Family Sabbatical or Mini-retirement

Given the title I chose for the inaugural post of this blog (The decision to take a family sabbatical) I clearly thought of our upcoming move to Cuenca, Ecuador for a year as a family sabbatical.  However, in the past month I met Tim Ferris – not in person but through his books, blog, TED talk and podcast.  I’ve consumed so much content from Tim that I feel like I’ve know him for years.

It all started a couple of months ago, I was thinking about what to do with my time next year so I picked up Start Something That Matters, the story of Blake Mycoskie and how he started the shoe company TOMS. For those not familiar, Blake started TOMS in order to provide shoes to children in need in Argentina. Today for every pair of shoes sold (and now other products too) TOMS will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need around the world. While inspired by Blake’s story, what caught my attention were the repeated references to another popular book called The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) by Tim Ferris. While the 4HWW has been a NYT best seller for years, I never picked it up because the title sounds gimmicky.  Thank you Blake for getting me past that title.

In the 4HWW, Tim opened my eyes to an entirely new way of life and introduced me to mini-retirements. According to Tim the difference between a sabbatical and a mini-retirement is that a sabbatical is a one-time event, while a mini-retirement is by definition recurring. On that basis alone I’m tempted to redefine my upcoming experience as a mini-retirement instead of a family sabbatical. In fact, soon after my wife and I agreed to leave our jobs and NYC for one year to relocate our whole family to Cuenca, Ecuador, I started thinking of the possibility of moving someplace else the following year. On Tim’s recommendation I read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts and discovered an entire sub-culture of digital nomads and life-style designers. I imagined a life sojourning from city to city around the globe (I still haven’t opened-up to living full-time outside of a city, but I am still evolving).

As I described our future life to my wife she smiled and asked me just one question “how many kids do Tim and Rolf have?”  So I looked it up and it seems like neither of them have any children – yet.  The hard truth is that vagabonding and life-style design becomes exponentially more difficult with children, especially school-aged children. Raising children requires parents to provide them with a level of stability that’s not possible moving frequently. While in graduate school I was fortunate enough to meet classmates who moved frequently while growing up as the children of missionaries, diplomats and US foreign service officers. Back then I had not traveled much or lived abroad, but after speaking with these classmates I came to appreciate that parents need to carefully balance the stability and change in their children’s lives, especially during the adolescent years.

Luckily I stumbled across a great article in the Harvard Business Review titled “A Gap Year for Grown-ups“. It discusses the trend of high-school students, mostly in the UK, taking a year-off before starting college.  The gap year is used to apprentice, travel, volunteer and, in general re-energize before the next phase of life.  Sounds like a wonderful idea at any major milestone, assuming you can afford it. Best of all the article introduced me to Stefan Sagmeister, a designer living in NYC, who has re-popularized the concept of taking a sabbatical every seven or so years. His Ted Talk on taking a sabbatical has changed my perspective on life so profoundly that I’d like to share it with you in its entirety (only 17 minutes).

Ironically, I don’t think Sagmeister has any children either, however as someone with three children of my own ages 13, 11 and 3, taking a one year sabbatical every seven years or so strikes a nice balance between providing my school-aged children with some stability and the entire family with a gap year to explore another part of the world and expand our horizons. While I received priceless business advice from Tim Ferris and wonderful traveling tips from Rolf Potts, I’m going to continue referring to this adventure as a family sabbatical because 1) I am experiencing this with my family and 2) contrary to Tim’s assertion, sabbaticals are not one-off events. Strictly speaking a sabbatical means a 12 month rest taken every 7th year. If all goes well, I hope to stay true to the meaning of the word sabbatical and look forward to enjoying future gap years.

Now tell me what you think: Have you taken a sabbatical with kids? How old were the kids? Would you do it again? Do you have any other reading recommendations on this subject?