Retirement, Financial Independence, and How Savings Work

A ton of personal finance information awaits anyone with an interest, but we need a frame of reference to even begin understanding all of that information in the first place. Let’s take 10 minutes to talk about what “retirement” really means, and how that applies to financial independence and savings.

Retirement is simply the point where our resources can cover our financial needs for the rest of our lives, without us working any more. That’s it. There’s no special age, there’s no magic number, and there’s no “one right way” to calculate when people should retire if they want to. While a lot of factors contribute to figuring out retirement (such as how long we’ll live and how much we need), retirement is simply the point where we decide that we can afford to quit working, if we want to.

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What Starcraft Can Teach Us about Personal Finance

Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games like Starcraft require deftly managing income, output, and attention. These three resources change priority throughout the game. Personal finance works the same way, requiring us to manage income, spending, and attention, to attain financial success.

More specifically, our chances of success in Starcraft depend on our harvesting rate, conversion of resources to units, and optimal application of those units to defense and expansion. Note that I said “chances for success”, not just “success”. We can do everything right, and still lose. We can do everything wrong, and still win. Knowledgeable and persistent optimization of our opportunities helps us make the most of what chance offers us. Here, then, are five personal financial management lessons to garner from Starcraft.

1. Time Scales Linearly; Resources Scale Exponentially.

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Navigating Blind Spots (in Others and Ourselves)

A lot of discourse and argument foment around people’s blind spots, and interaction often fails when we try to fight blind spots. Nobody wants to keep a blind spot — we either want to resolve it, or send it back beyond the purview of our consciousness. Understanding how blind spots work can help us navigate them when we encounter them.

Disregarding intention for a moment, let’s borrow the four levels of knowledge/proficiency/whatever-it’s-called:

1. We don’t know that we don’t know.
2. We know that we don’t know.
3. We don’t know that we know.
4. We know that we know.

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Passwords are Not for Security

Picture a kindergarten classroom. Every kid has a space to hang up their coat, their bag, and maybe to store their lunch. While it’s technically possible that one kid may steal another kid’s lunch, more likely a kid will take home the wrong bag by accident. Organizing a bunch of on-the-run kindergartners is an exercise in identity management. Whose coat is this? Where did you last see your bag?

Contrast that with lockers at the local gym. While it’s also unlikely that anyone will steal anything, you get a lock and key. You carry the key. If you forget your stuff or if you lose the key, the staff can open the locker for you (or get rid of your stuff after you leave it there, forgotten, for several months). If you do lose your key, the staff will probably ask you to identify what’s in the locker before they open it. Some places won’t be so nice, and stand by a “use at your own risk” policy. Managing gym locker contents is an exercise in security. Who has access? Who needs help getting into a locker?

The two seem pretty similar, but they actually serve very different purposes, and understanding the differences can provide critical insight into how an IT department can help (or hinder) the people whom it serves.

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Systems Are Not as Intuitive as We Think

We easily take for granted the systems we learn, especially after we leverage those skills for a long time. In turn, we may become intolerant of people who either have not learned or even refuse to learn the systems we take for granted. Why won’t they just figure it out, like we did? Why would they want to continue to struggle with working at such a low level? As much as we may want to dismiss some people as lazy or dumb, the truth is that systems are not as intuitive as we think.

There’s nothing intuitive about desktop computers. People forget about that, once they pick up basic computer literacy. I mean, for crying out loud, we use a mouse to provide 2D horizontal input that proportionally but NOT commensurately maps to 2D vertical movement on a screen? The only thing worse than that is a control pad for a game console, where navigation input is neither proportional nor commensurate.

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Broadening the Search for Your Calling

How often do we hear about “how to find your calling”, “do what you love”, and “you only have one life to live, so follow your heart”? We may read about or even know some people who found their calling, how they live their passion. For the majority of us, the idea of a calling brings one of two frustrations: either we don’t know how to follow our calling in any practical sense, or much more often, we don’t know if we even have a calling.

Let’s challenge the second of these frustrations. Based on the people I met in my life who did find callings, we need to reframe and expand our conception of a calling, before asking if we have one.

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How to Spot the Next Big Thing

(Or, How Information Technology Became a Utility)

Information Technology, as a profession and as a field of study, has reached maturation. To understand how and why requires three concepts: the growth pattern of a resource, the four stages of technology, and the difference between complex and complicated problems.

The Growth Pattern of a Resource

A resource is a technological means to an end, serving as the foundation for other technologies. The growth pattern of a resource follows four geographic stages: central, distributed, standard distribution, and supplanted. When a resource first appears in a location, people go to that location to use the resource or get more of that resource. The first printed books, the first cars, and the first internet websites all required going to a place, worldly or virtual, to obtain the resource you wanted. Continue reading

Why Techs Don’t (Won’t?) Lead

Every time I read an article about the ever looming shortage of technical talent, I shake my head. Typically, a parade of comments supports the article, alongside rants about how the people who run businesses are just too dumb to understand how they’re hurting themselves by shortchanging technical aspects of their business. Really? Do we really think all those business owners are idiots? Consider another pattern here.

My brother and I often talk about the difference between the yellow shirts and the red shirts in Star Trek. Starting with The Next Generation, and going through Deep Space Nine and Voyager (reverse the colors for the original Star Trek series), the yellow shirts are engineering. They’re the geniuses that come through with an awesome solution, and are shining stars for about 2% of any given show. The rest of the time, we’re watching the red shirts sort out problems, drama, context, and mystery. Continue reading

How World of Warcraft Can(‘t) Land You a Job

An old college friend asked me a provocative question. “If you were hiring people, and you had the time to watch them play a game, what game do you think would show you the best people?”

Let’s start with this: most games are crappy when determining decent employees.

Two reasons support this assertion. First, games are much, much easier than they used to be. Which is to say, designers are much, much better about making games that don’t bring the ridiculously steep, variable learning curves they used to bring. Consequently, watching people play a game won’t tell me much about the players unless the players are good enough to display the nuances that make a real difference in their performance. That, in turn, requires me to be good enough to recognize those nuances, limiting me to World of Warcraft. I could determine certain traits from the Street Fighter series, Tetris, and some old-school Nintendo and Atari games, but World of Warcraft offers a much more rich, nuanced view of players. Continue reading

Abdication of Advocacy

How do we advocate for ourselves and the groups we want to promote? A friend of mine showed me an article about Information Technology support politics. As a longtime IT worker, the article disheartened me by ending in the same mistaken way so many advocacy articles do: making a plea to power holders for help. Using IT as an example, let’s talk about how IT advocacy goes wrong, and how to make it right.

Start with a quote from the first page: “When I’m recruiting support people, I don’t recruit them for their technical skills, I recruit them for how they get on with people.” So much yes. If we’re in IT support, we do two things when someone comes to us looking for support: validate their feelings, and help them find an answer. The former is more important than the latter, because Google and other search engines made knowledge much less important than the ability to find the knowledge. That’s why data science is the hottest tech job in the market right now. The issue isn’t finding data (although doing that correctly matters a lot). It’s figuring out how to shape data in useful ways. For IT support, validating a person’s feelings about a problem in turn validates the IT helper, and then both people can proceed to a solution. Continue reading