Sabbatical Stories - The ‘big life’ experiment
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Sandy and Ben want to live a ‘big life’. A life full of juicy adventures, expanded perspectives and memorable moments. So, when they decided to go on a sabbatical travelling around the world for a year, it wasn’t just about taking a break, it was about finding new ways of making their life even bigger and better. Using themselves as guineapigs, they embarked on some big life experiments in a quest for the best version of their own lives. This is their story…
When I first met Sandy and Ben, we were all on sabbatical in Bali. They were at the beginning of a year-long adventure. I first heard Sandy’s Aussie accent, lilt across the pool of our co-living/co-working ‘home’. I’d just arrived. She was in a deep discussion about her favourite gin (Bombay Sapphire). Mental note: My kinda person; make Friends.
I soon learnt that Sandy was in the middle of writing her second book and fast on her way to achieving her goal to get a publishing deal. Impressive. Things got even more impressive when I started talking to Ben, Sandy’s partner of 10 years. Every interaction was like having a conversation with a cross between Tim Ferris and Bill Gates.
This couple were impressive, and I knew their sabbatical story would be incredible. I watched their story over the next year and as it continued to unfold once they’d returned home to Australia. What was incredible was not where they went or what they did, but the intentionality that they applied to every experience.
Sandy Barker and Ben Reierson
Jan 2018-Jan 2019
Living in Perth, Bali, Minnesota (US), UK, Portugal.
Side trips to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Amsterdam, LA and Seattle
Living in different places around the world, travelling and working remotely.
Ben built an app for a client.
Sandy wrote 2 books and did some consulting.
They were embarking on lots of little life experiments, experiments for how they wanted to live, work and play. Using the year to learn about balance, security and what’s important to them. Ben explained, “I had the mentality for the whole year of trying to do things differently.”
Now 6 months after returning, they can see the benefits of those experiments and the lessons they’ve brought into their lives.
Experiment #1 – What is home?
Ben recalled when thinking back to how they planned their sabbatical and what kind of experience they wanted to have. “We'd been talking for years about being, as we call it, ‘location agnostic’. The idea of not being tied to a particular place.” Wherever they travelled, they wanted to live like locals and experience day to day life. They picked five places (Western Australia, Bali, Minnesota, Rugby, UK, where Sandy’s sister lives with her family, and Portugal) to spend 1-2 months in each. They also took side trips to make the most of exploring their surrounds.
They both describe themselves as ‘homebodies’ so being away from home for a year was a challenge. The experiment was about figuring out how to make a home anywhere in the world. Sandy described her process of ‘nesting’ when she first arrived somewhere new. She would make their space comfortable and homely and explore how the locals lived, shopping at local markets, following the local’s lifestyle (e.g. siesta).
What they actually learnt was, as Sandy put it, “I can create a sense of home wherever I am.”
Experiment #2 – What is security?
Ben was initially the driving force behind the idea of the sabbatical, but before they made the decision, they knew it would challenge their ideas of what it means to live a life that’s secure. How much money is enough? Does a stable job protect you or cage you?
As with a lot of sabbaticans, the trigger for Ben was a redundancy a few months earlier. And while the timing was right for Ben, it had to also be right for Sandy. She had a good job, earning good money. Could she leave it all to follow her passion – travelling and writing?
“I had to have a hard look at myself. I had to ask myself why, every time I seriously thought about doing this, I was terrified. I learned early in life from my mum that, as a woman, I needed to make my own money, be financially independent and secure. So, to actively leave a secure job - to not be putting money into retirement - to be drawing on savings, raised old fears about scarcity, not having enough to look after myself.”
Despite multiple discussions, Sandy’s employer wouldn’t agree to an unpaid sabbatical for a year and she had to resign. She recalls, “It was a huge leap of faith.”
Ultimately, passion and adventure prevailed, and Sandy has never looked back. “If it wasn't for this year I wouldn’t have had the intellectual and emotional time to invest in being an author. And that was the goal I set for myself – by the end of the year I wanted to be a published author.”
It paid off. She wrote two books while on sabbatical. Books two and three of her ‘chick-lit’ series and she signed with a top publisher to sell book one (‘One Summer in Santorini’ just came out and it is fabulous. You can purchase it here!)
Experiment 3 – Can we rethink retirement?
What helped tip Sandy’s decision towards saying ‘yes’ to the sabbatical was an interesting concept they were playing with. Ben explains that “retirement is supposed to be this thing that everybody puts on a pedestal as this amazing time that you're working towards. But you don't know until you get there whether you're going to enjoy it or not. And then you also don't even know if you're going to get there. The best-case scenario is you're 20 or 30 years older than you are now, and have the limitations that come with age. And so, I thought we could just take one year of our retirement and use it now.”
They loved the idea of interspersing a few years of retirement between blocks of work. They can benefit from the rest and recovery, while also enjoying doing things that may not be possible once they reach retirement age. Planning for sabbatical number two is underway!
Experiment 4 – What is a happy, healthy life?
Ben was keen to challenge everything about his life, how he worked, his leisure activities, even his diet. “Part of the idea of the sabbatical was trying to figure out how to live in an environment in which I am travelling a lot, where I get to define how much work I'm doing, in a way that I fully enjoy.”
The sabbatical gave him the chance to experiment with being a digital nomad, living and working from anywhere, but also challenge himself to find the right work/life balance. He learnt about working in a way that followed his bursts of energy and attention. On average he worked about a third of the time. This was distributed as days of absorption in building his client’s app, then several days off for travel and exploring.
“I was giving myself complete freedom to do whatever I felt like doing. And I still ended up doing long stints of work, but it wasn’t coming from that normal place in my mind that said, ‘you have to do this’, I felt like doing it.”
Sandy and Ben also embarked on a diet revolution. They both experimented with the Keto diet and were happy with the results. So much so that they’ve carried this into their lifestyle back home, with short stints every few months to re-set their bodies.
Ben also used the sabbatical as the opportunity to experiment with a number of smaller changes to see how they contributed to a happy, healthy life. Meditation, giving up Reddit, not playing video games, listening to full albums, and going to the gym no matter where he was in the world. The aim was not to permanently change his behaviours, but to be more aware of the impact and how he was spending his brain power, so he could make more conscious decisions.
Sandy and Ben have now settled back into life in their hometown of Melbourne, Australia. What’s clear is the transformative effect this sabbatical had on them, individually and as a couple. Their leap of faith paid off.
So, what would they offer as advice for anyone considering a sabbatical?
Ben pragmatically offers, “A sabbatical may or may not be a fit for you. But I think it's something that at least should be in the realm of consideration. I think there are way too many people that don't let it enter into the conversation.”
Sandy says, “Invest in yourself, because you have this one life to live. If you're already thinking about it, you know you want it. So just make it happen. Get out of your own way.”
Beyond a Break exists to help people navigate their way to a sabbatical and supports organisations to create better sabbatical programs that recharge their people. If you need a break, have a look at our services and free resources, or simply get in touch. We’re here to help you find a way to take a break that goes beyond