My 2016 in review
Few Americans are mourning the passing of 2016, a possibly deadly and definitely tumultuous year. But I try to live by the philosophy of the Roman Stoic Epictetus: concern yourself only with the things you can control. And for me personally, 2016 was a pretty good year.
Not everything was perfect, of course, but I improved both my quality of living and my self over the past 12 months. Here’s my assessment of my 2016:
The big picture facts of my life didn’t change in 2016. I started and finished the year living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and working as a political reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
I turned 30 in April, a round number that felt like it should have meant more than it actually did. Ultimately it’s just another year.
Quality of life
That said I did have two significant life changes in 2016, one near the beginning of the year, one near the end — both very much for the better.
On Feb. 1, I officially moved into a new apartment. It’s just three blocks from my old apartment in St. Paul’s lovely Cathedral Hill neighborhood, so a lot stayed the same. But it represented a major upgrade for me: for the exact same monthly rent in the same neighborhood, I went from one to three bedrooms, no air conditioning to central air, outdoor parking to an attached garage, communal pay laundry to in-unit laundry, and added a fireplace and a deck to boot. (The tradeoff? My new unit is much less charming. I’ve lost the hardwood floors, built-in bookshelves, the sunroom and the dining room with buffet. My new unit, a rented townhome, is also three stories instead of one, and has a number of odd angles in its layout.)
And on Dec. 1, after more than a year of false starts and frustrations in the dating world, I started a new relationship. For a variety of reasons that I’m sure would be fascinating to psychoanalyze I’m less comfortable talking in detail about that than about the internal and material things that will occupy most of this post, but I’m overjoyed and still a little disbelieving about my good fortune.
Other things about my life in 2016 were also generally good! I had no major heartbreaks or tragedies, no tumult or sadness.
But 2016 did have one incomparable, once-in-a-lifetime peak: my long-suffering Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in over a century.
The Cubs losing wouldn’t have hurt the year for me. Heck, as a Cubs fan, I assume they’re going to lose eventually. But 2016 will always remain the year the Cubs finally won it all, whatever other complaints anyone else has about the year.
Aside from that, 2016 saw me take fun vacations to Washington, D.C., and Nova Scotia, Canada, as well as several trips to visit my family in Chicago. Along the way I saw cool monuments and stunning natural wonders, met up with friends and family, and took the time to tour museums and historical sites.
The Washington Monument during the 2016 D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival
Me on the rocks at low tide on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.
Socially, I made several new friends in 2016, and spent more time socializing both with friends and at meetups around the metro area. This is important to me because left to my own devices I will often stay solo. Having people I can meet up with, or banter back and forth with over texts or instant messages when we’re not together, is by no means a given for me.
And good banter with smart people is one of my very favorite things, so getting a chance to flex my wit definitely improved my quality of life in 2016:
Heading home. Nothing I do today can top coming up with this perfect Dora the Explorer/Marshall McLuhan/Annie Hall mashup this morning: pic.twitter.com/xiiBTvzALc— David Montgomery (@dhmontgomery) November 29, 2016
Financially I also did well. I put considerably more money aside for short- and long-term savings over the year, despite making a few long-planned purchases like a new bed and dining room table. I’m trying to visualize what I can about my life in this assessment without oversharing, so here’s a chart of my finances this year — but with the labels removed to preserve a modicum of privacy while still showing the trends:
(The debt there is all short-term: credit card purchases that are paid off in full every month before they can accrue interest.)
Just as important as that happiness above (or far more important, if we’re still taking Epictetus seriously) was that 2016 was also a very strong year for my personal growth. I taught myself lots of new skills, worked on a number of interesting projects, and was consistently learning.
After several years of very intermittent reading, I dove into books in a big way in 2016. Per my stats page at Goodreads, I read more than twice as many books and twice as many pages as any year since I began tracking this in 2011:
This wasn’t my biggest reading year ever — as a child I read far more than I do today, as witnessed by my teachers’ frustrated attempts to get me to stop reading in class. But then I was reading primarily mass-market fiction, while the bulk of my books this year were nonfiction. (I did go on a fiction binge in December or so, which helped pad my stats a little.)
Here’s a closer look at my year in reading:
Among my favorite books of the year (links largely go to my reviews):
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”
- Alexander Hamilton
- Orality and Literacy
- The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
And several novels:
The past year also was when I fully dove into coding, treating it as a fundamental skillset and not just as an occasional hobby. I taught myself how to scrape data off the web, how to use new tools to easily build graphics from data (such as the charts in this post), and most significantly moved from primarily interacting with data using GUI programs like Excel to interacting with data via the command line. Doing so means my work is much more reproducible and sharable, and frankly the command line can be much faster and more powerful if you’ve passed the steep learning curve to get there. This year was when I finally passed that threshold, and I feel really good about developing my skills to this point.
As a result of this code I was able to produce neat projects, including my analysis of 2016 deaths, a lexical breakdown of the lyrics to Hamilton, a tool to visualize baseball pitchers’ pitch choices, calculating how liberal or conservative each Minnesota lawmaker is and a utility to automatically scrape real-time election results and map them. (I also successfully redesigned this website.)
Embracing coding didn’t mean I left behind my traditional background as a writer. Both at work as a journalist and in my own time, I produced some pieces I’m proud of:
- In-depth profiles of the two main candidates for Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District
- A scoop about what presidential candidate Marco Rubio told his Minnesota supporters after dropping out of the race
- Live annotations of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s State of the State speech
- A deep dive into the origins of a tiny typo that doomed a $300 million tax cut package
- An explainer about an insurance company pulling out of Minnesota’s individual market
- Applying a fun political science book to Game of Thrones
I also listened to podcasts a lot while on road trips or while walking around the city, and thus now know a lot more about the history of philosophy, the Haitian and Spanish-American revolutions, and the murder of Jacob Wetterling.
As a result of all of this, I feel like I’ve substantially improved my mind in the past year, something I’m very proud of.
Not everything was rosy in my personal life in 2016. My usual culprits struck: I continually started new projects that I then abandoned short of completion. One of my life goals is to publish a book, and early in the year I had hopes that I might make substantial progress researching it. As it happens, I did nothing. There are several essays I’ve wanted to write for a long time that continued to gestate in my head. Even the projects I did get done often took longer than I wanted — or longer than they were supposed to, for some articles at work.
Though I never really drank to excess, there were parts of the year where I drank alcohol more frequently than I was comfortable with.
That’s a cause (if not the whole cause) of one of the few areas where 2016 saw me backslide, not go ahead or stagnate: my weight. I’m not obese (and the data from my cheap Bluetooth scale is messy), but the trend in 2016 was for the worse:
I did walk frequently this year, but almost never ran. All told my iPhone says I walked just under 1,000 miles in 2016, for a median of 2.2 miles per day:
In 2017 I’m hoping to buy either a treadmill or a gym membership as a spur to get slightly more active and hopefully get my weight back down to where I’m more comfortable.
I also doubtlessly wasn’t as good of a person as I could have been to some of the people around me, being rude or unhelpful or distant when I could have been more open. This is an area where I feel like I’ve been slowly but steadily improving for much of my life, and slow, steady improvement seems like the best I can hope for.
Though I consumed plenty of media (as described above), I wish I’d exposed myself to more TV shows in the past year. I watched the new Game of Thrones season, SyFy’s The Expanse, finally binged The Wire and at the end of the year started to watch Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Many people perhaps feel like they need to watch less TV, but I watch very little and would have liked to expose myself to a few more of the high-quality dramas and comedies being produced these days.
Goals for 2017
I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, a practice that always struck me as gimmicky. (They work for some people, which is great, but people’s failure to live up to their resolutions is a punchline.)
But I do believe that setting public goals and assessing your progress to them is helpful. So here’s what I would like to accomplish in 2017:
- Be more active
- Publish, or make significant progress toward publishing, some sort of major project, such as a book.
- Continually advance in my career
- Keep reading vigorously, and maybe add some literary fiction to my normal diet of nonfiction and genre fiction
- Go on a few trips to places I haven’t been
- Work on being more present in the lives of people I care about
I doubtless will fall short of some of these over the next year, and that’s fine. Life is a series of ups and downs. Sometimes outside events will intervene to dash my hopes. Othertimes I’ll let myself down. But as long as I can roll with the former and try to minimize the latter, I’m optimistic that 2017 will be another successful year.