Tony Wolski

Sabbatical

2020-06-03

The day before my 40th birthday, just over a year ago, I finished work and started a year long sabbatical. This post captures my thoughts on why I decided to take a year out, what I did in with my time off, and what I learned along the way.

Taking a year long sabbatical seemed a bit nuts, to me and to those I told. I mean, who takes a whole year off work? The reactions of the people I told only served to reaffirm the small seeds of doubt I had at that time. When it feels like you’re the only person doing something, as if you’re going against the grain, you start to wonder whether you’re a lone nut, and that you’re not seeing something that’s glaringly obvious to everyone else.

I rationalised my decision by telling myself that the reason a lot of people don’t take a year off work is because they never put themselves in a position to do so. Inspired after watching a TED talk by Stefan Sagmeister nearly a decade ago, I had tentatively planned and saved ever since. I worked hard, saved hard, and nearing my 40th birthday I found myself in a position to actually go through with it.

I didn’t have concrete plan for the year. I wanted to read lots, learn, and spend more time with my kids. I wanted to experience a slower pace of life. We all seem to jump (or get pushed) on this high speed train of school-university-career-retirement without much thought about why. It’s just what people do.

That’s what we’re all working towards, right? We study for 20-25 years and work for another 40-50 years under the premise that when we’re 65 or 70 we’ll have enough money to say adios to the grind, retire, and play golf every day. Sure our back swing will be arthritic and painful, and produce drives shorter than we used to be able to throw, but we’ll have made it… retirement heaven. Right?

But I learned in Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert that humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. We get a vision in our heads, some goal we’d like to achieve, and we believe that when we reach it everything will be perfect, that we’ll be satisfied. The reality is we never reach the level of satisfaction that we envision. In fact the anticipation of something is typically more gratifying than the attainment of it.

So I wanted to test the water. To see what retirement was like before I spent another 25-30 years working towards it, only to realise I was unsatisfied with the result I’d worked so hard to attain. By then it’s going to be too late.

Some of these sentiments I wrote about in my post on Regret.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau

What did I do?

A couple of months before the sabbatical started I suggested to my wife, half-heartedly, that we could take off for the year and travel with our kids. But she had only just started her freelance marketing and communications business so it really wasn’t the right time. I’m don’t think I was entirely serious in my suggestion, either; I think nerves were kicking in.

So what did I do? Well, the same really, just slower. Routine continued around me; the kids still went to school, my wife still worked, I still contributed in the same ways I would normally: cooking, gardening, preparing lunches, washing, and the hundreds of little jobs that relentlessly crop up in day-to-day life. I just had time to do them more slowly and deliberately, rather than buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly.

One of the best things we did was to pull the kids out of before and after school care. Mornings and evenings are so much more relaxed and enjoyable now. We have time to talk around the table at breakfast and dinner, not rushing to get the kids ready and out the door, or home and fed and into bed. Our kids get chatty at the dining table when food hits their bellies, so slow meal times are where we hear most about their days, their lives. My philosophy has always been to maximise my time with the kids while they’re young, because they grow up so fast. Outsourcing childcare to squeeze in enough work time (enough according to some corporate policy based on old industrial time schedules) never sat well with me.

I read books, really read them, slowly and deliberately, taking notes as I went. I’ve wanted to create a commonplace book for years but never found the time to write out my notes. Now I have a monthly routine which I practice religiously, writing out all my book notes to index cards as per Ryan Holiday’s commonplace book. I read about financial independence, investing, Christianity, Stoicism, minimalism, living simply, creativity, business, sustainability, giving, philanthropy. I love reading, and although I’m not as prolific a reader as Bill Gates or Ryan Holiday, I have cultivated my habits to a much higher level.

I wrote. I’ve always wanted to write, and so for a few months I committed to publishing a couple of posts each week. I wrote about regret, avoiding debt, spending less time on your phone, habit tracking, generalisation vs specialisation, reflection, my year without alcohol, shipping, monthly reflections, guidelines for less distracting email, letting go, slowing down, artificial environments of scarcity, yearly reflections, cold showers, devops, Monzo webhooks to Google sheets, fresh starts, choosing freedom over loyalty, TEDx Cardiff, emergency funds, shape up, and future us. Now, on my 41st birthday, I publish this post about my sabbatical.

Writing is something I struggle with and on so many occasions I’ve questioned why I bother. But for whatever reason I keep coming back, trying to get better, attempting to clarify my thoughts and share what I learn. I’ve learned so much from those who’ve taken the time to write about their lives and experiences, and although I don’t think I have anything particularly important to say, maybe someone will stumble across my ramblings and find something of use. It’s also nice to look back on old posts and see how my thoughts have evolved.

I did DIY. Early on in my year off I read Early Retirement Extreme which had a big impact on me. I started fixing things around the house that I would normally have called in a tradie for. I realised I’m a lot more capable than I used to give myself credit for, and that everything is solvable if you just think things through and don’t give up.

I took an adult Spanish class, continuing my love for the language I started learning nearly twenty years ago. I learned about breathwork and cold water therapy. I did some coding on the system I host, Terraform-ing the whole stack. I worked my way through the list of things you never have time for: creating a will, putting your finances in order… the boring stuff that just has to get done. I travelled back to Australia twice: for a week or so for my 40th birthday, and again with my family for Christmas. We also started camping as a family, and did so a number of times in the summer.

Oh, and there was a little thing called COVID-19 that surfaced. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It meant spending a good couple of months homeschooling my kids…

What did I learn?

In some respects it’s difficult to understand where the time has gone. I mean, when you think about what you could do with a full year laid out before you with no work, your mind runs wild at the possibilities. In reality, time slips away, and I was as busy as ever. You often hear retired people say that they don’t know where the time goes. Well now that I’ve experienced it, I understand. It was a little different for me in that I’ve got two young children to look after, but I had 35 hours per week to do with as I pleased and I still don’t know where the time went.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is in my mindset and what I value. Reading Early Retirement Extreme started me down a path of immersion on financial independence. I read book after book on passive investing and frugal living, and was keen to adopt their teachings. However, as my year progressed I started to wonder: what’s the point of being financially independent, retired at a young age, if you still don’t know what you want to do with your life? Initially I really loved waking up knowing I had a full day ahead of me to do with as I pleased. But there were times when I craved the connection you get when you’re working toward a common goal with teammates. I began to realise just how important work — the right work, for the right reasons, and with the right people — really is.

I’ve also learned how messed up our metrics for success really are. Capitalism clearly doesn’t work, and we’re careering towards some dire outcomes. We need to adopt different measures for our success. We need to think about future generationsour own kids for f***’s sake, and stop doing some of the crazy shit we’re currently doing to the planet while ignoring the consequences for future generations.

I believe I’m closer than ever to my kids because of the time I’ve had with them. I’m there in the morning when they get up and in the afternoon when I pick them up from school. I believe (hope) the extra time with them is an investment in our relationships, both now and in the future. I’m lucky in this respect; I know a lot of people don’t get the same opportunity. Some people don’t want it, because oftentimes going to work is easier than looking after young kids. But as difficult as it is sometimes, I think it will be worth it in the long run.

Was it worth it? I think so. Twelve months ago my focus was very insular. Now my focus is much more geared toward us, as in the local and global community, the planet, our future and the future of our kids and their kids. I’d rather make a difference than money. If you had have told me a year ago I would be donating 10% of what I earn to charities and good causes I wouldn’t have believed you. Now I only hope to grow that percentage. I look forward to getting back on the treadmill, to work on great causes, with great people. Even if the only positive to come out of my (first) sabbatical is this shift in mindset, even if it took a year to fully make the shift, I think it has been a year well spent. The alternative was to continue along the same path, to continue with the status quo.

Your thoughts? I'd love to hear them. Please get in contact.