June 4, 2021
Summary: For my 32nd birthday I'm leaving Google (after 6 years) and experimenting with a 1-year sabbatical. This post outlines my motivations, fears, and plans.
I'm struggling to publish this post because there's a high risk I come off as a privileged asshole (here I am voluntarily leaving a cushy job when there are so many people who can't find any work that treats them with basic respect or covers their cost of living). I'm ultimately going through with it because quite a few people have told me that they are considering doing something similar. I figure it will be helpful to share my situation, thoughts, and experiences to help others decide by way of comparison whether or not a sabbatical is right for them. I will also post annual follow-up posts (June 2022, June 2023, etc.) to reflect on the long-term effects of the experience. You can add your email to this form if you'd like to receive emails when I publish these posts.
If you're also doing or have done a sabbatical and want to swap notes or if this post helps you make a decision one way or another please contact me!
What do I know, what do I know?
Wilder than the place we live in
I'll take you there, I'll take you there
I don't mind some slight disorder
Pull up the roots, pull up the roots
Pull Up The Roots by Talking Heads
I've been thinking about doing a sabbatical for a few years now. Here are the circumstances that finally led me to go for it.
The biggest factor was kids. I plan to start having kids in the next 5 years at most. If that happens I will have much more need for steady income, benefits, etc. If I'm ever going to take a sabbatical it feels like now or never. In other words, from here on out it will probably keep getting harder and harder to take a sabbatical.
Time, energy, money: pick 2
I read somewhere that you can summarize the challenges of each phase of life in terms of a tradeoff between money, energy, and time. Young people generally have energy and time but no money. Middle-aged people: money and energy but no time. Old people: money and time but no energy. Whether or not this is an accurate description of each phase of life isn't really important. The key exercise for me was to think about my life in terms of a tradeoff between these 3 resources.
Let's start with money. Part of me worries that I am financially screwing myself over by interrupting my career (more on that later), but the fact is that I currently have enough money to live off savings for 3 years at minimum, maybe 10 years at maximum.
Next, energy. Although I still have have lots of energy, it's nothing compared to the energy I had as a teenager. In other words I recognize that it could become a depleted commodity within 10 or 20 years and I should make the most of it while I still have it.
That leaves us with time. Time was by far my scarcest commodity leading up to the sabbatical. Like many people, I wanted to believe that I could do a full-time job while also pursuing personal interests. After 3 or 4 years of that belief, I finally faced the reality that it's very challenging to do a full-time job, create personal projects, continue my education, maintain relationships, keep up my health, do household chores, and so on, all at the same time. Considering that the full-time job took up most of my time, the solution for creating more time was simple: ditch the job. However, I'll also mention here that time management is not one of my strengths. I complete tasks slowly and I frequently take breaks between tasks and I get distracted easily.
I think of my sabbatical as a conscious decision to draw down my money reserves in order to replenish my time reserves and to make the most of my finite energy reserves (or maybe even replenish them by having more time to focus on nutrition, exercise, etc.).
Money does not equal wealth
Sergeant O'Leary is walkin' the beat
At night he becomes a bartender
He works at Mister Cacciatore's down
On Sullivan Street
Across from the medical center
He's tradin' in his Chevy for a Cadillac
You oughta know by now
And if he can't drive
With a broken back
At least he can polish the fenders
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) by Billy Joel
Another big factor for me is the idea that money does not equal wealth. Money is closely related to wealth, for sure, but it is not the same thing as wealth. I think of wealth as anything that increases my ability to survive or thrive in life. Examples:
- Knowing first aid increases my chances of survival in case of emergency. Having a million in the bank won't mean shit if I'm on a nature hike 10 miles from civilization and I just cut my leg badly and don't know how to create a tourniquet.
- Meditation increases my ability to handle pain (in all its forms) and enjoy life. If I've got 10 million in the bank but I explode in anger when someone cuts me off on the freeway ("anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die") I'm not wealthy in my book.
Money is often a very useful tool for acquiring wealth but it is not itself wealth. The most common trap of course (as hinted at in that Billy Joel song) is using up all your time and energy to acquire money without ever converting that money into wealth. I'm at a point in my life where it seems most worthwhile to focus on converting some of my money into wealth.
Another money-related motivator is that I'm probably too focused on money generally. This sabbatical is a bit of a psychological rebellion against focusing on money as the be-all end-all purpose of my life.
This sabbatical is also somewhat of an exercise in voluntarily giving up my identity in order to free up my psyche to focus on other aspects of life that are probably important for overall well-being which I'm currently neglecting. Now that I don't have the fancy career, who am I?
Business & engineering experience
I have a couple of modest business ideas that I plan on pursuing during my sabbatical. I don't think they'll make me a millionaire, but they do have the possibility to create a satisfying little income stream on the side. Even if they don't, I wager that the overall business and engineering experience I get from building them will make me a better technical writer (if I continue that career) or open up new career paths.
Supportive friends & family
My partner, Gabi, was incredibly supportive of my sabbatical fantasy. All of the ideas that you see in this post, I bounced off her first. She understands all of the risks and costs of this path for us and still encouraged me to go for it. It's kind of trite, but I genuinely see now that having or not having a supportive partner can be the deciding factor in any big decision like this.
My family was frequently in disbelief about how well Google compensated and treated me, so I wasn't expecting them to be as supportive of my decision to leave my cushy job. But once I went through with it I was pleasantly surprised at how much they respected and supported my decision.
If I could travel through time I think I
Would tell myself from the past
You'll be fine
Only If by Steve Lacy
As mentioned before it took me a few years to finally build up the courage to actually follow through with the sabbatical idea. Here are the things that prevented me from doing it sooner.
Money is the biggest concern for me. As mentioned before, I am consciously drawing down my money reserves in order to replenish my time reserves and focus my energy reserves. But just because I'm doing it consciously doesn't mean it's easy for me. Here are a few loosely related ideas around my money fears.
- It will be tough to watch my net worth decline month after month, after watching it grow pretty much every month over the last 5 years. I honestly don't know whether my psyche will be able to handle that.
- Due to compound interest, choosing to draw down my net worth $50K (for example) as a 32 year old versus continuing to grow it could have a very large effect on my net worth when I'm 65.
- An implicit bet behind my sabbatical is that Google or another quality company will hire me again. If that turns out to be incorrect, then my decision to take a sabbatical will have majorly damaged my long-term earnings potential. For the record, I was promoted to Staff Technical Writer (L6) right before I left Google (i.e. I was promoted in May 2021 and I left in June 2021) and I have 9 years of experience.
- I also think that the writing is on the wall that Big Tech will eventually get regulated in the next 5 or 10 years, which probably means less overall profitability, which therefore means less compensation for rank-and-file employees like myself, which by extension implies lower salaries across the software industry at large (since Big Tech essentially sets the upper bounds of the market rates for rank-and-file salaries). In other words, part of me thinks that there is a finite window of opportunity (5-10 years) for earning a high salary in a rank-and-file software job.
- Assuming that I do get a new job with decent compensation again, I won't be back at my previous earning power for a while. For example, stock grants are a big part of the rank-and-file compensation at Google. But those only kick in after a year. So even if I got a comparable job after the sabbatical (June 2022), my earnings probably won't recover to my pre-sabbatical level (June 2021) until I'm 1 year into the new job (June 2023).
- Someone close to me lost their job recently. I'm no longer in a great position to support them financially.
- Shortly after resigning, I had a pang of regret about leaving Google. Why didn't I keep the job, put hard limits on my time and energy, and work towards other goals, like buying a home?
- Health insurance. It's a mess in the United States, and I was worried that I would have to pay out the wazoo just to get barebones coverage.
As mentioned in the last section, my sabbatical is an implicit bet that I can put a year-long gap into my career with no major harm, and that I will be able to easily find a job in a year. If those assumptions are incorrect, future me might not be too happy with present me's decisions!
I have high hopes for all of my sabbatical plans, but I also know that I struggle with lazyness. If I don't end up doing much of anything during the sabbatical, I may feel that it was a mistake to leave my job, because the job forced me to stay productive generally throughout life. As they say, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it."
I don't have a single big project in mind for my sabbatical. I have lots of small projects lined up, and I plan on focusing on one each week. Some will take longer than a week to finish. I like this approach because it balances the need to devote time to focus on a single project with my enjoyment of variety. The risk of course is that I start a bunch of different projects and don't finish any of them. I also have some goals that are essentially habits that I want to build, such as calling friends/family every week/month, meditating every day, etc.
Although I don't have a single project, I do have a single overarching theme, however: joie de vivre. Everything that I do, even the mundane stuff (especially the mundane stuff), I'm going to focus on enjoying it fully. How you do anything is how you do everything, as the Buddhists say. I have come to believe that the person who can enjoy whatever they're doing and make that joy contagious will actually end up accomplishing the most. Yet even if I don't accomplish anything, I'll still be joyful, so what would it matter anyways?
At the end of the day, when I think about having a year to do whatever the hell I want, I'm full of excitement for the possibilities and I don't regret it yet.
The less we say about it, the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's OK I know nothing's wrong, nothing
This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads
P.S. as mentioned in the intro, I will be posting annual follow-up blog posts to reflect on the long-term effects of the sabbatical experience. You can add your email to this form if you'd like to receive emails when I publish these posts.