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Reflections on 2020: Three personal lessons learned

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

If one thing is certain on this last day of 2020, this year has been the year of uncertainty. A year that should have been full of major inspiring events and sports highlights was covered by a vast misty blanket of the coronavirus pandemic that put the world to sleep. It would be redundant - and most of all pointless - to enumerate all the disappointments we all had to endure one way or another during this time. So, to look on the sunny side: the drastic reduction in global human mobility and decreased demand for materials led to significant drops in carbondioxide emissions. It cleared the normally smog-filled skies of various major cities and even led to some endangered species to finally mate again. Not being able to eat out in restaurants anymore meant more time to improve our cooking skills and cutting calories for many. The conclusion seems crystal clear: less human activity means a healthier planet.

On a personal level, 2020 taught me three lessons.

Ready to throw away 2020.

Lesson one: prioritize the right people and be meaningful to the local community

Firstly, this year revealed to me that the true nature of people seems to be tribal. However much some of us may want to be and act like global citizens with people and places they know all over the world, eventually we need other human beings physically nearby to spend time with. Especially those that matter most to us need to have in-person presence in our lives. No 2D visual on a touchscreen could replace this. Given that my friends and family all lived in places other than where I used to live during the first lockdown in the Netherlands, I felt lonely and as if I did not belong to any "tribe". This made me rethink whom I really want to stay in touch with and whom I regard as mere acquaintances. Getting rid of contacts that may want to be in touch with you for the wrong reasons and vice versa is a great liberation.

On the bigger scale of things, it made me wonder how lonely many households in metropolitan societies must be even without lockdowns.Urbanization seems to be mainly driven by young motivated workers and the rich and wealthy who seek the thrills that big cities can offer to them. To me, this makes cities like hubs that hyperconcentrate the end products of all that human labour can offer. But being exposed to only the end products of years of industrial developments makes us lose connections to the raw, non-processed materials. For instance, the origins of what we eat and wear. I would go to the extent of saying that urban lifestyles disconnect people from deeper meanings of what makes us who we are - collaborative passions. Thus, my hope for the near future is that we regain expertise of making stuff at small scales at high quality standards close to the places we live in. So to foster the formation of local communities, decrease social fragmentation, shorten supply chains and collectively live more sustainable lives.

Lesson two: finding career purpose

Next, I made a big decision to pursue a PhD in cybersecurity and started my research endeavour back in October. Through my previous jobs in AI and data science application development, I got to learn more about the real-world impact of cybersecurity risks. You can think of relatively simple careless online behaviours such as blindly accepting tracking cookies and leaving genuine personal data everywhere on the internet, which could lead to big consequences. This made me decide to grow my expertise in the field of behavioural cybersecurity. With the extra time I saved on commuting to and from my former office since the lockdowns, I prepared my applications to the cybersecurity PhD programs at UCL and am grateful to have been accepted by my supervisors to work at this world-class institution.

In short, my research concerns what makes some humans particularly vulnerable to cybersecurity risks and how to overcome this with new behavioural intervention software. If I find results interesting enough to use in further behavioural cybersecurity research, my goal is to use this knowledge to create innovative products and/or new policies that will help people to use the internet in a safer way. Although I did not plan to quit my new job so soon after starting it in January - I had a great time at my last employer, I strongly felt that I was approaching an important junction in life: I could either continue my comfortable office life or I could take a chance by leaping back to academia to do something I aspire for the longer term - helping people to better use online digital technologies. Needless to say, I chose the latter. Sacrificing a nice salary and stable life in a beautiful house in a beautiful city to become a PhD student is quite a change, but one that I believe wil give me more fulfillment in the long term.

Lesson three: staying focused

One of the other (unconscious) functions of having other human beings around is the motivation to stay active and up to date with them. Normally, working in an office among colleagues naturally creates this psychological effect. I am sure I am not the only one who felt a bit demotivated or lazier than usual at times, because of working from home.

On the one hand I am among the lucky people who can work remotely. I started my PhD from a tiny room in London as well. However, sitting in an office fit for 160 people and finding only three other students there is not exactly very exciting. It makes staying focused even more important in the sense that we need to grow to deal with relying almost entirely on our pure intrinsic motivation to do something. Especially for PhDs as they are independent pursuits without many external pressures to deliver. Hence, I had to learn (and am still learning) how to improve my focus. Having a very clear purpose as described above and reminding myself of this helps, as well as living with my parents again - in a slightly odd way.

Soon after the official paperwork for the university was done, I moved to London to get my pre-settled status (Brexit-related stuff). Yet, after two months of living in a cramped room with a housemate that never cooks and seeing the UK's precarious situation, I decided to move back to my parents in the Netherlands. Seeing every day again now how much my parents still work to earn a modest living off a takeaway place during this pandemic reminds me how I have no right to complain about any inconvenience I may encounter. Working for a better future for them and myself keeps my eyes very much on the ball.

Looking forward

All in all, I presume that for many of us, this year has been mellow to say the least. On the bright side, this means there is ample room for improvement in 2021. Although on a personal level I would say 2019 was a worse year for me than 2020, I look forward to the post-corona era when we can freely interact with each other again. Preferably while having a drink together somehwere in a nice cafe in the sun.

At the time of writing this last part, it is 23:50, 31 December 2020 in the Netherlands. Last year, I enlisted my newly discovered music artists of that year. This year - admittedly also for practical reasons, given the time - I will share a song of a much beloved band of mine that fits a transitional forward-looking mood quite well. Jamiroquai's "Stillness in Time" describes an optimistic drive to not get lost in one's own deliberations and the unknowns, but to continue in good spirits by appreciating what one does have.

I wish you all a great new year in good health. Stay sane and until soon!

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