At the end of last year I set myself some broad areas of focus for 2016:
- Decide on doing a PhD
- Next project in sight
As the year unfolded, I set some more specific goals for each of these focus areas. Let's see what happened and how I did.
During my years of study (2009–2014) I'd gone through several years of low-paid or precarious jobs while also recovering from a failed business and resulting bankruptcy. During 2015 I enjoyed having well-paid employment at my skill level for possibly the first time ever. From this position of regained strength, at the end of last year I said 'I’d like to figure out my what my relationship with money is and start being more focussed about it'. Money has never been a primary motivator for me. However, all my primary motivators require money, and having experienced what it's like to have some money and what it's like to to have none, I can confidently say that having it is better. So in 2016 I've focussed on money as both a safety net and an enabler of things that I care about. Specifically, that looked like:
$100k household income
Having arrived at a position of relative strength in my life, I decided the first thing to do was to put a baseline on this. From now on, Doug and I together must have a family income of no less than $100k. Another way to think about this is 1-and-a-bit professional incomes. This is a floor, not a ceiling – $100k from 1-and-a-bit incomes is the baseline required to service the kind of lifestyle we want. I'm pleased to say we have achieved this with room to spare this year.
We're slightly ahead of where we wanted to be, with plenty of upside and room to grow.
Income is one thing, but what really matters is how much you spend and how much you save. This goal isn't about saving a particular sum or for a particular purpose, it's about making a decision to be someone who saves, and putting that thought into action. On the other hand, I don't want to be someone who sees everything through the lens of spending or saving money, or have to spend lots of time managing budgets and spreadsheets to track where my money is going. So when I started the year, this goal was also about finding a structure and set of categories for thinking about money. I gave it the name 'mojo' later after a friend made a helpful recommendation - more on that in a moment. Anyway, here's what I've done this year:
- used the Banktivity app to sync all the transactions from our accounts and categorise my income and spending at a high-level so I have a full picture of our money habits and financial position
- dominoed my debts to pay off a credit card and a few pesky small but long-standing debts
- consolidated remaining debts (more credit cards) into a personal loan with a lower interest rate with a 3-year term (earlier if I can)
- automatically transfer a percentage of income to a separate high-interest savings account called 'mojo' for emergencies and for the feel-good factor. This now has a few thousand in it.
- was able to help out a friend in financial need at a difficult time
Some poor earlier decisions meant I had more debt to clear than I would've liked (more on this in a moment too) and was only really able to implement this strategy from the middle of the year, but have made excellent progress since then.
Like 'mojo', this is more about an adjustment in attitude than anything else. I want to be someone who has investments. Once again, I also don't want to be someone who spends all their time thinking (or worse, talking!) about property or the stock market. But I do like the thought of having something ticking away accumulating value, and the idea of my money making the difference between a great idea that gets the funds to become reality and one that doesn't. I'm a little way off being able to do much about the latter point at the moment – first I need to improve my financial position considerably. But I wanted to put some runs on the board in 2016, so here's what I did:
- Opened a trading account and saved up $2000 to put in it (separate to the mojo funds)
- Bought shares in a listed investment company with low management fees with the intent of holding these for a long time (i.e. 10 years+)
- Enrolled in a dividend reinvestment plan that will see the twice-yearly dividend from my stock fully invested into buying more shares, at a slight discount and with no brokerage fees.
- Automatically transfer a sliver of income to the trading account each fortnight to buy more shares at an opportune moment and the market crashes (2016 has afforded plenty of those opportunities!) It's a tiny, token amount at this stage, but it's the habit that counts. I'll increase the amount once my remaining debt is paid off.
Runs on the board, as intended. Slight marks off because, as it turned out, despite my research I bought the initial shares at a high point (just before the mid-year dividend, after which they dropped off again).
Having a will to change your situation is one thing. Having a framework in which to do so and developing the good habits to actually bring about that change consistently is quite another. I'd never given money much thought previously (except for how to spend it) and I really didn't have any kind of structure for dealing with it, so making a conscious effort to develop and maintain good habits was actually really hard for me, even with good intentions and considerable willpower. But I knew I didn't ever again want to be in the kind of vulnerable situation I've been in before due to poor financial judgment, so nailing this was a must for me.
The most important thing here was to find categories of thought and action that matched my personality and situation, and that's where I am most grateful for my friend's recommendation, because without it I would likely still be fumbling around in the dark. She pointed me at the Barefoot Investor, and in particular a way of thinking about money that you can draw on the back of a serviette. Essentially, your income is a tap that drips into three buckets: Blow, Mojo and Grow. Your Blow bucket has a hole in it - everything you put in there drains out. Your Mojo bucket is your savings, for emergencies and for the confidence you get from knowing you have money sitting in the bank should you need it (do not underestimate the effect of this!). Your Grow bucket is what you put aside to build wealth and improve your financial position. Spend a bit of time figuring out the right percentages that work for you given all the details of your situation, set it all up automatically and then forget about it, except for a conversation once a month to discuss how it's all going and make a few tweaks. It sounds simple (because it is), and it works. So thanks, friend! You know who you are. There's a lot else that goes with this - Barefoot is really more about having a mindset about money - but setting up the buckets and spending more consciously is at the heart of it.
As part of putting all this into place, in the middle of the year we moved out of our expensive rental apartment and back in with my parents to take the pressure off while we rejigged the finances. I've also spent a lot of time (more than I'd care to) doing bank reconciliations, analysing my finances, reading product disclosure statements, researching banks, stocks and superannuation and setting up and closing various accounts. I also still maintain a single credit card with a very low limit through which we do all our daily spending and which I pay off in full every month so I have never paid a single cent of interest on it. This allows us to rack up Velocity points that have paid for a few free flights this year, which are important to our lifestyle.
This has been hard work, and there have been a few slip ups. It was stupid to move into an expensive inner-urban apartment that we couldn't really afford, and then fund that decision with credit card debt. We still eat out and travel more than we need to (I would spend all my money on travel and food if left to my own devices, and often have). On the other hand, I've put a lot of effort into being more conscious about money and the framework in which I manage it. As a result, I've not only been able to repair most of the damage of my stupid decisions, but have also been able to put away some savings and buy some stocks. Oh, and Doug and I are about to go to Europe for a month's holiday. So not too shabby, all things considered. The trick will be to maintain momentum on these good habits in 2017.
Overall Finance Grade: A
In 2015 I made it a key goal to make fitness a part of my life in some meaningful way and vowed to take some bigger strides down that road this year that probably looked like:
- improving my physique
- taking up a sport
- spending more time active and outdoors.
In many respects, fitness for me is a lot like finance – not something I've ever given much thought or attention to, nor had any kind of framework for dealing with. And look, let's be frank, I haven't made anywhere near like as much progress on the fitness front this year as I would've liked. And I think this is mostly because it is similar to finance for me. Building good financial and fitness habits are both big changes of the same kind for me, and I simply took on too much in trying to nail both of them in one go. Once this became clear, I readjusted my fitness goals somewhat so that I could still make some meaningful (though modest) progress in 2016 and set up a good foundation for 2017. Let's see what happened and how I did.
Private Health Insurance
In hindsight, this is really a financial goal, and perhaps that is why I had no trouble knocking this one off this year. Despite all my ranty thoughts about the healthcare system and the dubious value of private health insurance, both Doug and I are now of an age and an income bracket in which it is more costly not to have it. So, we got it. Because I have a stockpile of minor medical complaints I've been avoiding dealing with for a while, I got extras cover as well and set about going down the list.
Not too much more to say about this one.
Teeth and Feet
I had some long-standing dental work that needed doing – various fillings and finding out whether or not it was possible to save my molars, which have all been deteriorating for years due to an epigenetic issue. I had one extracted in 2011 and feared I might lose the others too, but as it turned out they could be saved with some major fillings.
I also have dodgy feet that pronate a lot and are very flat. This (along with being overweight and having poor upper body strength) has long caused me back and shoulder pain, so I went a few rounds with the podiatrist and ended up with clinical orthotics which help a lot (and now, uncomfortably, I know exactly how much pain is down to being overweight and out of condition).
As part of doing something about my teeth and feet this year, I also overcame a lot of fear and anxiety about medical matters and dealing with health professionals (though I still need to lie down for a blood test lest I pass out). This is not a small thing.
In 2016 I resolved to spend more time outdoors in an effort to make fitness not just another kind of work to do but part of an enjoyable and healthy lifestyle overall. I envisaged this would probably look like going for walks and to the beach more often, taking up cycling and learning a sport – probably tennis.
This went ok, but not great. I have indeed gotten in the habit of going to the beach for a swim each and having a nominal walk of a few kms each week, which has been good. But it’s been patchier than I’d like. In October I did indeed get a bike, with the aim of riding to work, but as yet this hasn’t happened and I’ve mostly limited myself to an erratic schedule of going out for a brief ride around the blocks at the weekend. It’s worth mentioning that I was never really a cyclist as a kid (I only learned to ride a bike when I was 12) so there is a large confidence and skill gap to traverse, which requires reserves of persistence and attention that I have already expended on traversing confidence and skill gaps elsewhere this year. I do actually enjoy riding the bike tremendously however, so I feel good about the chances of this one firing next year. As for tennis, that was a complete blowout. No progress there whatsoever.
Just passable. Enough of a glimpse of what this looks like to have something to build on next year, but nowhere near where I had hoped to be.
Physique and body confidence
In hindsight, this is not specific enough for a goal – more of a vague gesture towards a desire. As a result, this is the only one that’s an out and out fail this year.
I certainly have a physique – it’s like a promising patch of garden that’s been left untended for 30 years. There are two problems: I have zero strength and I’m overweight. These require different approaches, but I’ve dropped the ball on both counts this year. For a while I was in the habit of doing bodyweight workouts that were delivering some small but noticeable strength gains, but the routine was disrupted by frequent travel and the habit didn’t survive those interruptions. As for weight, I’ve actually put on kgs this year. I’m putting this down to not having enough control over my diet. This is not so surprising as I don’t cook, so what I eat is determined either directly or indirectly by what and who’s around. My diet itself is ok, I just eat way too much. So, this will need an attitude adjustment in 2017 if I’m going to change anything. As for the strength routine, that was working well, I just need to give it a higher priority next year and all should be ok.
Body confidence is a funny thing. I’m tall, blond and know I scrub up ok, but confidence is about the way you carry yourself and I’ve never really felt like I inhabit my body – more like my body was a meaty vehicle for transporting my mind and personality. This is a silly kind of dualism that I talked myself out of a couple of years ago, but haven’t found a way as yet to really live in my body. My friends are fit folk by and large, so I pay close attention to what they do, but have been mostly baffled by where to start – they seem to already have something that I don’t. Of particular inspiration however has been one friend even more bookish and nerdy than me (gasp!), who has resolved to be more physical, has taken up walking and riding and crossfit and is positively glowing as a result. It's impressive, and if he can do it, so can I.
And while fitness may have been a blowout this year, there is one respect in which I have considerably more body confidence – my wardrobe. I dress better these days and it makes me feel good and carry myself better – now I just need a better frame for my threads to hang off.
Not enough specificity and too much wishful thinking. This one needs to be reworked and put higher on next year’s list.
Overall Fitness Grade: C-
2015 was a good year. A lot of long term efforts had come into fruition and I found myself in the best overall position I’d ever been. So at the end of last year I resolved to make an effort to savour that, while also acknowledging that ‘all the best stuff I do comes about when I manage to reach and draw from a deep inner calm. So I focus on keeping my zen and whatever creativity springs from that takes care of itself.’
Travel – or rather, a changing environment – is super important for me. It allows me to spend some time away from the everyday and reflect upon familiar situations from a distance. It’s also good for the imagination – travel reminds me that things can be otherwise than they are, and loosens the hold on what seems fixed and certain. I have all my best ideas either when I’m in the shower or as a result of travelling.
These days I can afford to fly relatively easily and take every opportunity to rack up Velocity points, so I make good use of Coolangatta airport. I’ve been to Canberra and Melbourne for work, to Melbourne and Sydney a couple times to see friends and to Perth on a whim to visit an empathy museum as part of the international arts festival. We’ve also spent a long weekend with friends at Noosa and had a couple of cheeky weekends away in Northern NSW. And on Christmas Day we fly out to Europe for a month, where I will have the pleasure of showing Doug around Prague, Berlin, Paris and London for the first time (Paris first time for me too!). All in all, it’s been a good year for travel, and for better or worse I have come to grow used to my gold frequent flyer status.
I am very conscious of the value of my time, and most of the things I make a commitment to therefore are calculated to have both intrinsic worth (because make the most of every moment) and to also further some other goal at the same time wherever possible (because try to do as much as I can with what I’ve been given). As a result, sometimes I have to be gently reminded to do some things just for the fun of it.
Hobbies include playing music, playing games, learning German, making up stories and systems, wandering about random places with no particular purpose, and the accumulation of absurd amounts of public transport knowledge.
Music has been the big winner this year. I made the wise decision to buy a good digital piano a couple years back which rekindled my joy of playing music and has given me a creative and emotional outlet. I don’t sight-read, so I rely on (often badly transcribed) chord charts and feel. I have a love of jazz and improvisation, so lately I have been trying to improve my knowledge of more complex chord structures and sequences. As a result, sixths, sevenths, ninths, pedal chords and diminisheds are now all part of my everyday vocabulary. I’ve also begun to experiment with more sophisticated chord voicings that cross both hands – normally I pedal with the left and put all the heavy lifting on the right. Apart from a few lessons when I was a kid (that I mostly didn’t care for, except for three lessons with a jazz teacher) I am self-taught, with all the bad habits that entails. I almost certainly need some help to progress further than where I’m at, which I’d like to do. But I’m having a great deal of fun. It’d be nice to play with some other folk and experiment with piano as an accompaniment rather than a solo instrument.
I’ve also been re-reading the Discworld series from the beginning and enjoying reconnecting with another mind that enjoys making up stories and systems. Oh Terry, how we miss you.
Games have also been good this year. Without a proper gaming rig I’ve resorted to playing low-key indie titles on my computer, many of which are favourites anyhow – I’m looking at you Mini Metro, Kingdom, Shellshock Live and Evoland 2. I’ve also been quietly amassing a selection of board games and have spent several enjoyable afternoons playing Munchkin and Camel Cup with friends.
German has taken a bit of a backseat this year as it’s not easy to find classes on the Gold Coast and Duolingo is good to practice with but not especially fun on its own. That one will have to wait until I move again.
Like me, my friends mostly lead full lives, live in different cities and tend to eschew mainstream social media, so keeping in touch requires that we make an effort. Most of the usual suspects are on a group Slack channel which we natter on day-to-day, which has been an incredibly great way to stay connected for which I am very grateful. Trips to aforementioned different cities every few months for face-to-face catchups has also been great, and as many of my friends are also travel bugs it’s been great to catch up in different places throughout the year as just part of normal life. This is a lifestyle I enjoy very much and hope it will continue.
Talking on the phone remains my least favourite mode of communication, slightly below semaphore and morse code, so regrettably it has been harder to keep in touch with friends for whom asynchronous text chat and face-to-face catchups are not practical.
Outside of work, I’ve not really made any new friends on the Gold Coast since I’ve been back, which I think is a bit telling. And I do miss serendipitous face-to-face catchups with my close friends especially. But it’s good to know that being in a different place has been no barrier to close and meaningful friendships.
Overall Fun Grade: A
Decide on PhD
I have been toying with idea of doing a PhD for a couple of years now. In 2016 I wanted to know for sure if the answer was a firm Yes, No or Not Yet. And if Yes, then who and what the supervisors, institution and topic would be. And if No, then why not and what next instead. And if Not Yet, then why and what next.
To spare anyone the suspense, the answer is a firm No. As I write this, I am so comfortable and familiar with this answer that it’s actually quite hard to think back to the start of the year or even a couple of months ago and remember what it was like when everything was still in play. The simple truth of the matter is, although a PhD is certainly an option for me, after careful consideration, it’s not my only option or my best option.
I do mean careful consideration though. In the past two years I have:
- Spoken to dozens of people who have done or are doing their PhD about their experience
- Met with half a dozen potential supervisors in Australia and the UK to discuss topics and research questions
- Written outlines and proposals for three different thesis ideas
- Thoroughly investigated the policy, funding and regulatory environment and possibilities for doing a PhD in Australia, the UK, Europe or some combination of all three.
Needless to say, working as a policy and data analyst in the graduate research area of a university has also helped offer a unique perspective.
A PhD is not a decision you take lightly – it’s a career move. It's not enough to want what I call a vanity PhD – 'oh I just think it would be nice to have' – there's too much work and sweat and sacrifice involved. There’s the intellectual side – what problem and area of study do you want to situate yourself in and how will you approach it. And there’s the pragmatic side – where will you do it, how will you pay the bills, who will you get to supervise and examine and how will all of this help your career.
In the end, the prospect of doing a PhD failed on both hurdles. There are many and detailed reasons for this, but it boils down to a few important realisations I have made:
- The chief purpose of a PhD today is to have the minimum credentials necessary to start an academic career. Having seen it up close, I am certain I don’t want one of those.
- No matter how I try, I can’t make the numbers add up. I’m simply not willing to make the financial and lifestyle sacrifices necessary to endure the years of doing a PhD. Brexit was the final nail in the coffin.
- As an intellectual exercise, a PhD is not a way I would freely choose to work through my thinking on an interesting topic. It requires a structure and a mindset that I have little interest in adopting – I think there are better ways to explore my ideas.
- I can swim just fine in the intellectual pond already and I don’t need a PhD to do that. I already have friends and connections in that world who I can have conversations and collaborations with, and that’s all I really wanted to begin with – I am better off standing outside and reaching in than standing inside and reaching out.
Coming to these realisations has given me a deep sense of freedom and relief, and completes an arc that began back in 2008 after my business went broke and so did I. School had always been difficult for me (much like how a black hole is difficult for light) – I never finished high school and had already dropped out of uni a couple of times by then. But I knew I was going to have to get through university if I was to repair my life and give myself a shot. So in 2009 I moved to Melbourne and started a new degree in social science and public policy. For the most part it was exactly the deadening and dreadful experience I feared it would be, but with a bit of luck I made a professor friend who, despite the university’s best efforts, was able to give me an education. Even having resolved to finish it no matter what, I’m not sure I could’ve made it through without that lifeline. In fact, I barely did even so. But I’ve done my tour of duty now. I got what I needed, I showed what I’ve got and now I have nothing to prove. Time to get off the academic treadmill and tread my own path again.
Overall Decide on PhD Grade: B
Only because it took as long as it did for my head to arrive where my heart had already been waiting for a long time.
Next Project in Sight
At the end of last year I said I’d like to figure out what my next project looks like, or at least catch a glimpse of it that can inform the actions I take next:
‘Will the PhD come next? Possibly… probably, even. Or not. The field is wide open at this point. By the end of 2016, it would nice to narrow it and try out making my first all-grown-up big-boy phased transition from one thing to another, without a death-defying leap in between.’
So how’d I do on this one? I ruled out the PhD, but did anything get ruled in instead?
I have kicked some major goals at work this year. With some freedom and support from my boss, I stepped up to lead the project to overhaul and migrate the university’s research systems to a new platform. Given our size and resources, I’ve been a bit Eddie Everywhere about it, doing everything from project management, contract negotiations, business process analysis and training to being right down in the weeds doing data handling, system admin and configuration, building forms and workflows and designing HTML email notifications. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been the public face of the project and the glue that has somehow held it all together. And let me tell you, sometimes the glue is all that has held it together. And, with (and sometimes despite) a lot of help… it’s worked. We’ve put two new enterprise systems in production this year, end-to-end. Not too shabby.
So that has been fun, and of course there is still a lot to do. As far as my job goes, there are a number of ways to go from here and I’ll be considering all my options after returning from a much-needed holiday.
A job is one thing, but I’ve also looking for a new, larger arc to push myself into now that the previous story of the last seven or eight years has come to a natural rest. And I think I’ve had a glimpse of that. It looks like something entrepreneurial that combines my long-abiding interests in technology, education and society. I have lots of ideas about this, but for now they’re just ideas and although they are fun to think about and unpack, I’m wary of committing seriously to any of them just yet. I suppose what my previous failed adventure in business and my subsequent years of study and recovery have really taught me are the virtues of caution, patience and the pace of making big changes in small steps. So now I guess what I want to do is embark on something radical and ambitious… carefully. And I think I know how to do that.
Overall Next Project in Sight Grade: A
Totally crushed this one. When I look back in a few years time, I’m fairly certain the combination of the job, the PhD and rekindling of entrepreneurial spirit in 2016 will stand out as one of those decisive turning points in life.
2016 has changed the landscape in many ways, for better or worse. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the decisive kicking away of the slumped corpse of neoliberalism as the dominant socio-political system of ideas that they both represent, are events of world-historical significance that will resonate for decades to come. It hit home to me in a big way this year that I know as much about what is happening as anybody, which is to say, not all that much. And it has been eerie to watch exactly the phenomenon I wrote and warned about in my honours thesis come to pass much quicker than I expected. The takeaway – there’s no elders or heroes out there who’ve got this or are taking care of it. If we want to see a better world built on more hopeful ideas, it’s up to people like us to make the difference. Heavy.
Around March I started an online course through Michigan State Uni called Introduction to Game Design and Development. As technologies of empathy, games have the potential to combine my interests in technology, education and society in ways no other medium can match. So I decided I’d have a go at making a game to see what’s involved and to see if I could. I’ve been picking away at the course throughout the year and have nearly finished it – the last ‘capstone’ step is to actually build and publish your game on Kongregate. As I’ve gone along I’ve become quite attached to my game, especially once the character art was finished. So while I initially intended to wrap it all up this year and get it out the door, I’ve decided to spend a little longer on it to get it more polished. I’d definitely like to do something more with games in future and I have some ideas about that, but nothing that’s ready to share as yet.
This is a habit and a hobby so ingrained that I don’t have to worry about trying to make time for it – it just happens. I’ve read a lot of fiction this year, which has been a nice change. The single best fiction I’ve read this year is probably Anna Funder’s All That I Am – a real page-turner that packs a wallop. Great stuff. Best non-fiction is Bonnie Honig’s Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, which puts some words around a thought I’ve been trying to grasp for some years. It’s also responsible for the phrase ‘public things’ and a framework of thought that informs it – I’m fairly sure you’ll hear a lot more from me on that point next year.
Overall Grade for 2016 Goals: A
All things considered, 2016 has been a cracker and a game-changer for me in many ways. The present is great and the future seems full of options and possibilities. Thanks to all the people who’ve had a hand in this – the fact that I know of many people for whom options and possibilities has not been the story this year only makes me feel more grateful for what I have and more resolved to make the most of it.