Friday, October 31, 2008

For Richer or Poorer

I am surprised by the number of times people ask if I am independently wealthy. That’s what people ask when people hear from me that I have “retired.” Or if my parents are very well off, or if I have somehow ‘made it big’.

I simply laugh with the people who ask when I hear any of these. I worked in a technical department of a corporation for 12 years and had no other income. So I am not even remotely rich.

My main gripe about most of the retirement books is that they concentrate so much on finance and leave out all the other aspects of retirement. My wife and I did have some lofty “net-worth” goals when we started thinking of retirement. We started watching it month after month.

I started to get worried when my age was going up faster than our net-worth. Based on our expenses and my calculations, I started believing that these retirement books use ridiculously high numbers as the amount of dollars one needs in their ‘nest-egg’ to retire.

After a lot of discussions and internal debates, we quit knowing that we could probably get jobs again and earn what we needed. Time was what we really lacked.

This week, wandering around in Kauai, I was struck by Rule #8 in a fairly popular Red Dirt T-shirt that has 10 Hawaiian Rules. There are two ways to get rich. You can make more or you can require less.
Not having the aptitude or the desire for the former, I choose the latter.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Feels like Retirement

It’s been four months since I last went to work (my longest ever break in over 3 decades). And for the first time in all those months, this week, it felt like retirement. We all have images of what our retirement might feel like, of why it might be fun. This week my experience matched my mental image.

So I started thinking about why this might be, and how I could get this feeling to last longer.

  • We are staying in a great place in Kauai for a very reasonable price. A place with a wrap-around balcony and great amenities.
  • I have access to tons of DVD’s, great books, cable TV and the internet.
  • Yes, those are the necessities. The important thing is that I am able to sit here (away from home and the accompanying “errand pressures”) in wonderful surroundings and savor these.
  • We are here in Hawaii from Monday to Friday. While my ex-colleagues and friends and relatives are off to work, I am reading books and watching the campaigning for the upcoming election.
  • For these last few months, when we go to places we haven’t been to, or may not visit again, we are under constant pressure to run around sightseeing. We have been to Kauai before. So sightseeing is not the goal, experiencing the Aloha spirit is.
  • And finally, yesterday the Dow shot up 800 points, its second highest single-day gain ever. No matter how many times I tell myself that I should be immune to daily stock fluctuations, I admit that yesterday’s run up added to my general feeling of good cheer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Did my duty

I voted today. One advantage of sitting at home all week is that we get to avoid rush hours where possible. On a Thursday afternoon there was no line at all for advance voting.

We had to fill out a form with our name and address, which felt retro. In the touch screen version in our precinct there were 15 full screens to choose from. Except for the Presidential candidates and the Senator and a couple of other high profile offices, I unfortunately didn’t know anything about any of those sundry office or the candidates.

Before heading out to vote, I spent a good bit of time reading up on the candidates and looking at newspaper endorsements. I wrote those down in a small notebook and took that with me.
There was also a mind-numbing list of 70 judges that we had to decide whether they get to stay in office or go. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Since lay people don’t follow the judicial processes, why ask them to vote on this? Lawyers and others involved are much better-suited for the task. I looked at the recommendations of the different bar associations and voted based on that. (But an overwhelming majority of my ballot was No Vote. I simply didn’t know enough to make a choice.)

My final ballot printout was 3 pages long. I wish we didn’t have to waste so much paper but I guess the redundancy is needed. The whole voting process (once I was assigned a machine) took close to 10 minutes. Much longer than I anticipated.

Overall, I enjoyed this freedom to cast my ballot at my convenience. Advance voting is definitely the way of the future. I wonder if we can vote from our home PC’s in 2012.

Now I am ready to sit back and watch the results come in on Nov. 4th.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The 5-Year Change Rule

I used to be an evangelist for a rule. The rule was very simple: Every five years you should change your line of work completely and radically.

Do something different, re-invent your job. In my own case, I was following it. My Bachelor’s degree was in Chemical Engineering (4 years) and I switched my major for grad school. For the next 5 years I was smitten by the possibilities that Operations Research offered. And after that, I was doing programming and working on applied algorithms for an airline for around another 5 years.

It was in my early years at the airline that I would pitch the 5-year rule to whoever would listen. I felt that varied experience counted for more than deep expertise. I'd be telling them, "Variety is more important than success. Variety is success."

I was also influenced by books like Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, whose core message is to look at everything with fresh eyes.

Five years (give or take) seemed the right amount to be doing something before moving on. The first year was for learning, the next two were productive years to practice, and in the last two, we contribute in various ways and be a guide to newcomers. After that we hand over that job or role to others and move on.

This ‘rule’ allows us have 6 to 7 different facets in a 30-year career.

You don’t, of course, have to change companies. You can take up a very different role, something completely different in your own company. (This might even be better since the people at your company already know you and might be more tolerant while you are in the learning phase.)

On the flip side, one could change any number of jobs, work in a number of different industries, and still be doing essentially the same job. If that’s the case, it is time to invoke the 5-year change rule and try to make a bigger change.

I believed in this completely and was quite persuasive. I had quite a few converts back then. A lot of my colleagues and friends and classmates agreed with the 5-year-per-line theory and thought of applying it to their own careers.

However, once I got comfortable in my role, it turned out that I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. The money was decent and the status quo was so very comfortable. I even got promotions which meant I had to do the decent thing and stick around a little longer. After some time I stopped mentioning the rule altogether. It felt phony to bring it up and eventually I even forgot about it.

I remembered this old rule a few days, probably because I've made a big change recently. (I am no longer working.) But I think the rule has a slightly different application in the context of retirement. I am now beginning to believe that anyone who adopts the 5-year change rule won’t feel such a strong urge to “retire.” It seems like a strategy to stave off routine and boredom before it even sets in.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Crowdsourcing and Retirement

At present, there’s a reasonably clear separation between working and retirement. They are two distinct states, and generally speaking, one moves on from the working state to the retirement state.

Crowdsourcing will, I am convinced, change that. It will further blur the line. One effect of crowdsourcing in the future will be to serve as the perestroika, the restructuring, which will bring down the Berlin wall between working and retirement.

If there are as many crowdsourced projects and companies in the future as I imagine there will be, then one can ease into whatever degree of semi-retirement one is comfortable with. That’s been my thinking after I finished reading Jeff Howe’s book, Crowdsourcing. (highly recommended.)

Listed below are some bits from the book I jotted down as reminders for myself.
  • The best person to do a job is the one who most wants to do the job; and the best people to evaluate their performance are their friends and peers who, by the way, will enthusiastically pitch in to improve the final product, simply for the sheer pleasure of helping one another and creating something beautiful from which they all will benefit.
  • “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. […] Given the right set of conditions, the crowd will almost always outperform any number of employees – a fact that companies are becoming aware of and are increasingly attempting to exploit.
  • This diversely talented, highly skilled workforce must toil away in a labor market that requires ever-greater degree of specialization. This leaves people feeling overeducated and underfulfilled, with job satisfaction rates reaching all-time lows. Is it any wonder they’re seeking more meaningful work outside the confines of the workplace?
  • [On Opensource code] “The GNU GPL ‘converted’ software it was used with to its own license, an extraordinarily clever approach to propagating freedom,” notes Glyn Moody in his history of open source movement, Rebel Code. This little trick has come to be known as “copyleft” as opposed to copyright.
  • What makes open source so efficient? In the broadest of strokes, it’s the ability for a large number of people to contribute. The open source evangelist Eric S. Raymond famously summed up this fundamental truth when he wrote, that, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” – which is to say that no problem is too thorny if enough people take a crack at it.
  • [On newspapers tapping into the community’s knowledge sharing through comments.] The [news]paper becomes merely the room in which the conversation takes place. Or to use Maness’s word for it, newspapers have entered the age of the ‘polylogue.’
  • [On The Billion, referring to the one billion people who have access to the internet.] “They may have between two and six billion spare hours among them, every day.” (Yochai Benkler.) The onus, then, isn’t on the crowd; it’s on companies, entrepreneurs, and anyone else with a good idea to figure out how to put that to work.