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 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'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

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