Ten years ago, when Tim Justice, then in his mid-40s, suggested to his wife Doreen Orion that they leave their jobs as psychiatrists and travel the country in an RV, she wasn't thrilled. "Why can't you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?" she asked.
But the idea grew on her, and Orion eventually published a memoir called "Queen of the Road: The True Tale of 47 States, 22,000 Miles, 200 Shoes, 2 Cats, 1 Poodle, a Husband, and a Bus with a Will of Its Own" about the experience. They've since taken several shorter mini-retirements and sold their house so they can live in their RV full time.
"What finally convinced me," she says, "was that we had both seen so many people in our practices who put off doing things they love or spending more time with their spouses until they retired. But then something terrible happened -- the spouse died or one of them became ill. I decided that I wanted to have this experience with the person I love now and not wait."
Instead of waiting until their golden years to retire, some Americans are now embracing the concept of mini-retirements: periods of work alternated with shorter periods of reflection, travel or activities otherwise curtailed by full-time work.
Tara Russell, a life sabbatical and long-term travel coach based in San Francisco, says the concept goes by different names in different circles: gap years for young people; mini-retirements for those inching toward traditional retirement age; sabbaticals for academics and professionals. It's gaining more awareness as people share their experiences through blogs and social media, she adds. A 2009 TED talk by Stefan Sagmeister, for instance, explores how the graphic designer closes his New York studio for a full year every seven years and how this helps fuel his creativity. "I think people are starting to ask the question about traditional retirement," Russell says. "You front-load all of your work experience and make it to 65 and hopefully you get time off."
Russell advises clients on how to prepare logistically and financially for these career breaks. Travelers sometimes joke that you should "pack half as much stuff and twice as much money" for a trip -- advice Russell says could also apply to mini-retirements. "It's always better to get to the end of your experience and have extra money for your re-entry or your nest egg," she says, adding that the exact amount of money you need varies depending on whether you plan to travel or stay planted in one location, what activities you plan to do and whether you have a job waiting for you at the other end.
Some of Russell's clients negotiate sabbaticals through their employer, while others make a clean break, using the time for self-reflection to determine a new career path. Many choose to start a business or become freelancers or consultants. Regardless, Russell says it's important to exit gracefully and update your résumé before you leave in case you stumble on a great new opportunity during your mini-retirement. "You can network while you're on the road and look for ways to enhance your professional experience while you're traveling," she says. "Are there volunteer experiences or possibly work experiences that will enhance your résumé?" Also think about how you'll discuss the experience with prospective employers or clients. Russell points to one of her clients who alerted her network about a month before her mini-retirement ended and began fielding job phone calls almost as soon as she stepped off the plane.
Amad Ebrahimi, now 34 of Orange, California, began pondering mini-retirements in his early 20s. "I've never really had the energy levels to endure long work hours for months or years at a time, so I needed an alternative," he says. Ebrahimi started an online review comparison website, merchantmaverick.com, in 2009, with the goal of eventually taking mini-retirements. It took several years for him to ramp up the business, but he managed to unplug for a few months in Europe earlier this year, fielding few emails from his team stateside. While he enjoyed the time off, Ebrahimi always knew he'd return to his business. "Whenever I take a break from my business, I eventually get the itch to come back to it, and there's no better feeling than returning to work with that new sense of motivation," he says.
To make their own mini-retirements possible, Orion and Justice transitioned their professional work from patients to more administrative work. Orion says doing insurance reviews "is much easier to plug in and out of."
Based on her psychology background and personal experience, Orion recommends test-driving mini-retirement activities before you commit to them full time. "It can be very daunting to change a lifestyle, especially when that involves work, which so many of us define ourselves by," she says. "If possible, start doing some of the things you anticipate doing in the mini-retirement before it starts. See how you like them, and if they are things you now want to do more of. If there are aspects of your current life that you'll miss and don't necessarily want a break from, think of ways to maintain connections with those people or things."
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