Sunday, May 20, 2007

How're we doing this? (long & no photos - sorry)

When we tell folks about the one year sabbatical we’re on, the question is often raised: “How can you possibly afford to do it?” That question, or its corollary – “You must be fabulously wealthy” – is evident more often than not, even if unexpressed.

Well, how are we doing this? We are not very wealthy by North American standards. (Of course, by global standards, we are fabulously wealthy … but if you are reading this, in all likelihood so are you!)

What follows is my answer to the question. It is my hope that, given these details, some of you who would like to do the same will see that it is not impossible. Rather than wealth, it is more commonly simply a matter of priorities. Here are some techniques you may want to employ:

  1. Wait until age 43 to get married. This will give you plenty of time to earn income that you don’t quite know what to do with.
  2. Look in to the “pay yourself first” concept, and, early in your career, begin putting a goodly percentage of income into savings before you pay your bills, make elective purchases, or do any other budgeting.
  3. Graduate from school without debt, thanks to generous parents.
  4. Always buy used cars, and keep each car until it is at least 10 years old, or officially near death.
  5. Rent “tiny and cheap” in a location with good weather. You’ll save on lodging, and if it gets too cramped for you indoors, you can just step outside.
  6. Buy a modest house. If possible, get lucky in timing that purchase so that the real estate market shoots up shortly thereafter.
  7. Find employment in a field such as cancer care, where you experience daily reminders that length of life is not guaranteed, and that some people do not live long enough to spend their retirement savings. Pay attention to what the dying truly care about – it is instructive.
  8. Collect experiences instead of possessions.
  9. Cultivate the ability to enjoy the experience of traveling on a limited budget, “roughing it”, and even camping out. Then look for good deals on an occasional “splurge” trip.
  10. Arrive at a point in your career where you feel confident you can find another job when you need it, even if it is not at an ideal location. Then become willing to let go of the job you are attached to and take whatever is available when it’s time to go back to work. (Ethical lapses in your superiors can help loosen your attachment.)
  11. Don’t become too attached to your home. That way, you will be willing to swap it with someone else to save on lodging costs (“home exchange”), sell it to finance your trip, and/or live somewhere else if you can’t get a job back in your old neighborhood.
  12. Hold loosely your material blessings (house, possessions, jobs, career, income) and tenaciously your non-material blessings (relationships, experiences, integrity, faith).

While part of that list is included “tongue-in-cheek”, it remains my opinion that the key to taking a sabbatical is more a matter of priorities than income. In truth, we are spending some of our retirement savings, giving up in the process some (non-guaranteed) years of retirement leisure, and some of the material goods that steady employment might bring. These are priorities that rank lower in our list. Indeed, whatever we might miss in the future, we hope not to miss (if you get my drift), because even in those future years, we hope to still value what we did, what we are as a result, and what we are doing then, above what we might have had. (Ask us again in 30 years...)

Perhaps you are beginning to see why they say every oncologist starts his career as a scientist and ends it as a philosopher…

Appendix: Miscellaneous observations

I continue to muse on the benefits and desirability of various political systems. In our travels, we have met far more Europeans and Australians taking sabbaticals than we have North Americans. Hostel hosts and our fellow travelers have commented on how unusual it is to see North Americans doing this, whereas in contrast, one Dutch traveler reported being greeted by, “Oh, another one from the Netherlands, eh? Tell me, are there any of you left in Holland anymore?”.

Societal attitudes toward wealth, work, and maturity may play a role in this disparity, no doubt; but it appears to me that the social welfare state makes it easier for citizens of those countries. Certainly, there is much less concern about healthcare and retirement among the sabbatical-takers we’ve talked with, simply because their political systems virtually guarantee these. Some European countries even require companies to allow for sabbaticals, and the state pays a stipend to the employee who takes one. (In ways too complicated to explain here, this system cuts down on unemployment and saves the state money in the long run!)

Those benefits of the social welfare state would be neither here nor there, save for one additional observation. I find that my European family and friends display less anxiety, more contentment, and more willingness to live modestly than their North American counterparts. There is still the chicken-and-egg problem, but if these attitudes do stem from the socio-political system, it would certainly make that system “better” and, therefore, more desirable to me than the American one. (Not sure how to fit this into my otherwise libertarian leanings…)


Ginger said...

Bro, this is a fine piece of writing. I'd like to send it to every pre-med student here, but they'd think I was weird. Ah well.

I think you are doing just the right thing, in case it matters. I just wish we were there with you.

I have so much to tell you. It's quite impossible to sum up elapsed life by writing after all this time that you've been on the roads/paths/seas. Perhaps we'll be able to speak sometime.

Love to you both.

Lynn/violamom said...

Thanks for a wonderful glimpse of what you've been up to! Wonderful to decide on priorities and take action on your decisions.

Just passed three years since we met and so far so good . . . benign is a wonderful word! 22 miles for me this year in the AVON WALK and 20 and 18 in previous years . . . and I think my husband has the black and white 'shoe' picture you mentioned.

Thanks for letting me 'crash your party'