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.