I recently had the pleasure of a prospective, completely non-randomized and uncontrolled follow-up on a friend from my days in Boston, and it was a joy to discover the unusual path he’s taken. It went down like this:
I reached out to an old friend from residency who’d disappeared off the face of the earth for a decade since attending our wedding. This was a Southerner from Georgia with a military service history who had first entered academic EM and then left it for community hospital work. He’d had a million kids, and we’d lost touch with his many moves.
I tracked down his contact info from a mutual friend, called him up, and that very weekend he was moving his oldest daughter into MIT. I’d last seen her as a toddler in a carrier on his back while we were hiking through the Pacific Palisades during residency.
Turns out he’d left his partnership and hadn’t worked a night shift in two years. He was living a simple but satisfying life in a country house with acreage in the Carolinas, and asked me if I’d heard of this “Physician on Fire” guy. We had a wonderful time reacquainting ourselves and talking through the various twists that had led us to our current parallel paths.
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This post is not about that talk. While chatting, he mentioned he was staying in an old college friend’s house who was away in Norway with his family for a sabbatical year. The same friend, it turns out, he’d introduced me to when he heard I was leaving for Boston many years ago.
Said friend, whom I’ll call W, is the object of the story. He’s a US born computer programmer of Chinese descent with an insatiable curiosity about the world. He’d met his Norwegian wife while wandering small towns and fjords during a few months of continuous travel off the beaten track.
Since the time I last saw W, he’d become a Chief Technical Officer of a software firm, but felt a little restless and complacent. He’d been watching this TED Talk about redistributing retirement years (not an unknown concept in the FIRE world) and sprinkling sabbaticals in during your working career, at your productive prime, to replenish creativity.
The TED Talk, by an Austrian-born, New York City based designer, was entitled, “The Power Of Time Off.” It’s worth 18 minutes of your life. The idea became irresistible to W.
After pondering a sabbatical for a few years, W and his wife decide to pursue it. Ever a romantic, he saw a beautiful photo of a remote island in Norway. Just off the Arctic Circle, with a year-round population of 180 people. While there, he spent a lot of time with his young kids while his wife, a teacher, worked at the local school.
The balance of the time, during the long Norwegian winter, he started to code without distraction. Fooling around with an idea he’d had, he wrote an iphone application that reads text out loud, and put it up for sale on the Apple Store.
The app started to sell slowly, but through word of mouth, it began to snowball in popularity, reaching populations he never dreamed of helping. Blind communities. Dyslexic students who now use the app to read and take their math tests. His creative, self-motivated work became the basis for a company, and the income it generated becomes enough to sustain his family.
Take home point: As physicians, we are employable in many places, and if willing to consider flexible careers (locums positions, for example, have been a huge win for Dr. Nii Darko, a trauma surgeon) have the ability to build periodic sabbaticals into the fabric of a medical career.
Strategically deploying sabbaticals during one’s prime might replenish and extend a career over the long run. Just because nobody else is doing it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done.