January 3, 2021

2020 In Review: A Surprisingly Good Year

published by Bren

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Hey, it’s me.

I know, it’s been a while since I wrote here!

It’s not that I’ve disappeared, it’s just the things I’ve been working on this year weren’t really conducive to blogging. Since travel has been off, I’ve been working on other areas of my life that have been neglected for the past, well, 10 years. And it’s also been an opportune time to take a long blogging vacation.

But now we’ve welcomed in 2021, I’d like to continue with tradition and take a look back on the year.

For me personally it was actually a decent year, considering everything that happened. Of course I spent a good amount in hard lockdown (locked in the house) and soft lockdown (locked in the country) but since New Zealand handled the situation reasonably well, life went back to normal within a few months.

With most of the world’s borders closed, I finally was forced to stay put and work on building the online empire I’ve had planned for years, something I’ve never had the chance to work full time on. The year also brought a few highlights – I got to see three friends get married, and trained and completed two big races, adding a couple more medals to the collection.

Here’s a look back on everything 2020 brought:

Japan

Pre-corona the year started reasonably normally. January already had me on the road, where I headed to Yokohama for a week to attend my friend’s wedding.

I know Japan reasonably well, but this trip was kind of different as I was in the middle of Ironman training at the time. That meant instead of just noodles and shopping my trip was all about squeezing in runs in the mornings and nights.

One thing that was cool about Yokohama is it’s actually a very fit city, and even in the freezing cold mornings there were people out jogging and cycling all around the city.

Also my skin is still making its way through the healing process for TSW, and the winter is particularly bad for my skin so that made the trip a little more challenging. Everything worked out fine in the end. Japan’s not my favourite country, but it’s always a pleasure to visit.

It was while in Japan that we first started to hear about corona as well, as it had just started moving out of China into the rest of Asia while I was there. However, it just seemed like another SARS 2.0 and none of us were really too worried about it. It was actually the passing of Kobe Bryant that affected me a lot at the time. I wrote about those few days in my blog post Running Yokohama: The Day Kobe Died.

Ironman New Zealand

Once I returned to New Zealand my whole life became about Ironman. Wake up, train, eat, sleep. Literally!

One thing that caught me a bit off guard about this race was the amount of studying I had to do as well. After training 4-6 hours a day, I spent most of my evenings on Youtube going through swimming or biking tutorials, or reading running books. There was so much to learn, it overwhelmed me at times, but that’s also what I loved about it too.

At the time I signed up for the race, it was only 3 months out. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible to do an Ironman on 3 months training. But when race week finally arrived in March, I was so prepared, I had never worked harder for anything in my life. Literally my entire life had just become Ironman from morning until night. I look back on it now, and I also remember it as three of the best months of my life.

Strange, since I’m not really a big fan of running, or biking, or swimming, but somehow, I loved every second.

Luckily, race day turned out to be a perfect day. Low winds, sunshine all day, not one drop of rain. I swam faster than I expected, biked a little slower, ran the marathon right on time.

It was an emotional race. After the 2019 I had, the last place I expected to be one year later was in the NZ Ironman. Even now, nearly a year later, I still think about that day every day.

You can read a full race recap in my blog post The Day I Became An Ironman.

Quarantine Challenges

Just a couple of weeks after Ironman finished, New Zealand went into lockdown.

To be honest I wasn’t too sad about it, I was just super relieved we’d raced Ironman in time. Had the race been cancelled after all that work, it would’ve really crushed me. Surely my streak of bad luck can’t be that bad.

Then of course the seriousness of the situation became apparent and New Zealand quickly went into Level 4, which meant we could barely leave the house.

To stay productive, I started my Quarantine Challenge series, which included doing 1,000 pull ups in a week, racing a virtual half Ironman, doing a 5 day fast, reading 7 books in 7 days, and writing a novel in 4 weeks.

Quite a few readers got in touch and told me they’d started taking on the challenges too, especially the reading and writing ones, and quite a few people were taking up running too.

Always love to hear you guys are getting after it too!

Starting @moneybren

When corona started, one thing that started needing a lot of my time was the sharemarket. I’ve actively managed a stock portfolio since my accounting days, which is around 12 years now (sheesh).

Since I’ve had nothing travel related to post, I started posting a few investing tips on my Instagram just to stay engaged. That was pretty fun, so I started a public share portfolio – just something simple to give people a demo of how to start building their own portfolios from scratch.

It started by challenging everyone to save $20 each weekend – and putting it towards a stock portfolio instead.

Then we started looking for ways to accelerate.

$20 per week is great, and if you can do that consistently during your working years, you’ll have a solid nest egg to retire on. But I wanted to see if we could grow faster.

As well as saving $20 each weekend, I spent the weekends experimenting with different side hustles, with all the profits going straight into the portfolio. I tried decluttering, matched betting, flipping, surveys, selling courses, plus some other miscellaneous stuff.

I documented everything on a new Instagram page called @moneybren so I could share everything in detail – all the successes, failures, stock picks, and different investing strategies for the portfolios.

Over the five months that followed, the portfolio ended up taking on a life of its own. It’s now at just under $22,000, and still going strong. The plan was to write a big update when we got to five figures, so I’ll write up a detailed article of everything we’ve done in the next few weeks.

Until then, you can follow the progress on the @moneybren Instagram feed.

Auckland Marathon

When I received the email invite for Auckland Marathon this year, my first thought was no way.

You might remember, when I ran this race last year it was my first marathon, and was a special moment for me for reasons that had nothing to do with running.

Also after already doing Ironman in March, I had no interest in going back into training for another big race.

Then it kind of ate away in the back of my head for a few weeks, and I thought maybe I should do it after all. It wasn’t like I had any big trips to take, and I figured going into training might be good for my skin, as my exercise was getting lighter and lighter as I was working a lot.

I finally signed up 13 weeks out and it was straight back into training camp. I was a much better athlete than I was the first time around, so my training was lighter and smarter, though a lot less disciplined too.

The goal was to run sub 4 hours (4:37 was my 2019 time). I got to race day maybe 20% undertrained, but confident I could do it if I ran smart in the first half and had a good beast-mode in the last 10km.

Unfortunately it wasn’t my day, a few rookie mistakes (which is fine, I’m still a rookie!) and the race got away from me in the last 6 or 7 kilometres. I crossed in 4:08. Overall, great race, learned lots, I’m sure I’ll get em next time!

You can read a short race recap on Instagram here.

Another fast!

I finished the year with another long fast, which is becoming tradition for me in recent years. It always feels like the right way to end the year so I can start the year with a fresh mind and fresh body.

Each fast is always different, you might remember I started with juice fasts several years ago, but this year I did 10 days of water fasting, and then 5 days of fasting on raw milk.

The raw milk fast is something I heard about a couple of years ago and always wanted to try, though never really had the chance.

I knew it would have to be in New Zealand, as we have a pretty well regulated raw milk industry and the chances of, well, “complications” would be a lot slimmer than elsewhere (I’ve had raw milk in a few villages around the world, it’s delicious, but not the most hygienic food usually).

I got myself 15 litres of raw milk from Bakewell Creamery – a little farm an hour out of Auckland. The first two days was a little tough on the stomach, but after that I actually felt amazing. All the clarity and lightness from a regular fast, but without the hunger. I could’ve gone 30 days easily. Did wonders for my skin too.

Blogging

While I still love this blog with my heart and soul, I just didn’t feel compelled to write much on it as the year went on. This blog survived mostly on travel related content (and income) and since travel is currently dead, there wasn’t much for me to tell.

One thing I did was a full redesign on my own, which I’ve never done before. I’ve always hired a dev to do my designs for me, but website tech has come a long way since I started this site. Now for about $100 I can get all the tools I need to custom design the site on my own!

I wrote about the new design and how I did it in my post Redesigning Bren On The Road.

Also, this year brought one of my most popular posts in recent years, which was the update on Couchsurfing. As I’m sure you all know (since I’ve promoted it to death) I have been a tireless ambassador of Couchsurfing throughout my travels, and some of my closest friends have come from that community.

However, Couchsurfing is now owned by private equity, and mid way through the year they made some big changes to the site (including charging people to surf and host).

To be honest, most of us had seen this coming several years back, but this was the year Couchsurfing and I finally broke up. I wrote about the changes, and some history for context, in my post Is This Finally The Death Of Couchsurfing? (And What’s Next?)

I also did write one travel story to add to my collection early in the year, which was Love Cape Town. I think it’s one of my favourites so far. Not only was it a special time in my life, it was my final trip before my life got turned upside down.

Niche sites

I’ve been working part time on niche sites alongside my blogging for the last several years, but never really had the opportunity to give any real attention to it. It was also something I wished I had more time to do, because I had so many ideas but backpacker life always got in the way.

Let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter how good your ideas are – if you’re in Thailand and it’s a Thursday night what are you going to do – stay home and brainstorm keywords, or go to the market and eat endless bowls of delicious noodles?!?

Well, corona finally took away that second choice, so I was able to finally spend all day and all night building sites from the ground up. I purchased two existing sites, and started building two new sites, and also revived one site that had been stagnant for a while. I also hired three writing assistants and a Pinterest assistant (my friend Kirsten from Sand in my Curls) and it was all engines go from there.

These now make me a pretty good income and keep me busy – another bonus is I no longer need to rely on Bren On The Road for income, it can go back to just being where I blog for fun. Exactly how I’ve always wanted it!

I’ve written about my process for building profitable sites in my guide How To Build A Micro Niche site. I’m not longer building micro niche sites and now focus on large niche and authority sites, but the process is mostly the same.

Writing

I did a lot of writing offline in 2020 – the novel from the quarantine challenge, plus other book drafts.

I’m not going to share much more or make any announcements, because that just seems to jinx things every time I do it. I’ll just say I’ve now finished drafts of three books! (and published zero…)

Anyway, I’m working on it…

Reading

I read some great books in 2020.

There were a few classics that I really loved, including The World Of Suzy Wong and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Another that surprised me was The Forty Rules of Love, written by a Turkish author which is apparently super famous though I’d never heard of it.

For money books, I read The Millionaire Next Door, which I think should be mandatory reading for everyone by age 18! I also read Money by Tony Robbins, which should be mandatory reading for everyone by the time they get their first job.

Lifespan was an amazing introduction into the world of anti-aging by Harvard geneticist David Sinclair. Not only did it illustrate real experiments and findings, it had a lot of practical recommendations too.

Memoir is my favourite form of writing, and Matthew McConaughey’s new memoir Greenlights was the most entertaining I’ve read in a long time. His travel stories alone were worth the price.

But my favourite book of the year was Friday Night Lights. It’s been on my reading list for years, I loved the movie and the TV show immensely. The book turned out to better than both.

I keep a full list of everything I read on my Books I’m Reading page.

What’s the plan for 2021?

There is no plan right now. I’d actually be quite comfortable travelling today, but the reason I won’t be is NZ’s borders remain closed with very limited quarantine spots. That means I’d have a lot of trouble returning home if I ever needed to. So for now I’ll be staying here and getting work done. Between writing, sites, @moneybren and staying healthy, there’s a lot here to keep me busy. Maybe I’ll get some NZ travel in too.

Of course I miss the road, but I also think this break from travel has been really good, for us travellers and for the world too. Once we all get through this, I’m sure I’ll be one of the first back out there.

I’ll also do my best to blog more in 2021. Promise!

Happy new year and let’s all crush it this year.

B

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  1. When you're comfortable, (and if our neighbours to the south ever get their shit together), there are so many Canadian couches that would welcome you! Just let us know! 🙂

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