Would Mini-Retirements Beat A Single Big One?
September 15, 2014

Would Mini-Retirements Beat A Single Big One?

In 2008, Wired magazine asked its readers, “Who is the world’s greatest self promoter?”  Winning by a landslide was Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek.Ferriss said he had made his fortune as a serial entrepreneur.  He spoke six languages.  He was a world record holder in tango.  He had won a national championship in Chinese kickboxing.  He was a cage fighter who defeated six world champions.  He was an actor in a hit television series.  He was a guest lecturer at Princeton University; a political asylum researcher; a T.V. host in Thailand and China; a motorcycle racer and shark diver. 

No, he wasn’t 90 years old. He was 30.

So yes, he has critics. The New York Times writer, Dwight Garner, described Ferriss as “an unusually beguiling humanlike specimen.”  Garner’s article leans towards the first definition of “beguile” on   “to influence by trickery, flattery…mislead; delude.”

But at least one of Ferriss’ suggestions is brilliant. Take mini-retirements instead of a single big one. This conflicts with the American work model:

Excel in high school. 
Go to college.
Get a job as soon as possible.
Work that job (or a series of jobs) until retirement age.

If you’re physically able, you can travel or smell the roses after that.

 Writer Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants, a Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace says, "American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed - taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness.  We’re a country permanently in hyper-drive."

You might disagree.  But when traveling, I often meet young students.  Sometimes they’re traveling the world on a shoestring, right after high school.  Other times, they’re taking a break from college. But they’re rarely American. 

Do these prodigal sons and daughters risk never going back to school?  Not according to research by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson.  They’re the authors of The Gap-Year Advantage:  Helping Your Child Benefit from Time off Before College. After surveying 280 such students, they found that 90 percent of them returned to college within one year.  Holly Bull sees added benefits.  She’s president of the Center for Interim Programs, a consulting firm that helps students plan gap years.  She says, “Students [after a year off] often land in college more focused and often do better academically.”

When traveling, I also meet plenty of people who quit their jobs or take sabbaticals.  Stefan Sagmeister, a designer in New York, does so every seven years.  He says the average person spends 25 years learning, 40 years working and 15 years in retirement.  To mix things up, he “felt it might be helpful to cut out five of those retirement years and intersperse them with working years.”  He claims the sabbaticals enhance his creativity, making his work more effective when he returns.

James Dalziel, head of the United World College in Singapore, sees similar benefits.  He encourages his international teaching staff to “boomerang”.  It means quitting for at least a year to pursue personal interests.  With luck, they’ll eventually return to his school, bringing new ideas and a fresh outlook.

Last year, I met an Australian couple and their two children.  They were anchored off Juara’s beach, on Pulau Tioman.  It’s a picture perfect Malaysian island in the South China Sea.  The couple wasn’t wealthy.  But they had quit their jobs, bought a sailboat, and were home schooling their kids for a couple of years.

Sabbaticals don’t have to be expensive.  Just pick the right country.  You might spend less money in 6 months than you would during 2 months at home.  Examples of low cost havens include Argentina, Portugal, Malaysia or Thailand.

Sounds great, but you can’t afford it? One friend of mine loves Wwoofing. It’s an international organization that offers room and board to volunteers interested in organic, sustainable farming. Other similar operations exist. Radical change could be better than a break.

Perhaps you’re thrilled by the dream of a mini-retirement, but your life is too complicated.  It might be.  But remember two things.  The Grim Reaper snatches without warning.  Not everybody lives to retirement age.  Then there’s something Henry Ford once said:

“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”

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