What We Gained and Lost in 2023

Gabe Zichermann
6 min readDec 29, 2023
New Years Eve is About to Be Lit (cc caruba @ Flickr)

December is a fraud.

No other month of the year promises as much as December. White Christmases, huge sales, downtime with family and friends, Hanukkah gelt, New Years Eve…endless MARIAH. I assume that other months just look at December with envy. Especially February; poor, sad February. A couple of days short of a full calendar, and a lot of grim weather. Plus that leap year nonsense. One assumes February is the George Lazenby to December’s Sean Connery: a critical role, but eminently forgettable.

n.b. Yes, that was a very deep cut on Bond. And no, I don’t want to hear your impassioned defense of G-Laz. Save that for Pierce Brosnan’s obit so you can describe him as the second-worst 007.

December’s great misdirection is its ability to force perspective and introspection for a culture that’s deeply opposed to both. It’s the time of year where people joke about having nothing to do between Christmas and New Years, and social media starts getting filled with posts about how we either can’t wait for the year to end, or that it was the best year of our lives. Sometimes if a particular poster is extra druggy or forgetful, they’ll even opine both things just a few days apart.

If you’re in the “best year of my life” camp, you’re undoubtedly planning your new year social media supercut. A fast moving set of photos and videos shot in glamorous locations around the world with you looking snatched — the annual “best of” trend is an exercise in secondhand ennui. Oh wow, you went to Brazil and the Amalfi in one year? Your abs got better in the fall? You guys are so cute together! Though we don’t yet know which song or sound effect will be the trend of choice for these videos when they drop on Jan 1, my money is on either music for girl dinners or the roman empire.

If you’re in the “would 2023 just end” camp, you’ve probably posted something to this effect already. Hopefully you followed the best practices and stayed vague enough to make the point that the year sucked for you while simultaneously leaving the door open for your friends to chime in with support. And while it may be common for some cultures to simply accept that bad things have happened, if you’re a real American, you’ve also included some wishful thinking about next year being better.

But what if neither is true for you? Maybe 2023 was just another year sliding by as you move from youth into old age. Despite the craziness of the world and all your fears about the future, you found some stuff to be grateful for, and space in the darkness to feel hopeful too. Maybe things got just a little better, and small opportunities opened for you to move forward personally and professionally. A little raise — battered by inflation, sure — but still better than nothing. Maybe it was recognition, another year with loved ones or progress toward buying a home.

And for those holding on — but barely — what to make of the year just passed? Maybe the only thing you have to consider is that you made it another 525,600 minutes (n.b. didn’t have to google this number, IYKYK) without dying, falling into homelessness or mental disorder. Perhaps you feel less than mixed about 2023, but rather feel nothing at all. How do you analyze this year gone by?

The human tendency to look backwards and assess the past has been pretty consistent throughout history and the social sciences. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living,” right before being put to death (drama queen alert!), and research has shown that people are more introspective and impulsive at ages ending with 9. So it makes perfectly good sense that December is the busiest month of retro-analysis and pastry sales, and January is Black Friday, Christmas and Kwanzaa all rolled into one for the diet, fitness and health industry.

But looking backwards and trying to come up with a neat representation of a whole year might be a bad strategy for your mental health. First off, a year is pretty long — even if it goes by in a blink these days. That means that you’ll likely be blinded by the recency bias or availability heuristic — two cognitive biases that predispose you to over-emphasizing things that have recently happened. It’s like when they show Suzanne Somers during the “In Memoriam” at the Oscars and you frantically google to confirm she actually died in 2023. RIP, Master of all Thighs.

Beyond missing the obvious contours of a long year, manically choosing to either spiral on the year gone by or discard it entirely is definitely not going to help you learn and feel better doing it. The best wisdom I’ve seen about the analysis of time comes from the researcher Anthony Burrow in his extensive work on purpose and meaning. You can hear a great summary of it during his interview on the podcast Hidden Brain (Spotify Link), but let me summarize:

To derive Meaning, we need to look backward. To find our Purpose, we must look forward.

Since meaning and purpose are both important to living a happy life, it seems essential that we do both — look backward and forward at all times.

Now, if you’re a ruminator and/or type A (raises hand), you might already be looking forward and backward, but possibly in the wrong way. To help unpack more positive ways to look at time, rather than sitting in the “what if,” I read Dan Sullivan’s book “The Gap and the Gain.” In it, he talks about a proven approach to using the continuum of time to be happier and accomplish more:

Measure progress by looking backward. Set goals by thinking forward.

That is, you’ll feel happier if you measure your progress not by thinking of the goals in front of you, but rather by seeing how far you’ve come from the point of origin to now. Then, use your goal setting skills to think forward, but never measure forward.

In my experience these two practices are actually relatively easy to do, as long as you remind yourself to come back to your center whenever you feel like you’re spiraling or over-simplifying the passage of time.

Fundamentally, the passage of a “year” is entirely arbitrary. We collectively decide that Dec 31 marks the end of a calendar year, but there’s no absolute meaning in the universe connected to that date. Most of us were born on days other than Jan 1, many cultures use calendars that are unrelated to this one, and while the earth completes a rotation each year, any other day could easily have been New Years. With a slightly different choice, we’d be celebrating the ball drop right at the first signs of spring, or maybe we wouldn’t be measuring time by the planets at all. My vote is for using a new metric of time called “Cher”.

So while we can all be amused by the glossy retrospectives and over-simplified calls for a fresh start, maybe what we really need is a more realistic, hopeful and ongoing way of marking the passage of time.

This year was probably better and worse for each of us in different ways. We’ve chosen to remember a slice of life that fits our narrative, but in reality such a span of time can’t be easily condensed down to a single headline. We humans only live for 70, 80 of these rotations — around a third of the number of episodes of Friends that aired (236, RIP Matthew Perry). And whether or not 2023 was The One with All the Kissing, The One with the Evil Orthodontist or The One with the Birth, at least it wasn’t The Last One.

For that, and for you, I’m eternally grateful.

Goodnight, 2023.

This post made without AI



Gabe Zichermann

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me: https://gabezichermann.com