Do You Know How You’re Wired?

There are a thousands of articles and books about the types of employees they desire: they want people who will listen, who will do what they’re told, who won’t ask questions, and who are willing to work longer hours every year. (and schools were set up to teach kids to learn basic skills, to not think too creatively, and to do as they’re told because this is what corporations want.)

But there’s something else corporations also want. They want experts. Heck, even individual teams want experts. An engineering team that develops a computer wants an expert on memory technology, and an expert in CPU technology. Then they need some experts in writing BIOS, some mechanical experts, and experts for integrating the operating system. Like the assembly line, this is efficient for mass production.

And over the past 10 years, I became an expert. To be completely honest, I can design the hell out of a computer. I can do it fast and with high quality. I can make all the right trade-offs in the design.  I can work a logic analyzer and digital oscilloscope to solve problems like none of my peers. I can debug the toughest issues in the business. I’m not bragging, I’m honestly assessing myself. But during those 10 years of becoming an expert (actually it took about 7), I lost something. I lost time. It was an opportunity cost, because while I was becoming an expert in this tiny area of life, I failed to gain knowledge in any other areas of life. In high school and college I read philosophy, studied economics, and wrote poetry – all for fun.  But during this “lost decade” since college I failed to improve that knowledge, and in fact I’ve lost some of it.

I think it’s important to understand what type of person you are, and what you ultimately want in your career and in life. Are you an entrepreneur that must remain creative and uncontrolled? Are you a power seeking CEO? Are you a 9-5 and get the hell out of the office employee? Are you an artist?  Do you just want to be an expert in something and valued for that expertise? (There are more types, but you get the picture…) Steve Jobs could never have sat in a cubicle and generated power point slides. Richard Branson can create and run amazing companies, yet he would fail miserably as a Director at Microsoft. I think everyone is born to fit a role, and trying to squeeze into a role that doesn’t fit your personality is like trying to push a round peg into a square hole.

As I examine myself, I realize that I wasn’t meant to be an expert. Not in computer design, or in anything else. I thought I was meant to be the expert, until I actually became one. Then the learning curve stopped and the fun was lost(*). I got desperate and decided to get into management, where I could test the waters of Power. After a short time in management (less than 1 year) I knew this was also the wrong path. This is when I decided I would quit the corporate world, opting for an extremely early retirement.

(*) This also happened with long-distance running. I started out as an amateur runner. Over a 5 year span I went from 5K’s to 10K’s to marathons and finally reached the pinnacle of completing a few hundred mile ultramarathons. I wasn’t the fastest, but I was an expert. I knew everything about long-distance running. How to train, how to avoid injury, what and when to eat, how to pace. I had a perfect understanding of my body, I could correct any ache or pain on the fly. And once I became this expert, the learning ended and the fun stopped.

So… if I’m not meant to be an expert, I’m not artistic, and I don’t desire wealth, fame or power – then where do I fit in? To be honest, from the time I realized I wasn’t wired to be an expert and until very recently – I wasn’t sure. But in examining where I’m spending my time and life-energy I think it becomes obvious. I was born to be a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. This explains why I’m splitting my time reading about economics and investing, writing, investing in real estate, writing Android apps, running an online business, and being a dad/husband. And I want to get better at each, while not necessarily mastering any of them. I also want to learn how to renovate and old house and sell it on my own. I want to learn to do all maintenance and repair on my motorcycle, my bicycle, and my wife’s car. I want to study philosophy, economics, poetry – and I also want to be a better writer. I want to become a better critical thinker, learn stronger persuasion techniques, and find a way to effect the world in a positive way. I want to learn to cook. I want to learn new spoken languages, and new computer languages. I don’t need to be an expert at any of these things, I just want to become competent in each and then move on to more learning. This isn’t a life for everyone, and I’m not claiming it’s an optimal one – but it’s one that will fit my natural tendencies.

We’re all wired different, and we need to ensure that our life situation is compatible with our wiring. I hope that everyone who reads this has already found a career or path that matches their wiring. If not, I hope you’ll use this article as motivation & inspiration to start moving in that direction.

24 Responses to Do You Know How You’re Wired?

  1. Krantcents says:

    We all have different interests and pursue those interests with different levels of energy and enthuisiasm. That is probably why we form teams in business, because very few people have all of the skills we need. Many people have multiple careers because they follow their interests.

  2. Neo says:

    I often find myself torn between being a specialist in my field and being a “renaissance man”. I think there are benefits to both approaches, but my view is that being a jack-of-all trades is just more fun!

  3. Yabusame says:

    I love being a ‘renaissance man’, unfortunately, I am paid to be a specialist. Maybe one day I’ll retire early and pursue what interests me (the whole kaleidoscope of colours that are the interests of man) and I’ll never have a day where I feel my time was wasted. I love turning my hand and mind from one thing to the next.

    Actually, I’ve found that I’ve fallen into an enjoyable ‘rutt’ at weekends. I tend to spend the morning studying and reading (using my mind) and the afternoon doing something physical (using my hands/body). I think thats the way I am wired, because I find it VERY enjoyable.

    Great article BNL, and I agreed with everything you said. I guess you want dissenters though, so you (and I) can learn from their point of view 😉

    • I love being a ‘renaissance man’, unfortunately, I am paid to be a specialist.

      Yep, that’s pretty much what you can expect. As I said in the post, corporations want specialists. As long as you need/want to maximize your income, specialization is required. But it’s also the highest risk- what happens when that specialty is no longer valued? This is where skill diversification is optimal.

      As for dissenters… nah. I want everyone to agree with me. :)

      • Mike says:

        I think we’re all wired for the “renaissance man” model from an evolutionary standpoint. We once spent our days providing for our needs through physical exertion with dashes of mental problem solving thrown in. At some point division of labor and specialization came into play and had higher ROI for the species than the “jack of all trades” model. It seems to me that if you want to be a “renaissance man (or woman)”, you have 2 choices: 1) be born rich or 2) tolerate the reality of needing to be an expert while being very frugal with your life and keeping your intellectual curiosity alive. Either way you get to a point financially where you are paid to OWN rather than being paid to DO. There might be a way to get someone to pay you lots of money for *not* being an expert, but I’m not aware of it.

        You may find that it’s not BEING an expert that bothers you but rather the use that you’re forced to put your expertise to in a corporate position. Maybe you’d feel differently if you were working for Engineers Without Borders or something.

  4. bb says:

    I just started reading this and other “early retirement” sites. I found this post interesting but I wanted to tell you, stick with something that you really think will be meaningful.
    It’s really hard to keep an interest for a long time, but sometimes if you push through, you’ll thank yourself later. I’ve been a professional illustrator for about 5 years now. As you can imagine, I’ve had many years of failed starts and training before that (sadly about 6 years for a total of 11 years of my life dedicated to this). In the early years it’s easy to gain knowledge. Improvements are made fast when you are just learning something. However, as you progress, it seems your accrual of knowledge slows down. Sometimes it’s so slow that it feels like you are not making any progress. But are you really an expert at that point? My situation is a little different because I have centuries of great paintings to look at and say “no, I’m nowhere near being an expert at this.” Your profession is new, so you may be one of only a handful of experienced people in your field. The metric that you compare yourself to is smaller. Usually there is always something more to learn, it just takes an extra push in determination to keep your mind engaged. That’s not to say that learning many things isn’t a bad thing, I myself have many hobbies: cooking, furniture making, sewing, photography, book binding, reading, Computer animation. But I put most of those on the back burner because being great at one thing can be very rewarding.
    Some people have laser focus and have no trouble learning a single subject for their entire life. I would say their minds land somewhere on the spectrum for autism. For the everyday person, learning a skill is very difficult.

    The learning curve never stops, it just gets steeper.

    • being great at one thing can be very rewarding

      Yes, it can, for some people. And that’s my point – we’re all wired differently. When I become great at something, whether it’s electrical design or running 100 miles, it then becomes incredibly uninteresting to me. What was once fun is now lost, and it becomes a terrible struggle to remain great (or even good sometimes). I’m not saying I have nothing left to learn, just that I don’t find enjoyment in slow learning curves. Had I stayed in my old position, I would likely be making far more because pay seems to grow exponentially for expertise in my field.

      It sounds like you are an artist. As I see it, an artist needs to be great to even be “good.” It’s partially because, as you said, there is such a history of art. Also, there’s supply and demand. The world has no need for mediocre art.

      (side point) On the other hand, the world has a need for mediocre engineers. I’ve been trying to hire a great EE for months, and would settle for a mediocre one at this point.

      • Dr. Doom says:

        Can’t help but reply to this even though it’s three years old.

        >>The world has no need for mediocre art.

        I think about this often. Before the printing press, mass media, and mass production, there was a great need for local artists. Every community needed them to produce entertainment from puppet shows to theater and music to knickknacks for the house. And mediocrity was completely acceptable because it was better than nothing.

        It’s only since the world has been completely wired together that just a few artists can produce goods for the entire world. A hundred Hollywood actors can power all of the US movies for 300 million citizens for an entire year. A hundred sculptors can provide factories with designs for salt and pepper shakers, wind-chimes, vases, etc.

        It’s technology that has killed the demand for mediocre artists more than anything else. The elite rise to the top and their work is cloned and distributed, negating the need for anyone else.

  5. bb says:

    Well, I think I was trying to say that there’s always a point where you say “screw it, I don’t want to do this any more.” Sometimes when you leave something for a while and come back to it, you can manage it. The soul crushing misery is lessened after a break. 😀
    But I get it, you think that being a generalist the way to go for you. I happen to think really successful business people have a varied diet of interests, it’s a sign of creativity.

  6. FPT Guy says:

    I think that knowing who you are to a certain extent is important, but within that who do you want to be? I think people are much more talented than they give themselves credit for and often settle for less. I am making less money now working for myself, but I enjoy being able to do all sorts of things, which also lets me pick and choose what I like to do.

  7. Squirrelers says:

    I absolutely agree. It’s important to be self-aware of how we are wired, and try not to fight your basic nature.

    Now, there’s always room for self-improvement. Additionally, bad habits in one form or another can often be changed. However, our basic wiring is what it is. Go with the flow!

  8. 1step says:

    Great motivational post. Helps to see what one’s strengths and desires are in life, then develop goals aligned to those desires. Usually you will end up having the most fun at it as well!

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  10. Gerard says:

    You sound like a learner… the getting there is important for you. I’m sure you’ve thought long and hard about what kind of person you want to be. Are you sure that it’s the learning that appeals to you, or is it the quest for mastery, and the desire to demonstrate competence (or more)?

    • Yes, you are right to define me as a “learner” and also as a seeker of “mastery.”

      I will freely admit that this blog is another output of my seeking of mastery (in my personal finances and early retirement). But every time I’ve ever mastered something, I’ve quickly grown bored. Based on this, I think it’s safe to say that the themes and goals of this site will likely change over time.

  11. abitha says:

    It may be my imagination, but it seems that the ‘jack of all trades’ type is somewhat over-represented in the early-retirement blogosphere. I am very much this type too – constantly wanting to learn and master new skills, but getting a bit bored once I’ve ‘arrived’.

    I suspect – although I have no real evidence for this, and perhaps someone else will have a different perspective – that we are the type who would both benefit most from early retirement (because remaining as an ‘expert’ in any job becomes stifling after a while and we seek a new challenge) and be best at achieving it (because we enjoy learning to master the new skills needed for self-sufficiency etc). However, I also recall that Jacob of ERE (who seems to be the same type) recently ‘quit’ his early retirement and took a paying job… because having mastered early retirement, this too became boring and he needed a new challenge yet again. I wonder if this is a common experience?

    • I tend to agree with your hypothesis that there is a certain type of person that is most benefited and most capable of early retirement.

      I can’t speak for Jacob and his reasons to return to full-time employment, but he did give some indication that “ERE” lost it’s luster after having mastered it. For me, I suspect that the next things I would go master may or may not pay an income, but I don’t think it will ever involve full-time employment again. I have too much of the entrepreneurial trait.

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  17. Aldo says:

    Matt Ruff – Inspiring and descriptive Will. Paints an indcerible mental, physical and emotional picture that teases our senses. Love it and send you my best regarding your trip home to NM! You are one of the most inspiring and motivating people I have ever met. I am very proud and inspired by you my friend! This is so reflective of the time we spent traveling to dealers and riding together. You da man! Press on my friend!

  18. Dorcas says:

    When you want to become an expert in one area then you have to ignore all the other areas. You become one sided but all the same it pays.

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