Life: quantity vs quality

If you had a choice between increasing the quality of your life at the expense of quantity, which one would you choose? Would you rather live better for less amount of time or live less-well for longer?

It’s a hard question to answer. Unlike the witches in Discworld, we don’t know when we’re going to die which makes the trade-off hard to calculate. And how much better would life have to be such that you’d be willing to have less of it? I expect the answer varies for every person, but my guess is that optimally the answer is somewhere in the middle of both spectrums. Few people would opt to die tomorrow for one glorious day today, or suffer every day in order to prolong their life for an indeterminate amount of time.

The question isn’t just philosophical, we implicitly answer it every day based on hundreds of little decisions: do I snack on the carrots or the chocolate cake? Others, like those with hard-to-cure medical conditions, make it explicitly: do I undergo treatment to possibly extend my life while decreasing the quality or do I live the time I have left with the best quality possible?

If you had asked me this question a few years ago I would have said I preferred quantity over quality. Who doesn’t want to see mankind living among the stars or honest-to-goodness hoverboards? During my sabbatical I’ve decided that while I’m not going out in a blaze of glory tomorrow, I’m solidly on the side of quality.

Yes, I’ll have dessert after (or for!) dinner tonight, thank you. The Corolla has a better safety rating than the Miata? Screw it, I’m renting the Miata. Why am I stressing out working 60+ hours at work when I could work 40 less-stressful hours and have a life I enjoy more? Yes, I’ll rent the downstairs unit as well as the upstairs one after our dumb-ass neighbor moves out despite the expense because it will make it much more enjoyable to live here. And in the future if I ever have to make a medical decision with the quality/quantity trade-off, quality already has some points in its favor.

What about you? Where do you fall on the quality vs quantity spectrum?

Retirement is wasted on the old

Youth is wasted on the young.
Retirement is wasted on the old.


Retirement. It’s the goal to which we all aspire. To gain enough financial security such that we no longer have to work for the rest of our lives.

When I started working at IBM at the height of the dot-com boom I had visions of retiring by the age of 30. Six months later the bubble burst and I was fortunate to have a stable job. What was I going to do when I hit 30 and was able to retire? I don’t know, but I knew that “retirement” was the goal.

For many people in the US, the magic age for retirement is 65 when Social Security kicks in to supplement your income. For others it may be a decade earlier.

But stop and think about it: why are we waiting to live until we’re old? Why do we think that when we reach retirement that we will be content not working? As someone in their 30s who has taken six months off work test-driving retirement, I’m here to tell you that we’re doing it all wrong.

Living in the now

I love to travel and have always assumed that I would do much more of it when I retired. And perhaps I will, but after doing quite a bit of traveling over the past 6 months I realize just how taxing it can be. Fast-forward to 30 years from now and how much more taxing will it be when I’m 68? Will I still want to be gone from home for weeks at a time? Will I still be able to hike up mountains? Will skiing in the winter still sound like fun? Will the mountains still have snow 30 years from now?

I want to take every opportunity to travel and live in the now while my body still works. While my knees don’t hurt. While I can still see and hear. While I can still remember things.

Every year I use up every single hour of my vacation and sick time. Some years I come skidding into the last few months with virtually nothing left and throw myself on the mercy of my manager to work from home for a few days around the holidays.1

It’s not enough.

A few weeks of vacation a year is not enough living, it’s still pinning hopes on retirement, biding time until that fateful day. I have to learn to live outside of vacation time, get more of it, or both.

Doing nothing is boring

One of the realizations that I had during my sabbatical was that I love to work. Perhaps not the 9-to-5 job in front of a computer for someone else, but I love programming. Creating something useful. Working with a team. Who’s to say that I won’t want to continue doing something like this after I reach retirement age?

What if retirement wasn’t “not working for the rest of our lives” but “working differently or working less” instead? My good friend John Martin retired over a year ago and has been doing some contract work for his prior employer. Not because he must, but because he enjoys it.2

Why can’t we have a better balance between work and living and stretch out both for longer?


My uncle died last month from pancreatic cancer. He was 69. He went from diagnosis to dead in 5 weeks. His father, my grandfather, died from pancreatic cancer at 83. My grandmother tells me that my grandfather’s father also died from pancreatic cancer. As you can guess, it can be hereditary.

From the American Cancer Society:

Almost all patients [who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer] are older than 45. About two-thirds are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 71.

I may not make it to retirement to begin living; I have to live now.

1 Thankfully, every manager I’ve had has been most forgiving with vacation hours. Also, I love working around Christmas and New Years because no one else is around which gives me tons of uninterrupted Maker time.

2 He recently came out of retirement for some great reasons.

A sabbatical is not a trial-run for retirement

A year ago when I first started planning my sabbatical I had the idea that I would use it as a trial-run for my future retirement. I know many people, many of them men, who work all their lives and yet when they retire they don’t know what to do with themselves. My Dad is one of those people. He has owned his own business, pouring himself into it, for the past 40 years. Now that he’s on the verge of retirement he seems to be at a loss with what to do with himself. I’m like my Dad in that I pour myself into my job. Could I use the time off from work to cultivate skills that I would ultimately need in my eventual retirement?

I’m here to tell you that while a sabbatical can be amazing and useful for cultivating some retirement skills, it isn’t a trial-run for retirement. The biggest reason for this is that a sabbatical has an end-date.

Retirement skills

Sabbaticals are great for identifying things that you need to survive retirement that your work currently provides.

The biggest eye-opener for me was how much I need to be involved in a technical pursuit. I love programming and working with a team, things that I primarily get to indulge in at work. After I started my sabbatical, however, I didn’t have anything technical that I could really sink my teeth into. After a couple of months I started back into volunteering with Distributed Proofreaders doing development work which really improved my overall happiness. Frustratingly, the pendulum swung too far and DP became work for a while which took some time to realize and correct.

Another thing that I really needed was time away from my significant other. I love Daniel, but unlike my parents who have spent almost every day together for the past 40 years running the family business, I need time away from my S.O. Having some time apart lets us do our own thing for a bit and then come back together later to share different experiences.

Yet another thing that became important to me was some structure to my day. When I am working I have a fairly structured schedule. I have some idea of what tomorrow will look like, at least in part. When you’re on sabbatical, and presumably when you’re retired, tomorrow’s calendar might not have anything at all on it. For some people that can be liberating. For those of us who thrive on structure, it is intimidating. For me I’ve discovered that while not every day needs a plan, that having some plan for some days makes it easier to enjoy the days when anything goes.

Not a trial-run: the end is coming!

If you only have a limited time off of work you’re likely to do a fair bit of traveling. Indeed that’s what I did, including a week at Critical Northwest, 2 weeks in the DC area, 3.5 weeks in Europe, 2 weeks in the Carolinas, and 2 weeks in Texas. We have plans to spend 2 weeks in the bay area next month and hopefully a week or more in Denver in March. That doesn’t include other smaller trips to Portland, the Tri-Cities area, and Sequim. For me at least, that amount of travel isn’t sustainable when I retire but I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t taken advantage of the time off of work. That much time away from home makes forging strong out-of-work social networks challenging — networks that I know I will need in retirement.

Knowing that there’s an end-date prevents you from committing to activities that will go beyond that time, such as volunteering with local organizations that have a weekly time commitment during the day, or investing heavily into a craft that will take over a room in your house.

Worth every penny

If you have the opportunity to take an extended leave away from work, I highly encourage you to take it. It may not be a trial-run for retirement, but you’ll have a great time learning more about how you derive happiness from work and ways to achieve that outside the office.

Cutting the sabbatical short

Six months ago today I left for my sabbatical (which EMC HR insists on calling an unimaginative “leave of absence”) with the intent of being gone for a full year. Then while I was on vacation in Europe, Dell announced they were buying EMC which put a kink into my plan (and not a in a good way).

The deal is expected to close sometime between May and October, and yes that’s a huge window. From the terms of my leave of absence I have a pretty strong incentive to either be back in the office or to quit before that happens.

Today I went into the office and had a day full of meetings with various managers and coworkers to get a sense of how things are going and where I would fit in should I come back. The meetings were quite useful and well worth the visit.

We’re still working out the details on when and where exactly, but it looks like I’ll probably be going back to EMC Isilon sometime in April. Hope they’re ready for me by then!

Three months into the Sabbatical

Today marks three months into my 1-year sabbatical — 25% down, 75% to go.

Since my last report, I / we’ve:

  • done quite a bit of hiking (and stopping at Sonic along the way)
  • spent two weeks out in the DC area visiting the Lees and Nidzgorski/Parisis
  • got our Library of Congress Reader cards
  • finished up another pottery class (photos available here)
  • my shoulder pain has been diagnosed (partial tear in the infraspinatus muscle) and I’ve had a PRP injection done to see about getting it better
  • made some bread, jam, and chai
  • read several books, including The Martian which was fantastic and Life on the Preservation which takes place in Seattle and was terrible
  • visited the Henry Art Museum and the Living Computer Museum
  • watched several more episodes of DS9 and the 8th season of Doctor Who
  • coordinated getting gutters put on the rental house in Austin and getting two leaky windows replaced
  • finally got Distributed Proofreaders moved over to phpBB3
  • tons of other stuff I’m not thinking of at the moment

I’ve learned that I still don’t have a good balance between work and life — work in this case being the code changes and deployment work for phpBB3 support. I really enjoy getting into the code and solving problems, but I continue to do so at the expense of life. I have more work to do on that balancing act.

On Sunday we fly to Frankfurt to begin our 3-week European adventure! Daniel and I will have some travel time with just the two of us, get to see Jodi, and then some travel time with Jonobie!

Multigrain bread, blueberry jam, and a cup of chai

This morning I enjoyed a cup of homemade chai tea while munching on some homemade multigrain bread slathered with homemade blueberry jam. My sabbatical is delicious.

Daniel and I go through a lot of bread and a lot of jam. Between toast and PB&J sandwiches1 (our favorite hiking lunch!) we eat about a loaf a week and go through jam pretty rapidly as well. Knowing how much I love blueberries, Daniel began making homemade blueberry freezer jam a few months ago and it is awesome. I throw some in my morning greek yogurt to boot.

Bread-wise we love the multi-grain Blues Bread from Dave’s Killer Bread. Bread really isn’t that hard to make, particularly if you have a bread machine, so for the past 6 weeks I’ve been experimenting with a multigrain bread recipe. Every few days poor Daniel has to suffer the smells of freshly baked bread wafting through the house. The original recipe got rave reviews and many people have had success with it, but not I. The first loaves were too dense. They rose, but not much. After many iterations I’ve almost mastered the recipe and within 2 hours we can go from raw ingredients to a warm loaf of bread. I continue to refine my recipe to incorporate more whole wheat flour, but so far so good.

That brings us to chai tea. I really enjoy the chai tea lattes from Starbucks, but it’s really hard to justify spending the money when you’re on an unpaid sabbatical. So I started buying liquid chai tea from the grocery store and just adding it to almond milk in the mornings. But chai tea isn’t (or shouldn’t) be that hard to make — it’s a mix of black tea and spices. So yesterday I started venturing into making my own chai tea. Yesterday’s recipe was not a success. Today’s was better and I’ll be iterating over it for a few days.

It’s comical to me that none of this stuff is hard to make — nor all that time consuming — and it’s taken a sabbatical for me to slow down enough to enjoy the process.

1 Well, at least I have PB&J sandwiches. Daniel eats sunbutter and jelly sandwiches from homemade sunbutter (which is just sunflower seeds beaten to smithereens in the food processor).

One month into the Sabbatical

It’s been about a month since I started my sabbatical and I’ve almost reached the point where I don’t know what day of the week it is.

There’s been hiking, pottery (and more pottery), impromptu days out at Alki, art walks, game nights, book reading, bread making, farmer’s markets, converting DP’s codebase from CVS to git1, brunch with friends, Pride, and celebrating nation-wide same-sex marriage (or as we like to call it now: marriage). Daniel and I purchased tickets for our 2-week trip to DC in August and have an outline for where we’re headed to Europe in September with Jonobie.

Today at noon we’re heading to Critical NW which is billed as Burning Man in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll be there all week glamping and … well, we’re not exactly sure what else which is oddly the point!

1 Yes, I voluntarily converted something to git and updated our deploy scripts to use it. My new motto: git is less shit than CVS.