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:

I also found online versions of the game:
l (with pop-ups, unfortunately)

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:

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