Sabbath Year – A Year Later

A little over a year ago I finished our sabbath year and began the process of reentering normal life. After taking that sabbath year to rest and reflect, I had learned a few lessons which I documented in this blog post. Now, a year-ish later, I want to reflect on how those reflections have aged.

The following line up with the decisions & changes I discussed in the aforementioned review post.

1. We decided that the next few years aren’t a period for taking on big risks or flirting with overcommitment.

This has held true. It turns out the role I took at Google was a lot more involved than I had originally envisioned, but this is mostly in my control. I tend to dive into things head first and put myself in the center of the action, which I’ve done here. Despite that, our lives feel fairly maxed out, despite minimal risk exposure. Margins are thin and so maintaining a relatively predictable lifestyle has remained important and effective.

2. We decided on having Seattle be our long term home with plans to snowbird (or rainbird) in southern California in the winter eventually.

We have remained in Seattle and been pretty happy with that. The time of year of my writing this is the harder time of year, but it also the time of year I find myself most inclined to do indoor hobbies like writing.

We had explored ramping up our San Diego plans this year by spending a month or so down there in an AirBnB. In the end we decided not to, though I have made a few quick trips down. I think the jury is still out on if we will desire rainbirding enough to do it. Some of me suspects that with the right adjustments we might be able to handle Seattle, but then again, it is still February – we’ll see how I feel come May if we have an extended winter.

3. I changed my work mentality from that of trying to retire early to realizing it is good for me, personally, to work.

This has proved the biggest change from our sabbath year. I entered this new period with a nearly 180* rotation in my mentality on work. I had previously been striving to free myself from having to work as soon as possible. I now hope I can find jobs interesting enough to me that I can work until I’m unable.

Currently, I think of my job (on most days) as the most realistic boardgame I could possibly play. Instead of a stack of cardboard coins, I get to play with a $10B/year business. The competition is fierce, the rules and complex but the measurement is clear. Sure, parts of my job are difficult, but in the end I’m encouraged to learn to fix those aspects and get to the fun strategy parts. Most days I remember that given a billion dollars of my own, I would probably still be doing something similar.

I also mentioned that as a result of this change we were going to value our time more and become more willing to spend money when it would save time. That has remained constant. Funny enough, though our spending has increased dramatically as a result of some things like hiring a nanny and ordering food more, our income has similarly increased such that the savings ratio is similar. The way the math works out that means we’re actually saving a good bit more than before. That won’t be impactful if we keep up this current level of spending, but if we ever do want to retire to a less expensive locale, that extra money will go even further which is nice.

4. After two years away from being a product manager, the role that leads a software team in prioritizing what to build, I decided to return to that role.

I think product manager means a lot of different things depending on where you work. What I get to do at Google is exactly the type of stuff I love doing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the CEO of Alphabet came from a product management track. They design the role to build thoughtful leaders and I’m enjoying absorbing that culture.

On a daily basis I get to unify the interests of dozens of different stakeholders and design creative solutions to solve them in an efficient manner. I have a real impact on the ability of our $10B/year business to maintain (or increase) its 50% YoY growth rate. I could do similar things under different titles at different companies, and someday I will, but for now, this title and company are a great fit for me.

5. In my searching and exploration phase I exposed myself to a lot of ideas that helped me reject some false tradeoffs I’ve long held. One is a lie I’ve believed for a while that the highest paying corporate jobs at the biggest companies are stodgy, un-impactful and dehumanizing.

I now work for a trillion dollar company. On top of that, I’m having a lot more impact on the company than I would have expected when I joined – both in terms of within the company and on the industry as a whole. On top of that, I am part of work running group, I have people I regularly play boardgames with at lunch and I did a team bike ride around Mt. Rainier last year. I have so far found it to neither be stodgy, un-impactful or dehumanizing – so I’m glad I gave it a chance.

One thing I reflect on is whether I made the wrong move by not coming to a place like Google right out of college. My current thinking is that for me, it took a while to find my path and so small companies that let me fluidly change roles were a great place to slowly gel. If I were to advise a new grad today though, I would recommend giving big companies a try early in their career, especially if they know what role they want to spend the next few years in. It is hard to undervalue the benefits of a well known name, a network, structured management processes and well defined expectations. Start ups are a lot of fun but they aren’t for everyone. I saw plenty of people flail and fail while working at a startup that have since gone on to bigger companies and done great – sometimes explicit structure and expectations is valuable.

6. Along with rejecting some ideas I’ve held, I also became more comfortable explicitly accepting some beliefs I’ve loosely held. One is that that doing high quality work is in itself good, even when the task seems far from the objective.

I work on the billing systems for a cloud. This is a far cry from what I consider “good work” like developing cures for cancer, solving poverty ending human trafficking, etc. But, despite that, every step forward we take at making our cloud serve customers better will bring one more step of progress to the world. Either our cloud will serve customers needs better or it will force another company to find a way to do even better than that. Either way the world is going to see progress and I’m really excited about that. I might not be curing cancer, but people that are working to do so, like the Mayo Clinic, are using our cloud and benefitting from the projects my team works on.

7. I wrestled with the notion of identity and how hobbies played a role into that.

This has been an area I have been much more intentional about. Hobbies have remained a big part of my life but I’ve intentionally made some hobby decisions based on my life circumstances rather than letting my hobby dictate my life circumstances. I’ve generally found this to be effective. I’ve been able to transition to some new hobbies I find just as engrossing as my previous ones. I think that is part of why I’m less inclined to spend as much time as possible in San Diego. While I still love surfing, I’ve found I can replicate parts of it that I enjoyed in other activities if I take a bit of a reductionist approach. In the end, surfing is just some outside time, alone, moving fast, without full control, with variable rewards, some unpredictability and a lot of tactile stimulation. I can recreate that in other ways.

Sabbath Year Review

Last year our family took a year off from normal life. I took a leave from my job, we put our stuff in storage, we moved to a new city and everything about our life became very different. Now that we’ve reentered normal life, we’ve been asked, and asked ourselves, ‘Was it worth it?’

With perspective from a few months back at normal pace, but with the time still fresh in my mind, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on than question. In general, I believe my answer is yes, but not for the reasons I had suspected.

Reflecting on The Stated Goals

Before we dove into the year, I was intentional about doing some thinking and setting a light structure for the year. I had defined seven things I wanted the year to consist of: a sabbath to the Lord, rest, enjoying this chapter, pausing things, living without, evaluating & a year set aside.

Of those, I feel we did well at a few. It was definitely a year set aside, there was lots of evaluation and we I certainly deeply experienced this chapter (enjoy wasn’t always the most accurate word).

One we learned more about – setting aside a year as a sabbath to the Lord. That is still a concept I’m wrapping my head around but I feel that it stayed close to the center and surfaced often.

There are a few we got better at eventually, such as pausing things and resting. It took me 10 months to stop training for marathons and about as long to realize that even with two stay-at-home parents, hiring babysitters is a really good idea. We had typically only used babysitters for times when we needed them because we had a commitment, we’ve now learned we sometimes need them so that we can have time with no commitments.

I don’t feel we did very much towards ‘living without’, the idea that we would cut back our consumption and luxury, and I think I’m ok with that. For example, scaling up the amount of babysitter time we used went a long way for promoting rest, even though that was one of the things I would have assumed we would have gone without since we had two full time parents.

Reflecting on the Flow of the Year

My intention was to emphasize the above seven attributes at different times of the year in order to create a bit of a flow throughout the year. I had imagined four periods: rest & enjoyment, going lean, looking around & looking ahead.

Generally, we kept to those stages, and that design was great for allowing us to progress through things in a way that made achieving our goals possible. Here are some more detailed thoughts.

Period 1 – Rest & Enjoyment: We spent a lot of time as a family in sunny summertime Seattle doing the outside activities we love. We also got a chance to visit family and friends without having to worry about vacation days. It felt mostly relaxing, except for the giant effort required for moving. In retrospect, that was one element we wouldn’t do again during a sabbath year. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 2 – Going Lean: We were forced to go really lean as we had our fourth child and had little energy for anything other than the most basic. While this wasn’t an ideal undertaking for a restful year, having a fourth child while I also had to work full time seems even less ideal. Looking back, I feel that we have to curb our judgement of the sabbath year around the quantity and ages of our children. I suspect every sabbath will present its own unique difficulties, but I doubt any will be quite as trying as this one. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 3 – Looking Around: In the period designed to allow us to look around at what life had to offer, we did so, but not quite as much as we had hoped and it took longer than expected. Where I had hoped to explore a few dozen ideas, some a few hops away from our preexisting situation, in reality we explored 3-4 options, mostly just a single hop away. We did get a chance to live in a city on our shortlist and explore a few neighborhoods. I also got to explore a number of potential career changes by having conversations with people in those areas and trying out a new role after my work leave ended. What was positively surprising to me was how beneficial taking time off could be for making good long-term decisions because of how all inertia was stopped. I wrote about that more here.

Period 4 – Looking Forward: Because the third period stretched a bit longer than planned, the period of looking ahead and making decisions was pushed back a bit  was cut short, meaning most of the reentry work was actually pushed back into after the year ended. While not-ideal, it did mean that a lot of hard work was reserved for after the year of rest.

Reflecting on the Decisions & Changes We Made

Before the year I speculated on some of the things that could change in our life as a result of the sabbath year. Those included changes to how we earned an income, where we lived and how we did life. I was explicit that no changes were necessary, that if we decided to return to things as is because that is what we felt was best, that would be fine.

We in fact, did make a few decisions, some were departures from our old way of doing things and some were just making them concrete.

1. We decided that the next few years aren’t a period for taking on big risks or flirting with overcommitment. There are times where shooting for the stars is a great idea, but right now our margins of time, energy & patience are too thin. Doing things with high variability and risk aren’t worth the potential upside. This is going to be a guiding principle that affects a lot of smaller decisions – for example I will not be starting my own company, I won’t even consider it for ~5+ years.

2. We decided on having Seattle be our long term home with plans to snowbird (or rainbird) in southern California in the winter eventually. We had trouble deciding on a single place to live and the idea of two locations seemed really attractive and meshes well with some other ideas we have about life. At first, we considered doing things to opposite way, with San Diego as the home and Seattle as a summer vacation spot, but for a bunch of reasons (ranging from family, to global warming, to taxes, to the age of our kids, the job market) it made more sense to make Seattle our home base.

Part of this came from gathering data while we lived in San Diego. I had assumed that living there, where the weather is nicer and the beach is nearby, would would result in me surfing & enjoying the outdoors more. In reality, in my current stage of life I spend a lot of time indoors in an office and inside taking care of kids. Comparing two years worth of outside time data, I noticed that there was a difference in my outdoor time between San Diego & Seattle during the coldest months of the year, but that minimized come springtime and actually flipped come summer. This data helped me feel confident in our current plan.

3. I changed my work mentality from that of trying to retire early to realizing it is good for me, personally, to work. This was a direct result of me not enjoying not working very much. As a result of that I’ve decided that I shouldn’t be in a hurry to stop working and should instead be optimizing for how much control I can have over what work I do and what work I am able to do next.

As a direct follow up to this item and #1 up above, we’ve decided to increase our spending on things that will save us time and energy. Our approach used to be to try and do things ourselves and save money wherever we could. We are now dialing that frugalness back for a period to make sure we aren’t overwhelmed. Our goal is to identify the highest levered ways to convert our money into more free time and relaxation. For example, we will be buying more healthy prepared meals to save on meal prep time a few times a week, hiring a house cleaner, scaling up the amount of babysitting/nanny hours we have and possibly other approaches. This will be tricky for us. It will be especially tricky to rewind our frugal habits but still keep them at the ready for later periods where we might chose to use them again.

I would still like to be able to decrease the weight that compensation plays in a my future job decisions by saving up enough money that I could, in theory, retire, but I do not plan to actually retire. It is more likely that I would use that flexibility to be very selective in what projects I work on and to broaden my range of potential projects to include those that do not offer high compensation.

4. After two years away from being a product manager, the role that leads a software team in prioritizing what to build, I decided to return to that role. I really like creating new things and product manager is a role where you get to do that in a way that has short and long term impact. This was a direct result of me researching other roles and even trying out a new role for six months. Despite my success in that new role, it isn’t how I want to spend my time going forward. I’m glad I got to experience that and confirm it.

5. In my searching and exploration phase I exposed myself to a lot of ideas that helped me reject some false tradeoffs I’ve long held. One is a lie I’ve believed for a while that the highest paying corporate jobs at the biggest companies are stodgy, un-impactful and dehumanizing. I believed in contrast that if you really do what you really believed in, it probably wouldn’t pay much money and will be at some small company, likely a non-profit. I now believe impact, enjoyment and compensation are almost entirely orthogonal. There are jobs that happen to pay a lot of money that make a huge positive impact and that are very interesting for certain people and there are jobs that pay very little that are soul sucking and that also do nothing morally good for the world. I now feel more free to believe that working for a large company can be just as mentally stimulating, morally rewarding and impactful as working for small company, or oneself. What is important is evaluating the individual situation – the company, role, team and work being done.

6. Along with rejecting some ideas I’ve held, I also became more comfortable explicitly accepting some beliefs I’ve loosely held. One is that that doing high quality work is in itself good, even when the task seems far from the objective. We can’t always know where our work will take us or measure our true impact. The idea of doing good work, no matter the work, is well illustrated by a likely apocryphal story that during a visit to NASA President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a mop and asked: “What are you doing?” To which he got the response, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” There are big goals I would like to help achieve and I’ve realized, the right place for me right now might be mopping the floor, and that is perfectly fine.

7. I wrestled with the notion of identity and how hobbies played a role into that. Most of my life, either surfing or running has been a big part of how I spent my free time and also part of where my identity came from. Just read through this blog to see that in action. I’m now entering a phase of life where neither of those is going to be a big part of my life and I needed to do some thinking about how hobbies fit into my life, which hobbies were the best fit and what that meant for where my identity came from. I still have a lot to figure out here over the coming years, but have some ideas in place to begin to explore.

8. As a direct result of items #1-6 above, I decided to kick off a job search which eventually ended with me accepting a job as a product manager in Google’s Cloud organization. This particular role is not one that I would have selected, had I not been able to process through all of the above.

I realized that right now I am in a unique position to work in a role that I enjoy, on a project that I find interesting and potentially very impactful, at a company known for excellence in execution, compensating employees generously and treating its employees well. It seemed like a wise decision to take advantage of this opportunity.

Key Learnings

Throughout the year, we learned a lot the hard way. I wanted to pause and document a few of those to help me in the future and to perhaps solve others following in my footsteps.

1. Moving during a sabbath year. It is hard for me to be strictly against this, because in the end, us moving helped us make one of our biggest decisions. I would caution against moving in any other circumstances though because it is a ton of work. Moving takes up about a month of free time in my experience – so doing so 3 times in a year takes up 1/4 of the year, which isn’t ideal.

2. How much to scale back working. During our year I took off work completely for ~7 months and resumed working in a lightly structure role for ~5. Based on that, my recommendation to others would be to be cautious about how much you scale back. If you have never gone for a period of 3+ months without working, I wouldn’t recommend going cold turkey for a full year unless you have some strong structure or something particular to keep you busy. It is probably best to scale back hours by 25-50% for your first attempt. Or to perhaps find a new and interesting job or volunteer project that you can do part time to keep some familiar structure in your life.

3. Be mentally prepared for some heavy introspection. ‘Know thyself’ is what the Greek philosophers preached. But despite the easy access we each have to ourselves, getting to know ourselves is actually quite difficult. Being mentally prepared for some challenges here would go a long way.

4. Your to do list won’t necessarily clear. During the year, my todo list surprisingly increased. I went from ~20 items to 36 and recurring scheduled tasks increased from 28 to 47. The increase in recurring tasks likely had more to do with me having time to formalize things I was doing from memory before, which is good. The increase in regular items seems to be normal gas-like behavior, projects expand to fill the time you give them. I was able to drop my backlog of articles & videos I’d saved from 35 to 15 though, so I did make some progress there.

Sabbath Year – After Twelve Months – Immediate Thoughts After Concluding

I suppose the contrast between the last day of the sabbath year and the first day of the next year doesn’t have to be so stark. In this case it was.

I found myself solo-parenting four children in a house I had moved into less than one week before. Most of our things were still in boxes and the upstairs bedrooms were hot and bright as daylight lasts until 10pm in Seattle during the summer. So we pitched tents in the basement and had a campout.

Between settling into a new house, working and parenting, there isn’t much room for anything else these days. This might be the new normal.

In retrospect, we should probably mark the start and end of sabbath years with a big celebration of sorts. A feast or bonfire maybe. I’ll write that idea down for next time.

I will do some deeper reflecting soon, but I wanted to pause and capture our immediate feelings right now before they slip away.

Before the sabbath year started I described wanting to “enter the next six year period like a coiled spring, planted on a firm foundation, pointed towards the priorities our family values the most.”

My wife and I agree that we feel coiled yet exhausted – if that makes any sense. Neither of us has a lot of extra energy right now, but we do feel excited to begin a new chapter – unfortunately the first months of that are extra hard, as any transition is. I feel especially coiled as I’ve been cutting back and saying no to a lot of things (maybe slower than I planned in some cases – it took me 10 months to stop my running training) and now I feel ready to take on some big new challenges. Those challenges are likely going to look a lot different than the type of challenges I took on over the past seven years though.

We both feel planted on a firm foundation. Our core values haven’t changed, but in a funny way, the stress of this year has forced us to get better at certain skills that help keep the foundation stable. I’ve been working on establishing better habits to ground myself and keep spiritually, mentally and physically healthy. My wife and I have been working on communicating better – not that we weren’t pretty good at communicating before, but the challenge is a lot harder when you have to do all of your communication in 30 second bursts or a few minutes in the evening when you’re both exhausted. We both feel like we’re sitting on a more firm foundation now that we’ve decided on a long term location. That means we can now make decisions with that in mind – be those buying a house, getting a new job, changing hobbies, investing deeper in certain relationships, adjusting our lifestyle, etc.

We both feel relatively pointed but not super specifically. I’ve been wrestling for a few years with what I want my calling in life to be and I had hoped I would be closer to understanding that. I don’t feel that I am, but I do feel like I have enough for the next year. Perhaps that is all I will ever get – that might be ok. My wife feels similarly in that she can’t really think about what things will look like five years from now, but she is 100% certain that tomorrow will bring mouths to feed, diapers to change, lessons to teach and laundry to wash.