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Years ago, I saw a disturbing blight spread across the web. The place that had once been my liberating and exhilarating teenage escape had changed. It was no longer dominated by academics, anarchists and teenagers. It was full of people people who trying to make money.

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging (you are here)

Blogging leads to unchanging opinions

As I told in the first part of this series, blogging is tremendously helpful for learning. Keeping this online journal has helped me learn about other languages and cultures, it’s helped me learn about writing and most of all it’s helped me learn about myself from a more detached point of view. But it comes with a terrible price—it has made it far more difficult for me to change my opinion.

Unfortunately, people are strongly influenced to believe what they write publicly. This bias is so strong that it was the subject of a full chapter of Cialdini’s classic book Influence. People will even tend to start believing things that they previously didn’t when writing them in public! I don’t know of any specific research on arguing, but I suspect people who publicly argue for a position become even more entrenched in their belief of it.

As a blogger who wrote multiple posts per week and occasionally ended up in huge arguments with other bloggers, it was an effect I felt acutely. Even when nobody disagreed with me, I could feel my openness to other points of view slowly decrease as I wrote repeatedly about various topics revolving around education, language learning, politics or blogging. This is the main reason I stopped blogging so much, even before leaving Taiwan.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that blogging isn’t a fantastic way to get feedback from other people and get closer to the truth at any given time. Over the course of days or weeks, it’s great. The danger is that after you come to a decision based on all of the feedback and have repeated it for a few months, then it gets harder and harder not to influence yourself to stick to it and even dig in further over time.

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival


What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: How blogging helped me as an entrepreneur (you are here)
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging

The good times for EFL teachers in Taiwan ended in 1999

Along with Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, Taiwan invested early and invested heavily in English education. By the mid 80s, foreign teachers were in such high demand that it was not uncommon for people fresh off the boat to be earning over $35USD/hour and without any prior teaching experience. Very, very few schools were foreign run and those that were had a big advantage.

Even into the late 90s, most competent foreign teachers who were bilingual or had a bilingual local partner could successfully start English teaching schools. It wasn’t like that in 2006.

Since Taiwan is a fantastic place to live and very open compared to other Asian countries, a relatively percentage of western English teachers decide to stay for the long-term and settle down in Taiwan. It’s far more common than in Japan or especially Korea. For most of these teachers, the best career option is to open a business that leverages their unique skills as a foreigner—generally either an English teaching school or a western-style restaurant or bar.

The number of foreign-run English schools (and restaurants) in Taiwan has exploded and the bar has been raised year after year for decades. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese children has been decreasing. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world right now. The result of these two trends is that the market is brutal—the supply and quality of schools has been increasing while the demand has been falling. While it’s still easy in cities that foreigners don’t like to live in, the market was saturated in Taipei long ago.

Opening a school in 2006 in Taipei wasn’t quite as tough as now in 2016, but far, far more difficult than in 1996. Fortunately for me, I had a huge unfair advantage.

Starting without capital

As I wrote earlier in this series, I was a top-performing English teacher. I was earning over double what most foreign teachers did and I had a very loyal following of students, but (legally) opening a school takes some money. Finding a suitable local partner is also extremely difficult for most foreigners. This blog helped me avoid both of those problems.

I was getting about one serious contact per month from someone who had read my writing on this site and wanted to start a business with me. While some were basically looking for someone to do everything for them, I did meet one very agreeable couple who had been struggling for several months after buying a school with only a dozen or so students. But they seemed like their hearts were in the right place and they really cared about providing a quality education for their students. They had read quite a few of my articles on teaching and even better it turned out they knew my best friend Martin! It wasn’t clear what I could do for them that would make economic sense though, since I was earning over double what the average foreign teacher did and I lived out in Guishan, not Taipei.

In the end, they offered me something that was both a great deal and a bit crazy—for me to join their school, recruit students, use my teaching methods, write a curriculum and handle the entire academic side of a new program for them. I’d have no base salary, but take a set amount per student per hour that I taught personally and 30% equity in the business with no money down.

There was a great deal of risk for me. The first class I opened only had 5 students. It was a huge, huge drop in pay and a lot more work but it was a fantastic opportunity. About a year and a half later, our business had grown and we bought out our closest competitor, moved into a bigger location and I took on 50% stake (for which I did invest some of my own capital). Yes, I was working far more than a full-time job. I was basically doing a full-time teaching job, plus writing textbooks, exams and exercises, plus recording CDs, plus hiring, training and managing teachers. But there’s no way I’d have had my foot in the door to begin with if not for writing this blog.

Hiring is really easy if you’re #1 on a relevant Google search

For years, I’ve gotten regular emails from strangers asking me about where to teach English or how they can upgrade their skills and get a better English teaching job in Taiwan. While running the academic half of a school, that second group of emailers was fantastic!

Job boards and classifieds usually suck, but blog readers who applied often had an idea of who I was, what kind of academic program I wanted to run and what kind of environment they’d be stepping into. There was still a lot of noise, and I probably hurt my negotiating leverage by having blogged about how much other more established schools paid teachers such as myself but the candidate quality was just head and shoulders above what I found on Tealit and other classifieds.

Blogs can help recruit customers

In my case I don’t think I got a lot of customers through this blog. It’s written in English (for the most part) and my customers were Chinese readers. That said, it might have helped a little bit in terms of credibility and retention for those who were aware of it. As with my business partners, customers could tell that I genuinely cared about teaching as well as possible.

A learning advantage

Much of the learning advantage from blogging came before starting the school. By writing about what I was working on and what I had learned, I forced myself to clarify my thoughts. I also connected with others who cared about the same thing and many of them shared their knowledge in comments. I’m not sure I’d have picked up as much as I did about TEFL or language acquisition if not for all the ideas, book recommendations and other comments from readers.

In fact it worked so well for me that when I decided to leave English teaching and try to gain the skills to break into a tech career, I started another blog to document my attempts. Like this blog, that one was a great learning tool and was instrumental in my success breaking into Silicon Valley as a thirty-something.

Self understanding

For me, the single best part of blogging has been the way it lets me view myself from the outside. This doesn’t work for all kinds of blogs. Many people I know tend to avoid revealing much of themselves online… for very understandable reasons. It’s also very natural and to some degree unavoidable present a false front to the internet—a more professional self or an idealized version of oneself.

To the extent that I’ve been able to be open and authentic in my blogs, I’ve found them to be fantastic tools for understanding myself. If I write what I truly feel, there’s a record to examine later when I feel similar things in the future and I can compare the feelings I had when I wrote and the things that happened. If I write what I truly believe will happen, then I can look back and see what I was right about and what things I was blind to. It’s not easy to do, but it does lead to more self understanding and the ability to make better plans the next time. And that’s good for business.

In particular, I’ve found it invaluable to look back at posts about major life decisions I’ve made and look at the reasoning I had at the time. There are often important things I’ve forgotten. When I was starting a software company in San Francisco, I went back and re-read everything I’d written when starting the English school in Taipei.

Interestingly, while all the other benefits in this piece required a blog to be public, self understanding is arguably improved even more by writing a private blog since it’s easier to be open and authentic in private.

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers (you are here)
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging

Blogs were popping up everywhere in 2005

Soon after I started writing this blog, and sharing one post about teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan, other bloggers started adding me to their blog lists. Notably, John of Sinosplice added me to his China Blog List and Michael Turton of The View from Taiwan added me to his massive blogroll.

From there, people started showing up and commenting. Even with only 300 visits per day, I often got 20 or more comments on a post. This seems to have been more common back before Facebook sucked up so much of people’s online writing time. It was an interesting time since nobody really knew what blogs were or were supposed to be, but it was very social.

Meeting the actual bloggers

It wasn’t long before, I started meeting this site’s commenters in real life. In Taiwan, there were a number of meetups. When I visited Shanghai, John put me up at his apartment for a week! In Beijing, I met David (then running Adsotrans), Brendan (a more fantastically talented foreign learner of Chinese than I’d imagined existed) and a number of other online friends. Other online friends, like Angelica actually moved to Taiwan from elsewhere and ended up in my offline social circle.

It was an odd world. In 2006, none of these people, except maybe John were making any money online and everyone’s focus was on the ideas they wrote about. Though some of us wrote about language learning or ourselves, others wrote mostly about politics, photography or travel. And we all put each other on each other’s blogrolls—lists of links to other bloggers on the side of our sites—just because we were foreigners with websites in Taiwan (or China). Sure there were some overlapping circles and others that didn’t. Some of the Taiwanese bloggers focused on politics weren’t adding a bunch of China bloggers to their blogrolls. They probably weren’t adding TEFL blogs from outside of Taiwan that I was following either.

People were almost always wonderful

It was really refreshing and eye-opening seeing how nice everybody was. I had originally created this blog with the goal of helping other teachers and students, but for some reason I hadn’t expected the internet to reciprocate.

Other than being offered a place to crash when I visited China, I got immeasurable help from people who had learned more Chinese than I had, people who knew more about getting around Taiwan, people who knew more about running a blog, people who knew more about programming and people who were just really friendly in general. People I met on this very site helped me find apartments, set up websites, set up a business in Taiwan (which was an entire story itself) and all kinds of other things. Even the people who constantly argued with me helped sharpen my ideas about language teaching and my understanding of cultural differences and local politics.

Arguing on the internet

duty calls

XKCD: Duty Calls

Given how many bloggers in Taiwan at that time were focused on politics, it’s inevitable that there were arguments. It wasn’t just politics, though. For me, the longest and most contentious arguments were about language teaching and search engines. I also argued about using standard Pinyin. Actually, my biggest comments on politics generally revolved around issues that related to foreigners in Taiwan, which included romanization. At the time, the DPP very much wanted to adopt or create a romanization system different from China. Due to squabbling and repeated attempts at this, the signs were really confusing for me before I knew enough Chinese to understand the characters and I hated that. “The locals don’t read romanized signs anyway!” I thought. At one point, I had a protracted debate about the merits of including tone marks on signs!

All in all, I feel the online arguing was worthwhile but that there were rapidly diminishing returns. It was fantastic for getting new ideas and seeing how others thought of my ideas. On the other hand, habitually digging in and making a third pass at an argument is very costly, not only socially but also in terms of personal growth. I certainly don’t agree with everything I’ve written here in the past, and in more than one case I’ve gone back and appologized to people I’d interpreted uncharitably in the midst of a disagreement.

The dark side of online visibility—safety concerns

Given how blogs and the internet in general make it easier to put oneself in an echo chamber filled with agreeing voices, online communities tend towards polarization. Paul Graham, a prominent essayist, believes the effect goes far beyond online communities and is a society-wide refragmentation. I think he’s probably right. People, at least within the US and the Anglosphere generally, have diverged into increasingly separated cultural camps. Nowhere is this more visible than in online mob behavior. Twitter has probably been a net positive, but it’s very possibly 45% destructive.

The absolutely most unpleasant experience I’ve had on this site was with a certain person from a country in the southern hemisphere who had an online presence in Taiwan. We had a disagreement which had originally seemed a hope trivially minor misunderstanding—I had corrected a couple of minor errors in what he’d written about me on his site—but his reaction was over the top. He left disturbing sexualized messages both in my email and voice machine, and contacted my business partners threatening to sue over a blog post. Years after I had moved away from Taiwan and I’d had no contact with him whatsoever, he emailed out of the blue swearing to follow me the rest of my life, to ruin it and that if he had half a chance he’d “pay somebody to knock me off”.

Though I had heard others speak of his behavior enough times that I knew I was far from the only person on the internet he’d unexpected flipped out, it was terrifying. I lived in a different country than he did, so there wasn’t a completely credible death threat or anything concrete that the police in the US could do. That one blog post that upset him is the only one I’ve ever taken down at someone else’s request.

I feel hesitant to write about the experience even without naming the individual. Hopefully this serves as an alert to my peers who might think that only huge or exceptionally contentious sites have real risk associated with them.

Also, FWIW, writing online has been a net positive despite this experience.

Lasting bonds

One really great thing about an online presence, or putting yourself out there in general, is that you can choose who you want to spend more time with and who you don’t. I didn’t like everyone I met. Guess what? I don’t follow them online or hang out with them now! Conversely, most of the people I got along with best in 2006 are still friends. Some are close friends, some are weak ties and others are just people I’ll follow online.

I many ways, this is the good side of the societal “refragmentation” mentioned above. In this past decade more than ever, people have been able to find kindred spirits and form like-minded communities.

Next is Part 3: 3 Comments Read more

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog (you are here)
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging

The first glimpse of a different life

When I was in college, blogging was new and exciting. As I was starting this site, other members of the Nintendo Generation were starting theirs, too. Some were like diaries, some were focused on personal interests many were mashups of both. I was enthralled by them. These blogs weren’t wooden news reports. They were often unfiltered and a closer look at what life was actually like for other people. One of the saddest parts of the growth of Facebook is that personal blogs have largely been subsumed by wall posts—nearly always a much less honest look at someone’s life.

I had become very interested in what it was like to live abroad. I couldn’t afford to and had actually chosen my school based on price. I desperately wanted to get out and experience life in a place different from where I’d grown up. It felt impossible at the time, but I knew that once I graduated I could go abroad to teach English. I’d heard that in some places, there was a tremendous demand for native English speakers and that with a language and literature degree I would definitely be able to find a job.

So I searched.

Google returned many links to blogs of Americans about my age who were studying or teaching abroad. I became a fan of one called A Better Tomorrow. It had Chow Yun Fat images in the banner and was written by a Swarthmore student studying in China. His Chinese was at a level I could only dream of and his stories of traveling around China were amazing! Another one called Sinosplice was written by an English teacher in China who had previously lived in Japan.

I read both with interest and started devouring everything I could find about language learning, language teaching and where to live. I decided to go to Japan if I were accepted into the JET program. After being rejected, I chose Taiwan.


Moving to Taiwan

I had a really hard time when I first got to Taiwan. I wanted to learn Chinese, but everyone else wanted to practice English. Further complicating things, Mandarin was the second language in Chiayi (嘉義), the city where I was living. There wasn’t a language school for foreigners either.

Additionally, I was only the second American at the English school where I was teaching and the Canadian teachers completely shunned the other American… and me. It was during the 2nd Iraq War, anti-American sentiments were strong amongst many Europeans and especially Canadians and I was surrounded by young, ideologically motivated Canadians who literally believed discriminating against Americans (or at least those who pay taxes) was the morally correct position. Yikes.

I did manage to win over some of my coworkers after a month or so, but still it wasn’t the right environment for me. I didn’t believe the school was that effective. I loved the city and how I bicycle everywhere and I loved how friendly people were, but I just wasn’t learning any Chinese or advancing my career.

Moving to Taipei

Taipei was like a different world. Even then, the MRT was amazing and the city was incredibly walkable. Everything cost 20% than I was used to, except housing which was at least triple. There were tons of schools for learning Chinese. It was a stretch to afford tuition on part-time work but I did it.

The teaching methods and materials are the subject of another post, but in the end I was able to make some good progress despite them. I credit the many language learning blogs I was reading at the time for giving me both the inspiration and the know-how to succeed in such a difficult environment back in the days before language learning podcasts or apps had arrived and we were all looking up Chinese characters by radicals and stroke order in paper dictionaries.

My learning was <a=””>incredibly slow and I couldn’t afford to study every semester. I also wasn’t making any forward progress on the work front. I was doing a marginally better job of teaching my students, but at its core it was unskilled work and the structure of the curriculum and business prevented me or any foreign teachers from making significant improvements.

Choosing to invest in new skills

I realized my work was essentially a commodity. I might get a slightly better wage through negotiation or becoming a popular teacher, but I was a very easily replaceable cog in a huge machine. There wasn’t much possibility of advancement either—to best of my knowledge the company didn’t tend to promote non-ethnically Chinese people.

The best opportunity I saw was to gain more skills that would make it possible for me to land a much better paying teaching job. There was also the option to pursue credentials, such as a TEFL certificate, but TEFL teachers are also largely commoditized and as I had learned even back then the TEFL training is highly opinionated but poorly backed by research. Some ideas, such as not using the students’ native language at all are clearly driven more by market prices of employing bilingual teachers than they are by what’s best for the students. Unsurprisingly, a TEFL certification is worth almost nothing in terms of increased earnings.

The climb

I worked hard at learning classroom-related language and started coming in to work early and watching my local co-teachers when they taught their half of classes. Within a few months I was able to get a job at 750NT an hour as opposed to my original 550NT. I had to prepare some materials for class and grade homework but there was a lot of latitude in terms of creating supplementary materials and learning how to be a better teacher when not following a very structured system from a large chain.

About six months after that, I got a job at a larger school with even more stringent requirements at 900NT/hr. I left that job months later due to a stupid contract they wanted me to sign that would have given them broad ownership of things I created on my own time. Their top teacher from the previous hired me at 1100NT/hr with a 50NT raise every 6 months and profit sharing if I stayed long-term. I moved out to his new school that week.

My blog

At this point, I had been living in Taiwan for two and a half years and was earning more than double the average foreign English teacher. I was 26 years old and I could speak two foreign languages very different from my native one.

I’d read dozens of books about language teaching and language acquisition and was teaching well over a hundred kids and doing it vastly more effectively than I’d seen at any other school. As my life situation improved, I became increasingly focused on helping others—my students, language students in general and other language teachers.

I’ll be honest. I felt I had something worth sharing.

So that’s what I did. I wrote about what I’d seen in the job market for foreign English teachers, I wrote reviews of my Chinese text books. I spent an entire day using my virtually non-existent programming abilities to hack together a tool for adding tone marks to pinyin. I even shared my investment ideas and every single trade I made.

Looking back on it, it kind of amazes me how enthusiastically I wrote about everything and how much time I spent on it even back when it was such a tiny group of people reading.

Part 2: meeting other bloggers

The last few times I’ve come back to Taiwan, I’ve found myself in a recurring situation—I’m out at a bar celebrating something or at a coffee shop using the internet and some random person comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re the guy that writes Toshuo, aren’t you!”

It’s a bit odd having online fame in a very limited niche translate into the real world in a social context (especially at a bar), but it’s been mostly positive and has even lead to a few new friends.

I don’t really want to be known publicly outside of my work, so I’ve felt the desire to take down the entire site. On the other hand, I can’t deny the numerous ways writing has helped me over the ways or the ways it still can help me with my future goals. On the whole, it’s definitely been a net positive, but strangers, employers and even certain governments have been getting increasingly vindictive about punishing viewpoints they disagree with. This is often the case even when those views were written a long time ago.

One of the best things about writing—especially writing online—has been how it helps organize thoughts, so I think I’ll write it out here and publicly for now at least.

Part 1: Before the blog

I just finished editing my interview with Shannon Kennedy for Lingsprout. Unlike my last few interviews which were focused tutorials, this one was just a story. It’s not that she wouldn’t have something great to teach. She does and she teaches it on her site Eurolinguiste, but her story is just epic.

As a music student, she had some language learning requirements and just took them really seriously. She simultaneously learned multiple languages to a B level (which is European for “intermediate/able to get by”), and then went on to take on other languages such as Mandarin that aren’t even required of classical musicians.


Check it out here: A story of learning two languages at once

There’s a new documentary on YouTube on the extreme demographic shifts that have been happening in China over the past few decades. In short it’s about the how China became the world’s factory and how in many ways it’s now suffering from its own economic success now that wages are no longer nearly as cheap as they were even a decade ago and new competitors jump in to fill the demand at the bottom end. I’ve seen effects of this first hand in Vietnam over the past several months.

I love a well-made piece on China and it’s hard not to sympathize with and like the main character. The area I feel like the documentary could have done better though, is technology. Technological change offers a lot of risk to Chinese migrant workers (automation, robotics, etc) and it also offers a lot of promise—new opportunities, ways to repair the environmental damage brought by China’s rapid industrialization and things we can’t even see at present. I think that the effects of technology will ultimately overwhelm the longer-term predictions of the film, though it’s impossible to say whether the net effect will be a positive or not.

4/5, worth a watch.

I recently interviewed Lindsay Dow for Lingsprout and asked her about using social media for language learning. She talked about Snapchat, Instagram and Periscope, which made me feel a bit old but it was pretty fun talking to her! Also the thing I liked about both Snapchat and Periscope is their ephemeral nature, which makes speaking a language you’re learning a lot less scary than YouTube, for example.


Check it out here: Language practice on social media

I recorded another video for Lingsprout and it looks like this is going to be a regular thing. Gabriel Wyner taught me how to make my own language learning resources and also why phonics is so important.

He’s the author of possibly the most highly acclaimed book written on language learning. What made it even more fun was that he was teaching how to make phonics resources. I love that. I made phonics a cornerstone of the curriculum in the English school I used to run in Taiwan, and as you might notice if you check out the phonics tag here, I recorded quite the list of Phonics Friday videos.


Check it out here: Making your own effective language learning resources