Our culture has trained us to believe that permanent retirement follows a lifetime of work. It’s a linear timeline: You’re born, you grow up, you go to school, you get a job that turns into a career, you work for forty years, and then you stop producing and step over the invisible line into retirement. Once you cross the border into the Magical Land of No More Job, they pull up the drawbridge behind you and you can’t go back.
Why should it be that way?
Why can’t you have a mini-retirement at any age? Why can’t you take retirement for a test drive, and then go back to work?
Jim and Pat Sail the Great Barrier Reef
After moving to Australia for a job, Jim took a six-month sabbatical while he and his wife, Pat, sailed the Great Barrier Reef. Then he went back to work. His retirement test drive was an amazing experience that changed their lives.
Here’s Jim’s story.
As a young child, Jim’s family lived in Massachusetts, close to the Atlantic Ocean. He was always passionate about the water, and from a very early age had a love of boats. This manifested itself during his teen years, when he had an aluminum runabout before upgrading to a wooden coastal cruiser.
After college, he started his professional career with a brewing company. He spent six years there, and gained experience in managing people in a high-pressure, 24/7 operation. But his heart wasn’t in the beverage industry, and he went into business doing cabinetry and residential remodeling. He and Pat lived for a number of years in what he called the “snow country” of central New York, near Syracuse. Eventually, they both wanted to get away from the cold.
When Pat had an opportunity to relocate to North Carolina for work, Jim agreed to make the move. He wanted to get back into manufacturing, but not beer, and he wanted to continue building things. He wanted to build boats. He contacted boat-building companies in the Carolinas, targeting those that seemed, from his research, to have the best reputation. He ended up taking a position with a global boat builder based in France that (since the late nineteen-eighties) also had a manufacturing plant in South Carolina. With this new position, Jim spent the rest of his career in the field of boat building.
After a decade in the boating industry, Jim once again became restless and started to look for new opportunities. He had done well enough to build up a good professional reputation. He was offered a job in Wisconsin, but he and Pat looked at each other and said, “We don’t want to go back to snow country.” There was another good offer in Miami, Florida that included a job for Pat, who also worked in manufacturing. But Miami just didn’t feel right for them either.
Then a headhunter called and said, “Hey Jim, what do you think about Australia? I’ve got a client who’s looking for somebody with your capabilities. Would you consider that?”
The Australian company flew both Jim and Pat to Australia, very wisely knowing that if she wasn’t going to be happy making a move halfway around the world, then Jim would never do it. He had an interview, which went well, and it then came down to deciding whether that was the right move for the couple. Jim and Pat thought about the positions that he had not jumped on. Jim said to Pat, “When we’re eighty years old and sitting in our rockers talking about what we’ve done with our lives, we don’t want to be the people who sit there and say, ‘We didn’t go to Wisconsin. We didn’t go to Miami. We didn’t go to Australia. What did we do instead?’
They both felt that living in a new country, expanding their horizons, and getting a feel for a culture that’s similar to America, but in many ways different, would be an opportunity of a lifetime. That’s what took them to the Southern Hemisphere.
In their opinion, life should be an adventure, not just a time to settle for what’s safe. The job that pays the biggest paycheck isn’t always the best job for you. “If you’re not pleased with what you’re doing in your work life,” Jim said, “it doesn’t matter how much you work or how much money you’re making at it. In my first position after college with the brewing company, the pay rate for any given position within that facility was well above the national average. It had to do with the seasonal nature of the business. They needed to build up the workforce for the summer months, and then progressively lay off half of them to account for lower sales in the winter. The next summer they’d build up again. The only way to get people to come back was to offer a fat paycheck,” Jim said.
“In that position, I learned money was a lousy motivator. Working long hours and having a bunch of dollars going into my bank account gave me the freedom to do things, but it just didn’t mesh with being passionate about going to work. That was an early lesson. In my early twenties, I was working with guys who were in their late fifties and had hated their work for years. They would say things like, ‘Well, you know, I can’t stand this place, but I only have to work for another five or six years. And then my kids are off to school, and then I can do something that makes me happy.’
“I’d sit there and think, okay, you’re in your fifties now and you’re miserable. You’re going to start looking for happiness at age sixty?
“As for me, my job was rewarding financially but not mentally. And that’s why I decided I needed to be doing something I had some passion for. That took me into the business of remodeling and cabinetry building, and then ultimately into boat building.”
Jim accepted the Australia offer, and in January 2008, they moved down under and Jim started his new job.
Two years later, the global downturn crippled the boat-building business. After only seventeen months, the company went through massive downsizing, and all of the department heads were laid off. Jim was among them, but thankfully there was a related business that needed a general manager with his skillset, and within three weeks, he landed another position.
The new company had some challenges, and Jim spent two and a half years helping them turn things around, but he worked up to seventy hours a week and took very little time off. At the end of that period, he was getting worn out. He and Pat loved living in Australia, but something had to change.
Before they left the United States a few years earlier, they figured out what they thought was a plan for an early retirement. Taking advantage of his employee discount at the time, they ordered a new 46-foot boat and launched it in Charleston, South Carolina. They sailed it for a couple of months before Jim got the call about the company in Australia. When he accepted that offer, they sailed the boat down to Florida, put it on a ship, and a month later it was moored in Brisbane.
Having the boat in Australia helped them endure the long hours of work, and almost every weekend they were out on the water and loving that aspect of the life there. That led to Jim’s decision to approach the two men who owned the company and say to them, “I’m here in Australia, and my wife and I own a beautiful boat, and we’re enjoying what little time we do have on it. But we want more. I’d like to take a sabbatical and sail around the Great Barrier Reef region. If you can support that, I’ll be back in six months. If not, then we’ll go our separate ways. I’ll help you find my replacement and help train them.”
The owners agreed to let Jim have his six-months’ sabbatical!
Jim was elated. He said, “We had a beautiful boat, and we didn’t want to be in our seventies or eighties, living within striking distance of one of the most beautiful areas in the world—the hundreds and hundreds of islands that are between the coast and the outer reef—without ever getting to see it! We just didn’t want to do that. We also knew that there would probably come a day when we needed to leave Australia. We agreed it would be crazy to have this boat and be there and not take advantage of that.”
“We knew it was going to cost us some money to not be working and to live on a boat. Absolutely. But it seemed like a life experience that was going to be worthwhile” he said.
It may seem unusual for an employee to come in and say, “I’m going to need six months off to go sailing in my boat.” But we hear many stories about people who have gone to their boss (or their partners if they’re in a professional practice) and who have said, “I’m hoping you’ll work with me on what I need to do in my life.” And more and more often, we see flexibility on the part of business owners and partners. Why? Because real talent is hard to find. It’s not crazy to “retire part-time,” and take time while you’re younger to do some things before coming back to work, or to even work less, but for longer.
For Jim and Pat, the experience was life changing. On more than one occasion they saw humpback whales just a few yards away from the boat. One evening they were approaching their anchoring spot for the night and came upon a mother Humpback whale and her calf, which they later found out had been born less than a week earlier. They stopped the boat, quietly floated and took in the immensity of the scene that played out in front of them.
“When it’s rough out on the water or when there’s a thunderstorm at night that just doesn’t seem to want to end,” said Jim about sailing, “moments like those with the whales are the big wins.”
Though they had a great sense of adventure, Jim and Pat were not super-wealthy with unlimited funds to support their dreams. They kept good financial records and controlled their spending, which has helped them make smart decisions. Over the years, they found they could live comfortably—not with a lot of extravagances, but pretty nicely—on just $60,000 a year. If they were living onboard a boat, without the land-based expenses of a home and cars, that could be reduced to just $30,000 a year.
“Being on the boat taught us a lot about ourselves,” said Jim. “We had a good life while we were on the water, and we still have a plan that we’ll do it again in our early retirement years.”
To be close to Pat’s aging parents, the couple ultimately made the decision to return to the United States.
When Jim finally decided to pull the plug on working for good, they decided they wanted to see more of the country, and they bought their first RV. They spent more than half of the next two years on the road seeing everything from national and state parks to funky downtown areas. It was more of the nation than they had ever seen in the past.
Today they’re on their second RV and they’re really enjoying this phase of their journey. They don’t have a plan to keep that RV forever, though. As Jim said, “One of the lessons we’ve learned during the past twenty years is that it’s best for us to not have more than one really major toy at a time. We found that when we had an airplane sitting in a hanger and a boat sitting at a marina, those two big toys competed for the same time and dollars. For us, it works out better to have one major toy at a time. So, before we go cruising again, we’ll sell the RV. But while we have it, we want to explore a lot of America and get up into Canada and see at least some of that country that we’ve never gotten to see.”
They also found that when you really love an activity, you’ll meet people who are like-minded. They’ve met some very dear friends in the boating world, but likewise when they’re traveling in the RV and spending a week here and two weeks there, they meet people who are like-minded in a slightly different way. The common thread is they’re adventurous. They’re willing to give up some conveniences of home to live on a boat or in an RV.
There is no guarantee of how many years you’re going to have on this earth. In the course of our lives, we all meet people who become close friends, and who then, for different reasons, never get to see their retirement. The old model of working forty hours a week until you’re sixty-five or seventy and then having a great experience doing whatever fits your passion, is risky. No one can promise that you’re going to have your health in your later years.
If you take more time than the traditional workplace would allow, such as a four-week vacation or a longer sabbatical, what would that look like? At the end of the day, when you look at all of the years of your work life, what will have meant the most to you? Jim noted that while there are individual work experiences that are crystal clear in his memory, there are thousands of workdays that merge into a gray, middle ground. The details are lost. But the days he’s with his loved ones, or when his experiences are really new and unique, are the days that are crystal clear in his memory. That’s a great source of happiness for people. Work hard when you’re at work and aim for the goal of doing something that’s one hundred percent what you want to do for as much time as you can get away with doing it.
Work Fewer Hours, Be Happier
Both American and Japanese people work long hours. Some say too long. Japan has long grappled with a grim and often fatal culture of overwork. The problem is so severe, the country has even coined a term for it: karoshi, which literally translates to “overwork death.” A 2017 survey suggested nearly a quarter of Japanese companies had employees working more than 80 hours of overtime a month, often unpaid.
The phenomenon of karoshi affects people who value success and promotions in the workplace above all else. They dedicate their lives to their jobs, and too often find the prize to be a cruel illusion.
There are some people, like Warren Buffett, who view their jobs as an enjoyable hobby for which they get paid. They don’t “retire” because for them, work is fun. In an ideal world, we’d all be like Warren Buffett, and love what we do so much that we’d never want to stop.
For most people, that’s not the case. We need to take a break from work, relax, and divert our minds with new experiences. We should not look to the workplace as being the sole measure of value in our lives.
In America and elsewhere in the world, overwork contributes to fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, and more serious illnesses like heart attacks.
Studies have shown that longer workweeks can increase a person’s risk for psychosocial stress responses and depressive symptoms. A study by Marianna Virtanen and others found that among women, working long hours is a risk factor for development of depressive and anxiety symptoms.
Another study by Virtanen and others entitled, “Long working hours and alcohol use: systematic review and meta-analysis of published studies and unpublished individual participant data,” examined sixty-three clinical studies and found “comprehensive evidence of an association between long working hours and alcohol use…. Compared with the standard (35-40) weekly working hours, working 49-54 hours was associated with an odds ratio of 1.13, and working more than 55 hours a week was associated with an odds ratio of 1.12 for new onset risky alcohol use.”
Commenting on these studies for CNN, Christian Benedict, a researcher in Uppsala University’s Department of Neuroscience in Sweden, said, “If you work all day, you may have no chance to pay attention to your worries until you go to bed. Going through your worries while in bed is, however, one of the worst things you can do to your sleep. Stress and anxiety, in turn, cause difficulties with falling and staying asleep.”
Taking a vacation away from work can provide many physical and mental health benefits that can persist months after you return to work. A study of over 3,000 Canadian workers found that taking more paid vacation days was positively associated with both overall health and life satisfaction. In “The contribution of paid vacation time to wellbeing among employed Canadians,” Margo Hilbrecht and Bryan Smale noted that more than one-third of Canadian employees reported taking less than the minimum amount of federally mandated paid vacation time (ten days) during the previous year. This included 19.3% who reported taking no paid vacation days at all. This is not a recipe for good mental and physical health!
The above article originally appeared as a chapter in The Retirement Remix and is reprinted with permission from the author Chip Munn. No parts of this article may be reproduced without correct attribution to the author of this book.
You can find the full book here.