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2023 in review: Unmasking

I wasn’t sure I’d be writing a year in review this year. It feels a bit weird opening with that statement, but I think it’s pretty representative of the year I’ve had. Each year is a journey of self-discovery for me, but I feel that, even by my standards, I’ve learned so much more about myself this year than I do normally. 😅

This is ultimately why I write my year in reviews. I want to document what I’ve learned so that I can look back on things and see the progress I’ve made. I also write it so that others might look at what I’ve learned and maybe discover something about themselves.

That said, part of what I’ve learned this year is that I need to withdraw. It’s a bit ironic because I enjoy learning about myself so I can be out there more. That’s why I struggled to decide whether to write this year in review. There’s this tension between the desire to share and help others and the need to take care of myself.

Since you’re reading this, it’s obvious I decided that this was worth the effort. To balance things out, I took my time to write this. In the past, I tried to get the year in review out before the end of the year. I probably won’t do that anymore.

With that said, off we go!

Nine week Asia trip

In last year’s year in review, I spoke about the fact that I was going to speak at the inaugural WordCamp Asia in Bangkok in February. I used the opportunity to travel to Asia for the first time. I spent three weeks in Thailand and another six weeks in Tokyo, where I rented an apartment.

I also discussed last year that travelling didn’t feel the same since COVID. I felt more anxious, was getting sick more often, and meeting strangers didn’t have the same appeal it once did. Although, that train ride to Portland really helped me with feeling more connected to people again! (I’m still talking to Dan from last year! 🥳)

This Asia trip was going to be the longest trip I’d ever been on. With how I felt about traveling, I was really anxious leading up to it. I almost didn’t want to leave.

But I did. And I’m glad I did, even if it set me down a path of extreme self-discovery.

WordCamp Asia and Thailand

On February 13th, I set off for Bangkok. I remember the day because I landed on February 15th and skipped Valentine’s Day! (Time travel to Asia is WILD! 😆)

To begin, I’m really glad I went to WordCamp Asia. I thought the WordCamp was great! It was good seeing everyone in the WordPress community, but also meeting people from the Asian WordPress community for the first time. My talk (video below) was really well received as well.

The most important thing to come out of WordCamp Asia is that Bob got me into a private event with other WooCommerce agencies. I think that, long term, this was the most important event I attended this year. This really let me make some important business contacts that I continued to develop throughout the year.

It also reinforces a feeling that I’ve had all year. I really feel like Ymir (more on it later) only seriously progresses as a business when I’m at these flagship WordCamps. The rest of the time, I feel like I’m just on standby.

The rest of my time in Thailand was really lovely. I went to this amazing coworking space in Koh Lanta called KoHub. Quite a few nomadic WordPressers I know had recommended the place to me. It’s a really great experience and I recommend it if you’re in Thailand.

I spent the rest of the time island hopping. I was moving a lot, and I realized that this was wearing me down a bit. I was back into the habit of it, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I used to.

By the time I left for Tokyo, I was ready to not move for a few weeks.

Six weeks in Tokyo

I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to visit or live in Tokyo. It probably started when I was a teenager watching anime. I vividly remember series like Serial Experiment Lain with Tokyo neighbourhood scenes. Japan, and Tokyo itself, were always somewhat present in TV and movies growing up.

As I grew older, Tokyo just kept being a place I felt I’d love if I got the opportunity to live there. This was also reinforced by anyone I knew who visited Tokyo. They all, without exception, told me I’d love it there. 😅

There are multiple reasons I thought I’d love it there. The main one was always being surrounded by people. It’s energizing (also why I love conferences) especially if you add all the lights/advertisements everywhere. It’s just very stimulating in a good way. (Although it comes at a cost, as I’ll discuss later.)

I’m also an avid commuter. I love public transit and no city has a public transit system on the scale of Tokyo. (Although Berlin has a special place in my heart.) I was really excited to just commute to work every day and just be a regular person in Tokyo.

Life in Tokyo

I’ve worked and travelled a lot over the years. I can honestly say that Japan is the hardest time zone I’ve had to work in. It’s a bit wild because I had no issues in Thailand with the 12 hour difference with the US east coast. But those two extra hours I had in Japan suddenly meant I was often up past 2am.

Otherwise, I managed to have a good routine while I was there. I found a gym I liked, but I had to commute 40 minutes each way to get there. That was a lot and, with me going to bed late, it often meant I didn’t have time to go work at the Google office. (I was working out of Google for Startups campus.)

A lot of these issues were consequences of the location of my apartment. I picked a neighbourhood that was central to a lot of the popular neighbourhoods like Shibuya and Shinjuku. In fact, little did I know, but I was staying in the Beverly Hills of Tokyo. I was next door to Gonpachi where they filmed the restaurant scene of Kill Bill.

That said, the location wasn’t as practical as I’d imagined it to be. Everyone in Beverly Hills eats out, so there weren’t grocery stores nearby. I had trouble eating enough. (I lost over 10lbs or 4.5kg. 😰)

I also wasn’t near good subway lines to get anywhere. I walked a lot, which was great! But it added a lot more to my commute times. Even to get to Shibuya to the Google office wasn’t that simple and it was easier for me to walk there, which took 20-25 minutes.

Now, these were all good lessons to learn! I ended up loving Tokyo as much as I expected I would. One of the purpose of the trip was to learn as much as I could to improve my stay the next time around.

From that perspective, I found the trip extremely successful. I carried a lot of that learning into my second trip to Tokyo this year. (Spoiler alert!)

Tokyo social life

I was also very active socially during my trip. Before leaving, I’d brainstormed ways to meet people and socialize. I’m pretty happy with how that played out. I met some cool people and jump started a small friend group in Tokyo.

I also got to hang out with some of the cool people from the Tokyo WordPress community as well! We did a small dinner where we hung out and went for drinks afterwards.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I also enjoyed being in Tokyo because of how different social interactions were there. In a way, I was a bit like an alien there. People wouldn’t interact with me unless I interacted with them first. And when I did, they’d be absurdly polite and friendly. (This is because of a concept called honne and tatemae.)

Many people find this type of interaction hard. I found it not only ok, but it felt good in a way that I couldn’t clearly explain at the time. (I figured out why later in the year.) And while I found the time zone hard for work, I found it very helpful to create a social disconnect with all the craziness in North America. (Something I also enjoy when I’m in Europe.)

Breaking down

For reasons I won’t discuss here (ask me privately), I was also struggling mentally a lot during my time in Asia. As I’ve discussed over the years, I’m great at diagnosing and dealing with things on my own. That said, I felt I was reaching the limits of what I could do by myself.

I’m very proactive about my mental health. When I realized this, I scheduled my first therapy session right away. While therapists can do sessions remotely in Canada, they unfortunately cannot have them with you when you’re out of the country.

This meant that I had to wait until I came back to Canada before I could see anyone. Considering the length of the trip, this ended up being too long. Towards the end of my time in Tokyo, I had a complete breakdown one evening.

I was ok afterwards, but it was a lot. It also highlighted that what I was doing wasn’t enough anymore. I needed help.

Starting therapy

My first Monday back in Canada, I had my first therapy session. I’ve had 21 sessions this year. That’s not bad considering I started in April and I spent five months outside Canada this year!

Every session I’d go in with notes. It’d be a mix of what’s happened since the last session and various questions, thoughts or insights I’d had. I don’t always go through everything, but I often use the notes as a starting point for the session.

I’ve had a few people comment about how impressed they were by how seriously I’ve been approaching therapy. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate therapy as a kind of coaching session for my mind. I’m very serious about going to the gym (not something I really ever talk about here), but I approach therapy with the same seriousness.

I’ve been looking back at my notes as I’ve been writing this section. Rereading the notes before my first therapy session is really enlightening. It feels so obvious what the issue was now that I’ve done so much work learning about it.

I was struggling with my autism.

I’ll discuss autism throughout the rest of the review. There’s a lot more to talk about. For now, I’d started therapy, and I found it really helpful, but I didn’t have autism on my radar yet.

WordCamp Europe

A month and a half after coming back from Asia, I was off to Europe for WordCamp Europe. WordCamp Europe continues to be my favourite WordCamp by far. (Although, for a first WordCamp, WordCamp Asia set a really great bar!) I love the people, the partying, everything!

This year WordCamp Europe was in Athens. I’ve been to Greece a few times already, so I continued doing the thing I’d been doing so far this year. I rented a place and just stayed there for my stay in Europe.

I stayed Chania in Crete for another two and a half weeks. It wasn’t my first time in Chania. I really liked it as a nice little beach city. Not too small that it’s too boring for me, but also not too big where it’s hard to get around and you need a car.

There was also a pretty vibrant nomad community there. Not as big as the Koh Lanta community, but still good! I did two nomad dinners while I was during my stay. I met some people from the community and just enjoyed it overall.

I might go back next summer!

Learning about autism

I got exposed to autism when I got back to Europe. How did that happen? What changed?

Well, I started to talk to non-programmers who were autistic or had just received an official diagnosis. They’d tell me stories about their experience. As I heard more stories, I started seeing similar patterns in my life.

This highlight why I think writing these reviews and talking about my struggles is important. As a programmer, I’m surrounded by autistic people. It’s a common and even desired trait in programmers. But it’s not something that we talk openly about.

I think that’s a shame, but it makes sense. There’s a lot of taboo around talking about mental health. On top of that, autism doesn’t have the best reputation already. (It’s a stigma worth breaking.) There’s also the issue that autism is under-diagnosed in adults as well.

That’s why I think I’d like to do a conference talk on autism once I feel more knowledgeable about it. I feel we all (even non-autistic people) have something to gain learning more about autism and how it can affect your life. So it’s something I’m keeping in the back of my mind.

However, as I started talking to other autistic people about autism, I knew little about it besides the fact that I probably had it.

On having an official diagnosis

This is probably a good place to point out that I don’t have an official diagnosis. I have no plan to get one either. There’s a whole side discussion around the privilege of being able to get an official diagnosis. (It’s quite expensive.)

Personally, I don’t think that getting an official diagnosis will change much in my life. I don’t need the validation that comes from it. That said, this is my opinion and you should do what feels right for you.

I have a close friend who has two masters specializing in childhood autism. He’d always said I was aspie. (It’s worth mentioning that Asperger’s is now part of the larger Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) category. I don’t use the term “aspie” either.) That’s how I knew I was probably autistic.

I will say that my therapist thinks I should get tested. So my position on it might change. But, for now, I’m trending towards not getting tested.

Busy august

August was a really busy month for me. First, I got an above average amount of consulting work. This was good because I was thinking about going back to Tokyo in the fall and it would help pay for the trip. But it was a tight deadline and a good amount of work.

Therapy was going well, but, because of the summer holidays and being gone for WordCamp, I had a five-week gap between sessions at some point. I found that hard. In the meantime, I was doing a lot of reading trying to educate myself more about ADHD in adults. (I’ll talk more about ADHD later.)

I also got approached by WP Engine’s M&A who wanted to discuss Ymir. (I didn’t sign an NDA so I can talk about it.) They wanted to have a first meeting at WordCamp US. I’d never done that kind of business negotiation before. This caused me a lot of stress because it was a social situation that I had no experience with and the stakes felt quite high.

Finally, I met a lot of new people that month. This was exciting in a lot of ways. My ADHD side loves meeting new people.

That said, for reasons I didn’t understand then, meeting all these new people and the impending meeting with WP Engine was draining me. I was heading towards a burnout.

WordCamp US and COVID

WordCamp US was a good time! I saw a lot of American friends I only see at that WordCamp. I had some really lovely bonding experiences with some people there talking late into the night. 💖

WordCamp US felt like a really great WordCamp for Ymir. I had my meeting with WP Engine and it went great! We’d scheduled a follow up meeting right away. I also got some wonderful conversations with some of the large WordPress agencies.

But I came back absolutely exhausted. A week later, I tested positive with COVID. I probably didn’t catch it at WordCamp, but who knows?

COVID itself was quite mild. I worked the entire week while I was isolating. That said, I found the isolation tough. Towards the end of the week, I started feeling depressed like I was during lock down. I’m glad I only had to isolate for a week.

Autistic burnout

While I didn’t find COVID very hard symptomatically, it left me completely drained. Looking over my therapy notes, I had a suspicion that it was related to how active I was socially. Like I mentioned earlier, I was seeing a lot of new people, a new contract with a new client, I had the WP Engine meeting, WordCamp itself was a lot of partying and socializing.

At that point, I decided to go back to Tokyo and booked my trip. In therapy, I’d mentioned how I was looking forward to it and how it had felt good to be isolated over there in the winter. I explained what I mentioned earlier about social interactions, but couldn’t articulate why it was good for me.

Then, by pure coincidence, one autistic person I was talking to told me they were suffering from autistic burnout. Being who I am, I was curious about it since I already suspected I was autistic. So I started diving into it.

As I learned more about it, everything started clicking in place. Not only was this what was happening right now. But I could probably explain most of the burnouts I’d had over the years to it.

There were two things that stood out to me about it. First was that social withdrawl was a response and characteristic of an autistic burnout. This always happened to me. I couldn’t handle people anymore, even though I loved being around people.

The other was that the cause of autistic burnout was masking. At the time, I was just beginning to be aware of masking and all the things I was doing to mask. But I could already tell I was doing a lot, and it had a toll on me.

Therapeutic Tokyo

At my next therapy session, I came in and could explain why I found going to Tokyo so therapeutic. This was a good thing because my therapist wanted to dive more into it because she didn’t quite understand my answers last session! 😅 My therapist didn’t know about autistic burnout. So I explained what it was, and that I didn’t have to mask while I was in Tokyo and could also withdraw.

I didn’t have to mask because of the concept of tatemae that I mentioned earlier. Tatemae means that Japanese themselves are always masking. This, in turn, means I don’t need to spend energy masking or reading their facial expressions. In my mind, it’s all tatemae.

Being in Tokyo was also an extreme form of social withdrawal. My experience was that most Japanese didn’t want to talk to you and avoided you if you didn’t approach them. So no one was talking to me unless I approached them. This is a pretty ideal scenario for autistic people.

The feeling of social withdrawal was compounded by the time zone difference. Everyone I knew at home was sleeping when I was awake and awake when I was sleeping. It placed significant limitations on social communication.

The last thing that helped me feel withdrawn from the world was the fact I can’t speak Japanese. Some people find it stressful to not be able to read signs, but I found it liberating. It reduced my cognitive load since I could ignore a lot of the visual noise around. It also had the bonus of making everything feel like if I was in a game or a movie! 🤩

My therapist was pretty satisfied with that explanation. I was also ready to put my theory to the test.

Back in Tokyo

I spent all of October and half of November in Tokyo. I’m thrilled about how it went. Tokyo felt more familiar this time around.

I also learned a lot of my lessons from my first trip. First, I stayed in a better neighbourhood. I was five minutes walk from a large subway station on the Yamanote Line (the most important subway line in Tokyo) which let me get anywhere easily. My gym was now 15 minutes from door to door. I also had a supermarket close by and affordable restaurants.

On the other hand, it was a less eventful trip. I did what I wanted to do, which was focusing more on my mental health and being socially withdrawn. I spent most of my time there going to the gym, working and doing some exploring.

That said, I was there for WordCamp Tokyo which I really enjoyed. Tokyo has such an amazing WordPress community. I was so happy to see it!

But WordCamp Tokyo was too close to my burnout. It left me completely drained afterwards. I spent 12+ hours sleeping on Sunday night. I barely interacted with anyone the following week.

I was also there for Halloween! This was normally a wild time in Tokyo, but Shibuya ward decided to shut it down this year. I’d never seen that much police ever in my life! They were determined to not have any crazy partying. (I did see some good cosplay festival on the weekend though!)

I also left Tokyo for two days (the only two days I left Tokyo this year!) to go see a Japan Championship Series finals baseball game in Osaka. Baseball is such a big deal in Japan. It was a cool experience to see such a high stakes game!

Coming back and melting down (again)

I came back to Montreal feeling pretty good overall. I felt I could have stayed a little while longer in Tokyo. But overall, I felt rested and ready to be more socially active.

As I usually am, I was probably too overeager and overconfident in my ability to handle social activities. I went right back to having a completely full social calendar. This ended up being unwise.

Less than a month after my return, I had an autistic meltdown. I realize now in hindsight that this wasn’t my first meltdown this year. (My breakdown in the winter was an autistic meltdown.) I just didn’t really know that’s what they were when I had them before.

This meltdown affected me a lot. I really thought I was well enough and figured enough stuff out after my trip to Tokyo. Clearly, I hadn’t, and that left me feeling quite vulnerable.

I’ve been resting since then. I tried to take some time off for the holidays. It’s also why I’m taking my time writing the year in review.

Thoughts on ADHD and autism

It’s fun (and human nature) to write a cohesive story to explain what happened to you. But the reality is often a lot messier. There’s a lot I didn’t cover about ADHD and autism, even if I’ve written close to 4,000 words already! 🤣🫠

I also want to share some general observations I’ve made during the year. These combine things I figured out by reading books on ADHD and autism. (I’ll discuss books I read this year later.) The goal was to offer some more detailed explanation of the things that I might have covered quickly when writing about my year as a hole.

I’m listing these in no particular order.

I’m highly functional

I think one challenge I have when discussing ADHD and autism with others is that I’m highly functional. (i.e. high-functioning autism) It’s pretty common for people to dismiss me off-hand when I mention ADHD or autism. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that this happens.

Society conditioned us to only consider mental health issues if they’re debilitating enough to be an issue. Sometimes, through a mix of luck and intelligence, we figure out systems and ways to not let these things affect us as much. I think that’s what happened to me.

For my ADHD, I came to realize that:

  • I rely heavily on alarms, calendars and to-do lists to not forget anything.
  • My love of travelling and meeting people is probably because it gives me a nice dopamine hit.
  • Writing is a way for me to focus and slow down my mind.
  • I was always largely self-taught because I can’t listen to someone for more than a few minutes without getting distracted.
  • Visual noise helps me concentrate, but I find noises distracting. That’s why I enjoy working in coffee shops a lot, but it’s also why I have several pairs of ANC earbuds and headphones.

For my autism, a lot of it revolves around people pleasing as a masking strategy, but I came to realize that:

  • I’m reluctant to work with people I know not because I don’t enjoy working with them. On the contrary, I love it. However, it becomes hard to advocate for myself correctly over time. (e.g. asking for a rate increase or larger salary raise back when working at a company.)
  • Shorter contracts/relationships help reset this behaviour since I can negotiate new rates each time. The downside is that I don’t have much of a stable income source.

I also came to realize that there’s a good chance I unconsciously started working for myself as a way to manage these issues. I don’t think working for a company or in an office would be the end of the world for me.

That said, the idea never sounds appealing whenever it crosses my mind. That’s why, whenever I have setbacks with Ymir or feel financially insecure, I end up shrugging it off and thinking, “What else am I going to do?”

I love my masked self

There’s this idea that, because you mask as an autistic person, you might not like the person you are when you mask, or it might hurt you to be this masked person. I can’t speak about others, but that’s not the case for me. I love that part of myself and it’s not “fake” because I mask.

Sometimes I don’t like the term “masking” that much because it implies that you’re hiding. And, while it’s true that I’m hiding the fact that I’m different, a lot of masking for me is just about translating things so that others can understand.

A simple example is hugging. If you’ve ever seen me, you probably noticed that I hug people a lot. I really like hugging. It feels amazing!

But hugging is also a “masking” tool for me. I struggle a lot with emotions due to having alexithymia. Alexithymia is very common with autistic people. It makes it hard for me to read emotions in others and myself, but I struggle to express certain emotions as well. It can also make people think I’m cold and distant.

For me, hugging is a way to translate the emotion I’d like to convey to someone, but I struggle to express or am worried I won’t express correctly. It’s super versatile too! I can hug you because I’m happy to see you, but also because you’re sad and I want to show comfort. Hugging is a way for me to show that I’m not really this cold person.

There are other things besides hugging that I do that are both “masking”, but also part of my personality. That said, I’m thankful for these masking strategies. They made me this better, kinder person.

This is all to say that, despite the issues that masking can cause, I love the person I am because of it too.

A lot of my WordPress persona is masking related

If you ever met me at a WordCamp or even outside a WordCamp, I’m always full of energy and bubbly. I love to drink and party. It’s something I’m well known for when you go to WordCamps.

But it’s also masking. Alcohol lowers inhibition (“liquid courage”) and silences your inner doubts. You worry less about how you present yourself. It also makes people (who are also drunk) notice or care about your quirks less.

Autistic people can have substance abuse problems if they use them too much as masking tool. I always told people that the person they saw at WordCamp wasn’t the same as the one I was at home. At home, I barely drink. For me, drinking was always a social activity. (Reinforcing the fact that this was a masking tool.)

I do like “Party Carl”. However, over time, I came to notice that sometimes I feel like a different person when I’m drunk. It doesn’t feel like I’m myself and it makes me feel a bit broken and sad. So I’m more careful with alcohol now even if I still like to party a lot. (Especially for WordCamp Europe! 🕺)

I also realize that there are other traits of my WordPress persona linked to masking. For example, when people say, “Carl hates money.” This is about people pleasing as a masking strategy.

Like I mentioned in the previous section, I like who I am masked. I love helping people. It makes me feel good about myself and I like the idea that I’m making my little corner of the world better.

But asking for money is a very uncomfortable social situation for me to navigate. (I think it’s uncomfortable for many even if they’re not autistic.) I avoid it by helping people for free when I should ask to be compensated. Or I do more than I agreed to in a contract without saying anything.

So instead of advocating for myself and asking to be paid, it’s “Carl hates money.” 😅

Autism makes business hard

Earlier this year, I changed Ymir’s pricing. I wrote about it in one of my bi-weekly reports. In the report, I mention something that Patrick Gallagher (CEO of GridPane) told me:

You don’t get to be happy-go-lucky-friendly-Carl and Enterprise-Carl at the same time.

As I’ve been reading more about autism, I keep going over what he said. Business is really hard when people pleasing is a core masking strategy. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the following issues:

  • You underprice or offer too much for too little.
  • You can’t put limits on support or say no to support requests.
  • People can take advantage of you in negotiation.

That said, I’ve never wanted to have a successful business more. It’s such an ideal situation for me if I can get there. It’ll really let me tailor my work life to who I am.

Now, this is a relatively fresh realization. I don’t quite know what to do with it yet. But I want to be more deliberate about trying to build a business that fits who I am as a person. I feel I moved away from that this year.

I’ll talk more about it when I talk about Ymir later.

My burnouts are often my ADHD and autism conflicting with each other

I alluded to it earlier, but I just want to explain it in a bit more detail. When I learned about autistic burnout, I understood immediately how my ADHD was the cause for them. And that’s because the two are in direct conflict with each other.

So on one side, we have my ADHD. My ADHD loves the novelty of travelling, exploring, meeting strangers, making new connections. It’s all novel and exciting.

It’s also useful for my career because it makes me really good at networking. That’s why there’s a running joke that I know almost everyone at a WordCamp. I love making introductions and meeting new people. I’m a fantastic in-person networker.

However, this is also very draining for my autistic side. It’s a lot of people reading, which is taxing for me when it’s new people and I don’t know how to read them. So slowly I’m being cognitively drained without even realizing it. I’m just having a great time running around talking to everyone.

If you haven’t read my previous year in review posts, most of my burnouts happened after a WordCamp or an intense bout of travelling and meeting new people. I’d just shut down thinking I’d partied too much. (Probably didn’t help either! 😅) I’d just be unable to go out and deal with social situations. This is pretty typical autistic burnout symptoms.

So what do I do with this information? Well, I need to do a better job balancing my ADHD side and my autistic side. When I do that correctly, I’m able to do everything fine. It’s when I let the ADHD side run wild that I end up hurting myself.

I know I’ve often talked about balance when I spoke about my past burnouts. 🙃 I think the fundamental difference this year is I’m beginning to understand the relationship between different parts of my personality. Hopefully, knowing that will help me prevent these burnouts more effectively from this point on.

I need therapy to help me understand people

I still remember part of my first therapy session. My therapist asked me why I was here. I’d answered something like:

I’m really good at figuring things out about myself, but I struggle with other people. I need help to understand how others think and how to manage my relationships with them.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this was autism related. I’m not sure if my therapist did either. I’d mostly mentioned that I was hyperactive and probably had ADHD. (Something that’s pretty obvious if you spend two seconds with me! 🤣)

I love self-improvement and working on understanding myself better. But, as I saw this year, even if I look fine interacting with others, there’s often a lot of masking. I’m trying to do that less now or at least be upfront about my issues. (That’s also why the subtitle for the review is unmasking! 😜)

Therapy helps with this unmasking. I can go over social interactions I’ve had and discuss them with my therapist. They can give me insights or just help me understand the other person’s perspective.

It’s been really useful! That’s why I don’t really plan on stopping therapy. I see it the same way as having a personal trainer, but for your mind.

Simon Sinek had an interview where he uses the term mental fitness. I also like the idea of social fitness that one of my favourite podcasts discussed earlier in the year. In both cases, the concept comes up when speaking about the loneliness epidemic.

While that’s not quite the issue here (masking can make you feel lonely), I think the important takeaway is that it’s constant work. I don’t see an end to therapy the same way I don’t see an end to going to the gym. I want my body to be healthy and I want my mind to be healthy.

Ymir’s third year

I talked a bit about Ymir throughout the review already. I announced Ymir in 2020 and started charging for it in February 2021. While I didn’t spend as much time working on it this year, it’s still on my mind constantly.

I’m building Ymir in public. I have an open dashboard and I also write reports every two weeks. If you want to know what it’s like to build a software business or just want to follow the journey, you can sign up for the reports.

What I want to discuss here is how I feel about Ymir after its third year in business. It’s not so much about the business itself. It’s more about writing my thoughts down and taking stock of where I am and where I want to go.

WordPress doesn’t feel like a great market

As I’m writing this, WordPress powers 43% of the web. That’s an insane number! You’d think it’d be easy for me to get to a few thousand MRR and switch to working on it full time.

But here I am and it’s still not the case. Ymir had a really good growth early last year, and I really felt I might have finally gotten going. Unfortunately, Ymir’s revenue plateaued in May last year and has been going up and down since then.

I still had over 30% YOY (Year-over-Year) growth from January 2022 to December 2023. It’s definitely not bad. It’s just not a lot when you’re at $1,000 MRR. I probably would want three digit YOY at this stage.

It definitely feels like WordPress isn’t the best market for Ymir. At least, right now. Ymir suffers from a few problems that seem hard to overcome:

  • Turning WordPress into a cloud application exacerbates poor design decisions and coding practices.
  • WordPress developers aren’t technical enough to optimize their code, especially not if it worked well on a server before.
  • Currently, there aren’t a lot of customers with the scaling needs that Ymir solves really well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about supporting Drupal and the higher education market. They have the scaling problems Ymir addresses and the money. On top of that, a lot of them are using AWS already or transitioning to it.

That’s why I’m thinking of speaking at (or at least going to) WP Campus and Higher Ed Web in 2024.

Increased validation for serverless technology

So here I am saying WordPress isn’t a great market. Yet, I also had some really good signals about the validity of serverless WordPress this year. So it’s left me with mixed feelings. (Nothing like a good paradox to spice life up!)

The first real good validation I got was from AWS. I had someone from Amazon reach out about participating in a “lunch and learn” to show off Ymir and talk about serverless WordPress. That was really cool and I couldn’t believe they knew I existed! 😅

I didn’t get any leads from it, but it’s one reason I’m thinking about higher education. The event was for AWS customers in the education sector. They seemed interested and had a lot of questions.

The bigger validation was when WP Engine reached out to talk about a potential partnership. (Read acquisition.) We talked for a few months and didn’t take things further. That said, it felt very validating that they had this technology on their radar.

I feel I just have to be patient and more hosting companies are going to start looking at serverless. Even if WP Engine ended up building this themselves, not every hosting company has their cloud expertise. So there’s maybe an opportunity to license the technology to hosting companies in the future.

That was in the back of my mind when I made my pricing changes this summer. I wanted to make sure no one was building hosting for $39/month. It’s also why I added a terms of service page.

Continuing to make the right connections

As I mentioned already, WordCamps feel like the only time where I feel I’m making progress with Ymir. Because it’s still so niche, I feel finding and talking to the right people has so much more impact than anything else I could do.

Almost from the moment I started working on Ymir, I’ve talked a lot about how I feel like WooCommerce is the killer use case for it. I really wanted to talk to the people building and managing really big WooCommerce stores. The problem was I didn’t know who the top WooCommerce agencies were or anyone that worked for them.

The issue was compounded by the fact that WooCommerce agency owners are hard to connect with. WooCommerce still doesn’t have a conference. And, when these agency owners come to WordCamps, they largely stay on the sidelines and do their own thing.

That’s why I think the private WooCommerce event I went to at WordCamp Asia was the most important thing I did this year. It got me in touch with some key WooCommerce people. I’ve been able to develop relationships with them since then.

My goal for this year is to continue to network heavily. I mentioned higher education earlier. That’s where I want to make some breakthroughs this year. That’s why I want to speak and go to higher education conferences.

Back to running a marathon

My goal with Ymir has always been to run a marathon. Business is hard and takes a lot more time than people expect. (Survivorship bias distorts a lot of our expectations 😅) Ymir being in an Innovator’s Dilemma situation makes the timeline even longer.

Last year, I thought Ymir might be taking off, so I worked on it a lot more and reduced my consulting work. I called it sprinting. Sprinting is good and can help you reach the finish line in a race. But it’s also not sustainable long term.

When I saw I wouldn’t get to a place where I could work on Ymir full time, I went back to consulting more and working on Ymir less. It’s important for me mentally, but also financially, to think of this as a marathon. When I don’t, I feel I don’t have the right expectations and I get disappointed when I don’t have a reason to be.

This year I don’t plan on sprinting at all.

Loosing sight of the garden

One of my favourite blog posts about solopreneurship is “My product is my garden”. I talked about it in 2021:

I want to feel content with Ymir. I want it to be something I enjoy working on and that brings joy to other WordPress developers. I want it to be my garden.

Like the sprinting vs running a marathon, I feel I lost sight of that idea a bit this year. There were a few moments this year where I felt very impatient. I just wanted to get to where I could work on Ymir full time so badly. But this desire to work on Ymir full time made me do things I feel made me move away from the garden idea.

For example, there was the pricing change. I don’t regret doing it. The amount of support I did for $39/month was unsustainable, especially with my need to please people. That said, I’m not happy where I am either.

I will probably change Ymir’s pricing again. This time I don’t want to make the change around my impatience to get to ramen profitability. (The same way you shouldn’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry! 🤣) Instead, I want Ymir to have a pricing and support structure that allows me to work on it sustainably.

With everything I figured out about myself this year, I think it’s more important than ever that I make Ymir a business that works for me. I loved spending a month in Japan just refactoring code and fixing static code analysis issues. That was me puttering in my garden.

I also want to continue working on a tool that advanced (important distinction in the WordPress space) developers love to use. Advanced developers have always been people. It brings me joy to support them and make their lives better.

Will the market let me work on my garden? Ultimately, it gets to decide if I can or not. I don’t know if the market will let me (there aren’t a lot of advanced developers in WordPress), but I’m stubborn (Taurus represent!) and willing to keep trying. That’s another reason I’m thinking of going outside WordPress.

AWS continues to get better

Now, every year AWS comes out with some improvement to services and whatnot. Normally, they’re small incremental upgrades that slowly make the products better. But this year and a half saw a bunch of really important product changes and releases.

The three that really stick out were:

Now, AWS is abusing the term “serverless” a lot! I wouldn’t call either Aurora Serverless or ElastiCache Serverless real serverless solutions because they don’t scale down to zero. (Read more about it here.) Unlike Lambda, they have an “always on” cost.

The reality is both those products are amazing “auto-scaling” solutions. As someone who manages infrastructure, I’d rather have a database server or Redis cluster I don’t have to worry about scaling up and down. I create it and it’ll handle the workload I throw at it. That’s seriously amazing.

This gets us a lot closer to the end goal, which is you deploy your application and then you don’t have to worry anything server related. We’re essentially there. The only thing is that we’re not there yet from a true “pay as you go” perspective.

But this is the “Innovator’s Dilemma”, technology gets better and better until it overtakes the incumbent. Would you rather just create a database server that scales as needed or manage it? I think everyone would say the former, especially if it cost you zero dollars to keep it on when you weren’t using it. I think, once we hit that, there’s going to be a monumental shift in how developers think about infrastructure.

The last thing was just that, with their scaling update, Lambda now scales insanely fast. We’re talking 100 PHP workers per second on demand. This is essentially inconceivable using any sort of auto scaling architecture. Just another incremental step in how serverless is slowly surpassing traditional server architecture.

The end of technical writing

I think I have to be honest and say that I’m probably done writing technical articles. I say this with a bit of sadness because I enjoy writing technical articles. They were a labour of love from me and I always felt that it showed.

However, I also need to be honest and say that writing was incredibly time consuming (50+ hours of work per article) and unpaid. Back when I was writing, I didn’t mind. It felt so rewarding and I got to meet so many people because of it.

But Ymir and consulting take a lot of my time now. I want to spend the rest of my time doing things for myself. I don’t have all this free time to give anymore.

I still write a lot. But it’s almost entirely the Ymir reports I send every two weeks. I’m enjoying writing those as well.

ChatGPT and technical writing

So that’s one issue, but it’s not the only reason I find myself writing technical content less. The other is ChatGPT. It’s hard to state how much ChatGPT changed how I work. I think it’s the most important tool I added to my tool belt since the IDE.

Because of it, I pretty much don’t read technical articles anymore. I don’t even Google much. (I’d say ChatGPT reduced my Google usage for work by 90%.) If I need to learn something or an explanation, I’ll just ask ChatGPT.

Those were also my favourite articles to write. Articles like “Beginner’s guides to regular expressions” or “PHP strings and how to format them” were my most read articles. They were the type of evergreen content I loved to write. They were obscure topics, but so helpful to know when demystified.

Now, ChatGPT can explain them to you as easily.

Don’t get me wrong. This is amazing! It’s such a force multiplier for every developer. (So much so that I’m applying to talk about it at WordCamps.)

But, as I told Tom McFarlin, “ChatGPT Wrecked Our Type of Content”. Eventually, I’d like to record a podcast about it. That said, there’s no question that, with ChatGPT, I don’t see the point investing dozens of hours writing a technical article.

Blog in numbers

I won’t go into too much detail about blog traffic and my newsletter. They’re on autopilot now. As you can guess, the blog traffic is down a lot again this year. I went from 84,100 visitors to 50,400 and 112,600 page views to 69,500.

My newsletter still keeps growing a bit. I added less than 100 net subscribers. I’m up to 2,332 subscribers from 2,247.


I’ve always shared some financial information at the end of my reviews. I’ve debated if I want to keep doing that. It doesn’t feel that important to me to share all the numbers anymore, but I still want to talk about it a bit


From an income perspective, I feel I had a pretty good year. It wasn’t my best year, but it was good enough for me to travel and also put money away.

90% of my income still comes from consulting work. I tried to diversify away from consulting, but haven’t been able to do so. I did manage to diversify my consulting income somewhat. That’s good because I worry about depending on a single client.

The rest of the income is a slowly dwindling GitHub sponsor as well as some income from my book. (Ymir also paid me a bit earlier this year.) The book did just under $2,000 USD in sales this year and it also passed $30,000 in lifetime sales!


As for expenses, things haven’t changed too much. We’re back to how things were prior to COVID. Most of my expenses are around travelling.

These expenses continued to increase this year because I travelled more. As I mentioned earlier, I spent about five months outside Canada this year. That’s the most travelling I’ve ever done.

At the same time, I feel travelling has never been this expensive. Gone are the cheap airbnbs and flights. You pay a lot more than before COVID. That’s why I think this is the year I spent the most on traveling.

I will say that Japan ended up being cheaper than I expected. (It also helps that the Yen is incredibly weak right now.) It’s actually a bit jarring to come back to Canada and see the food prices here. They’re about double Japan’s.

The rest of my expenses have been pretty stable. Software is going back down as I’ve been trimming things. My rent has been stable as well.

Books I’ve read

This is a new section this year! One of the cool things I’ve achieved this year is that I managed to restart my book reading habit. I didn’t read a lot (less than 10 books), but it’s a start! I wanted to share a few of them that were important to me or just interesting.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

In May, I was back from Japan and not doing that great. I’d started therapy, and I was working through issues in my life. I felt really lonely dealing with everything going on.

Meanwhile, Ymir’s progress was also frustrating for me. I was trying so hard to build Ymir differently than how everyone else was telling me to build the company. Building a company is often a solitary experience because few people understand how hard it is. But trying to do it in a contrarian way just made it an even lonelier experience.

I forget how I stumbled on the book. I think it may have been on a podcast. Brené Brown is a well-known author and speaker, but I’d never heard of her until then.

Sometimes you read or listen to something at just the right time and it has transformative experience on you. Braving the Wilderness was that. It felt so important to me I read it twice. I also spent an Ymir report talking about it.

I just started reading it a third time. It’s not a long book, so it’s easy to pick up and read again.

That’s great because sometimes I need someone to remind me that I’m walking my path and it’s ok to do it alone. It takes courage to be yourself all the time. This year in review, with its roughly 10,000 words, is itself a way to be myself. (Because really, who writes this much!? 🤣)

Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity

This is where the subtitle for the year in review comes from. I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago. It’s been on my mind a lot as I’ve written the year in review.

It started slow for me. I didn’t see myself in the way that the author described autistic people. It’s only when the book started talking about masking strategies and how they affected your life that it really clicked for me.

I got the recommendation for this book from another autistic person who’d just received their diagnosis. They said it really changed how they viewed themselves and their interactions with others. I can say that it had a similar impact on me.

I think it’s a great book whether or not you’re autistic. But if you suspect you are or know you are, it’s really eye opening. I think it’s even more impactful when you’re high functioning because you might not realize how much you’re compensating.

Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception

Heard about this book on Twitter earlier during my first stay in Japan. The book tackles the hunter vs farmer hypothesis of ADHD. It’s a nice theory and would explain why ADHD is so prevalent.

That said, it wasn’t what got me to like the book. The book is about adults with ADHD. This was a novel topic when the author wrote about it in 1993. Back then, people still thought that ADHD was a condition that children had, but not adults.

The book talks a lot about compensation strategies that high functioning adults with ADHD have. It also discusses how ADHD affects their work and relationships. Much like “Unmasking Autism”, it was eye opening to think about how ADHD unconsciously affected my life.

Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City

I’ve had this book on my wish list since it came out during COVID. I’m a sucker for urbanism, architecture and Tokyo. This book has all three, so what isn’t there to like!?

I read it while I was in Tokyo in the fall. It was a great travelling companion. It was like a tourist guide for people who like urbanism and architecture. I allowed me to view Tokyo through a totally different lens.

It also helped explain things I loved about Tokyo from a historical perspective. Why are neighbourhoods the way they are? What’s the origin of the thin neon buildings that define Tokyo skyline? What about those iconic alleyways? All those businesses under and around the subway tracks?

The book explains it all! It also goes over how all these features that define Tokyo. But it also explains help why all these features make it such a unique and liveable city.

If you’re going to visit Tokyo, consider getting a copy.


I’m trying to think of a way to end this year in review. The last two ended similarly. I said they were hard to write and I’m exhausted.

I can’t help but feel the same way right now. I spent most of my holidays writing this. It felt endless and also really emotionally draining to go over everything again.

Right now, I’m just tired. I’d given myself four weeks off during the holidays. I spent most of the holidays writing this and working on a contract. In the end, I don’t think I managed to take two weeks off.

That said, I feel grateful that I even have the opportunity to figure myself out and to write something like this. I can’t believe that I’ve been on my own for 12 years now. Yet I continue to be able to live my life the way I want to. I get to adapt it as I learn things about myself. It’s amazing!

I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of a lot of people around me. I thought of naming people out, but I think it might hurt the people I leave out unintentionally. Instead, I’ll say that I’m grateful that I have people who:

  • Give me work and are trying to support me financially.
  • Want me and Ymir to be succeed.
  • Help me process and talk through things.
  • Check in to see how I’m doing.
  • Just listen and want to know more about me.

So, yes, this was again hard to write and I’m exhausted. But I’m going into the new year feeling grateful and happy for the changes in my life. I just need to rest my eyes a bit now. 😴

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