How a Mini-Retirement Brought Meaning to My Life
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Ten years ago, I walked into my boss's office at the large corporate company where I worked and announced that I was quitting my job. “What are your plans?” my boss asked casually after he had time to absorb the unexpected news. I took a deep breath and began to explain that I had been reading a book by William Bridges called Managing Transitions, and I wanted to take some time away from the rat race. He looked amazed. “Is this a midlife crisis thing?” he asked bluffly.
Actually, I had decided to take a mini-retirement. The term originates from Timothy Ferris' The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he argues the case for taking a series of meaningful respites from our structured 9-to-5 careers rather than an end-of-the-line grand exit. I had always planned to retire early and follow a FIRE -- financially independent and retired early -- lifestyle. I had read about it, joined forums, and I started to save and invest my money in real estate to reach this goal. I did well, and by the time I stood in front of my boss, I was 40, financially independent and 50 percent on my way to joining the FIRE set.
There was one problem; I didn't want to retire. What I really wanted was not so much freedom from wage slavery (as Noam Chomsky and others call it), but a meaningful life. I wanted to climb Abraham Maslow´s pyramid to the self-actualization apex. The work that I had been doing on developing leaders still interested me, I just wanted to have a deeper understanding and to work more independently rather than being bounded to a single organization. So I opted for mini-retirement.
Mini-retirement is different from a sabbatical or career break, which connotes taking time out and resuming where you left off. I needed a complete severance, a transition from my entrenched thinking and task and targeted career path. The idea of personal transition came to me when reading the aforementioned Managing Transitions. This brilliant book tells the story of Bridges, who left his career in teaching and found himself facilitating a weekly support group for people going through major changes in their lives. Based on his experience and observations, Bridges theorized that successful personal transitions go through three stages -- ending (letting go), neutral zone (a “moratorium from the conventional activity of your everyday existence”) and new beginning (embracing the new opportunity).
The idea of leaving my comfortable life and voluntarily entering a phase of structurelessness and uncertainty (what Bridges terms the wilderness) in order to experience growth, potential and new opportunities appealed to me. For the next five years, I lived in 10 different cities across the world for six month periods studying, researching, writing conspiracy thrillers and having the time of my life.
Today I am back on the hamster wheel and loving every minute of it. I started my own leadership consulting company and feel that my mini-retirement experience enriched my life and allowed me time to assess my life values and preferences and gain a deeper appreciation and passion for developing leaders. The mini-retirement bug is still in my blood. I work for part of the year before heading out into the wilderness with my backpack and laptop.
Here are five insights that I picked up with respect to leaving behind the structured life of work.
1. Don't bank on your organization facilitating your path to enlightenment.
Despite a progressive move toward flexible, mindful and holacratic working environments, the majority of organizations still move around in “narrow functional hierarchies” as John Kotter termed it in his book Leading Change -- presentism, fixed hierarchies and transactional management are still depressing realities in our workplaces. With the average retirement age remaining at 64 for men and 62 for women, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, and presidential candidates telling us that we need to work longer hours, we may need to take matters into our own hands to bring about the white space needed in our lives.
2. Manage your finances and spending expectations.
This is where reality kicks in. You can't contemplate time away from work unless you have the means to support yourself. Most experts focus on the saving habit, but I think the real secret lies in managing the spending habit. I stayed in affordable locations and rented budget apartments where I lived as a local, shopping in the local markets and cooking at home. It is easy to fall into the Diderot effect, the kind of spiralling consumption that the French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote about in his quirky essay Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown. Simplifying your life and reducing your spending habit will make your mini-retirement plans more than just a pipe dream.
3. Surround yourself with supportive people.
Isn't it curious that whenever we do something that is a little offbeat and goes against received wisdom, we suddenly find a bunch of previously disinterested parties becoming passionate about how we should run our lives? I received my fair share of negative comments.
“You're bonkers to leave a responsible position just when you're hitting your maximum earning potential.”
“Aren't you scared that people will think you're a drop out?”
“Have you considered therapy?”
It is best to ignore the naysayers and create an inner circle with people who really believe in you.
4. Make it meaningful.
In Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare wrote: “If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.” Sitting in hammocks watching sunsets will soon feel every bit a routine as a 10:00 am team meeting. Have some fun, but also set some goals. It will feel more rewarding and your re-entry into the workplace will be easier if future bosses and clients see personal growth and a transitional journey.
5. Don't think doors will close.
One of the myths about mini-retirements is that it shuts doors and leaves awkward employment gaps. Employers are becoming more tolerant to breaks in resumes especially if you can demonstrate that the time was used in a meaningful way. Keeping a blog is a good way of charting your experience. Trust your network and a little serendipity. Ironically, the first person who offered me a job when I came out of mini-retirement was my old cynical boss, but I already had other plans.
I guess reading about mini-retirement in a publication dedicated to entrepreneurship may seem a little discordant, but I think reflection, personal transition and a generous sprinkling of nonconformity is key to being an effective entrepreneur. The ancient Sanskrit text, Mundaka Upanishad, uses the metaphor of a bow and arrow to describe how reflection and concentration can help us hit the target: “Draw the string with full absorption and shoot at the target.” I concede this is not going to be for everyone, particularly those people who find purpose and importance in the workplace, preferring structure, a built-in social group and hierarchical status. But taking time out can help us determine what´s important to us and give us the ideas, vision and confidence to become who we truly want to be.