In August, I quit my job. I left with no plan, no job waiting for me, and no real prospects outside of a very long break from work. One month in, I’ve already learned a bit about myself and how disorienting it can be to come up for air after a decade submerged in work.
I first heard about the idea of “mini-retirement” in 2015 when I read Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek. At the time, the idea seemed romantic but far-off. I’d hit a mid-point in my software engineering career—the pay was just okay, my savings were mediocre, and my risk tolerance was quite dull—and I wondered, what would I do with six months to a year of unstructured time off? Now that I’ve made the leap into mini-retirement, has it been worth it? Have I made a terrible mistake?
Why would anyone quit their job, especially during a pandemic? By the end of my time at my previous company, my worldview had shifted on what success really meant. I’d wonder, why am I doing this to myself? If I got to a point where I didn’t need my job for a paycheck, what’s really the point? Does this job really matter in the long run? Those questions didn’t reflect on the people I was working with—I loved many of them—instead, it reflected on all my default ways of thinking. Get a degree, get a good job, be successful. That’s the plan, right?
My biggest issue was that I’d started to find my identity in my job title. Having a fancy job title at a fancy company felt good. But I began to rely on that feeling. On days when I was feeling insecure, I’d sometimes check my own LinkedIn profile to remind myself of my perceived accolades. Not only that, but I soon realized how shallow my model for success was. In an episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast, guest Casey Neistat shared his success definition that changed my mindset:
For me, it’s not how much time you spend doing what you love. It’s how little time you spend doing what you hate.
I never hated my job. The people were pleasant and the work was mostly satisfying (though I sure didn’t like it some days). What I hated was how I knew it would take an Act of God to pry me away from a job that, in the end, boiled down to ego fuel.
And as things go, 2020 unleashed quite an Act of God.
When the pandemic hit, my employer fell on hard times. I saw good people leave or get laid off, and I was one of the people who had to do the laying off. Suddenly the comfort I found in my career vanished. I recognized how grossly privileged I’d been for so many years, and I grew angry, resentful, and paranoid. I burned out as summer came along, and I off-handedly told my wife that I wished I could quit my job.
If I didn’t quit my job, I’d learn to hate my profession, grow bitter at my co-workers, and probably end up in the hospital.
“What do you mean you wish you could?” she asked. “What’s stopping you?”
There were dozens of answers. Money! No plan! Career suicide! She listened patiently and asked, “Okay, so what happens if you don’t quit your job?”
I hadn’t considered this angle, but the answers became clearer in the weeks to come. One of my personal quirks (or issues, depending on your view) is that I have a 30 day limit on interests. If I still want to do a thing after 30 days of thinking about it, that probably means I really want to do it. On the flip side, this has led to years of abandoned hobbies and experiments—juice fasting, rock climbing, photography, etc. But the desire to quit stuck in my brain for months. I even took a week off from work to see if it was just a phase, but every path led to the same conclusion: If I didn’t quit my job, I’d learn to hate my profession, grow bitter at my co-workers, and probably end up in the hospital. This revealed the only reason I stayed in my job: it was widely considered the responsible thing to do. But after a decade in the tech industry, I felt what so few ever find (or want to find): contentedness. There was enough money in the bank, and I felt satisfied with the work I’d done up to that point. I was ready for a break, whether it be one month or one year. Maybe I’d find my way back to a similar job in the future, but I hoped to do so, not out of pressure, but out of clarity from a rested body and mind.
So in July, I put in my two weeks notice without the faintest idea of what to do next, and I couldn’t have felt better.
How I did it
You might be thinking, I could never do something like this with kids/a mortgage/my love for my current job. Those are excellent reasons not to take a long break from work; as someone with none of those things, it’s easy for me to advocate for it. But if you’re considering taking a break, here’s what you should know.
The most important factor when considering a career break is your relationship with money. If you’re one of the 4-in-10 Americans who can’t afford a $400 emergency, it’s incredibly challenging to take time off. The ongoing pandemic has stretched people to the limit financially, and the idea of taking a restful break is practically offensive to some who are facing unemployment or tight budgets.
But suppose you feel, even during the pandemic, that a break would work for you. In that case, your first goal is to prepare a money plan by doing any combination of the following:
- Save up enough living expenses to cover your desired time off (plus 20–40% buffer)
- Pay off all your credit card debt
- Bonus: set up passive income sources to supplement your paycheck
In prepping for my time off, my wife and I set aside one year’s worth of living expenses and cultivated a few small passive income sources through stock dividends and real estate investments. And luckily, my wife landed a dream job the day after I put in my two weeks’ notice, further clearing any worries in the plan.
Leading up to all of this was a change in our view of money—I learned years ago that it doesn’t take much to have everything you need. We started to feel the real goal was not to make more money, but, as Scott Galloway describes, “reduce your burn“—that is, spend less and live smaller. My wife and I have lived small for many years—we’ve been debt-free renters for six years, and we purge bags and bags of household belongings every six months.
The takeaway: you can either buy things or buy time but rarely both.
So if you’re hoping to take a break in the next couple of years, start preparing now. Learn to manage your money like a pro, make the most of your career while you can, and don’t be afraid to set sail when the time comes.
Learning to rest
My biggest fears in leaving my job were the social blowback that would come from being a quitter or that doing so could forever derail my career. The former never came (the jury’s still out on the latter). People seemed very happy for me and wished me a relaxing time off, and my final week of work felt like a happy ending after five years in a grueling role. Our department’s vice president had a Zoom call with me to say goodbye and shared that he, too, took an extended work break earlier in life. He said it was the best thing he did for his career. My boss shared a similar story of gainful unemployment, traveling the country for a few months, and finding his way into a new job he loved.
On my first day of mini-retirement, I woke up with no alarm clock. The real alarm was that this stressed me out. My wife started her day with an early-morning meeting but urged me: Sleep in every day! Rest! Have fun! And one month out, that’s been the most challenging part of the experiment—finding real rest. Towards the end of my job, I was clinically burned out. I heard from a friend recently that it takes at least 3 months after leaving a stressful job to shake off burnout, and that seems about right. I still go to sleep at night worried about something, some nebulous obligation or email I need to send RIGHT NOW. So, my time off thus far has been spent fighting those worries by hiking, reading, and yes, watching garbage TV and playing video games.
Worries aside, the greatest blessing of this time off has been perspective, the knowledge that yes, I was burned out. Yes, I was stressed about things that weren’t as important as I thought. And yes, I’m taking healthy steps to address my burnout with the help of a stable nest egg and a supportive spouse. For me, this ability to take a break represents a personal peak of success, fruits reaped. I just hope I make the best of it. But I’ll try not to think about that too much right now.