Thursday, December 16, 2010

RetiredSyd's "Most Enjoyed in 2010" List

When I read Sydney's blog, Retirement – A Full Time job, it often feels as if I am reading my own thinking. In her clear manner, she explores the same topics that I am intrigued by. She was recently interviewed by NPR, and has a blog in US News called On Retirement.

Here is her response to my post request – her list of the things she has most enjoyed in 2010.

Sydney's Most Enjoyed in 2010 List:

1) Baby Luca (after my friend suffered several heartbreaking miscarriages, her dreams finally came true),
2) A month in Manhattan on a home swap (and in particular, learning to love baseball with my husband at Yankee's Stadium),
3) And just in time to watch our own SF Giants win the World Series!
4) Enjoying three trips to Las Vegas with incredible friends (and icing on the cake, coming out a few hundred dollars ahead)
5) Knowing that 30 million uninsured Americans will be able to get health coverage,
6) The chance to meet wonderful new readers through an opportunity to blog for U.S. News,
7) Enjoying a little part-time work for fun people that I admire,
8) Ram's link to HBR's "How Will You Measure Your Life?" That article made a huge impact on me.

Sydney

If any of you do create your own list, do send me a copy and I will be happy to post it here.

Related Post:
Requesting your "Best of 2010" List

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Irreversible is the decision really?

When discussing early retirement with friends and acquaintances, I sense that in their minds this decision feels irreversible. As in, if you choose to give up your work and take up early retirement and it doesn't work out for whatever reason, you are completely done for.

I know this feeling well. This feeling of going down a one-way street. But this thinking is not fully correct. Sure, there are certain aspects to quitting a regular job that have long term consequences. But that is not the full story.

Let's tackle the biggest fear that comes up in any discussion first. What if one runs short of money? The fact that you won't be earning a salary, but might need some money (for unforeseen circumstances) can be scary. Fortunately, this can be mitigated with some planning and foresight.

People who have only worked full-time don't seem to fully appreciate the range of options that are available. Options like taking up part-time work or consulting or freelancing. It will initially take some time, but these can be a real possibility if you keep your skills fairly current (always with an eye on staying employable).

There are, however, certain things that are difficult to get back, if you do quit mid-career. Irreversible is too strong a word. What I really mean is "difficult to reverse." For example: If you were progressing rapidly on a career-path, it might be difficult to regain that if you take a long break. Or, say you are part of a great team that is doing excellent and engaging work. If you quit that, you may not easily find that sense of camaraderie and purpose again. Also, if you are currently very well compensated, it won't be easy to attain comparable compensation after a 2-3 year break doing something else. (Individual cases vary, of course)

So there are both aspects to the decision of quitting a full-time job. What feels scary is not really the irreversible part. But the difficult-to-revert aspects do have to be considered before any decision regarding early retirement can be made.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Requesting Your Personal "Best of 2010" List

This post is a request. This is a request for you to send me your Personal "Best of 2010" list, so that it can be shared with others. Reading your list might inspire someone, remind them of something they too enjoyed.

Now that it is December, we can expect to start seeing lots of "Best of 2010" lists in the media. For over 10 years now, I have been creating my own personal "Things I most enjoyed this year" lists. I have also been encouraging my friends to do the same. Those who do take the few minutes it takes invariably say that they are very glad that they did. (And it is always a pleasure to review these 'most enjoyed' lists I created a few years back.)

This year, I thought I will ask here and see if any blog readers want to participate. Just open your notebook (or open a new file) and jot down things that come to your mind about what you enjoyed in 2010. If you keep adding to your list, you'll be surprised at how many things you can think of in just 2-3 days.

The Rules are quite simple:
1. Just create a list of whatever it was that you most enjoyed this year. Some sample categories could be Movies, Events, Books, Concerts, Places, Travel, Sports, Hobbies, People, TV shows, Blog articles, Websites, Courses… pretty much anything you enjoyed in 2010.
2. Feel free to create your own categories.
3. These have to be things you enjoyed, so for this exercise leave out any negative experiences.

Simply type up your list in a Word document or as an email and send them to me at retirement.experiment@gmail.com. Include your name (or make up a pseudonym) which I can use when posting your response. (If you don't want your name publicized, then indicate that in your email and I'll post the list without your name.)

Yes, it takes a bit of social courage to share our personal list, but I feel that it is important to share them anyway. Even if you don't wish to share your lists, please consider creating one for yourself, and sharing it with your close friends and family.

I look forward to getting at least a few "Personal Best of 2010" lists this year. If I receive any, I will post them here. I will also post my own list here as well.

Related Post: Creating A Year in Review Document

Monday, November 29, 2010

The "Currency" of my Life

"I live to climb rocks," I overheard a guy in Moab, UT say not too long ago. He said that he scheduled everything else in his life around his climbing time. I had been thinking about trade-offs, and that rock climber gave me a good way to frame my own question: "What do I live for?"

I think of it as a "currency" of life. My current thinking about work, retirement and sabbaticals seems to boil down to this one question: "What do I value as currency in my life?"

In contrast to when I had a corporate job with a fixed daily schedule and a steady salary, I seem to be making a lot more trade-offs nowadays. Should I opt to hold on to my free time over earning some extra income (freelance)? Should I choose to do something by myself (spending effort) versus spending money?

I made one rule to the currency question. It can't be a specific goal. It is not something that we achieve. So things like getting a particular promotion or title, passing an exam, or reaching a certain net-worth number don't count as life currency. (All of these are enablers.) It should be things that we want to do over and over again, taking joy in it each time.

That rock climber clearly knows his currency – it is rock climbing. Similarly there are a number of hobbyists who are essentially biding time until they can get back to their hobbies.

Unlike him, I don't seem to have one overarching activity, but the answer is some combination of things I never tire of. (I am leaving out universal things like spending quality time with friends and family.)

In my case, it is having the freedom (time autonomy) to choose pleasurable activities. I live to read books, to watch movies, to watch non-fiction DVDs, to listen to slide presentations and to attend lectures by smart thinkers. Also, I live to watch Ted talks.

I used to live to visit new places but that ardor has dimmed for some reason. So I guess the currency of our lives can evolve over time.

So, what's your currency? I was curious if readers have their own way of thinking about these all-important trade-offs decisions.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Volunteering Do's and Don'ts

[Thanksgiving Day]

Certain volunteering experiences leave me feeling high and totally buzzed, while others end up being frustrating at many levels. As a reminder to myself for the future, here are my do's and don'ts as they relate to volunteering efforts.

1. For any volunteering effort, the potential scope of impact is important. The bigger the scope, the more engaged I become. And if things are in the inception stage or just starting-up, then I feel more involved, as opposed to being "a cog in professionally run charity events." (This is a personal preference)

2. Make a distinction between a one evening or one day effort, and a bigger commitment. If it a one-time deal with small time commitments, I should definitely take it up. These usually lead to more doors getting opened (and the people typically present me with opportunities that are a better fit).

3. If it is a longer term commitment, I should think it through. Longer term volunteering only worked for me if it was something that really wanted to do anyway.
a. If it feels really easy, then that's a good sign that I will like it
b. If it is a cause that I feel is worth spending my time on, I have almost never regretted my time and efforts. (A good portion of voluntary activities involve mundane and non-skilled administrative tasks.)

4. I should remember to do a Time-Benefit analysis - preferably on paper, but at least in my mind. I have been a part of several 'charitable fund-raising' causes where the total number of corporate and personal hours spent were hugely disproportional to the money raised. I do understand the argument around awareness, team-building and "social engagement" but still these huge efforts leave me feeling somewhat deflated about the whole task. I end up feeling that as a group we are deluding ourselves in the name of doing good.

5. If the volunteering task demands a skill that I am reasonably qualified for it (and strangely, if it is very similar to the profession "work" that I am trained for) I have almost always come off with a positive experience.

The above are just a few notes for me to keep in mind before I sign up for anything.

But here's the most important lesson. When I find the right volunteering opportunity I will know it. It feels like being hit on the head with a 2 by 4. It is okay to wait until then.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Fistful of Rice - Vikram Akula and microfinance

"Doing well by Doing Good"

Why do some people succeed wildly while others, who seem equally capable, flounder?

When I first read about Vikram Akula in WSJ's front page back in 2006, I remember thinking about this question. I was only generally interested in the idea of microfinance.

Back in 2006, to satisfy myself, I reached for the easy answers – attributing others' success to some combination of luck and talent.

But this book, "A Fistful of Rice" by Vikram Akula shows me a lot more of why he succeeded. And why my simple answers are wrong. I have previously read a couple of books on micro-finance (including A Billion Bootstraps which I liked very much) but Akula's book is different.

Akula is a surprisingly good writer and story-teller, and I found his book very easy to read. (My wife was the one who spotted the book and brought it home, but I commandeered it and read it right away.) Ultimately, this is not at all a 'micro-finance' book, but it is a book about one idealistic guy who uses micro-finance as a backdrop to pursue his idea relentlessly, and ends up making a big difference in the world.

It is fascinating to look at India through the eyes of someone like Akula, whose parents are India-born, but who himself grew up in the US, in Schenectady, NY.

Most of the world heard about Vikram Akula (and his company SKS) when he became an "overnight sensation" in 2006. But the real story is what came before that, and all the hardships that he had to put himself through, starting in the 90's.

As an idealistic young man, right after graduating from Tufts, Vikram chose to go to India, to spend a couple years in rural Andhra Pradesh. He volunteered to hand out small loans and learned about the world of the poor. He maxed out his personal credit cards to pay for his expenses. With the best education in the world (Tufts, Yale and the Univ of Chicago) he could have had any job he wanted to, but he forsake all that to pursue what he believed in.

Entrepreneurs take risks that the rest of us shy away from. One particular example struck me as an example of why he has succeeded at such a grand scale. Even though he only devotes a page to this, I found it very telling.

After having watched the horrendously difficult account-keeping efforts of Grameen (in Bangladesh) where they struggle with notebooks and paper, Akula gets convinced about the need for automation and software to grow his operations. Even though his company, SKS has existed only for 2 years, and his total loan portfolio is only $25,000, he sets aside $250,000 for software development. Now, that is true power of conviction.

The other thing that struck me was how he had to ask his friends and family for small loans, so convinced was he about his model. He spends hours pitching to people and then they hand over $50 or $100. (An echo of exactly what Greg Mortensen went through, which he writes about his Three Cups of Tea.) Asking our friends and family for money is not something most of us want to do.

And when all the planets are aligned, good things happen. Along the way, Akula gets grant-writing advice from Michelle Obama back when she was a community volunteer in Chicago, his work is observed by Rahul Gandhi (a young leader of India's Congress party) and he gets written up in the media, which the WSJ picks up. Soon, he gets invitations from Bill and Melinda Gates, and a procession of Silicon Valley VC's come knocking.

Vikram Akula makes a very strong argument for "doing well by doing good" i.e. that it is perfectly okay to profit from lending to the poor. (The poor are not dumb, he says, nor do they want handouts. Mostly, they just need a little capital.) I happen to subscribe to this line of argument.

The book's last chapter, titled "Google Territory" is especially gratifying to read. Having built up such a vast consumer base, he is now able to do so much in terms of bringing amenities, medication, cell phone technology and education opportunities to India's rural poor.

Readers who are curious about micro-finance, about realistic attempts to make a dent in ending poverty, and most importantly about how one dedicated person can indeed make a difference should read this book. (176 pages, but you can read it easily in 2-3 sittings)

There seems to be no quick short cut to success. People succeed because they are fearless about the size of their vision, their belief in it, and are willing to put in 10-15 years of their life effort into what they believe in. They succeed because of sheer tenacity, where the rest of us easily give up.

Related post: All or Nothing Players

Thursday, November 18, 2010

CNN Heroes of 2010

Every year on Thanksgiving Day, CNN broadcasts its "Heroes of the year" special program. This started in 2007, with Anderson Cooper hosting it. Ten Blue Ribbon "Heroes" (people who are helping various causes in their communities) are featured.

In order to make it more participatory leading up to the broadcast, CNN runs a web-poll, where we get to vote for our favorite heroes. There is an awards-night-style reception where all 10 candidates are brought in and their work featured. The winner is announced, and they get funds for their causes. More importantly, all of us get to learn how we might get involved in causes that interest us.

This year's contest seems to be in earnest. Starting from about a month back, I have been getting emails from friends of friends asking me to vote for this or that candidate. People have created Facebook pages and launched e-campaigns to garner votes for their favorite hero.

To me, they all seem like deserving candidates, and your vote is, of course, your private decision. But be sure to check out the pages of all 10 people. And on Thanksgiving night (Nov 25th), consider switching on CNN for 2 hours – 8E/7Central.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Links I liked

1. Real Men - as selected by successful women
2. Words - a 3-min video-poem by Will Hoffman and Daniel Mercadante
3. A Cut-up artist - A lady with an exacto knife and a lot of time

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Proxy for Growth

[Written in April 2010, just prior to leaving India]

Looking back at this last year spent in India, it often seems like I haven’t grown at all. I had the time to do anything I wanted.

As a small consolation, I did attempt to answer one question:
Who am I if all the usual parameters that define me were taken away– things like my job, my home and my home town?

In my reading, I came across a phrase that I liked – "loosed of all moorings" and I jotted it down. So who are we when we are loosed of all moorings?

In my case, I chose to visit India and spend time in different cities to learn the answers. In ways that I couldn’t have anticipated, this past year has been a time of renewal, of stock-taking.

Most of the changes that occurred have happened inside my head, in my thinking. At one point or another, everything seems to have changed, at least a little. My idea of what work should be like, the reasons for working at all, of who is family and of who my friends are, of where my home is when I don't have a "base" anywhere to return to, of where my roots are (is it geography or the ideas that I align with?), and of my constantly evolving ideas on volunteering and service to community.

One thing has been common in all of this -- I have had to re-evaluate all of these beliefs. First, I had to admit to myself that my thinking was full of stereotypes, and then to try to work my way past these stereotypes and "borrowed values" that I have been carrying around for years.

Perhaps that is growth.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Different Types of Fun

Continuing on the Happiness theme. I came across this categorization of different types of fun in Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project, which was illuminating to me. (Aside: Her year-long happiness experiment is going to be a short NBC show, starring Kristin Davis of Sex and the City fame.)

From The Happiness Project:
Challenging Fun
is the most rewarding but also the most demanding. It can create frustration, anxiety, and hard work. It often requires errands. It takes time and energy. In the end, however, it pays off with the most satisfying fun.

Usually less challenging, but still requiring a fair bit of effort, is accommodating fun. A family trip to the playground is accommodating fun. Yes, it's fun, but I'm really there because my children want to go. Was it Jerry Seinfeld who said, "There's no such thing as 'Fun for the whole family'"? Going to a family holiday dinner, even going to dinner and a movie with friends, requires accommodation. It strengthens relationships, it builds memories, it's fun – but it takes a lot of effort, organization, coordination with other people, and, well, accommodation.

Relaxing fun is easy. I don’t have to hone skills or take action. There's very little coordination with other people or preparation involved. Watching TV—the largest consumer of the world's time after sleeping and work – is relaxing fun.

I now realize that my fun allocation in my 'fun portfolio' is very heavily weighed towards relaxing fun. I will aim for the other two as well.

Here are a few more excerpts that I had jotted down from The Happiness Project book.

[On the 4 stages of happiness]
I realized happiness has four stages. To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory. Any single happy experience may be amplified or minimized, depending on how much attention you give to it.

[On characteristics she admires in the seemingly happy-go-lucky people] It is easier to complain than to laugh, easier to yell than to joke around, easier to be demanding than to be satisfied.

[On realizing that soon her young daughters will be much older and most of daily the activities with them will change. I like the phrase "preemptive nostalgia" which I myself experience a lot of.] This moment of preemptive nostalgia was intense and bittersweet; from that moment of illumination, I've had a heightened awareness of the inevitability of loss and death that has never left me.

Related Posts:
Embracing the Paradoxes

Monday, November 8, 2010

Happiness is the Goal - Hsieh

The other day, my wife looked at my bedside stack of books and said, "You are reading a lot of books on happiness."

Indeed, I find it difficult to resist books, videos and articles on happiness. This graphic, by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com points to the reason. As Tony reminds us, if you ask someone why they want to do something, and whatever their answer, if you follow it up again by asking 'why' and keep doing that recursively, the answer always leads to "happiness." Ultimately, we want to be happy because we want to be happy.


He has this graphic in his book "Delivering Happiness" which is a very good book on customer service and on having the right set of values, and is a fun read. If you haven't read or heard much about Zappos.com's culture, you should read this book.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Growing Up in the Universe - Must See videos


"Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you're in love, you want to tell the world."
Carl Sagan

[This is not directly related to retirement, but I feel that it is one of the most constructive ways in which I have spent my available time.]

While browsing in my local library one afternoon, I chanced upon this gem. The DVD is called "Growing Up in The Universe" and it is a series of lectures delivered by the eminent Oxford biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins.

First, some background on the lectures and about the presenter.

This lecture series is part of a long British tradition of "Royal Institution Christmas Lectures." It was started in 1825 by Sir Michael Faraday, and continues to this day. This particular set was given in 1991, though the DVD only came out in 2008. The topics are all extremely relevant, so don't let the fact that this was delivered in the early 90's deter you.

I first learned of Richard Dawkins when I came across his book "The Selfish Gene." (After watching these lectures, I now realize that I misunderstood the topic of his book.)
He is an Oxford professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Dr. Dawkins is now known for his 2006 book "The God Delusion" which caused uproar in the creationists' community. But all that came later. In these series of lectures he explains evolution, presenting his arguments brilliantly, engaging the live audience of students with lots of interactions. He is a superb teacher.

Now comes the kicker: there are 5 lectures, each an hour long. I know that not everyone has so much time to devote to video lectures on understanding evolution. But take my word and watch just the first lecture. If you are not captivated, then you can choose not to watch the others.

While I was searching the web for the DVD, I found that YouTube has these lectures. (If you can watch them on your TV it is probably better, but here are the links.)

The five lectures are: (links to Youtube)
Ep 1: Waking Up in the Universe
Ep2: Designed and Designoid Objects
Ep3: Climbing Mount Improbable
Ep4: The Ultraviolet Garden
Ep5: The Genesis of Purpose

Suggestion:
If you are ever looking for what to buy for any young teens (your friends' kids, nephews or nieces) consider gifting them this 2-DVD set to them.

Be sure to add "Growing up in the Universe" to your list of must-see videos.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Early Retirement Litmus Test – Willing to report to your colleagues?

From time to time, I come across or correspond with people who are wondering if maybe they are ready for early retirement.

Here's one test in case you are wondering too.
Think back to some of your work peers, colleagues that you were forced to compete with during performance appraisals. Now ask yourself this: If you had to, would you be willing to report to (work under) them? And, would you be willing to work for and report to someone who used to report to you?


If you don't feel comfortable with the idea, then, before you quit your corporate job, you should be really sure that your accumulated savings are more than adequate, or that you know clearly why you are leaving.

However, if you answered yes to the test question, then you may be one step closer to early retirement. Your response implies that you don't have any organizational ambition left. And your ego won't come in the way, should your finances go south in a bad way while you are in early retirement, and you need to find another job.

That said, over time, I have come to believe that the traditional way of thinking about retirement as two distinct 0-1 binary states – that one is either retired or not retired – isn’t really valid anymore. There are many states in between.

Now more than ever, there are many opportunities to progressively scale down from full time employment. One can find ways to earn sporadically, depending on individual needs, while also buying oneself autonomy and time, which is what early retirement means to most people.

Related Posts:
Are you ready for early retirement?
EE Day - Your earliest exit day

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not profits, but Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose - Dan Pink

Here's a great video that Dan Pink has put up. The animation is engaging, but the core message is even better, the one he has espoused in his book "Drive."

We are not all mere "profit-maximizers," but we all want three other things:
Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

Take a look at the video below.

RSA Animate -- Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Memory Decline Accompanies Early Retirement - NYTimes

I worry that my cognitive abilities will rapidly decline since I no longer engage in the technical problem-solving that I used to, while working. Hoping to counter this, I've been diligent about attempting at least a few puzzles, chess problems, Sudoku, Gears, and a number of similar "mental ability" games, practically on a daily basis.

And then I come across this in an article:
Data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggest that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.
And almost as if to counter my exact thinking, this sentence:
And research has failed to support the premise that mastering things like memory exercises, crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku carry over into real life, improving overall functioning.
The article by Gina Kolata titled "Taking Early Retirement May Retire Memory, Too," goes on to say that going to work regularly does contribute to cognitive functioning. It also states that this is all very preliminary and that lots more research is still needed.

Thanks to Rupal for the link. The NY Times article is here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Quotable sentence from Tim Jackson's Ted talk

I will post about a few of my favorite Ted talks soon. Meanwhile, here's a tidbit. I was viewing Tim Jackson's "Economic Reality Check" talk, and found this sentence so good that I had to stop and jot it down.

Prof. Tim Jackson talking about people's savings ratio and ballooning debt:
This is a strange, rather perverse story, just to put it in very simple terms. It's a story about us, people being persuaded to spend money we don't have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won't last, on people we don't care about.
Click the play button below, for the full talk:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Higher Taxes for the rich - Simplistic

It is possible to experience a certain Robin Hood-like righteousness in contemplating about taxing the rich and sparing the poor. But in this article, Harvard professor Greg Mankiw shows me why my thinking is overly simplistic.

His point is that if the taxes were raised further, the proportion that he (and his family) can put away from each incremental dollar earned becomes so small that he might choose not to earn that extra dollar at all.

The following paragraph touches on a slightly different point and it resonated with me. I did notice a certain similarity in our thinking. My possessions, such as they are, are quite modest. Prof Mankiw writes:
Indeed, I could go so far as to say I am almost completely sated. One reason is that I don’t aspire for much more than a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle. I don’t fly around on a private jet. I have little desire to own a yacht or a Ferrari. I own only one home, in which I have lived since 1987. Paying an extra few percent in taxes wouldn’t create a lot of hardship.
Read the full article here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Purely a Consumer, and Nothing More

Here's my question: Is it okay to live life purely as a consumer of things, and not give anything back to society in return?

We instinctively look down upon the very idea of someone leading "a life of leisure." Why is this? I have been grappling with this question for months, and it just doesn’t go away.

Let's first back up and ask why are people working so hard at their jobs? So that they can provide themselves (and their family) a comfortable life, one that they can all enjoy.

But if someone had the choice to quit working, and didn't need to earn anymore, and was reasonably sure that they could lead their life enjoying the things that they cared about, should they take that opportunity?

Applying this choice to myself, it seems that I can argue for both sides.

I can readily see how selfish this life of leisure seems. Consuming without ever giving back to society. All those years of education, all of society's "investment" in me, wasted.

I have mentioned in this blog in the past my guilt over "not doing good to society." Interestingly, I never had any of this guilt when I was working a full time job. Since I was in middle management, I was decently compensated and sure, I paid a lot more in taxes. The extent of my 'contribution' was that I was managing (or mentoring) a few technically capable people, pushing them to do their best. But that was it. I wasn't really helping society in any big way, and yet nobody called me selfish.

But look at the other side, the argument for being a consumer of things that give me joy. People have spent their lives creating things that I enjoy. Books and movies (especially documentaries and foreign films) that I can never get enough of. Add to that innumerable thought-provoking web articles, video clips, and TED talks. Then there are the free online courses in iTunesU – lectures by the very best teachers in the world. Any decent-sized public library in the Chicago area has enough non-fiction DVD's to keep me watching for months. Lots of places to travel to, and new and interesting food to be sampled. In short, to consume in every sense of the word the things that I really like. It would be my way of respecting all the people who created these things.

Let's say (just for argument's sake) that someone had enough saved up to consume these things for the rest of their life. Should we question their choice of becoming purely a consumer of the things that give them joy?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A few missteps, even by Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs' recent accomplishments have become so well-known that it is difficult to imagine that he too might have struggled at some point, or that he too might have taken a few missteps.

This NY Times article by Randall Stross is about aspects of Steve Jobs that many of us didn't know about, or might have forgotten.

Of lessons learned from his years at NeXT:
"The Steve Jobs who returned to Apple was a much more capable leader — precisely because he had been badly banged up. He had spent 12 tumultuous, painful years failing to find a way to make the new company profitable."
In a way, it is empowering to be reminded that all of us (even Steve Jobs) have to go off and try different things, experience a few fallow years and learn from our 'failures.'
"It took 12 dispiriting years, much bruising, and perspective gained from exile. If he had instead stayed at Apple, the transformation of Apple Computer into today’s far larger Apple Inc. might never have happened. "
The full article is here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rethinking my Reading

I was busy for the last few weeks taking on short-term assignments, and hence the long gap between posts. I will try and pace myself better in the future.
----

One of the (many) reasons I gave up a full time job was that I wasn't satisfied with the amount of my reading. I loved the idea of having lots of free time to read. Looking at the New Arrivals section in libraries and bookstores, I felt that there was a huge river of knowledge to be consumed, but that I was doing so in thimblefuls. Also, I always read a book cover to cover, without skipping paragraphs, and this meant that I was reading far less than what I desired. I began to feel that if only I had more time, I could do justice to all the wonderful new books that keep getting published.

After I left my corporate job and had quite a bit of autonomy over my time, I was reading more, yes. But the river didn't seem any lesser just because I was consuming with cups instead of thimbles. In fact, with each book I discovered more books that I wanted to read, and all of this resulted inevitably in disappointment.

This post is about a couple of small shifts in my thinking that helped me rethink my approach to Reading.

I got the first idea from Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog. Tyler, a polymath I respect and admire, seems to endorse a 'snacking' approach to books and to food and to much else. In fact he seemed to be doing this even to movies, peeking into many of them in one visit to the multiplex.

It occurred to me that there was no rule saying that I had to read a book fully. So I eventually gave myself permission to browse books. When I know that I simply cannot afford the time to read a book, I will read just its table of contents, slowly. The way a book (of non-fiction) is structured can itself convey quite a bit. I then read small sections that sound interesting and satisfy myself.

And the second shift in my thinking was to focus instead, at the books that I do manage to read. This is still very much a work in progress for me. I am training myself not to view all new and interesting-sounding books as a huge to-be-done list, but to instead look at the books that I do manage to read. I am still working on this one, but it has definitely helped take off some of the disappointment I used to feel about my reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

HBR: Measuring One's Life

It is difficult to resist an article that is titled "How will you measure your Life?" Especially if the writer is a Harvard Business School professor. In addressing the class of 2010, Prof. Christensen lays down three important questions and proceeds to logically tackle them one by one.

[...] To find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?
I especially liked his "allocation of resources" section, where he suggests that we think about using our limited resources (personal time and energy) to shape our life strategy. This is where I repeatedly slip up – by spending way too much time on things of little import.

Because of the author's faith, the article has undertones of religion. But for those of us who consider ourselves secular, the message is still the same. Overall, well worth reading and passing on to others.

Related Posts:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Movie: A Map for Saturday

My wife was already standing in the checkout line at the public library and I still hadn't picked up any movies. I ran over to the Travel section, where the DVD cover of A Map for Saturday caught my eye. The blurb said something about a guy who takes off for a year around the world. I grabbed that and a couple of other travel movies. (It is almost tempting to believe that books and movie choose me, just as much as I seek them out.)

So the next morning, after my wife left (she's taken up a short-term contract assignment) and I was alone in the hotel, I popped the movie into the DVD player.

Even before the initial montage ended, I was completely hooked. And in five minutes, I was feeling really guilty. I knew my wife would really enjoy the movie too, so I stopped it. (I watched a movie about the Silk Road instead.)

That same evening, after dinner, we both watched A Map for Saturday. The title is based on the idea that 'on a trip around the world, every day feels like Saturday.'

Brook is a 25 year old who decides to give up his job in NYC and a successful future as a TV producer to hit the road. And he takes his camera along. He stays in hostels from Sydney to Bangkok to Europe to Rio. And he is really good at interviewing people, making them open up. The result makes for a compelling and at times mesmerizing documentary.

When I mention this movie about taking a year off to others, their first reaction is "Oh, I could never do anything like that." Which is precisely why they should watch this movie. To expand our horizons, and to learn how others think.

The movie reminds us of the dreams that we all squelched in order to fit in. It tells us that we owe it to ourselves to give at least one honest shot at pursuing our dreams.

The finished product is great and professionally edited. But since I have the time these days, I also watched all the deleted scenes. And the interviews and the DVD extras. Those are a little more raw, but people are less guarded and therefore extremely candid, which makes them very insightful for us viewers.

Brook captures the loneliness of the long-time traveler wonderfully well. If you love travel, have dreamed of taking time off, want to know what the joys and sorrows and longings of slow travel are, go and get this movie. (It should be mandatory viewing for all backpacker-wannabes.)

Get it from your local library, or through Netflix, but be sure to view it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Delayed or Instant?

"Instant gratification" might have been given a bad rap a little unfairly.

The question of when to take time out for enjoying life seems a very important one, and yet I don’t think that a whole lot has been written about it. (Or at least, I haven't come across that.)

My middle class roots dictate the collective script I must follow. Be a diligent employee, work hard, save scrupulously and retire at around 65. And you will be assured of a very comfortable life thereafter.

Which is exactly what my father did. He worked all his life to attain financial freedom. And just a few years after that, he has lost much of his physical freedom. I see how enfeebled he is these days.

And I have inherited his genes. I have a dozen good years, maybe two dozen if I am very lucky, until my physique too, gives out.

Which is why the question seems so important to me for each one of us to ponder seriously: Do you cash-in whatever chips you have, or do you sit at the table a little longer?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Checklists for productivity

What can one learn about simple checklists? Especially someone like me who routinely uses checklists, various other lists and even lists of lists (to keep track of new lists).

I had plenty to learn, as it turned out. I read Atul Gawande's book "The Checklist Manifesto" recently and had a number of takeaways. As might befit a surgeon his writing is logical and lucid. He is a good story-teller who takes us into the world of operating theaters, skyscraper construction and aviation history to show us how modern checklists have evolved. Perhaps with the confidence that comes from being a world-class surgeon, he isn't afraid to share his own doubts and misgivings, and that makes the whole book a great read.

Takeaways: For me, the biggest revelation was the importance of the communication checklist. These are used in large construction projects about who will talk to whom. In addition to the familiar checklist for tasks, they have another checklist to ensure that communication steps haven't been missed. This could be invaluable in any setting where groups of people work together as team.

And on a personal level, every chapter in the book reminded me of the need for personal discipline in getting things done. Those who go to work daily have a structure imposed on them. The rest of us have to figure it out ourselves. There are days when I am very productive, and days that I feel I wasted. And the difference is discipline. And in that, I believe, checklists can be a big help.

Monday, August 16, 2010

All or Nothing players

Perhaps I have grown cynical over time.

In our increasingly complex world, the prudent thing to do is to play it safe, to become part of big teams, and to not place too much faith in one-person attempts where the main ingredient they bring to the table is passion.

Which is also perhaps why stories like Santhosh Ostwal's resonate. They make us recalibrate our jaded world views.

It is heart-warming to read about someone like Santosh, who bet his whole life and everything else on solving one problem, and who does in fact end up solving the problem and deservedly getting the kudos.

Here is one guy, who managed to tweak and adapt cellphones to trigger irrigation pumps remotely. His home-brewed solution actually works and is making a difference to 1000s of people.

Read the full article here in the Economist magazine.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lessons from conducting a free chess camp

After years of dreaming about offering free chess or juggling camps for little kids, I finally acted on it a couple of days ago. I offered a free chess camp for kids aged 5 to 10, and quite a few showed up.

Like everything in life, it was a fortuitous confluence of factors that made it happen. We had come down to Richmond Va. to visit my brother-in-law. He has a vast circle of friends, my nephew (age 6) was interested in chess, it was summer and my brother-in-law took my offhand suggestion seriously and actually ran with it.

He composed and sent out an email to his friends (who forwarded it to their friends). On Tuesday, we had decided to hold a chess camp on Wednesday. By that evening a few kids had signed up. We eventually had 12 children attending our 4-hour afternoon "chess camp."

Here are my observations/lessons about camps, chess or otherwise.

Chess related lessons that I learned 1. For most little kids, four hours is way too much time to focus on chess. (I will shorten it the next time.)
2. Children have very little patience for chess theory or ideas. They just want to start playing as soon as they learn the moves.
3. They just love to attack the opponent's king and take enormous pride in shouting check. I wasn’t able to convince them to stop giving checks and doing something else to improve their game.
4. The age group was probably not right, but they had no interest in learning endgame or checkmating patterns. They only wanted to play full games, preferably with kids they could beat easily.

General Lessons regarding holding 'Camps"
1. There is a lot of joy in offering free camps/workshops. (I am pretty sure that if we had charged even a nominal fee, only a fraction of the kids would have showed up.)
2. I had underestimated the amount of work involved in keeping 12 kids occupied, productive and well-behaved. (A nod to kindergarten teachers and parents (esp. moms) here. If I didn't have 2 other adults helping me, it would have been chaos. It is so much easier managing grown children, I now feel. But what do I know?)
3. Kids love to shout out answers to really simple questions. (I will modify my material to throw in a lot more spot quizzes, to give them the joy of being right often.)
4. There is an unbelievably large amount of material and videos available on the web for any topic. With just a few hours of research on the web, lots and lots of material for "camps" can be created.
5. In order to teach kids under (say) age 10, you don’t have to be an expert at anything. In fact, I think knowing a lot of theory might actually hinder being a good teacher/coach.
6. Each and every person reading this can offer at least half a dozen free camps that little kids can benefit from. The trick is in finding the time and making the logistics work. I am so glad I started, because it feels easier once you have taken a small step. (I will be glad to offer camps in any city I visit, as long as there are takers and a couple of parents help out with the logistics.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

EE Day – Your Earliest Exit Date

This is more relevant to those who are 2-3 years from taking early retirement or some time off.

For reasons that I don't fully comprehend, even as I started my first job, I was thinking of leaving it and only doing things that I loved full time. (I think the autonomy I enjoyed in my grad school life was part of the reason.)

And after starting work, once I noticed that my savings were starting to accumulate, I became wildly optimistic about how soon I could leave and "be done with the earning phase of life." This was in the mid-to-late 1990's. Y2K was around the corner, and it sounded like a neat thing to be around for, and I thought I could soon leave after that.

But, as I found out, there is a tendency for these kinds of vague plans to keep floating forward. New projects and interesting opportunities kept coming my way. With each passing year, I was planning to get out in 2-3 more years.

Finally, it dawned on me that I had to commit to a date. So that's what I did. I chose a date in the future, printed it on a miniature PowerPoint slide and stuck it to the side of my PC monitor where only I could see it.

As it eventually turned out, I was off by several years. But that tiny printout served an important purpose. It changed my thinking, it brought a finitude to how I viewed my corporate career.

Tip: So if someone asked me today, here's what I will tell them. Go ahead and come up with the earliest date that you can quit, your EE Date. Take a deep, objective look at your finances, consider the health options for you and your family members, and also give lots of thought to why you are leaving your job. And then you arrive at a date. You mark it on your calendar, and you share the date with your spouse and maybe tell a few trusted friends. (You are not yet ready to start mentioning this in your workplace, because it is still all very preliminary.)

Now it is very possible that your EE date will not be when you really get out. It might take a lot longer than your initial estimate. But that is okay.

Coming up with a date changes your thinking in small and big ways. You start seeing an end to your current state, instead of it stretching forever. And that new bit of thinking is worth something.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Puzzle: Blue Block (aka Rush Hour)

Here's something lighter for this Friday.

I rediscovered a favorite game/puzzle in the iTunes store. It is called Blue Block (Free), created by Aragosoft, though I know this game as "Rush Hour."

I have shown this game to kids and adults alike and they've all liked it.

The goal is to 'free' the blue brick, which is blocked by white pieces. The white pieces can only slide in one direction, depending on their orientation. When you download, over 500 boards come free, in various levels of difficulty. The graphics is crisp, and it even tells you the 'par' which is the lowest number of moves to solve each board.

It's free. Give it a try.

The link, if you wish to download it to your iPhone/iPad:
http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/blue-block-free-unblock-sliding/id320111844?mt=8

I also found online versions of the game:
http://www.freegames.ws/games/freegames/cargames/rushhour.htm
or
http://www.freeonlinegames.com/puzzle-games/gridlock.htm
l (with pop-ups, unfortunately)

Extra:
For those of you who want to think about the game more (after playing it for a few rounds):
If someone asked you to 'program' the solution to this game, how would you go about formulating it? I can think of a few possibilities: Dynamic programming, using arcs-and-nodes and state-diagrams, and as an Integer Program (IP). For the IP, it is tricky to come up with an elegant objective function.

Would love to hear your thoughts on programming or solving it. Leave comments or drop me an email.


Related Posts:

Flood-It
Loop The Loop aka Fences

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tim O'Reilly on why Money is like Gasoline for a road trip

By choice, I don't write often about money and retirement, though the topic can't really be avoided and is always peripherally present. Plus, there are already so many books and blogs that pretty much equate a 'retirement lifestyle' with 'financing a life of retirement.'

This post is an exception because I really liked how Tim O'Reilly sums it up in this profile, as only he can.

"Money is like gasoline during a road trip," he says. "You don't want to run out of gas on your trip, but you're not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn't be about the money."

The whole interview in Inc. makes for great reading, including sound bites like "Learning has always been something of a drug for me." Don't miss it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Balance between accumulating and enjoying

I met a friend and former colleague for coffee. We were meeting after more than a year, and talking about the direction of our lives and his work. Then he made one of those spontaneous astute observations that people make from time to time.

"We plan and spend so many years to accumulate wealth but we don't seem to set aside years to enjoy our wealth," he said.

Amen, Sid.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Greener grass

I was reading an essay by Joseph "Jody" Bottum, and in the paragraph below I recognized an echo of my own (our collective?) dream, this unceasing desire for something different.

Perhaps my dreams are merely the standard-issue reveries in which settled people imagine they might somehow throw off their responsibilities and make a change. Perhaps they're merely daydreams of difference: the perpetual illusion that life might be lived down some entirely other path, the always-shimmering mirage that promises we can find what our spirits are missing simply by relocating our tired bodies.
Jospeh "Jody" Bottum, In Judgment of Memory

Monday, July 12, 2010

First, Become very good. Amass Career Capital

Just one last post about Cal Newport's article.

Until I started thinking about Newport's post, I really believed that anyone could opt for early retirement. That everyone could do it if they chose to make a few sacrifices.

Sure, they would have to give up some luxuries and lower their standard of living, but they could do it. (I still feel that those who give up ancillary creature comforts, in order to buy themselves time get the better end of the bargain.)

But Cal Newport's post made me change my mind about everyone qualifying. He says that the prerequisite is that "you become so good at something that [the hiring market] can't ignore you." Newport calls it amassing 'career capital.'
"Mastering something rare and valuable remains the necessary first step."
So why did I not see this before? I think there are two reasons for my blind spot. One, I happen to have educational degrees and a technical background that I feel I can fall back on. Two, all the people I interact with have MBA's or graduate degrees in technical fields and are highly marketable. This safety net is so pervasive in my circles that I was simply taking it for granted.

Lesson: So here's the lesson for those who are planning on taking a break, a sabbatical, or wishing to try other things. Be sure that you are trained in something that will be valued 3 to 5 years from the time you quit. Get some hard skill or vocational certification. Typically, most employers will agree to pay for training classes if it will help your immediate work, make you more productive. Don't skip going to these training sessions, and don’t opt for soft and easy courses. Good planners think about the safety net even as they are preparing for the jump.

One thing is very clear. The marketplace doesn’t seem to value generalists much. Those who claim that they can do everything are viewed as those who excel at nothing.

Related posts:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Embracing the Paradoxes

On some days, this whole experiment of buying time at the cost of many other things feels light and fun, but on other days it seems to be a serious undertaking. Gretchen Rubin, in her book 'The Happiness Project' verbalizes the paradoxes I feel really well.

"I kept running up against paradoxes. I wanted to change myself but accept myself. I wanted to take myself less seriously – and also more seriously. I wanted to use my time well, but I also wanted to wander, to play, to read at whim. I wanted to think about myself so I could forget myself. I was always on the edge of agitation; I wanted to let go of envy and anxiety about the future, yet keep my energy and ambition."

Gretchen in her blog has a post on the Paradoxes of her Happiness Project.

I am a sucker for 'Happiness' books. Gretchen Rubin, in her book, takes a simple concept (one full year of trying out different happiness-boosting techniques) but writes it in a memoir and slice-of-life style to produce a highly engrossing organic narrative. The book succeeds because she hasn’t let the structure come in the way of her story.

Even though I have only started the book, I highly recommend it to those interested in the subject.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Traits of a Rich Life

Cal Newport, in his post, points to previous research as identifying three traits that must exist for a person to feel that they have a rich life.
Thirty years of research has identified the following three traits to be crucial if you want a rich life:
· Autonomy — control over how you fill your time.
· Competence – mastering unambiguously useful things.
· Relatedness — feeling of connection to others.
My mnemonic is ARC (Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence) for these three. Looking back now, I can see that a big reason I left my job was my perceived lack of autonomy. I did have the freedom to pretty much choose my own projects, but I still had to show up and be there for long hours, and that tied me down in many ways.

Just one small caveat that a list of this kind shouldn’t be taken as the final word – several other traits can also be included and it will still sound like a very logical ingredient for a rich life.

What I like about these three in particular (ARC) is that we can choose to work on supplementing whichever trait we feel is lacking in our lives.

Related Post: The Competence Trap

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stay Current

I now think it was a mistake. For all the years when I worked a full-time job, I never updated my resume. As I have mentioned many times here before, I absolutely loved the job, and never looked for another. For me, not having an updated resume was a matter of pride, a kind of loyalty. I now feel that I was mistaken in my thinking.

And as I now know, it is very important for those who are thinking of taking a break or a sabbatical to maintain an updated resume. (Some people might imagine never ever having to deal with the annoyance of resumes once they are 'retired,' but it doesn’t work that way.)

For those who are on a long sabbatical, there are a number of reasons for doing short assignments in your line of work, and not all of them are financial. Taking on short-term consulting assignments serves many other purposes. You refresh your skills; there is continuity in your resume (in case you ever need to come back to regular employment); an opportunity to interact with people in your industry; and some intellectual stimulation.

I was talking to someone who used to work at GE, and he told me that as part of their annual performance review, everyone in his group was required to provide an updated resume. He said that thinking about the year's accomplishments in terms of 2-3 sentences suitable for the resume was a valuable exercise.

That, to me, sounds like a very good practice. (I know, because I have tried to summarize what I accomplished years ago, and that was not easy.)

So here's the lesson for those of you planning about leaving work and taking a break. Once every six months, be sure to update your resume. And we've just finished the first half of 2010, so now might be a good time to start.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Competence Trap – Addendum

Here's a quick addendum to competence trap, with one more of its implications.

Let's say that a couple decides that one of them will go to work and earn, and the other will stay back and manage the home front. Additionally, they decide that once every two years, they will alternate roles, switching who stays at home and who goes to work. They feel that this would be very fair.

However, such seemingly equitable arrangements won't make economic sense for the couple. The reason for this is the power of the competence trap. Even if the couple is able to get their respective offices to go along with their proposed arrangement, they will end up with sub-par promotion opportunities being presented to either of them. In the long run, they will end up with below average salaries.

Instead, if one of them had continued to work, that person would have become more and more competent at what they do, and would likely have enjoyed better financial compensation.

Related post: Competence Trap

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Competence Trap

There are very few posts in the blogosphere that I find worth bookmarking and revisiting. One such is a post by Cal Newport with the subtitle: "The Subtle Difference Between Finding You Life's Work and Loving Your Life." I read it several weeks ago, and am finally getting to mention it here.

There is so much good stuff in it that I plan to come back to Newport's post by a couple of more times.

For today, I'll just focus on one aspect – that he calls "The Competence Trap."

As Cal defines it, competence trap is when once "you amass enough career capital to exert meaningful control over your life and career, the only investment presented as reasonable will be to further maximize your competence at the expense of the other areas of your life."

In other words, as you get better and better at your job, the whole marketplace is geared towards making sure that you don't leave to focus on other things. To me, competence trap is at the very crux of the internal struggle that many of us go through – those of us who love what we do for work, are good at it, and yet feel that something is missing. (I am simplifying in order to summarize here. Cal does a much better job of laying it out, and also warns us to be wary of the competence trap.)

In his entire post, Cal makes several very important points. To me, it seems that a careful reading of the post will really benefit anyone who takes the time.

Friday, June 18, 2010

With a Little Help

The idea was that I would go off and try something independent. But it is very humbling when I pause to think about the number of people who are helping me.

For starters, it seems to be impossible to lead a reasonable life in the US without a permanent address. Every form I fill asks for it, and they always state that it "cannot be a PO Box." My brother has agreed to let me use his address in Michigan, even though we don't reside there. Our mail goes there and he has to cull out the important ones and often take care of them.

We have been exceptionally fortunate with temporary accommodation. Usually at times when they were spending time abroad, a few friends and relatives have let us use their entire homes.

Without my asking, several friends offered me the use of their cars (and even a motorcycle in one instance in India) – offers that I took up.

Another friend took the time to create a tailor-made "retirement finance estimator" for me in Excel. It came with its own Monte-Carlo simulator, so that I could analyze different best-and-worst case scenarios to see if I would "make it financially." (That is, to check if my savings would outlast me.)

Help comes in less tangible ways too. I have had a number of well-wishers, who very delicately probed the question of my financial (as well as mental) health. Both of these subjects are not easily discussed in our society, and I am grateful for their concern.

There is no real way that I can ever repay all of this, which means that I must remain perpetually indebted – a state of being that I am instinctively uncomfortable with. I am only slowly coming to grips with this state. The best I can do is to follow the "pay it forward" adage – hopefully try and help others sometime in the future.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Right Time for the Roses

I am finally learning to slow down, sometimes. It's taken me a year and a half to get here. It seems that the achievement imperative is very deeply inscribed in our psyches. We are so well programmed to get things done, to be productive, that it is not at all easy to fritter away time and not feel guilty about it.

But because these days I have the time, occasionally, I will nurse a cup of coffee (15 minutes), will read an issue of Time from cover to cover (2 hours), or read a book slowly (several days).

One consequence of this slowing down is that it often seems to me that my friends and acquaintances are not taking the time to savor things. I know why this is, of course. They cannot afford to be indulgent because they are busy being good citizens, diligent workers and responsible parents.

And I am not sure that I should be asking others to slow down. Because it is not clear to me how things will eventually end up. It is very likely that while I stopped mid-career to smell the roses, my diligent but harried friends are the ones who come out smelling like roses.

And I would have to end up paying for being so indulgent. So I might have to end up paying for it one way or another – perhaps with a very low standard of living later on, or perhaps by having to work in my advanced years, or in other ways that I don't even know today.

Years from now, when my time to pay up comes, I hope I do so without self-pity. Not grudgingly but gracefully, accepting that I might have been too fast in my eagerness to slow things down.

Monday, June 7, 2010

So How Will this Experiment End?

A good experimenter does not pre-suppose results. The job is to observe carefully, record the observations unaltered and only later retro-fit theories that explain the results obtained.

But what works in science doesn't always work cleanly in the human sphere. So how do I think this "experiment in retirement" will end?

I suspect that sooner or later, I might revert back to a corporate life, with earnest promises to myself "to never forget the many lessons learned." And to everyone who asks about my time off, I will tell them that "I won't give up that experience for anything."

Whether I will say that because I really believe it or because none of us likes to admit failure in any endeavor, I really don't know.

For now, I am enjoying the time immensely. The experiment goes on.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ben Fountain decides to try something different

The following resonated with me, because it reminded me of the time I left a corporate job I absolutely loved.
“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”
That is Malcolm Galdwell writing about author Ben Fountain, a successful lawyer deciding that he wanted to be a writer instead though he had no real writing experience. The above is from Gladwell's essay on late bloomers.

Aside 1: I read Fountain's book “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” when it came out in 2006 and loved the stories. He is such a talented writer, and until I read this essay I had no idea that he had to struggle for so long before he became an 'overnight success.' Read the book.

Aside 2: After reading Gladwell's the essay "John Rock's Error" I was wondering why women weren't emailing it to other women. And everyone who sees the world in black & white, and is angry about what Enron did should read "Open Secrets."

Overall, I am extremely impressed with Gladwell's book "What the Dog Saw." His other books get a lot more press, but this collection of his New Yorker pieces covers such a wide range of topics. He so thoughtfully takes the contrarian view and makes me rethink my many stereotypes. I have no hesitation in labeling the book a 'must-read.'

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What are these posts about?

The title of this blog is not accurate. It is difficult to be accurate while also being succinct.

When I was setting up this blog, I couldn’t possibly name it "An Attempt to Give Up A Regular 9-5 Corporate Job In Order to Obtain Lots Of Free Time, Pursue Leisure and To Get By with Occasional Paid Gigs." So, I went with something reasonably catchy.

But I hardly ever use the word "retirement" in conversations with respect to myself. I now feel that the words 'retirement' or even 'sabbatical' are too blunt for what I am attempting to do.

When I look at what ties the posts in this blog, I see two of my obsessions recurring.
They are 1) Financial independence and 2) Getting free time.

Actually, even those two are not very accurate. What I am really interested in is getting to choose how I spend my time (autonomy over time). And for most of us, that is only possible if we take care of the money question. In this blog, financial independence is narrowed down to 'freedom from dependence on a monthly paycheck.' So these are the two central underlying themes that I post about.

Staying Sharp: One of my big fears is that an unexercised brain will quickly go to mush. As our world gets increasingly complex, I especially worry about how I will stay sharp. Under the broad label of intellectual stimulation I post about puzzles and games.

Getting inspired by those who are trying very different lifestyles: I am fascinated by people who are trying out unconventional things, shunning traditional routes. Since we can't all try everything out, we have to learn from others who are trying to move off the conventional grid in small and big ways, and maybe find a few aspects to incorporate into our own lives. So I sometimes post about that.

The specifics of how each one of us can get away from a dependence on a monthly paycheck varies from person to person. So my posts are about a few basic financial guidelines and also about my situation.

I also wouldn’t presume to tell others what to do with the free time once they get it.

But why is getting autonomy over time so important?

Because deep down I believe that if all my friends and all the readers of this blog get autonomy over time (full control over how they choose to spend their time), each one will eventually get around to "doing good." Sure, the definition of doing good in society will vary for each of us. Doing good, as I repeatedly find, is actually not straightforward, and I sometimes post about that.

Staying sharp, and learning from others about how to get control over our time so that we can perhaps do a little good.

These are the things I post about.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Data Driven Life - The emerging self-tracking movement

"One of the reasons that self-tracking is spreading widely beyond the technical culture that gave birth to it is that we all have at least an inkling of what’s going on out there in the cloud. Our search history, friend networks and status updates allow us to be analyzed by machines in ways we can’t always anticipate or control. It’s natural that we would want to reclaim some of this power: to look outward to the cloud, as well as inward toward the psyche, in our quest to figure ourselves out."

This is from an article in The New York Times by Wired's Gary Wolf. I do a bit of self-tracking myself, but the people mentioned in this article take it to the limit. Ben Lipkowitz's life-logging project logs everything he's done in the last 5 years in categories. People are tracking time in 2-minute segments, tracking every idea one has had in the last decade, tracking their physical location using GPS. This is way beyond what we would normally see in Facebook entries and on Twitter. Looks like we have a whole new field of data analytics emerging.

I track things in the hope that I can analyze the data some day in the future and perhaps learn things about myself. I had no idea that there were so many other self-trackers, and these people are obsessed. Check out the fascinating article.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Inferior vs Normal Goods

In my assorted reading, I come across several new (to me) concepts and ideas. Quite often, these concepts seem to apply to my situation at the time I encounter them.

Recently, in an economics book, I read about what economists refer to as inferior goods as contrasted against normal goods. This seemed to have implications for those interested in early retirement.

First the definitions: An inferior good is something that people want less of as they get richer.

Examples of inferior goods include eating street food (as opposed to eating in white-tablecloth restaurants); buying new items (versus settling for used ones or getting old items repaired); and taking bus rides (compared to driving one's own car).

A normal good is something that people buy more of as their incomes rise (better clothing, getting a bigger house, fancier entertainment etc.)

In my own case, the goal was to get time off. Now, I am very aware of how important luck is in our lives and I won't deny that my wife and I are extremely fortunate. But we also planned for and made numerous adjustments in working towards this goal of getting time off (which in our case means no steady income). In retrospect, I see that starting from years earlier, we consciously opted for the so-called inferior goods.

To me, this choice seems to be another necessary condition. It strikes me that those who are serious about taking time off (by giving up their regular salary) have to opt for at least some "inferior goods."

You make all the adjustments you can, and then you hope for luck.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Are you ready for Early Retirement?

I picked up the term organizational ambition from Taleb in his book Fooled By Randomness. He uses it in a different context, but I think it has definite significance to those thinking of early retirement.

Let's assume that every now and then, you compute your net worth and idly contemplate taking early retirement and living a life of leisure. Here's one question you have to ask yourself: Do you have any organizational ambitions? In other words, are you excited by the idea of your next promotion, a new title, more responsibilities and the accompanying pay raise?

Answer this Yes/No question honestly. There are many valid reasons to want that success. You will be making your parents, your spouse, and your children proud by getting promoted. You may also want to prove yourself to your colleagues, or even to yourself with future professional successes in your field.

If the answer is Yes (i.e. you do have org. ambitions) then there is no point in getting frustrated about the lack of a life of leisure, because the time for you to quit is not imminent. Give yourself time, say 2 years or 5 years to re-evaluate things.

If the answer is No, and you indeed have no organizational ambition left, then that is one more thing out of the way. A lack of organization ambition is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for early retirement.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Attachments

We just vacated our rented apartment after spending 45 days in Indore, MP, and I am heading out. I am keen to spend a few days with my parents in Chennai next, and to meet friends in Chicago following that. And yet, I experienced a surprising sense of sadness at leaving Indore.

I am going to miss the daily interaction with people here – the two ladies who run a tiffin service from their home kitchen (I bought one meal from them daily), the used-bookstore guy who waves at me in recognition from across the road, and Manak Seth, the grocer who always gives us an extra 5% off MRP. The friendly young man who fetches and packs the groceries at Manak Seth's shop asked me if I would ever come back to Indore again.

It is a little scary how quickly one gets attached to people, things and places.