering a new year with Buttondown not being a fun little thing I have on the side but as the way I earn a living.
In last year’s coda, I wrote:
The truth is, I have operated the last nine months or so with absolutely no slack. The vast majority of days this year were bereft of even thirty minutes to relax and gather my thoughts. This is a bit of a bummer: the superstructure I built out around my life might have been feasible in a world where I was locked down and could have complete mastery of every single hour being spent or whatever, but that’s a) inherently unsustainable; b) especially unsustainable in a year where I changed my job and am once again subject to the whims of a social life.
Really, the question that is worth posing is: what do I want to do less of? Where is the time — and energy — going to come from? (And even that dichotomy is interesting to me. One of the most interesting parts of being in management now is internalizing that your time is no longer your own: something like 60% of my time is given away to others, either in the form of meetings or in the form of being in “reaction mode”.)
I think a part of me knew as I wrote those words that the answer was largely "stop working two jobs and work one job instead". That part of me grew louder and more confident over the first few months of 2022, culminating in my decision to leave what was the best job I've ever had at a company I still admire more than any other. (I still love Stripe, in case that's not obvious. It's a different company now — one with eight thousand heads instead of eight hundred — but one that I still think is doing great work, and one whose Slack channels I miss dearly.)
The thing I am most proud of by far - and the thing I miss at most - of Stripe was my team. (If you are reading this and you are familiar with the Ruxpin lore - you and I are kindred spirits.)
I wasn’t sure whether or not to preface this section with an “Unfortunately, “. (And, of course, with that aside, I get to have my cake and eat it too!) I did not launch anything new in 2022; I had designs to, but those designs were unfulfilled.
I only feel a little guilty about it, and only in a vague, abstract sense, which means that it was probably the correct choice. I can’t really say that it was out of languor or indecision: I had a good idea for a product that I still think will do well, and I did not have the time or energy to ship it. That time and energy was spent in a variety of virtuous ways:
work that was, pound-for-pound, more important (be it either Stripe or Buttondown) spending time with loved ones and friends and dogs being blissfully off-screen
I was chatting with a friend about time and energy (he has kids; I will probably be a parent in the next few years), and he said:
I’d say the biggest changes to me with kids are that I care about other things a lot less through sheer prioritization. It’s not just a time and energy thing, it’s a where your heart is thing.
I think I had underestimated the extent of how much my life and priorities have changed over the past five years, going from being twenty-five with no strong social commitments and all the willpower in the world to being thirty and awash in lovely, lovely burdens. Five years ago, I could trivially carve out fifteen hours in a weekend to launch a new project; now, it’s closer to four.
I think that’s just growing up. I’d love to take another stab at a project in this coming year, but I’m not planning on it — I want every ounce of energy and willpower dedicated towards Buttondown, and graduating it from “independent software thing” to a legitimate company.
I read, as you see, quite a bit this year. My goal going into the year was to read more Big Books, and I spent most of the first half of the year doing just that — wrapping up the Years of Lyndon Johnson, Middlemarch, futzing around with The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace before setting them down for a bit (to return to in 2023, hopefully.) I read five books that I would easily and instantly include in my personal canon:
It is very hard to choose between these five; if you are reading this essay, please add all five of them to your library queue with all haste. For tradition’s sake, though, I must choose one, and I choose The Supper of the Lamb ↗, whose prose and purpose I think is unique amongst its kind.
I am quite pleased with my year of games, despite not finishing a slew of games that I really wanted to finish (looking at you, Crystal Project ↗ and Inscryption ↗) and having not even started Elden Ring, which was going to be my major sabbatical project. I played a huge number of games I loved.
My favorite — in terms of the one that I will think about most often and the one that brought me the most joy — was Tunic ↗. It is hard to talk too much about this game because part of what makes it so wonderful is the experience of going in unaware and letting it dazzle you, but dazzle it did. The feeling I had while playing Tunic was one of rapture and revelation — even if I had to turn down the difficulty for the final few bosses.
I will give an honorable mention to Farm RPG , the closest thing I have these days to an MMO. It is a very small and sweet game in which I’ve progressed quite far, and if you’re looking for the kind of thing with which you can spend fifteen minutes while waiting in line I could not recommend it highly enough.
I did not watch as many movies as I wanted to this year, despite that being a big nominative emphasis. I blame, as you have heard many times, the chaos of moving: there was very little structure between January and May, and everything after that felt a bit too rushed and purposeless.
That being said, my choice for favorite film of the year is an easy one, and (even with a relatively small field) the quickest decision of any I’ve had to make in this year or priors. Drive My Car ↗ was a perfect piece of cinema from start to finish, and the final Uncle Vanya scene left a tattoo upon my heart.
I didn’t love many albums this year; certainly I did not love any new music this year. Releases from some of my favorite contemporary artists (Carly Rae Jepsen; The 1975; Pusha T) felt like flat re-treads of previous, superior work.
There was a lot of crate-digging jazz that I loved (Waltz for Debby ↗; Portrait in Jazz ↗). But, by Spotify’s numbers the album I loved the most was The Minstrel Show ↗, an old Little Brother record that felt like a too-perfect mashup of what I loved most about early Kanye and Camp Lo — a sheer glee of production + verse work with skits you didn’t even feel tempted to skip.
I have been getting quite into house music, though, as a bit of a higher-BPM alternative to lo-fi. (I am indebted to Jasdev for the all of the playlists.)
You could divide my television energy pretty neatly into two halves: I watch a lot of anime with my brother and I watch a wild smorgasbord of everything else with Haley. (I very occasionally watched a show by myself — this year it was Atlanta, since I had watched the first two seasons before I met Haley.)
This may be a bit of recency bias, because we just finished up the season finale, but Andor (Season 1) ↗ is far and away my favorite thing I watched this year. Set aside the Star Wars thing for a second — it really does not matter that this is a Star Wars show. (There is, frankly, very little intellectual property in it; you could sand off the Star Wars branding edges and end up with the same product.) I wrote about it more here, but in short — it is a show that struts in with an immediate sense of confidence, elegance, and clarity of purpose, and manages to simultaneously be incredibly entertaining and a forceful piece of work with a thesis about the world that it delivers to stunning effect.
It’s also a first season of television that is compelling in of itself while making you desperate in anticipation for a second season, which is no easy feat. (Even some of my all-time favorites often come with a “well, muddle through the first season and then things really take off” warning — the closest thing you get to that with Andor is a begrudging acceptance that the first two episodes are deliberately slow and more than a little confusing, not unlike the first fifty pages of any le Carré.
Some things that I consider noteworthy that don't have their own section:
Zora Neale Hurston tells us that there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer; I think only time will tell which of those this year has been, but it has been nothing if not the one with the most life changes for me since I decided to move to Seattle a decade ago, a naive twenty-year old who couldn’t buy liquor but wanted more than anything to work at a big tech corporation. I turned thirty; I quit my job to run my own company; I moved back East.
I am happier than last year; I am more relaxed than last year.
Most of this has come from clarity of purpose. I’m writing less because the things I once wanted out of writing (“building a personal brand”, that sort of thing) are no longer things I care much about; I left Stripe because I am at the point where metis is the most important thing I want to work towards in my career; I haven’t started any new projects because the marginal value of doing so is less than working on Buttondown, and the marginal joy of doing so is less than spending time with friends and family.
As I write this, I have four sticky notes on my monitor.
Two — positioned on the right-hand side of the monitor, in a lovely looping sans-serif — are from Haley, sweet nothings that she hides around the house when I’m out of town.
Two — positioned on the left-hand side, in a denser and frankly uglier all-caps scratch — are my own.
One is a list of active projects, to make sure I don’t let my in-flight commitment recede to the background:
The second is a stacked list of what my priorities are for 2023:
I've joked with a couple friends about 2023 being a year of "monk mode": a lot of time working hard in the next nine months (our wedding's in September, so that'll make for a nice finish line) to get Buttondown into a place where I can take my foot off of the gas. I'm not sure if that's the right way to think about it, but I do know that I'm looking forward to a year of more focus, more clarity, and more peace.
To Harrison, Ryan, and Jasdev for reading drafts of this essay; to Sumana and John for being such excellent writing and coworking partners over the year; to Sonny for keeping a well-stocked Plex; to my parents for spoiling Telly as much as they spoil me; to Haley for everything; to you, presumably, for reading this far.