Six things I’ve learned in six years of blogging

NZMuse - Blogging lessons learned

As of this month, I’ve been chronicling my life here for six years. Unbelieveable.

Since I missed the big five-year mark, being off gallivanting somewhere in Europe last year, I’ll have to make up for it now.

Here are the biggest things I’ve learned.

It’s all about me

It’s the rawest and most honest posts that seem to resonate.

Guest posts and posts where I get a bit more journalistic just don’t get the same response.

It makes sense – if I think about all the blogs I currently read, the reason I continue to subscribe is because I feel a connection to the blogger. This is why I read very few blogs that use staff writers (and usually skim over the staff posts in favour of the posts by the original writer). I promise I will never hire staff writers.

Ultimately, the only thing you have to set you apart online is yourself - your viewpoint, your writing, your voice.

It’s hard to know how much to reveal

Walking that fine line is something anyone who writes for public consumption faces.

As I’ve become less anonymous, finding that balance has become even harder. I want to be as honest as possible, but within reason. Although I don’t share my blog with many people IRL, my rough benchmark is ‘would I mind if my family/closest friends read this?’ and that helps guide me.

I will happily talk to anyone, online or offline, stranger or friend, about how I spend and save. I probably wouldn’t share my income or net worth. I might not want to disclose the details if I was going through a rough time personally but I might allude to them or talk about how I’m coping (or not). Struggles with relationships and career/work, I find, are the toughest to navigate.

Go self-hosted early

I wish I’d made the switch to self-hosted blogging earlier. (Check out some options for domains and hosting.) Mainly for selfish reasons, to be honest with you: I could have made a lot more money.

But it’s also encouraged me to take my writing here more seriously. I almost don’t even count those first couple of years of blogging. These days, I usually work on draft posts for awhile and preschedule them – often continuing to make tweaks before and even just after go-live.

Don’t sell out

Doesn’t this directly contradict that last point, you ask? Well, like with most things, it’s all about balance. I’m not principled enough to eschew commercialism entirely. In going self-hosted, I wanted to be confident I would at least make enough to cover the costs involved.

That doesn’t mean jumping at every opportunity, though. I had a phase where I ran a ton of crappy (paid) guest posts, and that accounted for a reasonable proportion of the money I earned online while travelling full-time last year. I tried to edit to higher standards and put my own spin on them with a personalised intro, but ultimately I was no longer comfortable playing that game. It was a weird and totally conflicting dynamic at play: Advertisers essentially wanted to piggyback off your blog’s SEO juice, but in allowing them to do so you put that hard-earned built-up SEO goodness – the very thing advertisers are paying you for – at risk. And since I was working in mainstream media (which of course is playing its own game with sponsored content and struggling to define boundaries) I felt extremely suspect doing this kind of thing on my personal site.

Suffice to say my standards are now a lot higher. I want to be proud of everything I run here.

Do not obsess over stats

I go through ebbs and flows – currently I’m in a phase where I feel compelled to check in on my traffic every few hours. This is unhealthy and I know it!

I’m used to running larger, non-personal sites and constantly monitoring analytics, because that kind of data informs what we do. I don’t want to do the same here.

I don’t have the huge numbers that some other bloggers do, and while sometimes that bums me out, ultimately, I’m much more interested in quality, not quantity.

Don’t force it

When it comes to blogging, I go through bursts and spurts of inspiration. Often I’ll realise I’ve almost run out of posts, but it always works out. Forcing ideas never works!

Link love (Powered by quiche and many a bus ride)

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Oh, what a week.

The highlight of my week was: A kid just passing by, who stopped when he saw me arguing with a bus driver, to try and help me. I wish I’d been more appreciative of his effort, but at the time I was too steaming mad…

The low of my week was: Dealing with that twat of a bus driver. I came pretty close to busting out the c-word; that’s how close to the edge I’ve been operating lately stress-wise and this incident nearly pushed me over. Here’s the account of events that I emailed to Auckland Transport as a complaint:

Auckland Transport - Bus driver complaint

While it only added maybe 10 minutes to my journey home as another bus came along soon, and didn’t cost me any more as I had an unlimited monthly pass, it’s the bloody principle. I call UNACCEPTABLE on the entire thing. I will defend public transport to the death – I’ve relied on it for years – but even I have limits.

It’s a real shame, as literally the night before that incident, I had my BEST ever experience of Auckland transport yet: two trips in close succession, each requiring me to take two separate buses and transfer, but with hardly any wait time in between.

This time last year we were in: Paris, one of my favourite cities ever. I had a particularly strong burst of nostalgia yesterday standing in line at the French cafe next door to work …

This week’s links

Sarah Somewhere on finding peace

Michelle at FitnPoor calls quits on obsessing about her blog stats

Over at Musical Poem: How to spend 48 hours in Washington DC

Agreed on most counts! Things to know before embarking on a RTW trip, by Landing Standing

A rare gem on LinkedIn on the career myth that’s hurting millennials: “Happiness is fleeting, and cannot be achieved by finding that one catch-all job.”

Happy weekends!

The number one reason not to travel…

The one downside of travel is...

… You may become a gastronomic snob and forever struggle to fulfil your cravings at home.

We have a lot of great Asian cuisine in Auckland, but pickin’s are a bit slim on some of the other fronts.

I’ve ranted on here enough times about it; I won’t blather on about the nonexistent Mexican scene anymore. I do think we can do better on the North American front overall, though. Americana seems to be the latest fad, but having so recently been through the US I just can’t get excited about most of the new options here (to say nothing of the portion sizes).

But the biggest letdown I’ve had came a few weeks ago, when we bought ostensibly fresh burrata from the Parnell farmer’s market. Now, it was made locally, by genuine Italians, but it was so far off the mark compared to what we ate in Italy. Consider the difference between good and bad squid – lightly cooked vs rubbery and tough. This burrata was stringy and dryish – edible, but a pale imitation.

I don’t wish to move to Italy to live or anything, but by god do I miss the fresh foods and simple yet sublime farm meals we had there.

Communication: The hardest thing in the world

Communication- The hardest thing in the world

Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch at home, my mother told me that “if you want to study Communications, you better learn to communicate well”. I had honestly never considered myself a bad communicator – who does? – but from then on I became hyper sensitive in this regard.

Communication is one of those things that seems SO simple in theory, but is much harder to actually get right.

Over the past few months I’ve learned just how hard it is to do effective organisational communications properly – both on a company-wide scale and also at team level.

For me, it’s all about understanding. Getting the context and background; getting to grips with the why. Knowing where everybody is coming from and thus ensuring their concerns are addressed and their needs met. Otherwise, I reckon your chances of success are a lot lower.

While I’ve never been a manager – and have no desire to – I can understand why someone might feel compelled to micromanage. When you’re frustrated and not getting the results you need, I can see why your instinct might be to crack down.

Honestly, that has always been my MO relationship-wise. And unsurprisingly, it’s not always effective.

Even after almost a decade together, this was my brainwave on Friday morning on the bus to work last week. If I wouldn’t behave that way in a work context, why should I apply it to my partner?

Instead of snapping when I got home, I kept a lid on it. While I knew I would be justified in doing so, that didn’t mean it was the best way to get results. I approached things by asking, “What can I do to help you at this point?”

Magic. Of course, he knew I was doing as much I as I could. I didn’t even need to prompt the obvious next question - what did I need from him? He brought it up of his own accord, voicing all the things I needed to hear and that I had been thinking, without me forcing them on him. We both KNOW what I need, and he knows what he needs to do – and that he hasn’t been giving 100%.

Of course, I wish it hadn’t had to come to that. But no relationship is perfect, and I’m not going to pretend ours is.

The thing is, being in the right isn’t always enough. Going on the offensive will only lead to the other person getting defensive. As Dale Carnegie teaches, start by changing how you behave. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

My Scarlett O’Hara declaration

My Scarlett O'Hara declaration

“I’ll never be hungry again!”

Say what you want about Scarlett, but she was one determined lass who always came out on top.

In that vein, here is my commitment to myself:

One day, the sooner the better, I will live in my own house. I will never scrub mould from the ceiling or walls again. Never see my breath in front of my face while indoors. Never come across a mushroom growing through the carpet. Never come home in winter and cross the threshold to find it just as cold inside as outside. Never get into the car only to find it warmer than indoors.

The next couple of years will tell whether buying a house is a possibility. Depends what life decides to lob our way. (If there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s not being able to plan.)

If not, I’ll have to come up with a backup strategy … one that somehow incorporates renting a decent, healthy and reasonably modern property to live in and raise kids in – such properties are expensive and rare – while ramping up retirement savings way more at the same time to compensate for the lack of home ownership.

Not too far off impossible, then.

Link love (Powered by rainstorms and troubled sleep)

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Guys, it’s been a hard week. One of those weeks where I’ve retreated into myself and felt really alone – there’s nobody I want to talk to about it and I haven’t even wanted to write about it just yet.

At this stage, I think I’d rather be back in Italy among the sticky fig trees and blasted horse dung and cleaning the chicken coop and at the topless beach that wasn’t. Yep, even in the 30-40 degree heat (I’d never gotten so sweaty in my life) – though on the plus side Europe has a much stronger ozone layer, so I never got burnt like I would here at home.

This week’s links

The two golden rules to travelling while in debt, via Nomad Wallet

The Billfold on accepting financial assistance from your parents (I used to be super staunch about independence but life has beaten me down; I sure as well would accept help nowadays)

Cordelia Calls it Quits is quitting the entrepreneurial rat race

James Robinson on Medium muses about life in NZ vs the US

Thoughts on culture, race and identity, from My Name is Elizabeth

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: A manifesto for realists

cal-newport-boromir-passion

We all know that famous Steve Jobs speech from Stanford – the one where everyone seized on the palatable, soundbitable angle: Love your work. Don’t settle. 

As Cal Newport writes in the early pages of his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, our generation is rather obsessed with ‘following our passions’. But ironically, that’s not at all what Jobs actually did. Had he done that, Newport says, Jobs would probably have wound up as a teacher at the Los Altos Zen Center. Apple was the result of a lucky break, a small-time scheme that took off, albeit one that Jobs no doubt eventually became passionate about later.

What’s actually more important and more telling about that Stanford speech is what Jobs says about joining the dots in retrospect:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Having just finished the book, I’ve got a few thoughts to put into words. Bear with me!

The dark side of the ‘passion’ mindset

Chasing passion is often unrealistic and in many cases only leads to disappointment. Newport cites a few studies to back up this argument:

One surveyed a group of students and found the vast majority did not have passions that mapped to work/career paths – most were instead related to leisure or hobbies.

Another found that among employees who all held the same  administrative role with nearly identical duties, there was a fairly even split between those who saw their work as a job vs those who saw it as a career or even a calling – and those most likely to think of it as a calling were the ones with the most years on the job.

And yet another found that job satisfaction numbers have been trending downwards over time. “The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it,” he writes.

Give, and you shall receive?

What I took away from the book is that mastering your craft – which we should all aspire to – is its own kind of reward. Get so good that people can’t ignore you and will pay you accordingly … and job satisfaction follows.

It’s the same philosophy Newport has outlined on his blog; the book is his attempt to flesh this out with living examples and further depth.

It’s a pragmatic approach that no doubt most of us know deep down holds a lot of truth:

Focus on what you can offer the world, instead of what the world can offer you.

Derek Sivers, ostensibly a guy of many passions who’s done a bunch of different things, is one of the ‘masters’ in the book and is quoted thusly: “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules: Do what people are willing to pay for.

The law of financial viability, then, is one to bear in mind. I’ll never forget a conversation that went down in our dorm room in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Four of us were sitting around talking: me, T, a ditzy girl from Connecticut and an intense Southern guy who travelled all over the world organising and running races (marathons and ultras). We were discusing how he managed to scrape together a living doing this (he definitely wasn’t doing it for the money) and inevitably, the “passion” word came up.

“So, do what you love and the money will follow?” Ditzy Girl piped up eagerly, obviously waiting for a high five and rah-rah chirpy confirmation.

But rather than immediately jumping to affirm this, Running Guy paused.

“More like, do what you love and figure out a way to make money from it,” he said seriously.

The missing piece of the puzzle

The biggest thing I felt was missing from So Good They Can’t Ignore You was that vital first step. What do you do if you have NO idea what you want to do? (This is the ongoing problem in our household, specifically on T’s side.) How do you get started? Do you just try to get a foot in the door somewhere, assuming the basic elements are bearable – that there’s some room to grow, you don’t actively hate the industry, and you don’t hate the people – and stick with it, beavering away on the quest to achieve mastery and become a highly valuable professional?

One of Newport’s examples, Pardis Sabeti, touches on this: “I think you do need passion to be happy. It’s just that we don’t know what that passion is. If you ask someone, they’ll tell you what they think they’re passionate about, but they probably have it wrong.” From that, Newport concludes that it’s a “fool’s errand” to try figure out in advance what work will lead to that passion. Alas, that point isn’t taken any further.

Yes, he demonstrates that many of his example ‘masters’ took awhile to find their exact direction, but they generally started down the right sort of track early on; it was just a matter of honing in from there over time. It’s not super clear how they found that track to start with. Newport does acknowledge at one point that it’s very hard to start from the bottom in a new field, so if you’re genuinely floundering, maybe the key is simply finding a field that you can tolerably devote yourself to.

Finally, I don’t think that the ‘craftsman’ approach and the ‘passion’ approach are mutually exclusive. They can actually play in quite well together, which I don’t think Newport adequately acknowledges. Passion, or at least interest, was definitely an element for many – though not ALL – of the examples of happy ‘masters’ cited in the book. Take the screenwriter, the archaeologist, the geneticist. One does not complete a master’s/PhD without at least some interest in their subject! In an effort to draw clear lines and take a strong, controversial stance that sells books, passion gets thrown totally under the truck.

In closing: If you read his blog Study Hacks, you probably won’t glean much more meat from the book. He also gives a good overview in this 99U talk.

Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice from 99U on Vimeo.

Things I WON’T do to save money on travel

Camp

I don’t consider myself high maintenance, but I do have a minimum comfort level and camping does not meet it. I’m fine with hostels and seedy motels (“How do you always find the most ghetto places?!” T complained to me when we went wandering around east Berlin in search of our hostel) but I’m just not a tenting person. On a scale of 1 to Major Pain In The Ass, setting up and packing down tents rates just above scrubbing the toilet for me.

Hitchhike

First, the realities. I mainly travel with T, and nobody is going to stop to pick up someone who looks like him. I wouldn’t! Even our host in Munich, who’d been urging us to think about hitchhiking around Germany, demurred once we actually turned up and he met us in the flesh.

Even so, I don’t like uncertainty, and relying on passing cars to pick you up is about as uncertain as it gets in travel. (I remember waiting for ages one day for our Couchsurfing guests to arrive and wondering if they were going to turn up at all. Turned out they were at the mercy of hitching, and didn’t have a way to contact us to inform us.) Also not super keen on standing outside for potentially hours on end in any weather conditions to save some money.

Taking flights at crazy times

Super late flights may be a little cheaper, but that’s not the end of the story. There’s nothing worse than arriving  in a new city trying to find your way around in the dark! Public transport may not be running by the time you arrive, so you might have to take an expensive taxi, potentially negating any flight savings. In small establishments the front desk might close at 8pm. And it just screws up your schedule and body clock in general.



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Where do you draw your lines?

Link love (Powered by limbo and house envy)

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Like a lot of people my age, I’m not feeling particularly inspired by any of our political parties right now. Three years ago I didn’t care very much about voting – I barely remember who I voted for. Politics seemed so far removed from my life. What could the government possibly do for me?

Things are so different this year. With just a few weeks till the big day, I realised I’d been holding my breath for some amazing housing policy to come out from some direction . None really has.

Look, I don’t know what policy I want to see; I’m not an expert. (Do first home buyer subsidies work or do they actually backfire? Logically it seems to me they might work in the short term though probably not in the long run – but what do I know? What about a capital gains tax? Again, I’m certainly not qualified to say – I’m not sure if it would do anything to fix our crazy property market, but it does seem weird that we are so out of step with other countries on this by not having a capital gains tax.) All I know is there are sharper minds than mine out there and a big problem to solve: a growing population and not enough houses. Rentals are of disgraceful standards and rents are only increasing. Purchase prices are spiralling; mostly people already on the ladder, who can use their current equity, can buy.

This passage jumped out at me from a post I read this week:

As the world urbanizes, we need to start thinking about how to make cities better, not simply bigger. The primary goal of a city should not be to enrich already wealthy landlords and construction companies…  Urbanism should not be defined by the egos of planners, architects, politicians, or the über-rich but by what works best for the most people.

And with that, to the rest of the links…

A guide to investing in ETFs in New Zealand and Australia – thanks Save Spend Splurge!

Some tips from Landing Standing on recreating meals from your travels at home

Leslie on the difference between giving to/helping out a parent

The best way to be your own boss? Sell advice on how to be your own boss (hah) quoting 3 bloggers I follow – via The New Republic

Why I’ll never buy men’s clothing in NZ again

online shopping nz - buying clothes from the us
By: Images Money

Know what’s always been next to impossible to do here? Shop for clothes for my husband.

I swore the next time we needed to buy anything for him, we’d buy online from US sites, since we know they actually cater to his size.

Although a lot of retailers won’t ship to New Zealand, or charge an arm and a leg to do so, NZ Post has this service called YouShop that gets around this. Basically, you sign up for an account. You’ll then get a US address that you can tell retailers to ship your order to. That address is a giant NZ Post/YouShop warehouse. Once your package gets there, NZ Post/YouShop will notify you, and tell you exactly how much it will be to ship over to NZ (and repack the parcel if, say, it’s been lazily/wastefully packed).

Making use of this, I ordered a few things from Dickies and a few things from Target (with help from Sarah!). Here’s how it shook down, roughly:

  • 3 x Dickies pants, plus a bunch of packs of socks to get the order over the limit to qualify for free shipping within the US
  • 4 x T-shirts from Target – the corny kind T loves, eg Batman, Star Wars, Flash and Iron Man

Total: approx $NZ150 for the items, plus $70 for shipping = roughly $220 in total.

If we were to buy 3 pairs of Dickies in NZ, that alone would add up to about $210. They are about $70 a pop! On the US Dickies site, they are US$30 at full price (we got them on sale at a discount), or about $NZ35 – literally half the cost.

And that’s before accounting for shipping within NZ, either.

So for the price of 3 pairs of pants, we got a bunch of shirts and socks as well, delivered to our door.

You may not be perfect, America, but you sure do cater to people who need to buy stuff.