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Reflections from a Micro-Retirement

The afternoon sun shines bright and hard on the beach here in Sinaloa, Mexico. The still air and glassy waves of my morning surf have been overtaken by the onshore wind, leaving a white capped mess in its wake. I contemplate kicking off a semi-productive project, but the 95-degree heat leaves me with little motivation to venture far from the shade of our rooftop tent, Bluetooth speaker, and ice water. So, I officially proclaim the rest of the day as a “lazy afternoon”, kick up my feet, and settle into a cozy camp chair with a good book. This is normally where a normal millennial-ish human would take a selfie (feet, ocean background, maybe a cocktail) and post it to Instagram and Facebook so that all my friends see that I am having a wonderful “vacation”. A-OK by today’s social media standards except for one key fact. After a year of travel, meanderings, and general tomfoolery, I don’t think I can call this a vacation anymore.

I'm left questioning myself: how I did I get here? Am I slacking off, or am I living the dream? When am I going back to real-life? Is that even an option anymore?

Up until this recent foray into a life of leisure, my longest official break from work/school in over 13 years was one carefully scheduled and pre-approved 2 week road trip. And as our American work ethic dictates, I can assume most of the people around me are in the same boat or worse – never having more than a week off at a time. Here on the beach, from my new vantage point of micro-retirement, the American PTO standard is a bitter pill to swallow. How could I have ever accepted only 14 days off in a 365 day calendar year as normal? How can anyone?

To understand how I ended up on this foreign beach, I must recount the all too familiar story of growing up. It’s a common tale: be a good kid, study hard, get the grades to get into a good school, work even harder, and secure the inviable post-college job. As this story goes, by the time you have finished your congratulatory glass of champagne on graduation day, the new goals of middle management, salary raises, and future career aspirations are placed soundly on you. You respond to the ask as per the life-long training you have received, savor that last sip of champagne (freedom), and get right back to The Grind (real life).

Let me pause for a minute to acknowledge the unfair truth in my recap: we are insanely fortunate that the above story is in fact, familiar. And by “we” I am of course referring to the generations born into a growing economy, in the most powerful country in history, with unlimited access to (mostly) proper primary and secondary education, during a time where new and inspiring technology creates jobs and opportunities as fast as it obsoletes them. The taste of progress has never been so sweet… or is it?

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I graduated in 2007 right before unemployment rose, fast. My first job was mostly a right-place-right time situation, but it put a respectable line on my resume and it turns out, I was pretty good at it too. I was lucky when my initial big-kid success led me to the most amazing big-kid city in the US, San Francisco, where I could afford the SILLY prices for rent, beer, fine dining, and car window replacements. I was lucky because I got to meet amazing, talented people who both inspired me to go bigger and also joined me on the ride. I was lucky in the sense that a little idea from a ski trip would be picked up and supported by friends, then by thousands of random people on Kickstarter. I was Lucky to taste both the sweet joy and un-ending pressure of being the CEO of something you started. But I was even more lucky that it ALL came to an abrupt and unexpected stop.

One of my first bosses would often say, “If YOU don’t have any opinions to give, I have plenty.” Welcome to startup world, everyone has an opinion, and when you are running a company, yours needs to be at worst, the most right. The idea of “right” can become a problem when the controlling partners are two smart, driven, and equal leaders in a company (the two headed dragon if you will). At some point, one has to give way to the other or it will be an endless struggle to get anything done. In my case, the result was a sudden and irreparable parting of ways.

Having the rug (blanket) pulled out from under you is a completely normal life situation to be in. Most people get laid off at least once in their career, companies go bust abruptly, and managers have “re-orgs” all of the time. In my case, I had put so much of me into the past few work opportunities that I had really given no thought into what I actually wanted to be doing.

Go, go, go…stop!

I felt like a sprinter who had just tripped on the track while spectators watched and mumbled “did that just happen”? As I attempted to get my bearings straight, I had the usual knee jerk reaction: get up, go start a new company, fast, before anyone realizes you are not winning at life! A new voice suddenly appeared in the depths of my skull, “Nooooo” silently screamed back at me… I was spent. I didn’t have the energy for another startup rat race and going back to work at “some corporate job” no longer felt like an option after tasting the freedom of being my own boss. Heart broken, jobless, and idealess, I did what any self respecting lost soul would do: I booked a one-way trip to Europe to blow off some steam.

3 months, 2 vans, a Tuscan villa and whole lotta wine later, the reset button had been pressed and I started to relax and enjoy this newfound freedom. By Silicon Valley standards this wasn’t a “productive” trip - I didn’t tour factories or forge new strategic business relationships, yet I returned feeling strangely accomplished. In between sipping aperol spritz’s and mountain biking beautiful back roads, my mind was finally finding the time and space it needed to think new thoughts, not just react to the present issue. As a result, 52 new “highdeas” were created, on paper. These highdeas are named primarily for their outlandish, right field, you-gotta-be-high-as-shit-to-think-they-would-actually-work qualities about them. And you know what, it was fun to be thinking outside the box again. They weren’t ideas intended to maximize a portfolio or extend a product line, they were ideas I thought would be either fun to design, useful to the world, or just tickled me. In the past four years, somewhere between the Monday, Wednesday, Friday weekly All Hand meetings and bloated inboxes, I forgot to give myself the very thing that spurred the original idea, down time.

Upon the return to the states, with my reset perspective on life and leisure lingering in my brain like the Iberian prosciutto on my palette, I decided to try and prioritize my list. I made a spread sheet ranking the 52 ideas on a scale from 1-5 in categories like: startup cost, effort in to dollars out, location agnostic, and fun factor (placing a weighting factor on the few categories I felt were increasingly more important to me now, like location and work time flexibility). Sum-average-sort-review. Interestingly enough, I actually had some real, albeit slightly crazy, ideas that could potentially provide an entirely new path towards life satisfaction!

*Insert moment of clarity*

These infant, brilliantly weird highdeas were all produced, categorized, and outlined by me, in my newly found free time. Had I really been too busy before to take an occasion to think of a new idea, evaluate it, and see if that opportunity would lead to a happier me? In short, yes. I focused too much on solving problems in front of me and not nearly enough time on the process in which the problems arose.

Fix the process, fix your problems before they happen

The first step in my new “process” was finally finding the time to answer the next series of life questions. I was able to clearly look at myself and realize that being creative, exploring more, working less, moving about on my own schedule, surrounding myself with awesome people, and giving back as much (or more) than I take were the actual drivers to my motivation and happiness. I could scratch off a bunch of things that I previously thought were important (career aspirations, vesting periods, how many people I managed, what address I lived at, and the concept of PTO). Taking these newly ranked motivators into account, if I could somehow back into a new opportunity based on the answers to the questions below, I think my contentment with life could be taken to absurd new levels.

  • What do you want to LEARN next?

  • How much money did I REALLY need need to be happy?

  • Where could I LIVE with that money and be happy?

  • WHO makes your life better?

  • How many hours a week would I WANT to work if I really loved my job?

  • Do you VALUE stability or accomplishment more?

  • In what ways do you want to HELP people?

  • How can you be uncomfortable in the UNKNOWN?

Back to the hot beach in Mexico…

I am sitting here entirely by choice with a sweaty grin on my face. As you may have guessed (or seen on social media: sunset, feet, and cocktail in hand), one of the 52 highdeas was to drive to Patagonia via the Pan-America highway. While it ranked the lowest of all the highdeas in terms of short-term financial opportunity, it scored extremely high in adventure (15,000 miles of surprises), education (learning Spanish, finally), fun (surfing and biking), and being comfortable on the path unknown.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

― Terry Pratchett

The funny thing is that this idea might have been passed over in favor of a more profitable or engaging one had I not met my co-pilot Megan. We had only been dating 3 months when we decided to commit to this trip together, but the conversation started as early as our first date. While some called it crazy, I see it as extension of focusing on the process, not the result. After months on the road, we both value this truly unique period of time together and appreciate the ways it has deepened our partnership in unexpected ways. You find out really fast how much you like and love a person when you spend 23.5 hours a day with them. We are both fortunate to have had enough cash in the bank to live on (in Central and South America), we were willing to pause the race to make time for ourselves, and we had the drive to get out of our comfort zones, together.

Challenge to Reader!

Ask yourself: When was the last time you temporarily cleared your life of all of its demands, intentionally or unintentionally? Vacations are nice, we all need moments when we stop going 100 mph and veg out on a beach while drinking umbrella drinks to our hearts content. But a micro-retirement is not a vacation, this is intentionally letting go of your day-to-day pressures for the sake of your inner creative. It’s in all of us, but we do an amazing job distracting ourselves from it, even when we are trying to listen to it.

Your brain will want to say no because it is not the *right time, that you don’t have enough money saved up, that you are already too far down that path you initially chose. BUT, like almost all major life moments, I challenge you to see the problem through a different lens: there is NEVER a “right time”, money is required but not as much as you think (some people take mico-retirements with only a few thousand in the bank), and the restraints of the cycle you are in are mostly self imposed. The gift of time can be your greatest asset. It’s an investment, an investment in yourself, but I have found it’s yielding my best returns yet.

My parting advice would be to find a way to take back, for once, one measurable sliver of time for yourself before you are too tied down/old/tired/grumpy/in debt to enjoy it. Rent your house, pause the job (or get a new one), ditch the phone (or cell service altogether), cancel the subscriptions, pick a place that interests and aligns with your wallet size and just freaking GO. Don’t worry about how much it will cost, what you will miss back home, or what might happen if you happen to like your time off a little too much. Those are the unproductive thoughts that keep you coming back to the same-old-same-old of everyday, do-what-you-gotta-do way of life. Break the grind once and you will be able to do it again, and again. To me, that is my new picture of success.

-Life is long enough-

(not pictured: cocktail, sand, ocean and feet)

About the Author: Nick Polinko is not a writer nor does he pretend to be, but apparently he writes when given enough time, space, and lack of other stimulants. Oh, and has an editor in his copilot. He currently lives in a tent down by the ocean and has no immediate plans on returning to the US (however, his bank account says otherwise). You can follow along with the adventures on Instagram by typing @thelongcruise and @nickpolinko into your magic pocket device.

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