Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What I learned from my Volunteering attemtpts

I wanted to share a little of what I learned about volunteering. First let me share the background of my volunteering efforts. The lessons are at the end of this post.

Like many of us, all my working life, I kept telling myself that once "I had a lot of time" I would devote a good chunk of it to 'volunteering efforts.' Prior to 2008, my volunteering efforts were mostly those sponsored by my company. We'd drop off something for occasional food and clothes drives, or buy, gift-wrap and drop off a toy for "underprivileged" kids during the Holidays.  And a couple of times each year, in exchange for donating our time on a Saturday (races-for-causes, painting school classrooms and the like) we'd receive a logo-filled T-shirt, a goodie bag and the accompanying warm glow.

There were many occasions when I wondered if the amount of time and money that our corporation spent on organizing the event (the logistics, transportation, food for us, the T-shirts etc) weren't better spent by simply collecting money and giving it to the organization instead. But I am also pragmatic, and I understood that there is a "team building" aspect to these events.

Once we left our jobs, my wife and I looked for volunteering opportunities. We did try out several. (I am a big fan of the "marketplace" model that uses in many cities – matching non-profits with would-be volunteers.)

Of course, just because we showed up didn't mean that the organizations had the ability to utilize our skills. To oversimplify, what a lot of organizations needed was really some administrative help. Many of the small and local organizations really needed to improve their operational efficiency. Anyone who's spent time volunteering can tell you that. The feeling that for a few dollars an hour, anyone could have done what I was doing never went away. It wasn't what we had hoped for, but we did help out. However, with us moving from city to city frequently, we couldn’t be of much long-term help to these organizations.

What I felt was really lacking in volunteering at these places was 'scale.' I was more inclined to give my time if it would positively impact a lot of people rather than just a handful.

When I was in India, I chanced upon an email about an opportunity at NPTEL. I responded and was included almost right away. This was a nationwide effort to create instructional videos for engineering students (very similar to MIT's OCW). The scale and scope was there, plus they needed someone like me. Also, because this happened to be my alma mater, I was welcomed back and knew ways to get things done. The professors were churning out good videos. But not many people were watching them online.
 My task was to help get the word out. And I even had access to a sizable budget. Plus, I had knowledge of both sides. I had taken some of these courses, been a student in one of the colleges and taught similar material during my grad school. I knew the strengths to tout and what needed to be improved. Also, the effort needed was quite similar to what a lot of middle managers do, so I had the experience. I felt very much at home. We organized workshops, visited colleges and it worked great for a few months.
They kept asking me to take a salary and become an NPTEL employee so that they could give me more responsibilities. The problem was that after a dozen years of corporate life, I didn't want to become an employee. I didn't want to have a boss to report to. I liked the autonomy that came with doing everything voluntarily and without pay.

I can now see that what I thought was a virtue was the real stumbling block. Since I didn't have a "contract" of any sort, it never went much beyond helping out on an as-needed basis. And then it was time for me to come back to the States.

Which brings me to my current thinking on volunteering efforts.

Lessons about volunteering:1.    Just because you think of yourself as capable doesn't mean that a non-profit can readily use your 'skills.'
2.    In my case, my efforts felt meaningful only when it was at a large scale, something that would impact many people. Also, somewhat paradoxically, whenever my volunteering efforts closely mimicked what my regular work was like, it felt satisfying. In other words, doing what I am reasonably efficient at doing, but doing it pro-bono felt good.
3.    Unless one becomes officially affiliated, one can't expect to be handed lots of responsibility and opportunities.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Happiness Book that influenced me the most

This is a long overdue post. While commenting on one of my posts on happiness, Chris P. asked me two questions: 1.What's the best happiness book you have read; and 2. Are you happier now?

The first question is easier to answer. Without a doubt it is Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard's professor Daniel Gilbert. This is not a self-help book, at least not in the shallow sense of the phrase. This is a very accessible book covering the latest research on our very human failure to predict what makes us happy. (It is full of cleverly constructed experiments that expose how our cognitive biases conspire to make us imagine the future poorly.) Prof. Gilbert is smart and articulate in the way we wish all our teachers were.

Before I read this book, a lot of my ideas about happiness were naïve. I first encountered a lot of new (to me) concepts in this book. Concepts like having a happiness "set point", the differences with which we rate our current experiences versus our memory of past happiness; and our skewed loss versus gain assessments. Perhaps the most important concept I picked up was that of Hedonic Adaptation.

Many of these concepts had a deep impact on me. I learned not to put too much weight in statements like "Once I get [ABC], I will …" or "As soon as [xyz] happens, my life will be wonderful again." This is the book that taught me to distrust many of my emotion-based expectations and anticipations.

I must add that Stumbling on Happiness was the first book of this genre that I read, which is one reason why it had a big impact on me. When I later read Sonja Lyubomirsky's How of Happiness, a lot of the material was already familiar to me, and thus that book didn’t have quite the same impact that Stumbling on Happiness did.

If you haven't read any of the books in the "Happiness Lit" genre I strongly recommend Stumbling on Happiness. It might change your life, just a little.

Chris's second question is: Am I happier now? This one is more difficult to answer. The short answer is yes, I am. Yes, because I am a little more aware of the underlying mechanisms at work. Perhaps an analogy would make my point better. Reading this book is like attending a movie appreciation class. The movies you view may not change, but you are able to see deeper into the ones that you do watch.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Year End Sunset

When this calendar year ends, I am planning to stop updating this blog.

I have been at this 'Time Off' thing for 3.5 years. I will have 2 more months to make any new posts. I will try to post my lessons learned (hopefully they won't be platitudes.) There will be around 200 posts in all.

This blog was a good way to work out my thoughts and ideas in a somewhat public forum. But I feel that I have already shared whatever thoughts I wanted to share about taking sabbaticals/Time Off/Early Retirement.

3.5 years is roughly around 10% of most people's working lives. Seems like a decent point to stop this blog. And time to try something else.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tim O'Reilly - Just don't run out of gas

To me, the following analogy by Tim O'Reilly seems to be referring to 'money during retirement'. When thinking about how much is enough, the metaphor of 'gas for the road trip' seems very apt.
Tim O'Reilly: It was at this time that I formulated an image that I've used many times since: profit in a business is like gas in a car. You don't want to run out of gas, but neither do you want to think that your road trip is a tour of gas stations.
Replace "profit in a business" with "money during retirement." I have referred to the quote before, but I read it today in Tim's Google+ post, where he muses about the legacy that Steve Jobs left behind, and the wisdom of Tim's analogy hit me afresh.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Great Courses by The Teaching Company

This might sound like a paid advertisement, but it is not. I am just a consumer who's always been impressed with The Teaching Company's products.

This company produces quite a number of audio and video courses under its Great Courses series. I have listened to and watched several full courses. They take time, but they are invariably excellent, no exceptions.

It turns out that I have been using their products for over 10 years now, but I only started to pay attention when Bill Gates mentioned them by name, in his GatesNotes blog. I had been searching for around 3 years for a macro-economics book whose material would be accessible to me. Bill Gates recommended a macro-economics series by Timothy Taylor titled America and the New Global Economy. This course came the closest to what I was looking for. My wife and I watched all 36 episodes earlier this year.

Bill Gates also recommended the "Big History" course by Oxford's David Christian and we are watching parts of it now. I don't have the words to describe how good this course is. (Bill calls it "his most favorite course" by TTC.)

As an aside, I am delighted (and grateful) that someone with my modest means can get to enjoy the exact same products that Gates with his purchasing power can.

If TED talks are fast food for our brains, then the Great Lectures are the healthy gourmet meal plans for our intellects.

Most of these DVD set costs several hundred dollars, but I am also seeing quite a few for under $40. Personally, I have always borrowed these from the libraries. Do check them out from your library and give it a try.

Each episode of any Teaching Company disk that I watch serves to remind me of why I should always chose time over everything else -- time to spend viewing the Great Courses.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Biggest Worry

Quesiton: Deep down, what is your biggest worry?

Response: That someday I could become unexpectedly physically incapable, and my savings won't be enough to cover my healthcare costs. I really believe that we can weather all other contingencies. For now, we have a high deductible health insurance. But healthcare costs are where we are rolling the dice.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Handling Uncertainty

Back when I worked for an airline, we'd go to the airport to fly "standby." If the plane had empty seats, we'd get on. If everyone showed up, we went home. By definition we couldn't book hotels, or have concrete travel plans. A few times we ended up in cities very different from the ones we intended to visit.

We never liked it, but we figured out ways to deal with the uncertainty. Most airline employees do. Not once did we end up with no hotel room to sleep in for the night. If you have a credit card, you can find a room, albeit at a high price.

Anyway, all that is back-story. I guess we learned from our "standby" mode of existence. I am no longer with an airline, but we are still doing 'stand-by.' When there is fluctuating demand and supply, there will be instances of over-capacity or over-demand.

The people I consult with call me for short projects when they have a need (higher demand). Other times I don't work. Home-owners or landlords sometimes look to sublet for a month or two (overcapacity). We rent from them. In the end, it always seems to work out.

So why do I do this? My shying away from long-term commitment stems from the belief that Flexibility equals Autonomy. And I want (the illusion of) autonomy over everything else.

If you can handle a level of uncertainty, you can make things work.