Forging my Future

It's been a while since I last posted here. I've been meaning to write more on a whole range of topics, but other things have unfortunately taken up a lot of my time, so those ideas have remained as TODOs on my ever-growing personal Trello board. Given we're still fairly early in 2020, and it's been almost a year since I decided to work full-time on climate change, it seems as good a time as any to look back on the past year, as well as ponder how the next may work out. Let the rambling commence!

A year of climate

Last year was quite the change of scene for me - I tried working for myself, and decided to commit a year to working full-time on climate change. I'm not sure I necessarily approached it in the right way, but then again, much of last year was a learning process.

I had basically no plan when I started, no specific areas or ideas I definitely wanted to pursue, so I started with research. Up to that point, I'd been keeping up with the big picture on climate change, and major stories, but I figured I should start from the basics - what is climate change? What causes it? What are the major solutions? Thus began a general research effort that continues to this day, albeit a little more sporadically. I discovered sites like Drawdown, spent an awful lot of time reading Wikipedia and research papers, and came up with many ideas for concepts to tackle climate change, some sensible, others... not so much!

Whilst my original goal was to find something constructive that maybe I turn into a profitable business, that proved elusive. The ideas covered a wide spectrum of possibilities, and some had potential for revenue, and some none at all. I also veered back and forth on how I wanted to take my ideas forward - should I start a company? If so, alone, or with others? Should I try and start open source/charitable ventures and figure out income elsewhere? Should I join an existing team? There's so many approaches, and competing motivations, and it's been an ongoing effort to figure out what I want, what works best for me (what I enjoy, what environment I work best in), let alone how that fits into the ideas I have come up with.

Forge the Future

As part of my information gathering, I started collecting companies doing impactful work in the climate space, along with guides, information and resources that I found useful, as there didn't seem to be much out there that gathered this stuff in one place. Around May, I decided to put these together into a website, and Forge the Future was born. It's not the shiniest website out there (my webdev skills are improving, but definitely still mediocre), but it did the job.

Through building and launching this, I've also met a number of folks working in the same space - folks behind Target 2030, Emitwise, Impact Makers and more - who are also doing their best to tackle climate change. The scene as a whole has grown a lot just over the last year - where before there were few of these resource sites, I'm now aware of at least half a dozen, and more turn up all the time - some duplicated effort perhaps, but it's good to see that niche being filled, as well as more folks tackling this issue. It's one of the few areas that gives me hope for the future - the steady stream of earnest people looking to do their part to help tackle climate change.

Some time after launching the Forge the Future site, I decided to start a weekly climate newsletter, partly inspired by the excellent Exponential View - offering the key climate stories each week, with some thoughts and opinions. This has become the most persistent aspect of Forge the Future - the subscriber base has grown from a couple of friends to around 120 people now, more or less entirely through word of mouth (my marketing skills are not what they could be!). Compiling the newsletter now takes 1-2 days a week of my time, but feels like the most successful thing I've managed this year in terms of impact. I'm hoping to continue its growth in 2020, and actually grow my audience a bit more actively.

Ideas everywhere, but not a drop to drink

As I mentioned earlier, I've come up with many potential ideas relating to the climate over the past year, but none (outside of Forge the Future) has really stuck yet. Some I've written down and moved on, and some I've spent a number of weeks developing, but nothing yet has felt right. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for me was that the direct solutions to climate change are not really software problems - they involve everything from policy to energy to agriculture. Many can make use of software, or would be improved by it, but tackling those domains directly would require a huge amount of learning. Not impossible, certainly, but a big barrier to entry (especially when everything else about starting a business is also so new to me!).

Towards the end of last year I started pursuing a few more ideas closer to my area of expertise - software and data. Fortunately, there are plenty of data-related environmental problems, and the more I looked, the more problems I found. Even just sorting through the data that exists is a huge unsolved problem, let alone more specific applications of environmental data. The problem, as always, is finding something that impacts climate change in a meaningful fashion, whilst actually making enough money to live on. That remains an ongoing challenge for me, though I have some fresh ideas that I'm hoping to pursue in the coming months.

Balance in all things

Last year was also tough from a non-work perspective - it's the first time I've worked from home full-time, not to mention working for myself. I suddenly found myself isolated, from both a work and a social perspective. On the work side, I was all of a sudden working entirely on my own, with no-one to discuss ideas with, sense-check my plans, or to motivate me to keep going when I wondered (often) whether I was doing the right thing. On the social side, the lack of regular human contact hit me harder than I was expecting. I've spent a lot of my life alone, and I'm an introvert anyway, but living alone, and now working alone - suddenly I have to actively seek human contact, which was a big shift.

As a result, it's been a rocky road from a mental health perspective. I'm luckily in a much better position than I have been in the past, but nevertheless, this past year has been difficult. However, it's forced me to manage both work and social interactions much more actively than I have done in the past, which has undoubtedly been a positive change. Part of that change has brought me closer to a number of my friends, which has been an unexpected boon of this change of direction in my life.

One advantage of my more flexible work schedule is that I've been able to prioritise my powerlifting training, rather than squeezing it in around work. Early in the year I switched up programs from 5/3/1 to the Candito 6 week program, which has been a breath of fresh air. After stalling on lifts for the last 4-5 years, I dropped a bunch of weight earlier in the year (down from ~85kg to 80kg), and saw the first strength gains in years. I'm now back to a 520kg total, close to my all-time peak strength (at around 10kg lighter!). I still would like to try competing at some point, but I'm not committing to a time frame right now, as so much else in my life is in flux at the moment.

Just to add to the challenges of the work-life balance, I took up piano again a few months back, after not having played in years, and have started drawing and creating art more consistently too. I'm actually hoping to update this site to be able to show a few of my drawings at some point (although I need to do it quickly before impostor syndrome kicks in!). Juggling all this stuff is tricky, but I'm realising more and more I'm no good at just focusing on a single area - I have a compulsion to spread myself across everything I can.

Looking to the future

So now to the future. As I mentioned at the start, it's close to a year since I began this journey, so it's an apt time to contemplate, reflect, and plan for the future. One big factor that's been important over the past year has been flexibility. So many opportunities have popped up on short notice, or ideas have changed in unexpected ways - it's incredibly powerful to be able to change direction fast. Arguably I changed direction a little too much last year, and jumped from idea to idea rather too often, but everything takes time to refine!

I'd love to be able to have a bit more structure to my time. Flexibility is great, but having regular tasks and knowing what I should be doing more of the time would make my work a good deal less stressful. The dream is that I can balance that with still maintaining enough wiggle-room to leap into promising opportunities as they arise, but we shall see!

Money is also at the back of my mind for the coming year. I'm very fortunate to have a bank of savings to live off, and I deliberately didn't focus on money too much last year, as I had the luxury of being able to take my time and explore. I still have enough to keep going for a good while yet, but I'd like to give more focus to making this change a sustainable one that I can carry on long term.

The main lead I have on that front thus far is the Forge the Future newsletter. I'm hopeful that I can grow that into a decent side-project income if I focus on it. I've got a lot of ideas for premium content, but convincing people to stick around and pay for things will be a new challenge. I suspect it will never be my main earner, and nor would I want it to be - I do enjoy writing, but in moderation, and I start to get itchy feet if I focus solely on a single area to the exclusion of others.

As far as climate projects go, I've come up with a good variety of ideas over the past year. I've made limited progress on a reasonable number of them, but have struggled sticking to just one or two. Partly this is a matter of focus and practice, but also it's my nature to spread myself over many projects, and want to tackle everything at once. I'll need to figure out some compromise between exploring multiple ideas and spreading myself too thin.

The next few weeks will see me ranking the various ideas I've worked on, and figuring out which one(s) I want to take forward this year (if any). I plan to put as many as I can up on Forge the Future, as however many I decide to take forward, there will be ideas that don't make the cut. I like the idea of sharing the core of a number of ideas so that people can see them, and potentially build upon them. Maybe they'll just sit there and be ignored, but if even one or two people find some inspiration from them, that's better than them sitting in notes on my computer!

In that vein, I've wondered in the past about building some sort of ecosystem of like-minded folk working together on ideas and sharing between them - a climate idea factory, in a way - a sort of co-operative accelerator. I don't know whether I'm cut out to start something like that, but I like the concept - it may go somewhere, we'll see :)

I'm sure there's more to come this year, but I've rambled plenty as it is. Undoubtedly unexpected things will happen, and the year will not go as planned, but it's nice to have an idea of which path would be good to take. I don't know what the future holds, but I'm becoming more OK with that :)