Life is just a roller coaster isn't it? It's the one year anniversary of starting my creative sabbatical — cue the confetti poppers! It's been one year of spending time outside of the traditional full-time job, testing new models for financial security, and putting curiosity in the driver's seat. It's been one year of challenging the "normal" path with absolutely no "normal" nor consistency in my life, and of treating life as "time on" rather than "time off".
After a year, I'm feeling simultaneously at ease with my new life and bewildered that it's turned out completely different from what I'd imagined. I wrote in February that I felt I was reconnecting with the human side of me — and that's definitely still true. Even through the lowlights (see below), I feel like I have ownership over my life, and whether or not I accomplish a life goal is entirely in my hands. Now in the third chapter of my sabbatical (the three chapters were reset, play, and build for financial sustainability), which has been by far the longest chapter and a long period of incubation, the many moving parts are only just starting to shape up into what I believe my life can look like. Finally, I also wrote that I was overall feeling clarity, as though I were on the precipice of a breakthrough. Well, it definitely takes a lot more work than I'd realized to truly redesign life, especially when the systems are set up for you to go with the grain. And yet, I feel so happy to be trying and lucky to be able to!
I wanted to share some things I've learned over the past year (and highlights and lowlights) and the ways they might help you in changing up the status quo and designing the life that feels best for you. Also, I sprinkled photos throughout since this one is dense!
Sunset outside Joshua Tree, in a teeny-tiny 100% off-the-grid Airbnb. (April, 2019)
7 'Aha' moments and what I learned:
- Community is so important! I'm lucky to have been surrounded by amazing humans who share similar values on life and purpose throughout this adventure. Until I moved to San Francisco three years ago, I hadn't realized that I'd been in communities out of convenience rather than out of full alignment for much of my adult life. Being forced to start over in a new city meant I had to think critically about who I was at my core and then find community in which I could be my full self, maximize my growth, and more fully explore and share my gifts. Having a soul-aligned community of all backgrounds and ages was part of why I felt I could take this leap. It has helped me ground amidst change, get feedback, and have a constant flow of inspiration and learning, as well as overcome fear and uncertainty. That community has extended far beyond my friends, too. There are dozens of 'professional' online communities I joined (like Womens Catalysts Community and Solopreneurs). They say you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so find your soul community and the people that bring out the best versions of you! And, don't be afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help.
- Discomfort and boredom are incredible catalysts for creativity. My little brother reminded me of that last month. I think most of us would agree that we generally find ourselves too comfortable and too busy - a dangerous combination that hooks us in the status quo. For those who can't leave their jobs, consider how you might remove the many time-fillers we all pack into our weeks that we mislabel as decompression. In my uncomfortable boredom, I rediscovered my love for creating and for bringing things into existence - ranging from events to community gatherings, laser cut art, and starting new companies! I also rediscovered that I really enjoy singing and signed up for free classes at a local city college. See 'highlights' below for more!
- Being intentional about your "time on" will help make it last. I've met a number of people over the past two years who took a similar leap of faith to redesign their lives. They often ended up returning to a full-time role - sometimes, it was because they realized that's what they wanted all along; usually, it was because they got bored, stir crazy, panicked, had FOMO, didn't know what to do besides travel, or ran out of runway. Rather than scare me, it reinforced to me that I needed to have a "why" and a plan for this time. What helped me make it to month 13:
(A) Be honest with yourself. What do you need? A vacation? A remote day each week? A job change? A complete life redesign? Call it what it is, and give it space.
(B) Build a timeline. Different needs will call for different timelines. For example, my sabbatical had three chapters (reset, play, and build for financial sustainability) and each was given its own designated space, time, and goals.
(C) Knowing A and B, be financially intentional with your time on. A three-month break to travel between jobs will require a different budget than a 12-month sabbatical, and the latter doesn't need to deplete all your savings (which leads to the next aha moment). I had set aside three funds: Fund A was money I could spend guilt-free, Fund B was money that I was okay spending if needed while I get income going, and Fund C was my nest egg that I did not want to touch except for during emergencies.
(D) Manage your unstructured time. What used to work in a structured environment (to-do lists, deadlines) can take away the fun in an unstructured environment. Similarly, leaving behind one's primary source of meaning and purpose can leave a confused void. What helped me keep this 'life work' both fun AND constantly progressing forward is this tool - find what works for you!
- The best way to make money is to not spend it. Starting my sabbatical, a principle of Joe's really resonated with me: making sure an increase in salary doesn't lead to a proportional increase in cost of living. It inspired me to take inventory of my own spend, which was especially important in my first chapter since I wouldn't be working. First, I set a budget with generous guidelines around spend (e.g., # times per week to cook versus eat out, walk versus uber, yoga at home versus in a studio). Second, I found ways to exchange my time instead of money for things I'd normally pay for (e.g., volunteering at conferences, events, and classes I wanted to attend). Some friends chose to claim unemployment benefits during this time, which is great if you're eligible. By chapter 2, I set a goal of starting to play with different forms of income. That said, budgets have a time and place, and I accidentally got stuck on that budget for too long, which had some downsides that I reflected on under 'What I would do differently' below.
- 'Work' can meaningfully improve lives, but not necessarily the way it exists today. Current 5-day workweeks are constructs of the industrial revolution and should not be taken as a given; isn't it crazy that humans historically worked far less than we do now? Things are changing yet again. Some people just really love their jobs - and that option is and maybe will always be available to them! But many more need things to change, and the unpredictability of the gig economy may not be for them. The workplace actually presents an awesome opportunity to learn new skills, celebrate teamwork, and work as a community toward something bigger. I don't think the future will be completely devoid of companies or offices, so the question becomes: how might we take the best of the workplace and use it to empower individuals to live more fully? I believe part-time work is part of the answer. I've been interviewing different employers that have made that shift toward part-time and I'm learning that a lot of times, change came because someone asked for it. The key is choice, and finding an employer where your ability to choose matters. My mom always says, if you don't ask you'll never get what you want. I'm compiling those interviews into a podcast and then book called Part-Time Wild (message me if you want to chat about it or know potential sponsors and collaborators!)
When the Dalai Lama was asked what surprised him most about humanity, he answered:
"Man! Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
- Develop a practical hard skill and you'll never go hungry. Having a tangible and always-in-demand hard skill makes going independent a lot easier. For example, my uncle is a real estate broker, with 10 years as a barber under his belt, which he can always lean on if he needs work. When I was at Deloitte, one of my mentors called this having a 'cash cow': you'd have the work that you wanted to do, and the work you could easily get staffed on when the pickings were slim. In my case, it's branding and web design - a skill I picked up at age 13 that my parents said would be useless (ha!). For others, it may be teaching yoga, writing/editing, or photography. This hard skill helped me find fun work during the 'in-between' periods when I was still figuring things out, or when consulting or startup stuff were lighter. Several of you wrote me asking how to market these skills and land a project - it's a longer conversation, but one thing I found really powerful is: manifestation. I learned from my friend Jackie to put it out into the universe as an affirmative 'I am doing __' or 'I am a __', rather than 'I would like to do __' or 'I'm trying to __'. You'll be surprised what serendipitous opportunities you attract just through your own manifestation - I certainly was.
- And finally, the big punchline a lot of you emailed about: passive income alleviates a lot of financial pressure -- but it does take time to build. There are a lot of ways to become financially sufficient in this world (yes, all legal), and many of them can be done with minimal upkeep. Many believe that:
(A) passive income is limited to real estate - and thus is capital intensive and inaccessible,
(B) it's as effortless as Tim Ferriss sets it out to be, and
(C) what works for one person will work for them too.
In reality, there's a whole slew of options, it takes WORK to set up and to maintain, and the key is to find something that doesn't feel like work to you. As I've been exploring, I've bucketed dozens of different passive income ideas into: sharing knowledge, sharing assets, sharing data, providing access, providing tools, and outsourcing/automation. I've committed to writing more about the income sources I've played with and ways to make financial independence socioeconomically accessible. It's too much to share in this update so it'll be in a separate one (if you join this list you'll get an email when it's live).
There's a great concept in Mark Manson's Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:
Whatever you do in life will be a struggle, so you need to find the struggle that’s right for you.
If the goat didn't get your attention I thought the llama might. We got to spend a weekend at a llama sanctuary for Joe's birthday and then at a goat and goose farm when my brother Ryan was visiting! (March/August, 2019)
Highlights and favorite moments
- I got to explore a ton of new hands-on crafts and activities. I picked up wood laser cutting, candlemaking, and bread-baking (challah, baguettes, bagels, pizza, you name it), among other things. Speaking of challah, I became an Airbnb Experiences host and was featured in a documentary! I also started volunteering at a community space, which helped me realize how important it is to me to be in a position of service. I had the flexibility to take yoga classes in the middle of the day, remake my favorite (labor-intensive) Bukharian and Russian dishes from home, meet other incredible people with flexible work-lives at cafes across the city, and swim in the freezing Pacific on the one day it hit 95 degrees in San Francisco! (I'd have been so bummed to have been stuck in an office for that one!!) None of these were planned, and they were all things I got to do only because I made the space for it.
- I got to spend really meaningful quality time with my family, including time to host my mom, my 10-year-old brother, and then my sister, all separately, here in San Francisco! I enjoyed fresh-picked berries from my mom's garden, ate my favorite foods with Grandma, and faceswapped with my 19-year-old brother. I got to talk to my aunt more in the last five months than in the last 10 years, bonding over baking and our joint Airbnb Homes venture. Same for my uncle, as I had time to help him reinvent his struggling furniture business! We thought: we have wifi, coffee, and comfy furniture... everything you need for a co-working space. It was covered by local news and three publications!
- I published my first article and was a guest on a podcast! Both small first steps toward my goal of making my past research at Princeton and Deloitte more accessible to the people who can actually make a difference in the workplace. Within the first 24 hours, the article got featured on Medium's homepage and then snatched up by Medium's largest active publication! That was cool. Bravo to our report team and shoutout to Tej, David, and Courtney :)
- I got to adventure when I wanted. I escaped the world on a short RV trip for my birthday (where I experienced my first earthquake!); adventured with Joe for two months across Southwest US, Oslo, Barcelona, and NYC; not to mention the unbelievable trek in Patagonia from my last post. But I also realized that I didn't have to go far to adventure, and very much enjoyed being grounded in one place! A lot of my adventures took place right here in San Francisco.
- I served my first customer for my startup! What started as a side project (minimizing waste around kids' birthdays) became a real thing, and it's been fun bootstrapping it and living up to my commitment to environmental preservation. My mom is my co-founder, and we found out last week that we've been accepted to an all-female accelerator! If you know of any kids ages 8-14 with upcoming birthdays, or any female/minority founder or small biz grants, let me know!
- I had a lot of fun experimenting with income, too. My goal was to experiment with a lifestyle outside of full-time and freelance, but I definitely needed to turn to freelance in parallel to support myself. Since I don't mind inconsistency or being my own boss, I enjoyed it, but probably only because I didn't rely on it to be my sole income source! In addition to strategy consulting, I also earned as a paid conference speaker on the topics of D&I and innovation, a writer in Medium's Partner Program, a participant in research interviews, a host on Airbnb Experiences and Homes, and more, including monetizing my Uber/commute data. I also failed at earning with quite a few experiments, like stock photography. I learned that our time-value fluctuates at different times in our lives and how that doesn't discredit 'knowing your worth'. There were times I prioritized fun income sources and other times where I prioritized lucrative ones. I'll write about these, and dozens of passive income ideas, more fully in another post (hear about it via this list).
Anyone who's been here can probably guess where this is: welcome to Zion! We slept in our rental car that night... (April, 2019)
Lowlights and awkward moments
- I didn't take good enough care of my mental and physical health, ironically. I thought leaving my job to live my best life would help me shed burnout, but I realize now that health is a really complicated equation. More than simply doing the things that make you happy, self-care also about remembering to feed ALL of your energy needs, whether physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, etc. I wasn't aware of a number of subtle things that were negatively impacting my mental health, like where/when I worked or how I protected "me time". Guidelines would have helped keep my mental health strong, and to a point I raise a bit later, sometimes self-care also means prioritizing spending on yourself.
- Old habits die hard. As another old adage goes: easy to get an A, hard to keep it. Change requires constant effort - this is true of business, relationships, growth, morning routines, etc. I'd gotten so comfortable that I eventually fell back into default behavior, losing many of the good habits I worked to build, such as morning routines and Trail Mix-ing. That meant that eventually, even curiosity and motivation fled me!
- I do miss working with a team. I'm an extrovert and love being around amazing people. Through my consulting gigs, I've enjoyed having my clients as teammates, but I'd end up putting a lot of pressure on my romantic partner to give the feedback that colleagues usually provides. I'd love to find a part-time role at a company I'm passionate about.
- My biggest lowlight: My relationship fell apart. Ever the optimist, I thought everything could be worked on if there was love. It turns out that in the process of loving one another, we forgot to love ourselves. We still care about one another very much and I'm trying to figure out the whole 'get my heart back together, find a place to live, remain best friends / in one another's lives' situation. Perhaps more importantly, also the 'love yourself' situation. I'm mainly hurting though at the moment. But I'm so, so grateful to have other glowing hearts to lean on - y'all know who you are.
My friend Kate said something to me the other night that I want to leave with you all:
"At a certain point, if you allow it, the pain becomes a gift - a doorway really into the deepest clarity of what you truly need for personal fulfillment."
Hanging with the Flinstones at Joshua Tree. (April, 2019)
What would I do differently?
- Read more fiction!! There's no better creative escape.
- Find accountability buddies. I would have asked three friends and/or mentors to hold me accountable and check in with me once a quarter. It's easy to feel like you have to do it all yourself, so it's good to have people who care about you and your success reach out to you periodically too.
- Reassess guidelines & boundaries periodically. I had set a lot of guidelines around how I spend my money, and intentionally left open how to spend my time. And yet, to my point in my first update, ritual is really important and perhaps I should have set some guidelines around time later on in my sabbatical. Self-led/self-employed life can also mean days blurring together and motivation or clarity around 'the goal' slowly fading. I would have set guidelines that were either values-based (like asking myself, 'does this make me happy?') or centered on actively avoid pitfalls (like not working out of bed two days in a row, or attending an event with strangers once every two weeks).
- Spend on myself! Yes,
contradicting complementing my aha moment #4. Turns out, I'm actually very affected by money and have a lot of scarcity feelings around it. Saving is valuable, but an abundance mindset is equally so. My spending guidelines were really helpful for chapter 1, but I realize now that we also need to give ourselves permission to spend on things that are important to our happiness and health. I found myself too "cheap" to work from a cafe, have a consistent gym or therapy routine, or take spontaneous weekend trips with friends. What I should have done sooner was re-assess often, especially when my freelance work brought substantial income, and make sure I was channeling abundance around me. Now, whenever I come across internal resistance, I ask myself, "If this was free, would I do/want it?" and if the answer is yes, that means it's worth spending on me!
- Keep therapy a consistent part of my routine. I would have kept up therapy as an investment in myself. It had helped me get over feelings of depression post-Deloitte around uncertainty and my relationship, and once those feelings had "passed" I thought I wouldn't need it anymore. Turns out it's more like exercise: consistency is key! For anyone who needs affordable and remote therapy, Betterhelp was great while I was traveling, with no-questions-asked financial aid.
- Get off birth control sooner. Let's talk about women's health! Yes, men, you especially! We all know birth control affects hormones, but it also affects energy levels and mood. For some people, it may mean anxiety and depression, for others, it may mean generally numbing of highs and lows alike. For me, it meant that for the last few months, I didn't enjoy the things that normally brought me joy, had no interest in meeting new people, was extremely low energy, had completely lost my self-confidence, and honestly just felt like a victim in my own story. I went off birth control about a week ago and within 2 days I felt like a completely different person - lighter, more energetic, more optimistic! And I like meeting people and traveling again! There needs to be a revolution in the female health space - what innovative companies do you know who are working on this now?
I'm not sure what to call the life I’m currently living; the word 'sabbatical' does give the impression of taking time for me, and perhaps after reading all this you'd agree that it's a great container for all these different activities. However, sabbatical also gives the impression that it's temporary, that it's a break, and that I'm not working.
I've been asked a lot about my time 'off', and these conversations have made me realize that most people see living fully as something you do on your off time from work, which is a shame. These conversations have reaffirmed to me that I want the rest of my life to feel like a creative sabbatical, although what that means will certainly change over time, and perhaps the label for it will too (see below). What I know will be consistent is that I want to be human on my 'on time', and treat work as the thing that I do when I want to take a break from living :) Of course, for most of us that means solving the whole money thing first...
Below is something I've been grappling with during part three of my sabbatical. I'd love to engage with you on any of the questions that resonate with you. I've also included some suggestions off of my reading list. Finally, if I can support your own creative journeys in any way, let me know how.
With love and thanks,