“What’s riches to you, just ain’t riches to me” — Lyle Lovett
Some choices in life are difficult.
Leaving a well paying job (and a significant amount of future stock compensation) after almost seven years to take an indefinite time off was an easy choice to make. The hard part was figuring out that I had a choice to begin with.
We live our life according to a well defined script without realizing that we have the ability to rewrite it. Part of that script says that you work when you are young and enjoy the fruits of your labor when you are retired. This also happens to be the time when you’re old (possibly dead!) and most likely to be suffering from illness, lack of mobility, diminished mental faculties, and a general cynicism and bad attitude that can only come with a lifetime of soul-crushing morale-busting work.
Constantly trading today for tomorrow doesn’t make sense. Your time is the most precious and fleeting commodity there is. The world doesn’t just punish assholes, it punishes everyone, indiscriminately, and you never know when you’re next. When, not if, your name is called you will value your friends, your family and your experiences, not your possessions and certainly not your salary and not your career.
Of course it’s not always that simple.
You do need at least some money, at minimum enough for food and shelter (less than you think if you only keep the things that are really important). If you live in a less evolved country, you need enough for health insurance. You may have debts (credit, mortgage, car loans, student loans) that need to be paid. You may need to keep employment for visa related reasons. You may have a spouse and kids that depend on you for their livelihood (in that case, all bets are off, but you knew that going in). This doesn’t make temporary retirement impossible, just harder.
The other reason to avoid temporary retirement is if you actually truly enjoy and love your job. These people do exist in nature, but they’re a rare and elusive bunch.
I have no wife, no children, and no debt. My earnings have always outpaced my spending. I have absolute confidence I could get a job tomorrow of equal or higher compensation than the one I left.
I’m extremely fortunate to be in this situation. I know this. There are people who are smarter, work harder, work longer, and deserve more. As much as I would like to take credit for all of it, I know I’m the beneficiary of luck, timing, and opportunity. I may just as well take credit for picking a winning lottery ticket.
So I’m fortunate to be able to take time off. But I’ve been able to do this for awhile. The epiphany to make use of this good fortune didn’t happen overnight, but was the result of the gradual accumulation of two forces, one repulsive and one attractive.
The repulsive force was the work itself.
I used to love to program. I still do. It might be the only true talent I have. You start off with a complex problem and eventually come up with a design or implementation that solves it. Sometimes the route is surprisingly direct and sometimes you have to polish a turd until it shines, but ultimately you get there. At its best there is nothing between you and the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s actually very similar to photography, you have to have the creativity to visualize and solve the problem in an elegant way, but also the technical skills to turn that vision into a tangible entity.
Eventually, the problems all seemed to be the same, were easy to solve, or were uninteresting. More and more of my job was dedicated to things that I may have been good at but certainly didn’t enjoy doing. Getting consensus on anything took forever. Layers of bureaucracy were only increasing and were seen as progress. Communicating with other teams was tedious and time-consuming. Pragmatism was in short supply, egos and arrogance weren’t. It never felt like I could gather any momentum. The only way to break through the quicksand required a level of effort that I was willing to give earlier in my career but at sacrifice to my life outside work. I wasn’t going to do that again. My heart was no longer in it. Some people noticed, most didn’t.
The other issue with my job was having to be on-call. I don’t mind putting in extra hours if the situation calls for it. I do mind having a virtual leash tied around my neck that limits my ability to do things on weekends, at night, or (for secondary on-call) prevents me from taking a weekday off (or even exchanging it for a weekend day). This leash began to grate more and more, even though it was never more than 10-15 weeks a year. I had to stick around town when the forecast was calling me to the mountains. I hated it.
It became obvious that I needed to leave, but I still had the option of switching teams (exchanging a set of known problems with a set of unknown problems and hoping they weren’t as severe), or switching companies with the same caveats.
This is where the attractive force comes in.
I began, after many years, to finally take vacations longer than a day or two. The first was a 10-day trip to the southwest in late summer (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Antelope Canyon, and Grand Canyon). This was followed by a two-week autumn trip to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Death Valley. Two separate one week trips to Yosemite in winter and spring. A one week trip to Zion in autumn.
With each successive trip it became harder and harder to come back to work. I started to realize that I was able to reach the same level of happiness I formerly was able to get programming by being on the road, traveling, being out in nature, and with varying degrees of success capturing those experiences with my camera. In the last two years I’ve put 60,000 miles (almost 100,000 km) on my car, but less than 25% of those were on those long vacations, the rest were on crazy weekend or day trips (some on weekdays before work). These experiences were worth more than my salary. I was willing to sacrifice any amount of sleep and comfort to accumulate them.
The thought of waiting 35 years until retirement before I could do this uninterrupted was unbearable. It soon became difficult to fathom waiting even six more months for another stock vest to come in.
I did the math. With no changes in my free spending ways and with some padding I could last 18 months. With a few small sacrifices I could last quite a bit longer.
Not only will be I be able to travel and photograph, but I’ll be able to not travel and not photograph without feeling like I’m blowing an opportunity. I will no longer have to do 500 mile day trips to get back to work on time. My friends and family will start to recognize me again (right now that seems like a good thing, check back in six months).
When I’m done with my temporary hiatus, I can go back to the workforce writing software with new energy and new focus. Or do something else. It doesn’t matter, that decision won’t have to be made for awhile.
In the last month since I’ve quit my job the decision has already paid for itself, with the currency of experiences and not dollars.
Which is truly more valuable?