The year I learned to be where I am

white foamy ocean water rushes toward the numbers 2021 on brown sand, about to wash them away

Since 2019, I’ve followed this year-end review format by answering a set of 50 questions. One of them, towards the end of the list, asks you to choose three words to sum up your year. Once I got done laughing, I chose:

  • Chaos for the forces I had no control over.
  • Seismic for the change those forces brought with them.
  • Growth for the choices I made in meeting those forces and their changes.

At the beginning of 2021 I had also picked the word fearless as my theme. It turned out to be simultaneously prescient and the thing I resisted, yet hung everything on as the year – the pandemic, supply chain issues, climate change, a personal crisis, ordinary entropy – ground on.

(I mention entropy because I’ve realized that so much of our lives goes into holding it back; if we don’t tend to this basic, incremental maintenance, our neglect accumulates. Our yards turn into tangled messes, natural forces like weather and tree roots have their way with our homes and property, machinery breaks down. I’m learning that instead of all this resulting in “one more thing to do,” it’s actually a good way to channel things like grief and anger that are “inappropriate” for most workplaces… assuming you have the resources i.e. the privilege to manage it. But that’s a rant for another day.)

In crisis there is opportunity, as the saying goes, and even though many days saw me curled in a ball and longing to hide from the world, life goes on. Forensic Focus promoted me to managing editor, and I entered into a contract with the nonprofit Zero Abuse Project, whose work feeds topics I’m intensely passionate about.

In sum, 2021 asked me to grow up and step up in many ways, and so like moving from stepping stone to stepping stone across rapids in a dense fog, I learned – via my (mostly) daily yoga practice, hiking, and living – to focus on finding balance and stability in the day-to-day necessities of my client work and home life.

And, while I didn’t get as much accomplished as I planned for the year, I think I accomplished more than I might have thought. Following the Q&A I discovered in 2019 from the Poynter Institute, here’s how my professional year went down:

Best story / story I’m proudest of

Most of my written work at Forensic Focus this year focused on rounding up DFIR academic publications, and I’m particularly proud of that because I think the constant flow of new tools, techniques, and other research from all around the world is work that doesn’t get the audience it deserves.

I also launched a second Medium publication: The Neurodivergent Freelancer. I didn’t work on it as much as I wanted or intended, but I got it started, and have lots of ideas for it, and it fits the headspace I’m in right now.

“Stretch” accomplishment of the year

I mean, making it to the end of 2021 was an accomplishment in itself. Even the two “stretches” that stand out weren’t entirely of my own doing, but I need to learn to celebrate all my wins.

First: I finished a major research project I started in 2020. It should’ve been completed about eight months sooner, but, again, life. It sat on hold for a few months while I focused on managing my household and my own emotions; after which, finishing it meant using up all my analytical energy, and still remaining anxious that I’d missed key conclusions. (Thank goodness for coauthors and peer reviewers.)

Finishing it also meant, to me, resilience and determination and belief in myself and the research itself, not letting my sources down, or my partners in applying for a grant to continue the research and put together a new training program. We got the grant, and now I’m waiting to see whether my research will be published.

Spending my time on a “passion project” like that meant that, with everything else going on, I didn’t have a lot of headspace left to write articles. That drove my decision in Q4 to make the Forensic Focus podcast a weekly show. Because I was already conducting interviews, I reasoned, why not make them pull double duty and let them tell their own stories, with minimal editing from me?

The funny thing about that is that I’ve said before that podcasting isn’t my sweet spot. I prefer longform writing, and yet, this year’s developments tweaked my executive dysfunction hard. So this year’s “stretch” goals really were about learning to adapt to my unique neurology in a way that enabled me to be productive and still feel like “enough” – a huge win in itself.

Biggest disappointment

I really wanted to be able to travel again this year. I just didn’t have much of a head for virtual events, which I’ve found to be difficult to focus on and – if I attend too many of them in too short a timeframe – raising my risk of burnout.

I think in-person events help to mitigate these risks because you’re out of your normal environment and routine, and that half-week is designed to help you decompress through after-hours dinners and socials. Zoom “happy hours,” frankly, are anything but when you’re already socially awkward, you hardly know any of the other happy people, and you need to make sure the kids are fed.

Then again, my travel disappointment might be linked to the more personal disappointment this year: learning – in some profoundly painful and unsettling ways – that some people were not who I thought they were. But I’m grateful for the truth and the opportunity to find and sit with my true friends.

Most helpful source

Several sources exercised supreme graciousness and patience with me as I rearranged podcast scheduling. In some cases, I needed to back out entirely of projects because I just wasn’t in the headspace to work with them; in other cases, I needed to put off interviews, especially when I overbooked the podcast in my zeal to make it a weekly show. (Which ADHD’er said that anything worth doing, is worth overdoing? No?)

Source I angered most

I wasn’t in a position to anger anyone this year. To anger a source with a story, you have to be extremely focused; the story needs to be worth the fallout (I confess I don’t love the “any publicity is good publicity” idea).

And we live in a weird time. Journalists are physically threatened, cancelled, bear the brunt of criticism for editorial decisions that sometimes seem to have more to do with corporate interests than human ones. This year, raw and tender, I didn’t feel the need to seek out more criticism, but admire and respect those who do.

Perhaps that was behind my one concession this year: a single followup interview got a bit tense because it touched on a professional tender nerve, but the source was, again, gracious, and pursuing that interview on that angle was a form of me getting out of my comfort zone to take a professional risk, so overall I think it worked out.

Best idea I haven’t yet been able to pursue

Because so much went on hold this year, my plan to write about explainable AI didn’t happen. Further, because 2021 was so unpredictable, I’m reserving goals-making beyond the next stepping stone. That said, I’m excited by the potential for new opportunities that the weekly podcast format will bring, as well as our research and who knows what else?

As always, I’m open to new ideas, so please get in touch if you have one!

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash 

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