Why I Bought a Sabbatical Instead of a Fancy Car | by Alex Cook | Jun, 2022

Money can be used for buying a lot of things, but I’ve decided to buy time.

A reasonable number of people take time off between jobs because they’re burned out, unfulfilled, or hate their boss — that’s not really me. I’ve been extremely fortunate over the first 8 years of my career as a software engineer. I’ve been surrounded by really smart, caring people I could learn from while also working on interesting technology that seeks to make the world a better place. I’ll claim some credit for choosing the places I worked (an innovative product team within IBM, then a data privacy startup called Privitar) because I chose mission and culture over my highest salaried offers, but the majority is down to luck.

A month ago, I started 4+ months off instead of buying a fancy car because I don’t want to save my “outside of work” growth for when I’m old and retired. Money can be used for buying a lot of nice things — Most of which haven’t even made marginal increases my personal happiness — but it can also be used to buy time. Time to reflect, time to learn, and time to take a step back and see more clearly what’s important.

Work has given me lots of personal growth — discovering what it’s like to build something that makes the world better, feeling the joy of accomplishing something as a team that at first seemed impossible, and managing someone as they developed into a confident, creative engineer are just a few (sticking to positive ones!). I look forward to a lot more growth in future work, but I’m genuinely curious to see what I learn about myself and how I can grow in the environment of “not work”. It’s possible I won’t learn much, I’ll have to retire later, and 60 year-old Alex will be unhappy with me, but I’m willing to risk it because I feel that it’s far more likely I’ll learn things that can make me a happier and better partner, family member, friend, colleague, and stranger.

My drawing of the jar analogy to avoid any copyright issues!

There is a jar analogy that is often used for helping to think about priorities and capacity which helps explain how I want to grow. There’s only a certain amount of energy/time/productivity we have in a given week, so it’s important to be intentional about how we allocate it. The key lesson usually delivered with the jar is that you need to take care of the most important, big rocks first. The intention of the jar (aka life) is to live in the best possible way through choosing the right rocks and fitting as many of them in as possible.

So…what is the “best life”?! I’ve been intrigued by that question over the years to the point that it’s sometimes led me down nihilistic holes. I used to think it was about “finding happiness”, which I used to associate with getting rich, buying a big house, marrying the perfect spouse, and driving a nice car. I’ve evolved from there to a current hypothesis that happiness is actually about much simpler things, and that the best life equation also involves the impact you have. Leading to:

happy + positive impact = best life

(the math geek in me is really uncomfortable with that equation, but I’m keeping it and looking forward to its dissection!)

My mission for my time off of work is to take a step back from “doing” too much, to focus on becoming more skillful at choosing the things I focus my life on (What are the rocks that I should actually be putting into my jar?) and my ability to show up happily for advancing those things (How many of the highest priority rocks can I happily take on?). It’s very possible that what I actually focus on ends up being different, but I was motivated to take a sabbatical in order to spend time on these things:

  • Deepening my connection to the present moment and myself. I struggle quite a bit with simply experiencing the present without a constant mental narration going on. I’ll see something amazingly beautiful, but rather than experience it or feel it, I tend to have a voice that says “this is beautiful…you should probably feel something with how beautiful it is…”. I’ve spent the last 2 years meditating for 15–30 minutes per day, but I still have a long way to go in befriending and managing the little narrator in my head. My hope is that gains in being more present will also bring me closer to my feelings.
  • Spending quality time with people I love. This one’s probably obvious, but I’m looking forward to spending quality time with people that I haven’t had the chance to see much both due to covid and working in a country far from most of my family. This might not sound like a skill, but I want to be better at fully showing up for my time with people.
  • Exploring and experimenting with happiness. I’ve been keenly interested in what science and “experts” on happiness have to teach me ever since my mind was blown by a talk given by the Dalai Lama at my university in 2012. ideas out there to see what works for me (probably not going to try buying a Lamborghini though!).
  • Considering how I can have a positive impact on the world. A lot has been given to me by society and the planet — can I find a balanced way to give more than I take?
  • Learning for pleasure and impact. I’m a curious and playful learner. I want to spend lots of time learning about topics that I’m interested in (Spanish, the RadioLab podcast, Product Development theory, 4 million more things…), as well as new things that I stumble across.

Don’t worry — I don’t expect to have “finished” any of these areas by the end of my sabbatical. I think they’re all life-long quests that I’m just hoping to move the needle on. I don’t have a clear plan for how to approach these, so if you have advice or ideas, please send them my way! You can find me on Instagram @sabbatical.engineer, on Twitter @sabbatical_engor send me a good old fashioned email at sabbatical.engineer@gmail.com.

I’m intending to reflect after each month and share the things that have helped me most. A sneak preview from my first month’s reflections (coming soon!) is that the best thing I did was watch this interview of Mo Gawdat on Diary of a CEO (you can also listen to the podcast). If you don’t have time to watch/listen to the entire thing, it’s still worth starting.

Thanks for reading! What would be the focus of your sabbatical? Would it be better than a fancy car?

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