2020: reflections on my work
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2020: reflections on my work

This is written for Rune anno 2025, but you might find it useful. It's mostly personal reflections on becoming a better entrepreneur, written in a reflective-not-kidding-around mood 🤷‍♂️.

2020 was the first year I got my head above water at work. I now have water wings to keep me afloat when storms hit.

In 2021, I will Make Friends on The Internet.

As a side note: I'm grateful to have avoided COVID. While millions of people lost their jobs, Aula helped universities move online. We were already remote. While millions lost loved ones, no one near me fell very ill. I didn’t even think about COVID until I finished this post.

2020: Water wings

I have my head above water for the first time in years: I am excited rather than overwhelmed about what’s ahead. Capable rather than behind. The first 3 years of my career have been exciting but also felt heavy.

I now have water wings to bring me back to the surface when storms hit. My water wings: weekly reviews, boundaries around work, long Saturday runs, a therapist and good friends.

Goals for 2020:

I didn’t set goals for 2020, except one thing:

Target: complete 52 weekly reviews.

Result: ~30 completed.

Weekly reviews are water wings. They bring me up to the surface for mental oxygen once per week. I met with a friend on Fridays to close mental loops and plan the week ahead. Open loops are ideas, tasks, promises that you haven’t yet decided what to do about yet. Open loops use mental processing power without any output. Mental deadweight.

Peaks of 2020

1) Run to run again

A favourite memory: sprinting down a steep hill with arms spread wide like an airplane during a Saturday trail run in the Chilterns National Park, laughing unstoppably.

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Long trail runs work as water wings too. But they also taught me a big lesson: Good output is a side effect of enjoying the work. Being able to run a marathon is a side effect of enjoying running regularly.

I used to kill myself in sports. Aged 14, I collapsed of exhaustion during most football matches. Effort was my comfort zone. Especially when it stopped being joyful. I no longer play football: I set expectations so high that I got cramped.

My best friend suggested we start running, with one constraint: running should not be a chore. Running should be a source of joy. A way to spend time with friends. The first months of running had one goal: learn to enjoy running so we would want to run the next 50 years. Run to run again. The side effect: I will run my first marathon on New Years Eve, with a big smile.

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I used that lesson to have my first productive week ever. In the sense of feeling productive.

In the past, I rarely set goals for myself. And when I did, I would not look at them again. It was too painful. The missed goals reminded me of my shortfalls. In the hope of creating plans that would let me do 10x as much, I set the bar too high. I replaced the joy of mental clarity with the fear of failing.

Now, I put on good music when I look at my weekly goals every morning. I obsess over whether my goals guide my work, not whether I hit them. One week the magic happened: I hit my weekly goal. It was a side-effect of enjoying the clarity of weekly goals.

2) Sweaty palms and silly ambition.

Two peak experiences at Aula solidified that I enjoy work that gives me sweaty palms.

Firstly, we built Europe’s largest education conference for 2,000 guests with 40+ speakers. In less than 4 weeks from idea to launch. We never held a virtual conference before. The sweat dripped off my palms at 8:57 am on the morning of the conference. At 9:27 am, 2,000 attendees exploded the Zoom chat, typing ‘clap clap’ to salute the first keynote speaker. I sprinted in circles in my bedroom with my hands above my head.

Secondly, we helped a university re-create all their modules for online teaching. All 1,200 modules (think 'Econ 101'). The university leadership bet all their chips on us: in May, we had never created a single module. We finished the Sunday before semester start. completing 800 modules in the last two weeks. The best part: our work was of high quality. We poured our hearts and souls into the sprint, and I’ve never been prouder of a group of people.

We captured these experiences as a company virtue at Aula called Silly Ambition. I enjoy surfing crashing waves. Water wings help me get back up.

3) I learnt to make decisions

I learnt to make decisions. Not necessarily good decisions, but decisions. Untaken decisions are deadweight around the ankles of a team that’s trying to swim.

By instinct, I sometimes avoid conflict to preserve harmony (working on it!). I defaulted to putting decisions without deadlines and without consensus in the backlog. Open loops. As untaken decisions pile up, the team starts to drown. My mind started to drown. I didn’t diagnose decision debt as the culprit.

I needed a kick in my ass to diagnose decision debt as the culprit. Paying down the decision debt unleashed my team and my creative energy like never before. I went from feeling heavy to being unable to stop working out of excitement.

Lesson: an imperfect decision that creates clarity and avoids delay is better than the perfect decision that never arrives. Except for 2-3 big, hard-to-reverse decisions per year.

4) I had a great time in Copenhagen

By accident, I discovered that I don’t really live in London, despite spending most of my time there. I flew to Denmark where I grew up in July for a 1-week holiday but ended up spending 5 months here.

I spent more time with friends and family than in the past many years. The distance from ear lobes to shoulder is 2x in Copenhagen compared to London (haven’t found any academic references on this yet...) The pace is different. I learnt I have more friends in Copenhagen than in London. A particular highlight: I became very good friends with Leise, my roommate in Copenhagen.

The trip didn’t tie me more to Copenhagen, but less to London. The reasons I live in London - access to capital and access to talent - aren’t very good. We work remotely, we have no investors in London, and we hire from around the world. It took a trip to realise that.

My Copenhagen intermezzo opens up for adventures in 2021.

Valleys of 2020

I spent lots of 2020 below water.

1) I wasn't always a good friend

“I’m worried. I don’t want to see you get pulled away in an ambulance from stress. And you haven't been there for me as a friend.”

My best friend, Jamie, pulled me aside in October and delivered some words I needed to hear. Delivered with extreme care. Those words became the most important turning point of 2020 towards a healthier relationship with my work (and my friends).

I had been too far out at sea: I was unreachable the whole summer, deep in the trenches of work. My eyes were glazed when I met friends. I dealt with work stress by working more and thinking less. More effort.

His message stung. It scared me. It was a much-needed kick in the ass that I'm very, very, very grateful for.

Right away, I picked up running and used long distance runs to set boundaries around my work. I began to develop my swim wings.

Prioritisation and decision-making is hard when you're below water. That's also when I need it the most.

2) I smoked cigarettes

In 2020 I smoked the last cigarette of my life.

Rune, aged 11: “I could start smoking just to show that I can quit.” (Yes, I was obnoxious. No, I didn’t start smoking.)

Rune, in June 2020, lying to myself: “I’m stressed. I need a smoking break. It's just one, I’ll quit tomorrow.” I smoked to relieve stress.

I value living deliberately (see Life horizons), so smoking chipped away at my self-confidence. I hated it, and I hid the fact that I was smoking from my friends.

In October I quit for good.

Lesson: Run towards, not away from, stressful things.

3) I struggled trying to be both a spear and a shield

I did lots of poor work because I tried to be both a spear and a shield.

A shield guides lots of work but doesn’t go deep on any of it. My role at Aula shields the rest of the company from distractions, so they can focus on building and selling our product. For example, onboarding new employees.

A spear goes deep on a few things, like building a product. In 2020, I 'spearheaded' two projects, the conference and our new learning design product. They took all my attention for three months.

As a result, no one at Aula was thinking about People or Finance during those periods. That was not good for Aula, and not good for me.

Lesson: You can be a spear or a shield, but not both. In 2021, I will be a shield.

2021: ‘Make friends on the internet’

Caveat: I spend most of my energy to building Aula, wherever that takes me, and we have separate goals for the company.

I would like to make more friends on the internet. Specifically, I would like to meet (and hire) curious folks by contributing to online communities. Key word: contributing.

The Internet is not going away, so I might as well get good at it.

I am a good Internet Worker, but not a good Internet Citizen.

Going remote in 2019 has been an advantage for Aula. We have hired better, designed our company more deliberately, and benefitted from asynchronous work.

Yet, outside work, I don’t use the Internet well. The value of the Internet flows to those who contribute, and I don’t contribute to any online communities. I engage with ideas in read-only mode, for example on Twitter. In 2020, I met zero new friends on the internet. Most interesting people in the world don’t live near me.

So I would like to contribute. I would like to sharpen my ideas from feedback. Make new friends. Reach out to authors I admire. Have serendipitous Internet Encounters. Get over my dread of hitting publish.

I have one prototype Internet Friend, Hampus. We spent 100 hours on Zoom discussing things like sci-fi novels and how to build companies. We met in-person for the first time in October 2020. Hampus is unlike the rest of my friends: A 42-year-old guy living in Sweden with his family. He’s also intensely open-minded. I’d like more Hampuses in my life.

What Making Friends on the Internet means in practice:

Theme 1: Hire great people via the Internet

50 % of early startup success is hiring, and Aula we’re pretty thoughtful about how we do it. I’m proud of the people I get to work with.

Hiring is the only thing in startup ‘operations’ where getting better is always worth it. There are two big ways we can get better:

1) Find outside guidance from people who are world-class at the role we’re hiring for. Unless you know what world-class looks like, you’re unlikely to find it. I am not yet world-class at anything and neither are most of my current friends, so I’ll have to make some new friends. What it looks like: have e.g. a person who's hired 50 customer support folks give a second opinion on candidates in final interview stages.

2) Tell the story of why people who are world-class at what they do should work at Aula. We have built a distinct place to work, and we’ve created one link that often entices people. But not many people have seen that link.

Goal:

Get world-class external input on every hire at Aula from Feb 1 onwards.

Theme 2: Publish stuff online every fortnight.

I’d like to write stuff every week. I haven’t published anything online before except as part of my work, so this is a bit of a wildcard. Creating our open-access handbook, the Brain, for Aula was a great use of time. It helped clarify our vision for a remote-first company and attracts like-minded folks.

If it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, I should spend the first few hundred getting to enjoy it. I plan to start by writing about my work, and we’ll see where that takes me.

Goals:

Publish every fortnight, and enjoy it.
Make one friend on the Internet.

Goals that don't happen at my computer

Run Samsø Ultra Marathon with a smile, a 100km trail around the island my parents live on.
Donate 10 % of my income to effective charities.

Post-script: I read Hampus' 2020 review and realised how super-serious this post is in comparison 🤣