Non-Traditional Retirements, or DIY Sabbaticals

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NPR Morning Edition featured a story today about non-traditional retirements: Seeing The (Northern) Light: A Temporary Arctic Retirement. Instead of waiting until 65, Winston Chen decided to stop working for an entire year mid-career and moved his family to a small Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with only 180 residents.

The whole family got to do many things they’d never do otherwise. Financially, they offset their mortgage by renting out their Boston home completely as-is for a year to another family on a temporary work assignment. His wife Kristin was able to get a job teaching elementary school in Norway for a year, as it was a remote area that needed teachers. They could keep expenses low as the tiny village had no need for a car, no malls, and no restaurants. One of his pursuits ended up being an iPhone app that took off and now supports their entire family, although that wasn’t the goal.

The inspiration came from the TEDtalk “The power of time off” by designer Stefan Sagmeister. Here’s a screenshot (sorry for the poor quality) illustrating the traditional working timeline: learn for 25 years, work for 40 years, then retire for 25 years.

A commenter pointed out that this shows that our society seems to feel that education is for the young, work is for the middle-aged, and leisure is for the elderly. But what if you decided to snip 5 years from those retirement years and sprinkle them between your working years? This is essentially the idea of sabbaticals, usually associated with tenured professors taking a paid year off from their usual teaching and research duties. Every 7 years, Sagmeister completely shuts down his popular design shop for an entire year.

Both Sagmeister and Winston Chen add that if you do this, you shouldn’t just give yourself a year of nothing and expect to figure it out along the way. At the minimum, you should make a list of all the things that you want to try and/or accomplish (Chen’s included oil painting, photography, reading, learning Norwegian, and learning how to play the ukulele). Both broke it down into a daily schedule as well (Chen’s is below).

(click to enlarge)

I’ve been thinking about doing something similar, except with a straight-up house-swap where we live in say a French house and the French family gets to live in an American house, so that housing costs are pretty much taken care of. I don’t think food costs should be too bad, and I’d like to find a city where public transportation is all you need. My favorite quotes from Chen’s follow-up comments:

Society tends to throw obstacles in front of people who want to do things out of the norm. […] I really believe everyone can do it, if you want it badly enough.

Chen blogged about his adventures at A similar concept of “mini-retirements” was also explored in the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. NPR segment found via @steveo3387, RT by @ramit. Here’s the TEDtalk embedded:

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  1. Buy & Hold Blog says

    Thanks Jonathan for the post. I’d love to do something similar. We’re just so wrapped up in our daily/yearly routine that 2-week vacation feels not enough to recharge batteries and to pursue passions. A year long sabbatical gives you plenty of time to explore foreign countries and live like locals.

  2. Pathetic says

    Pathetic how people need to schedule time with their kids. What a sorry state that world has come to.

  3. thepotatohead says

    I’ve read of bigger companies like Intel letting their employees do this. Giving them say 3-6 months to unwind and destress as alot of people will get burnt out doing the daily grind. Seems like a good way to keep your employees fresh and allow them to go do what they want while they are still in good physical shape to do so.

  4. Read a book years ago that had the same general premise\

    Going off memory from twenty years ago, but he was saying that there were three boxes of life — education, leisure, and then leisure at retirement — but that rather than dedicate portions of life to each, you should be doing all three simultaneously. Always thought it was an intriguing concept, but never was able to implement. it.

  5. Retirement.. what is that? Many have worked so aimlessly that they do not know what to do with free time. Others are in such poor health and shape that they cannot enjoy anything. Many have such small pensions that they have to keep working to survive…till they drop dead. What kind of society have we built? What happened? What is happiness? Surely if it is material goods, success, getting there first… money… we are all on the wrong track. However, I ask, if Mr. Sagmeister were just a “regular” worker, like most of us, would he have had the opportunity of doing what he actually did? I know that in theory we make our own destiny, but someone does have to do all the menial jobs that are needed by the rest… and do them every day… so is this just another hyperbole? another dream to make us feel even worse?… HOW can the “most of us” make the changes he is talking about? This implies a drastic change in the whole society, a dramatic top down shift.. nevertheless, for those who can, it is a wonderful idea. Personally I am taking an early retirement to pursue other interests while I still can…

  6. This premise assumes you are self employed, have an enlightened employer, or are willing to quit your job and look for a new one after the year is up. I agree the goal is appealing but the execution is not easy.

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