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2020: The Year In Review

2020-12-31
Yearly Review

I've never written a yearly review before. Having seen so many of them on my twitter timeline this year and having read Tim Ferriss' article about them, I've decided to give it a go.

2020: The Best Year of my Life?!

2020 has been a weird year, but strangely enough, it's been one of the best years of my life.

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone

The above quote is attributed to Blaise Pascal. There are a couple of different ways it can be interpreted; my interpretation is that being busy all of the time and not having the time to sit and think your life through is a BIG problem.

Like most people in a tech role, I've been working from home since March. I've saved an hour per day on my commute. I've also been able to spend a lot of time in solitude during my working day which has been vastly superior for my mental health compared to working in a busy office. All in all, working from home has created the 'mental space' for me to think through my problems. I cannot understate how much this has helped, and has underwritten everything that has happened for me this year.

January - in the property business

I've been interested in getting involved in residential property (real estate for any Americans reading) for a while now, and the perfect opportunity came up at the end of 2019.

The property was in a beautiful area and belonged to an acquaintance. It was on the market, but needed a lot of work, so a friend and I had offered to complete the refurbishment work and split the profit when it sold for a higher price than it was previously listed for in its dilapidated state.

We had a contract drawn up, but a day or two before we were due to sign the contract my business partner dropped out of the deal. He was expecting his first child and had a change of heart. This was a real disappointment, after what was a long and stressful process for getting the contract drawn up. For various reasons, this deal just didn't make sense to proceed with on my own.

Alas, I decided to begin looking for a new property project on my own. The market has been really difficult since COVID-19 hit, so I'm still looking. Hopefully I will get the first project under my belt in 2021.

Below is an image from the living room of the house we nearly completed the deal on, most of the decor was very old fashioned.

February - Django and SaaS

I've been interested in building a SaaS business for a while. Having read so many inspiring stories on Indie Hackers, I spent some time learning Django. I was desperate to launch a SaaS so I could run a business full-time, but had no idea what to build.

I was fairly directionless at this point in the year, and I'd say that this was a running theme in my life for a long time prior to 2020. Thankfully, that started to change towards the end of 2020...

March - COVID-19 and Toilet Roll?

By mid-March, COVID-19 had hit and most of the world was locked down.

Still one of the most bizarre things this year (in a year that has been completely bonkers) was the panic buying of toilet roll in the UK. It was one of the few things that lightened the mood in a time where there didn't seem to be much to be optimistic about.

April - Economics

By April, I had started to think a lot about the economy and investing. I had been looking for a property for a while now, surely we would have a property market crash and I'd be able to pick up a nice bargain?

The economy behaved in a way that I didn't expect. The stock market dipped briefly before entering a bull run, and the property market in the UK boomed through the summer.

I was particularly enthralled by Ray Dalio's articles on the changing world order (first article here, it's a big time investment to read them all but I'd highly recommend it). I researched this topic extensively and was easily convinced on his idea of the 'long term debt cycle'. Ray's belief is that there will be a need for a total economic reset at some point in the future, due to burgeoning levels of societal debt, and limited recourse for stimulus in economic crises now that interest rates are 0.

This was one of the big turning points of 2020 for me.

My goal prior to 2020 was to purchase enough rental properties to retire and live off the rental income. I'm not rich by any means. I planned on buying properties by sacrificing, working hard and recycling my little pot of cash.

What if this plan was not sustainable?

  • Could property business taxes increase so much that it would not be possible to sustain myself on my rental income? COVID will need to be paid for in taxes at some point and landlords are an easy target for the UK government.
  • In a worst case scenario, could governments seize land/property as an asset to back their failing fiat currency?
  • If I had to get a job because of these risks, who would hire me with no work experience for a significant period of time if I had retired?

All of the above sounds quite alarmist, and is perhaps unlikely. The point is, I hadn't considered whether my plan had any existential risks. How would I feel if I'd sacrificed and worked so hard for so many years, just to have it all taken away from me for something outside of my control?

I read the 4 Hour Work Week around this time of the year. A quote I like from this book is something to the effect of - "How would your life change if retirement were no longer an option?"

I'm still very interested in property investment, but I started to realise it couldn't be the ONLY thing I did. I had to find work that I enjoyed doing now and stop sacrificing today so much in the hope of an early retirement.

May - Cutting my Own Hair and YouTube

One of the difficulties of being locked down for months is my hair got very long. I needed a haircut.

Most people had the same idea as me, and most online retailers were sold out of clippers. I ended up finding some on Amazon, the last set they had in stock.

I cut my own hair for the first ever time and it looked horrific (see below). I've been practicing for the rest of this year and I'm getting much better at it. I treated it as a skill, just like anything else, that you can improve with practice.

Following on from April, I'd started to think more about what I wanted to focus on. The idea of starting a YouTube channel crossed my mind.

I used to lurk on the fastlane forum (owned by MJ DeMarco, author of one of my favourite books - The Millionaire Fastlane) and a guy on there called James Jani had experienced a meteoric rise in success on the platform in a short period of time. It was really inspiring to see what he had achieved.

I spent some time researching it, but it didn't go any further than this (at least, at this stage). I couldn't decide what to make videos about.

June & July - Reading and a Knowledge Project

By June, I'd read a lot of books.

I had set up a 'knowledge project' (name inspired by Farnam Street) where I'd set out a curriculum of everything I wanted to learn to improve my life and start a business.

I learned about investing, habits, fitness, meditation, stoicism, lean product development. I enjoy reading, but I think it was a big mistake to spend so much time reading over these first few months of the pandemic.

I thought I could achieve what I wanted to achieve by learning everything through reading, but I've come to appreciate that this is only one small part of the puzzle. It's way more important to have skin in the game and be learning through experience.

I stumbled upon a video by Daniel Bourke around this time called 'A balance you need to fix: Creation vs. Consumption'. It had a big impact on me, and I started to think about how I could shift from being a consumer to being a creator. It took me a while after this still to figure out exactly how.

As a result, I didn't read anywhere near as much in the second half of 2020.

Some of the books I read this year:

August - Smart Notes

Earlier in the year, I'd read a book called 'How to Take Smart Notes' by Sönke Ahrens which also had a big impact on me. I'd also found Andy Matuschak's work which is similar in philosophy.

I started to piece together how I could build a Zettelkasten to document my learning and extract insights that could be used to create content.

During the majority of 2020, these efforts were quite disjointed. I tried a number of apps that I didn't feel comfortable with until I landed on Roam Research which I use now.

Taking smart notes is a difficult habit to get into, but I'm practicing and getting better each day, especially now that I'm actively using this system to create content.

My Roam Research graph now:

September - Thinking about freelancing

By September, I'd been thinking about the economy and work for a while (see April). I stumbled upon a freelancing authority on twitter called Tom Hirst.

I'm not sure exactly how I found Tom on twitter, but I'm glad I did. My perception of freelancing prior to finding Tom's work was that it's not very well paid and you're constantly struggling to find work. Reading Tom's tweets slowly changed my opinion.

I liked the idea of freelancing for a number of reasons:

  • I'd read and re-read Daniel Vassallo's 'A Portfolio of Small Bets' email from July where he talks about the benefits of freelancing first, and making riskier bets (like starting a SaaS business) later
  • You have the guarantee of working from home forever (even when there isn't a pandemic going on)
  • You can take on as much or as little work as you want
  • You can keep your 'hat in the ring' with software development

The above advantages would allow me to build up the property investments and freelance work simultaneously with the comfort of knowing I can flex up/down with my freelancing hours as I please. This was something worth striving for.

October - Dipping my toes into serious frontend development

I wanted to learn an in demand skill that could be used for freelancing and React seemed a good place to start. I already had web development experience, and had used basic JavaScript in my day job. I started learning React and developed a familiarity with the basics quite quickly. I also went on to learn Gatsby and GraphQL.

At this stage of the year, I also started following the '12 week year' process of goal setting. I have been familiar with the '12 week year' for a while now, but had always struggled to pin goals down consistently for a 12 week period. In this review of 2020 even, you can see that I jumped around quite a bit with my focus at the start of the year.

The '12 week year' was another paradigm shift for me. For the first time I have the same goals at the end of the quarter as at the start. I think this was down to the thinking I had done earlier on in the year which helped me clarify exactly what I want out of life.

I followed a framework by Propane Fitness which helped me concentrate my goals around the 4 B's:

  • Body
  • Being
  • Balance
  • Business

In addition to being much more focused around business with freelancing this last quarter, I was able to carve out a consistent meditation practice and lost 10lbs of fat.

November and December - Mentorship and Twitter

In November, I stepped up my interest in freelancing by starting to work with Tom as my mentor. I thought long and hard about investing in mentorship, but I'm happy with how things are going so far.

Two things that Tom encouraged me to do are build my portfolio website and start posting on twitter.

Prior to November, I'd used twitter as a consumer. I loved reading the bitesized insights you could find on the platform. I wanted to shift from being a consumer to being a producer, though.

I started tweeting in November and have learned a lot over the past couple of months. I've had the privilege of being able to interact with some brilliant and inspiring people, and I've put out content that people have engaged with.

A particular highlight was a video I published on twitter in December. I was nervous to put myself out there in this way, but I had seen video do well for others and was eager to give it a go. It worked fantastically well and I got to interact with some of the people on twitter that I look up to. I'm going to invest heavily in video in 2021 and have even been thinking about setting up a YouTube channel again.

Some twitter stats for December:

Conclusion

All-in-all, it's been a great year. The final few months in particular have been great for me and I'm looking forward to continuing that momentum into 2021.