How to Make 2017 the Best Year of Your Life - A Guide

​Originally published for my exclusive Monthly Email List.

December! It’s that time of the year – the month with the three unmovable fixtures: Christmas, New Years Eve, and the Annual Review.

Regular readers of this humble email series will know that I have – with no exception – taken a few weeks off in December to reflect on the year that’s about to go and plan on the next.

I call this my Annual Review (AR). I’ve done this since 2009. (Kudos to Chris – I got inspired by his series). Whatever “success” I have, I credit it to the AR – it’s the one point where all my most ambitious projects first saw the light:

  • Moving to Europe!
  • Writing a book!
  • Traveling to 100 countries!

Point Is – The AR is a big deal for me, and I wanted, for this month, to let it take completely over the email list. Travel impressions from Honduras can wait.

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A New Annual Review

While I’ve been doing the AR for now eight years straight, the format of the AR has changed from year-to-year. I used to do it with pen-and-paper – but now do so digitally. I used to do it over a weekend – now I take longer.

For AR 2016-2017, I’m going for the most radical change yet. Gone are “goals” and in are “systems”.

I’ll stop using the old approach and going with an all-new still experimental version. People change, and so approaches should do too, I guess 🙂

Below, I’ll share the high-level concepts and ideas of my new approach, and some details on my own review, to give some context.

So, What’s in Store for 2017? – Mario’s Annual Review, 2016-2017

Mind, the below framework is a work in progress. It could be that is – but I hope it’s not – a total mess and that in 2018 I’ll end up with something completely different. 

Introduction

In 2016, I started to see myself as a “Talent Stack” (more on it below) in continuous development. This “Talent Stack” is the big lever I’ve to achieve my objectives – whatever these objectives are and will be, my chances of succeeding in my objectives will be a function of how developed that Stack is.

To build and develop the “Talent Stack”, I do and will do “Projects”. To help me succeed in the Projects, and to also guide and systematize the development of the Stack I’ll install “Habits”.

The combination of Objectives  – Talent Stack – Projects – Habits is what will drive me for the new year. 

Note on Goals

I don’t have – as of today – one or two specific, overreaching goals as “Travel to 100 Countries”, etc. I’ve instead some (way more loose) objectives.

Goals are expensive. Instead of forcing yourself into one, it can pay off to have a more flexible approach – and, alas, that’s where I am right now. I quote Scott Adams:

“My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.

There are obviously some special cases in which goals are useful. If you plan to become a doctor, for example, and you have the natural ability, then by all means focus. But for most of us, we have no idea where we’ll be in five years, what opportunities will arise, or what we’ll want or need by then. So our best bet is to move from a place of low odds to a place of better odds. That means living someplace that has opportunities, paying attention to your health, continuously upgrading your skills, networking, and perhaps dabbling in lots of different areas.” 

In short, the below Talent Stack is my take on the underlined part – the set of traits that will take me from a place of low odds to a place of better odds.

If the above doesn’t make any sense, bear with me – it will become easier as I explain the approach:

1) Part 1 – My Talent Stack

In my book, I wrote the importance of being the best – or at least incredibly skilled – at one specific thing. If you’re the best, your success is way more likely than not.

This path has two major problems:

a) It’s Very, Very Hard. Good luck being the next Roger Federer or Larry Page. You may try your best, yet you’re more likely to fail than not.
b) It’s Not Meant For Generalists. If you want to be the best at one specific thing, you normally need to de-prioritize the rest.

Is there an alternative to being the best? In fact, there is – Scott Adams has come up with an equally powerful framework, called the “Talent Stack”.

The idea of the Talent Stack is that if you’re very good (yet not the best) at a unique or uncommon combination of 3-5 things that work well in conjunction with each other, you’re also highly likely of being successful.
You’ll have the “better odds” of above.

The Key – It’s much, much easier to develop a successful Talent Stack than to be the best at one specific thing.

In light of this, I’ve decided to focus on developing my Talent Stack and – while still aiming to be top 1% at one specific talent – I won’t put all the eggs into that one basket. The implications for the AR are:

  • With my Talent Stack defined, I take a look to how I did in 2016 Stack-by-Stack, individually – my growth, my milestones, my challenges.
  • I choose projects and habits to focus on based on their impact on the Talent Stack.
  • The combination of the Stack, Projects and Habits will move me closer to my objectives.

Below, I dive into the practicalities of it.

Part 1.1- The Two Core Skills

I’ve two “base” Stacks. These are the Stacks that meant to be the lever for me career and objectives moving forward. I’ve chosen the below as they’re specialized enough, yet still give me overall career flexibility.

a) Business Development/Procurement. This including a second-layer Talent Stack of its own – Project Management, Business Analytics, Negotiation, “Stakeholder Management” (corporate BS for “Politics”).

The Purpose of This Stack 

For my job now and for future jobs, I need to build on the Business Development Stack – across all areas, and focusing on being specially good in one in particular as well. It’s the foundational set of skills for a professional/person with my interests.

2016 Developments: 

  • I worked on procurement projects worth 50m+ USD per year, and across all four divisions of the Stack.
  • Focus on Negotiation. I’m still a rookie negotiator, but this year prepared and lead several multi-million dollar negotiations for the first time.

Assuming I continue in this line of work, this Stack will keep being the core area of development for me in 2017.

(Note – I’ve pages of points and self-feedback on this and the other Stacks. I’m trying to keep it simple here – I would take a whole book otherwise ;))

b) Communication. This one in turn subdivided into to a) Speaking, and b) Writing.

The Purpose of This Stack 

There are millions of people who are really, really good in business development – much better than I’ll ever be. However, few of those millions – especially those in India, China and other emerging markets – are incredibly good speakers and writers as well. I’m working to be one of the select few.

2016 Developments: 

  • Launched one Udemy video course, and made several live presentations in Copenhagen to talk about traveling.
  • I wrote communication and did presentations for high-level management in my company. (Can’t be specific here.)
  • I did 20+ job interviews – (maybe) recording myself, improving on each turn.

I spent a ton of time “studying” communication this year as well. I did most of this through Trump – like him or not, behind the populist facade he’s the best communicator/persuader I’ve ever seen – there are countless videos, articles, and books that outline his technique. Google/YouTube “Trump Persuasion” and you’ll find some.

(No Joke – I’ve used word-for-word Trump technique in handling complicated people and in negotiations with amazing results. Believe!)

In 2017, I see myself working on at least one of my major projects in this Stack. Details on that below.

Part 1.2 – My Unique Skills

Even if I’m really strong in business development and communication, I’ll still need a sharper edge to stand out. The next three talents in the Stack are my way to completely differentiate from the other (very capable) people with the same skills and career goals.

c) International Experience. Specifics, i) Travel, and ii) Languages.

The Purpose of This Stack 

In an increasingly multi-polar world (economics-wise, at least), it’s a must to have international experience. In Europe, this is so much the norm that it’s a big red flag work-wise if you “only” have one experience abroad.

If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you’ll know I take “International Experience” to the extreme. This experience on its own is not more than anecdote – but, coupled with a) and b), puts me in pole position to work on and lead international projects.

2016 Developments:

  • 100 Countries! I culminated my decade-long journey to 100 Countries in 2016 – even going beyond, now going for #103 by NYE. I’ve learned so much, and had so many crazy experiences along the way that they deserve a book on their own.

  • Kanji Overboard. I’ve done it! I learned the meaning of all 2200 Japanese Joyo Kanji  – clocking 138 straight days of studying. It’s a great feeling, but, though a nice victory, it’s only the start of the “war” – I’m still far off from being able to read/use fluently.

In 2017, I aim – and hope – to be able to move to another country – ideally another continent – with my job.  It almost happened (twice) in 2016, so it’s not unrealistic that I can end up in Cape Town, Shanghai or Dubai. Vemos.

d) Tech Savvy. I’ve a better sense of tech than most of my non-programmer friends, and I’m eternally paranoid of “losing the train” when it comes to tech.

The Purpose of This Stack 

For us in the West, AI and Tech will take all the jobs that won’t be outsourced to India. The only way to keep competitive – be as a corporate guy or an entrepreneur – is to be constantly on top of technology. If your colleague (or competitor startup) knows how to use/leverage AI and you don’t, you’ll fall behind.

(I see a lot of the 25-35s in my network – even some of the entrepreneurs – completely disregard this. I’m afraid they’ll be toast in less than five years).

2016 Developments: 

  • Python Course. I finished the complete Python #1 course by MIT in edX. I’ve not applied the knowledge though – all my code for 2016 are a few lines of PHP/CSS/HTML for my Wordpress site.

  • Hardware and Software. Aside from new Microsoft Office tricks (e.g. making consulting-style graphics with ThinkCell for PPT/Excel), not much.

I’m the least-happy on this of the five Stacks. I’ve not been horrible, but I didn’t leverage tech as much as I should have. I’ll put a lot more emphasis on this in 2017.

Note – This need not be specifically work-related. You can use tech to improve your quality of life – e.g. using VR to work through fobias/fear, or setting up a smart home to improve your lifestyle.

e) Cultural Depth. In addition to the above, the last angle I’ve to differentiate is that I’m relatively well read – especially in history. I know my Livy. I know my Plutarch.

The Purpose of This Stack 

I’m a uber-history nerd. I really like it. This hasn’t come incredibly handy (yet), but I’m confident that one day – sooner or later, I don’t know when – the best opportunity of my life will present itself, and I’ll put pitted against another tech-savvy, well-traveled business developer with a silver tongue.

In that case, a quote of Marcus Aurelius or an anecdote from Marcus Livius Drususwill tip the scale. Maybe.

2016 Developments: 

  • I’ll finish the year with 35-40 books read – including audiobooks. I didn’t find anything especially “wow” – though, if I had to pick a couple, I would recommend The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

  • I’ve digged in into multiple history podcasts – I recommend Hardcore History, Revolutions, The History of Byzantium and The History of the Crusades. 

It’s worth noting that in 2016 I didn’t have any specific theme or connecting line in between the books I’ve been reading. Maybe in 2017 I could try to be more focused – but I’m not sure yet. It’s also about having fun.

Part 1.3 – More Talents to Develop

Investing. I could – but I’m not sure if I should – add investing to the main Talent Stack. It’s kind-of a satellite skill. It won’t help or empower the above, though the above can empower investing.

In any case, I’ve some investments – index funds, real-estate market funds, etc. – which had a good 2016. Regardless, I took a hands-off approach for most of the year and could (and should) have invested more.

For 2017, I’ll look into using almost-zero interests rates to buy one or two properties in Europe. But let’s see.

Productivity, Health and High Performance. I don’t consider this an “official” part of the Stack, but as a ‘meta’ skill or driver that enables all the others. Regardless, I’ve written a book about the topic, and it is an area that I stay very much interested in.

In 2016, I’ve tried to look into the more ‘strategic’ side of it – I’ve made some progress, and I should look more into it in 2017 as well.

Part 2 – My Projects

In 2016, I decided to start to look into my development through Projects. Projects are kind-of the “Systems” of Scott Adams’ framework – their main is not money, or fame, or glory. Instead, the main driver of the Projects is to strengthen the Talent Stack.  

If a Project leads to glory and riches, great. But if it doesn’t, it’s okay – so long as the Project drove strong development of the Talent Stack.

Here are a few Project examples:

  • Visit 100 Countries Before 30 –>  (Expensive) project, aimed to strengthen the travel part of the “International” block of the Stack.

  • Learn 2200 Kanji –> (Cheaper) project, aimed to strengthen the languages part of the same “International” block.

  • Launch 100 Countries Udemy Course + Live Presentations –> Project aimed to strengthen my the speaking-side of my “Communication” block.

  • Do My Procurement Job –> My day-job is project-based. They’re all procurement (or cost) related projects, but all are time-bound and easy-to-evaluate (e.g. money saved).  I’ve worked on a 500m+ USD cost drive, and 4-6 highly-political procurement projects worth 50m+ per year in total.  Good for the “Business Development” block.

Working on Projects – and instead of Goals – gives you flexibility and openness for serendipity. I’ll give you an example:

If I would evaluate the 100 Countries Udemy course in monetary terms, it would be a failure. It made some money, but not enough for me to say it was a home-run. However, the experience helped me be a better speaker and be more comfortable in front of the camera, which in turn helped me to be better in job interviews and in negotiations. Spot on “Communication Stack”.

If the goal of the project is to develop a specific part of the Stack, you’ll have a winner regardless of the monetary/influence side of the project.

(Scott Adams explains this in-depth in his book).

So, in 2017 I will look into multiple projects. The idea is, then, for the projects to be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, time-bound, etc. The “measurable” part is the key, though – for the Project to be successful, it needs to have a pre-set length and not be open-ended.

I’ve a couple of ideas:

  • I could do a Book Tour. Europe-based (or US, maybe), to 10-20 cities. Probably after I write and publish 1-2 more books. (Travel and Strategic High Performance are on top of “Books to Write” list).

–> Regardless of the outcome, this will be a boon for the “Communication” Stack.

  • I could do an Online Product (a la my Udemy Courses) in partnership with somebody. (This could be my own company, old networks, new networks, etc.).

–> This will strengthen the “Business Development” and “Tech” Stacks.

  • I could set an ambitious sports goal. It could be running a marathon, or doing a number of deadlifts, or something that. I’m strong and in shape, but I definitely can be better.

–> This is a “meta” case – strong health => high performance => leverage for all other projects.

I’ll take a few weeks to think through and outline a few more potential projects. Then I’ll pick the one or two that make the most sense at that moment.

Part 3 – My Habits

I didn’t change my mind since I wrote The 21 Laws of High PerformanceThere’s nothing that gives you more leverage and brings you more success than developing the right habits over the long-term.  

I won’t repeat the rationale/thoughts behind that – I wrote a whole book about it. However, in the book I write that the habits should be aligned towards your long-term Goals. In 2017, I’ll instead align my Habits to my Projects and Stack.

To succeed in a Project, I need to identify and develop the Habits that, when fully implemented, will make the success of my Projects inevitable – or at least give them the chance for a “good shot” 🙂

Part 4 – Annual Metrics

So! That’s the new AR Framework. I butchered the old one, but there were three old points I didn’t want to leave out in the new setup and couldn’t find an “elegant” way of including:

  • Money. This includes: adding up my net income for 2016, and identifying areas I spent too much (and should’ve spent less), and areas I should spend more. (I track all my expenses since 2010, that helps.)

  • Relationships. This includes: who were the five people I spent the most time with in 2016? Who should I hang out more/less with?

  • Open Loops. Do I’ve any incomplete business/projects that just thinking about them is draining my energy? Should I keep working on them, or should I kill them off?

Last Note – Strategic Flexibility

Life is uncertain. “The plan survives only the first punch”, or so they say. In light of this, I tried to make the AR Framework as flexible as possible. But two notes on that:

  • Shit Can Still Happen. I wrote extensively about this in The 21 Laws (extract here) – the idea is that the future is and will always be uncertain. Stacks, Projects and Habits can well go to hell if you’re ran over by a truck, or if your house burns down, etc.

(I try to be grateful every day about what I have – health, a place to sleep, family, proper food, etc.  – without being cynical, you never know when you won’t have all of that anymore.)

  • Plans are Meant to Evolve. I would leave everything Elon Musk calls me tomorrow and tells me “Mario, I want to you hands-on in the Mars Colonization project with SpaceX.” I hope that in that case my “International”, “Tech Savvy” and “Communication” Stacks will come in handy, but I’ll probably need to prioritize something else.

To Wrap Up…

That’s – broadly speaking – my 2017 AR Framework.

Now – What About You?  

It helps to sit down and think through all this. What are your Objectives? What’s your unique Stack? Which Projects and Habits will you try in 2017?

Note – If you’re up for it, build on this framework, but give it your own touch. We’re all different, after all.

Note II – It could be that this is too broad for you. If you’re more razor-focused, you might want to use my old framework instead.

Share the Love! If you found this email useful, please forward it! You might have one or two friends who would really benefit from thinking through their Stacks, Projects and Habits over Christmas and New Years as well.

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That’s all for 2016. I’m working for just a couple more days and then off to Miami and the Caribbean for a bit of good old travel.

Merry x-mas, wish you a great 2017 and thank you for reading!

Mario