What a year. It’s been great for some people, disastrous for others, and overall I’ve been very lucky. So what went well, and what went badly? I’ve had a look at the most important decisions I’ve made that have affected how I’ve managed to stay afloat, and they boil down to getting rid of debt, starting the podcast, starting teaching online, and looking after my health. Let's start with the money.
About seven years ago, when I turned 40, I realised in my bones that I wouldn’t be able to make a living teaching in person forever. Sooner or later my body would fail, and my income was entirely dependent on my showing up and teaching classes, so poor health would be accompanied by destitution. Not a good combo. My approach to the problem was quite simple:
1. Create scalable assets. In other words, things that I could make once, and sell many times, such as books, and eventually online courses (the first of which went live in July 2016). This ensures that I have some passive income.
2. Reduce debt as far as possible. At the time I had mortgages out on both my apartment and my salle. I have always paid them off a bit faster than the bank required, and I took every opportunity to reduce the load. For example, consolidating several smaller mortgages into one with a lower interest rate. And stopping repayments on the ones with the lowest rates, putting all the repayment money into the one with the highest interest rate, so paying that off faster. The bank employee was startled by my proposal, as she’d never seen it before, but she couldn’t argue with the maths!
3. Find ways to live a full life on a low income. That’s actually not hard. Most of the things many people seem to think are essential expenses simply are not.
By 2016 there was enough money coming in from my books and from renting the salle to the Helsinki branch of my school that I was no longer dependent on teaching in person to make ends meet. It took about five years to get there. And by 2019, I had sold the apartment in Helsinki, paid off all the mortgages, and we were debt-free. Hallelujah. I cannot overstate what a relief it is to not owe money to anyone. I’d had mortgages of one sort or another for twenty years by the time the last was paid off.
So my main sources of income going in to 2020 were:
1) Online course sales
2) Book sales
3) Rent on the Salle
4) Teaching in person
The coronavirus killed #4: I haven’t done an in-person seminar since 2019. But, I have managed to create a trickle of income from teaching online classes, such as the Meditation Course in June, my morning Trainalongs, and some short seminars at the weekends. So far it’s brought in about a third of what I’d normally make from my travels.
Rent on the Salle: no classes= no income for the Association that rents it, so I dropped the rent in April down to just covering the service charges on the building. Thank the goddess I paid off the mortgage last year. So far I’m down about €13,000 in lost income. That’s very much not a trivial sum, but we can get by like this for as long as necessary. I will not let the virus kill my Salle.
Book sales have been ok; I’ve had to spend more money than I’d like on advertising, but overall it’s about the same as 2019.
Online course sales have saved us. By serendipity alone, I happened to create an online course on Solo Training last year, which happened to be exactly what a lot of sword people needed this year. A strong candidate for my best idea all 2020 was to drop the price by 96% to $20. I did not expect hundreds of people to take me up on the offer, but they did, which meant that I didn’t have any immediate money worries. The relaunch with extra content in September also went pretty well. About 5% of the new students on the course took me up on the offer to get in for free. This cost me nothing: they weren’t going to buy it at any price, because they had no spare money. But this way they get to train, and that will help keep them mentally and physically healthy, which improves their chances to get back on their financial feet, at which point they might buy something.
The net effect is that financially we are about even. Down a bit, perhaps, but with no debts to service that’s liveable. Making the decision to prepare for being unable to teach due to ill health fortuitously also worked when I was unable to teach because of other people’s ill health. Financial security is a massively reassuring. I’d be remiss not to mention Joanna Penn here, because I’ve learned a lot from her about how to create and sell scalable assets. Here’s a blog post I wrote about it, years ago: Things I’ve achieved thanks to Joanna Penn.
I’ve also found the Mr Money Mustache blog helpful. I don’t go to those extremes, but his core idea of creating passive income that covers your living costs, and working both ends of that equation (increasing passive income and reducing living costs) has been really useful.
The Sword Guy podcast
Another strong candidate for best idea of 2020 has been starting my podcast. I’m not exactly sure how that came about, but one day I found myself having signed up to the necessary services (I’m using podbean.com for hosting, and doing most of my recordings over zencastr.com), and getting it done. I decided not to launch until I had six episodes in the bag. We’re now at episode 25, so nearly 6 months of weekly shows, and I’ve got the next 13 recorded already.
By November I was getting thoroughly overwhelmed by the relentlessness of a weekly schedule (I totally understand why many shows stop after a few erratic months!), so I hired an assistant to take up the administrative slack. Katie has been a godsend, creating the transcriptions, uploading everything, writing the shownotes, and generally making sure that the ball doesn’t get dropped. It’s thanks to the online course sales that I can actually afford to pay her.
I think I’m getting better at the interviewing side of things, but the technical issues around sound recording have been problematic. The quality of the sound is not up to the standard of the shows I usually listen to, which is an interesting evidence for growth: six months ago I couldn’t tell the difference. But the really great thing about the show for me personally has been the cast-iron excuse to get in touch with some old friends, and to reach out to people I have never met, and end up making new friends. It’s been a wonderful experience all round. It also tipped the scales in favour of starting a Patreon account, to help cover the costs of producing the show (which is still actually a net financial negative, but money very well spent given the benefits).
Speaking of friends, I really miss them. I hadn’t fully realised how much of my social life actually happens when I travel. I’m a hugger, and not getting to physically touch the people I care about has been really hard. It doesn’t help that most of my close friends live in other countries. I’d see them when I travelled to teach. But over the course of this year I’ve actually spent more time with a few of my friends than in any previous year. Fortunately I much prefer one-on-one conversations: I don’t need the buzz of a group to feel connected (I’m fundamentally more of an introvert, yet another thing to be grateful for this year). I’ve been getting together regularly for social catch-ups and chats, sometimes playing board games over the web, with several of my friends, and even doing crosswords with my Mum online. In many ways, I’ve been more connected with some of my friends than ever before. This zoom thing is no substitute for in-person meeting, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Two of my friends have gone through the kind of crises where I’d probably get on a plane to go look after them in normal circumstances, but being available to them through the net has been a lifesaver (for me at least).
Creating a discord server (which is like a social media group, but way better) has also been awesome- having my students interacting with each other, though they may be continents apart, is wonderful to watch and take part in. If you've bought any of my online courses, you're eligible to join and should already have had an invitation by email. If that didn't happen, just drop me a line and I'll sort it out for you.
Health, physical and mental.
My third candidate for best idea for 2020 would be my morning Trainalong sessions. I have normally done some training first thing in the mornings, right after getting up. Breathing, calisthenics, stretching, that kind of thing. As lockdown ground on, I was getting slacker and slacker about it. One morning I did a couple of squats and a push-up, and called that done. I realised that this was not likely to lead me to my desired long-term outcomes, and wondered what the hell I could do to fix it. What began as a “get Guy out of bed in the morning” has become one of my favourite parts of the week. Monday Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8.30-9.30am UK time, I lead a conditioning session that’s fun and effective. The half-dozen or so regulars have coalesced into a group that even get together at other times to train when I’m not there! Having students show up makes it super-easy for me to be awake, engaged, and actually train. New members are always welcome, if you’d like to join us. The exercise is great for my physical health- I’m way fitter now than I was in June. But actually the short chats we have at the end of the session are really good for my general mental well-being too.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my shed this year. Easily enough to have written another book- but I haven’t had the spoons for it. While my 2020 has been way easier than many people’s, it has nonetheless been pretty rough in the mental health department, and spending time woodworking in my shed is both de-stressing, and occasionally produces something pretty. I did get one book out this year:
From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice was ready to go to press by February, so I just had to jump through the last few hoops to get it out. And just in time for the end of the year, the audiobook version of The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts has been recorded and uploaded to Findaway- it will percolate through to the various audiobook retailers over the next couple of weeks, and of course I’ll let everyone know as soon as its available.
The biggest mental problem caused by the plague is a sense of helplessness, which leads to all sorts of negative outcomes. The single most effective way to avoid helplessness is helpfulness. So I’ve spent as much time and energy as I have available in trying to help my people. Making training available free (literally every class and online course I’ve produced this year has been free to anyone that asks for it). Thinking up blog posts that might make sword people stuck at home unable to train feel a bit more empowered, a bit more sword-y. Making time for my friends who are in difficulties (which is lots of them). I’ve also given more to charity this year than usual. I’m using LendWithCare.com to make small loans (and I mean tiny- usually between £20 and £50) to small businesses in places like Peru and Bangladesh, which seems to have a bigger impact than simply giving the money away. Most of the money comes back eventually, to be immediately turned round and lent out to someone else. It’s really satisfying.
A great deal of the successes of this year are down to luck. We happened to be able to pay off the mortgages last year. I happened to have just the right online course already up and running when lockdown hit. Nobody in my immediate family has been killed by the virus. But some of it is down to processes and decisions: I did decide to become independent of my in-person teaching. I did decide to start the podcast, start the trainalongs, and to make my Solo course as accessible as possible. I guess it’s like everything: luck matters a lot, but luck favours the prepared and the disciplined. In lieu of internal self-discipline, I have the external constraints of my students and my mission. You can’t do anything about your luck, but there is much that remains within your control.
Viruses can’t tell time, and are unaware that an arbitrary human count has clicked over one more notch. So there is no immediate likelihood of everything suddenly magically getting back to normal just because it’s 2021. But I am hugely optimistic. There are vaccines coming online. Plagues have always passed before- even those that are much more fatal than the ‘rona. We are the most resilient, adaptable, and resourceful species this planet has ever seen: it may take some time, but we’ve got this.
I’ve written several posts on lockdown survival, which are here.
And I’ll be posting twice on January 1st: the next episode of The Sword Guy, and the beginning of a series of monthly challenges for 2021… See you there!