2021 at a Glance
📚 Read 26 books
🐦 Tweeted 664 times
🍵 Consumed 20 boba drinks
🎬 Watched 5 streaming services
👩🏻💻 Screamed at 8,937+ lines of code
✍️ Wrote 67,443+ meaningful words (i.e. not emails)
🍿 Binged 11 seasons of Frasier (1993-2004) but have yet to watch Squid Game (2021)…
🎥 … And watched way too many TikToks after spending all of 2020 refusing to give in / download the app
🌱 Embracing Startup Failure
Failure is usually not considered a highlight, but it was one of the most pivotal moments of my year — and my short 20 years of living and learning as a whole — so I am counting it as a highlight of my year.
I started 2021 continuing to build Sesame full-time with my co-founder. During that time, I learned so much and absolutely do not regret any minute of it. It was a huge honor for our work to be recognized by the Accelerated Newsletter as pushing forward a new big trend for 2021, but I treasured the feedback we were hearing from our users much more. To this day, seeing users on Sesame with a co-studying room open still brings a smile to my face. Yet ultimately I ended up departing the company, for reasons I will not share here.
It was very hard for me to accept this failure in the first few weeks — I constantly questioned my worth as a builder and founder and talked myself deeper and deeper into the darkness. But as I reflected upon my experience and talked to other startup founders, I realized I would only have failed if I thought this one startup experience defined the founder that I am. If I let go of everything I had learned and called it quits entirely, then I have truly failed. Embracing failure and the lessons one gains from it is a step towards success.
Starting a company is so intensely challenging that you can’t describe it until you finally do it. And you should. Instead of wondering about it, you’ll learn so much more from doing it and failing at it.
💫 Gap Year Serendipity
I had taken the entire 2020-21 school year off; while most Harvard classmates I knew had packed their gap year with aggressive schedules and overlapping internships, I decided to instead leave my spring “semester” wide open with no plans to welcome any serendipitous moments.
It turned out to be a great idea because it offered me the ability to work on whatever projects I wanted to. When COVID vaccines began to roll out in the US, my boyfriend and I launched a website that allowed Americans to book appointments in their state. I dove headfirst into Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting course on Masterclass. I spent a full day walking around the local zoo and weaving around all the families-with-toddlers and couples-on-dates to beat the queue to wave to otters. I dedicated more time to scaling my AI ethics advocacy work. I returned to writing articles on Wikipedia and battled many deleted biographies. I interviewed dozens of writers and started building a tool for writers before shifting to writing my book.
For the first time in a long time I felt free of the artificial structures and constraints school constructs for its students. It felt like I had a blank mental canvas, and I could choose how and when I painted each stroke of it. It was scattered yet free, unstructured but immensely rewarding.
And sure, maybe it was because of this huge amount of open time that led me to my bout of insanity thinking “of course it would be a great idea to start writing a book right before I return school!” But without this period of serendipity, I definitely would not be the person I am today.
Don’t over plan, always make time for serendipitous moments. You never know what will happen.
🌴 Summer in LA
In May I moved to Los Angeles for the summer. My prior LA trips mostly entailed quick weekend visits to Disneyland; even scarier than not knowing the area well, I also had never truly adulted for that long before. For the next 3 months, I practiced how to change lanes in the constantly brutal LA traffic, my boyfriend grumbled about the gas prices every week, and we learned how to endure power outages.
My work during the summer entailed researching and building a machine learning tool for animation artists at Disney; it was the dream of the lifetime working with the artists and storytellers who breathed life into many of my favorite stories on the big screen. Even though the internship was entirely remote, I was so fortunate to have met my wonderful team in-person and visit the office. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to finally meet so many wonderful individuals I had forged online relationships/friendships with in-person, including many in the Contrary family, LA’s Gen Z founder+creator houses, and this wonderful VC & startup Twitter meetup that Lolita Taub hosted.
Above all, I loved how LA embraced and encouraged creative visions. I visited multiple production studios, walked past 100 Thieves’s HQ, and somehow even stepped foot in OfflineTV’s former house. It was a real reckoning to spend a summer in a city so culturally driven by the power of creativity. Overall it helped me realize that I wanted to spend my next many years continuing to build technology for creatives (writers, artists, creators, etc.) while continuing to craft my own creative projects.
It’s easy to confine yourself to a bubble — don’t. Keep exploring and learning. (And always do this with COVID safety in mind.)
🎓 Returning to Campus
After flitting with dropping out or not for the past year, I decided to go back to school for an easy reason: there were many things I still wanted to achieve at college.
I took the following classes, with Asian American Literature being one of my favorite courses I’ve ever taken in college:
AC 215: Advanced Data Science & ML Ops
CS 121: Theoretical Computer Science
English 181a: Asian American Literature
EXPOS 40: Public Speaking Practicum
Non-official coursework but still memorable: Entrepreneurship seminars as part of the HBS Undergrad Tech Innovation Fellowship
My goals entering this semester were:
Meet anyone and everyone building/creating cool stuff.
Explore and engage more with the comedy scene on campus.
Spend and cherish time with my friends (particularly after 1.5 years away from campus and many of them graduating soon).
Your time in college is limited. Set clear goals on what you want to get out of each semester at school.
📚 Embarking on a New Writing Journey
It has been a lifelong bucket list dream to write a book. Never did I think that my first book would be nonfiction, nor did I expect I would be writing it during college.
Writing The Creator Revolution has been an utterly nerve-wracking experience since the moment I first told someone “oh hey I think I’m going to write a book”, but it has also been exhilarating. I’m constantly left in awe after every interview I’ve conducted with creators and visionaries. I’m also repeatedly humbled by how extraordinarily difficult writing a book is. It has been challenging but very much a worthwhile path, and I’m so grateful for everyone who has supported my writing journey thus far.
Do what makes you scared. Do what makes you excited.
💇🏻♀️ Evolution of My Hair
From blue to purple to blue to purple + pink, my hair went through a lot of change this year. It was a shallow, external transformation, but I loved it as I felt that my hair finally captured the chaotic colors of my soul.
(Also, if you have Asian parents, I would recommend starting to Pavlov your parents into thinking outrageously colorful hair is actually okay many years in advance.)
Do what sparks joy for you!
Goals for 2022
💪 Make time for physical, mental, and emotional health.
In 2021, I threw sleep, exercise, and mental health out the window. As hard as I know it will be, I want to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, make time for exercise, and give myself more space and understanding in maintaining mental and emotional health in 2022.
🔁 Build genuine relationships and community.
I hope to be better at forging genuine relationships with others, even those who I’ve met only once or twice, and see how we can all help one another. At Harvard specifically, I aim to continue developing our startup community and make aspiring builders feel like they have a space to join.
🎤 Perform on stage.
Writing is the form of art that comes most naturally to me because I can hide behind a wall of words. In 2022, I want to push myself to break through that wall and force myself to take center stage through performing stand-up comedy, live readings, and more.
📹 Capture more memories on video.
I really enjoyed looking back at the few highlight/memory reels I compiled this year, and hope to continue savoring these memories — especially with close loved ones — on footage (but not at the cost of being present).
2021 was a transformative year of learning and growth. I’m excited for everything 2022 will bring, and wish you all the happiest new year! May the Force be with you in 2022 :)
If you enjoyed this, let me know! Find me on Twitter @catherinehyeo for more musings and memes entering the new year.
Fun reading material. And I LOVE your hair. Maybe I should highlight mine in purple first! Haha 😂
Amazing article Catherine!!