Reflections on Pre-Tirement
I took a ten week leave of absence from my job this summer to travel the country with my girlfriend in her Subaru Outback. This is the first time since I was 15 that I’ve had more than two weeks off from real life. I’ve been back at work for three weeks now. Here’s what I managed to piece together by getting out of the mainstream, then getting back in.
1. I fucking love my work.
My leave of absence was ten weeks. Our actual trip was about eight weeks.
I got bored around week six. How bored?
Bored enough that I started downloading reference designs from TI’s website and reading through their design guides. (Did you know TI will give you the plans to build an ATM machine with their components?)
Bored enough that I started reading up about lock-in amplifiers, and piecing out how to mock up the DSP behind them. (Shameless self promotion.)
Bored enough that I started reading about oscillators and methods of modulation so I could build a simple digital radio circuit. (More on that soon - suffice to say for now, Colpitts oscillators are a tricky thing to get right.)
You may be sensing a theme here.
Getting back to work made me realize, on day two, that I love being an electrical engineer. Nothing psyches me up like learning about electronics. Piecing out complicated electrical systems and making them work is pure magic. Signal processing and applied math are bottomless rabbit holes of cool new spells to work out. (“Accio Hilbert transform!”)
This one realization alone made the whole trip worth it. I know now, with great certainty, that I’ve made the right career choice. I’ve spent years and years agonizing over it, and the answer is clear.
The stress of deadlines and personality conflicts at work? Worth it.
The agonizing over whether to change courses into software, or become a manager? No more.
The constant, lurking fear that I made it this far by luck and trickery? Gone. (Well, for the most part. Impostor syndrome is a difficult thing to banish completely.)
2. I was really, really burnt out.
Having the pace of your life slow to a crawl is a great way to illustrate just how fast you were going. Reflecting on my working demeanor before and after the trip makes me wonder: was I a huge prick to everyone before I left?
At the risk of sounding whiny: it’s very rare that you ever get to be done with anything in a modern workplace. Additionally - building electronics is hard, and consumer electronics is a marathon run at a breakneck pace. Result: you’re always gonna be busy. I think the cyclist Greg Lemond said it best: “It never gets easier. You just go faster.”
Something about this leave functioned as a big, hard reset. The time off freed me of a ton of anxiety. My professional career before my leave involved a lot of fear that I wouldn’t know enough to get the job done, and constant anxiety that I wouldn’t know enough to get the job done quickly enough. Predictably, this is a very real and serious long term stressor.
Strangely, but wonderfully, that’s evaporated.
I’m showing up every day with a ton of energy and drive to get stuff done that I haven’t felt at work in years. I suppose it’s kind of like the honeymoon period of moving to a new job. But in a way, it’s better than that - I already have a pretty good understanding of how to get stuff done in my org. That’s not a Day One phenomenon at a new job.
It does have me wondering, however: how do I make this non-burnt-out state last as long as possible?
3. I picked a great time in my life to take leave.
As luck would have it, I picked a time to go that was near the end of a project cycle. I also picked a partner who’s a teacher, and has the whole summer off. We’re talking very seriously about big, long term life moves. Lots of those big moves - particularly children - start to make this sort of unhindered jaunt much more difficult.
If not now, when?
4. It was a lot cheaper than I thought it’d be.
All told, the two of us spent a total of about $6,500 over the course of eight weeks. (We used Splitwise to keep our spending fair, and it conveniently kept a running total of our spending.) That’s not a shoestring budget, but considering that some people will pay that for one week at a luxury resort, I feel it’s a pretty fair trade for 10 weeks of my life.
Granted, this came with some tradeoffs. We were mostly able to pull it off cheaply by doing the following:
- Camping, or staying with friends/family
- Cooking many of our own meals
- Driving as our principal means of transport
That being said, we weren’t living like monks. Here’s just a few things we splurged for:
- Spending the odd night at fancier places, like Harrah’s in Reno or the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center
- Buying, on average, at least one meal per day
- Buying high quality, breathable, long-sleeve sun protective clothing (sunscreen gets old very quickly when you’re hiking >4 hours a day for several days in a row)
5. A daily routine simplifies so much.
This was the double edged sword of our trip.
On the plus side: my girlfriend and I had a big realization on the power of routines, and how they enable you to do great things by freeing you from constantly having to make and re-make small decisions.
On the downside: we noticed that because we never quite got into a routine on our trip.
It was a stressor for both of us. Not having a routine makes a lot of stuff hard - in no particular order:
- Working out
- Grocery shopping
- Spending time apart (crucial when you live out of the same car!)
I hate to say it, but Zuck is onto something. Decision fatigue is a real thing. It gets worse when the number of decisions you have to make increases. It gets worse still when all of those decisions have to be right (or at least optimized) for two people, all the time.
Returning home to our apartment after eight weeks was like sinking into a warm bath of familiarity after a long, cold slog through the unknown.
6. Being prepared to quit my job was a big part of why I was able to return to my job.
I don’t remember the precise details of the conversation I had with my manager about my leave. It was about six months before I planned on starting the trip. I remember using something like the following phrase: “I have an opportunity to take a really big trip with my girlfriend this summer, and it’s an opportunity I can’t pass up, as I don’t think the time will be right for it ever again. What are my options for making this happen?”
My boss’s boss, who was also in the meeting, asked shortly thereafter: “You do good work for us. Do you still want to work here?” I’m not sure what about that phrase that did it, but it was then that I realized I actually had a shot at pulling this off. The net result of our agreement: ten weeks unpaid leave, with me paying out of pocket for health care. (I even got to stay on our company plan! Woohoo!!)
Again, I don’t remember the exact phrasing in the conversation, but something I said managed to communicate, in the most polite way possible: “I will quit this job to take this trip.” I believe that was a crucial thing to communicate, and most crucially: it was true. I would have quit to take the trip. I’m a tech worker with a high-demand skillset in the best job market in a decade - I would have found another job. I wouldn’t have found another time in my life where I was financially secure, minimally bound by major obligations, and (critically) young.
I also understood that I had a pretty strong hand to play. I’m 30 now, with about seven years of professional engineering experience. I’ve shipped three products for my employer as lead electrical engineer. I’ve gotten very strong performance reviews all along the way. Most telling - I got three raises in the past year. (Turns out going public, and publishing your comp levels, is great internal salary pressure on your employer - especially when their main rivals for talent are gigantic, deep-pocketed FAANG companies.)
All of these things - but the raises especially - were a big employer way of signalling “flight risk”. So I pressed my advantage as hard as I thought I could.
7. Financial independence enabled a lot of this.
I’ve been a quiet member of the FIRE community for several years. I don’t really want to go into the gory details of my financial situation, but I will say I was able to make the decision to take this trip from a position of considerable financial strength. And that’s kind of the point of the FIRE movement: money is a way to give yourself more options. In this case, it was a safety net to negotiate for a huge personal upside.
I’m still a long way from being totally financially independent (i.e. not needing to work to support myself), but that’s OK. The money spent on this trip didn’t shift my timeline for FI too radically - think months, not years. But, then again, this trip showed me that the “RE” part of FIRE might not be for me anyway (see bullet point number 1), so I think that’s a leasson well learned.
I made a few trades for this trip. Ten weeks’ salary, for a start. Being gone from my home and my community for the whole summer, too.
Big trades, but absolutely worth it.
I’ve come to like the term “pre-tirement” for our trip. It was a nice, long leave from work, and real life. But I think the real win was showcasing just how nice work and real life is. (I predict I’m going to suck at actual retirement.)
I’ll close with a picture we took - the start of the High Line Trail, in Glacier National Park. Twelve sweaty, grueling miles from Logan Pass to The Loop trailhead, complete with stunning views, singing marmots, and a bear scare on the descent.
I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.