Reflections on a sabbatical year


15 months ago I quit my job. It wasn’t an easy decision, it took me 1 year to find the courage to take the leap. My parents couldn’t grasp the idea of me not working willingly. No wonder, in today’s society your job is your identity, it becomes who you are. How could anyone in its mid-30s, 4 years after investing 6 figures in an MBA .. decide to quit with no idea what to do next?

Well, the idea was to pause, reflect on my career journey, upgrade my software…and hopefully find a passion or a cause worth fighting for. 15 months into my sabbatical, here’s some reflections:

Turbulent time: It depends very much what you do with your time, but assuming you take the opportunity to read books, cultivate your mind, re-learn history, watch documentaries, travel, etc..you will inevitably start challenging some of the dogmas and beliefs you were brought up with, which will make you look at the subjective reality in a different way. We all change throughout life but if you compress 20-30 years of information into 1 year .. it can be hard to assimilate and process everything, specially if you remain open minded and when many things run counter to your previous beliefs. Be prepared to feel agitated and with a permanent sense of discomfort. The journey to understand the complexity of the world is not an easy one and it becomes harder as your knowledge evolves. As Einstein famously said “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” So if one expects to get out of the sabbatical with answers about the world or about life .. it’s an illusion.

Purpose of life: Some will argue the purpose of life its to pass on the torch to our kids, others to leave a legacy, to seek happiness, to find a passion, to contribute to a better world, to make things happen, to disrupt the status-quo, to find what you’re really good at .. so that you contribute to society the best way possible. Either way, I struggled and still struggle with this one. I don’t think you will ever find a definitive purpose in life. We’re in a constant state of flow, we’re growing/changing every day and all the time. Your purpose yesterday may be meaningless today. My suggestion? Search for meaning, because happiness is inherently temporary. You can’t be happy all the time. But true and lasting happiness comes from meaning. Its worth thinking about “what is my meaning” on your next holidays. In the process, keep growing and learning, seek and accept truth, try to see the things the way they truly are, not the way you wish they were. Be in harmony with that.

Quantum physics: This is perhaps the most complex topic I studied. We are barely touching the surface on this field but the ramifications are far reaching. It makes you question the nature of reality and whether this is real or just a simulation. And each person will take its own conclusions from quantum theory. That said, my main take away was that the universe is neutral and its shaped by our consciousness, that our lives are a reflection of our beliefs. So be critical and mindful of what your beliefs are because the universe will organise itself to respond to what these beliefs are. If you believe you’ll be rich, chances are .. you’ll end up rich. If you believe you’ll die young .. you’ll probably die young without understanding why. If you believe you’re not good enough, chances are you’ll not succeed at whichever endeavour you’re involved (job, relationship, goal). You are ultimately responsible for your circumstances, no one’s to blame. Create your own reality by being very critical of what beliefs and thoughts you allow to enter your mind. We may not be the owners of our thoughts or beliefs, but we’re the owners of the decision to keep holding those beliefs.

Golden cage: Many of my friends find themselves in a golden cage situation – good salary, 2/3 kids to feed, a job with social status, etc. But below the surface, something is missing. They understand that “good is the enemy of great” and they may never reach greatness because they settled for good. They boxed themselves into corner and accept that many of their dreams will never come true. Fortunately throughout my life I met many people that escaped the golden cage. They inspired me and instilled in me the belief that life is not inevitable, that you make a decision every day of your life whether to continue working or quitting. If you stayed 5 years in a job, then you’ve made 1825 daily decisions to stay and work that day. My advice? It depends on personal circumstances and personality type. Many of us prefer missing out on being “great” but also not risking going broke (specially people with kids). Others prefer to live life to the fullest. Do what feels right for you but then own your decisions, take ownership of them and don’t moan about it.

Money and happiness: Its a cliche but money does not buy happiness. In my opinion what matters is the actual slope of the curve or the hope that the slope will be steeper than it is today. Its not necessarily your circumstances that will determine your happiness but the hope that the circumstances will be better. A 20 year old person is always much more full of dreams than a 40 year old. As you marry, buy a house/car, get kids, etc .. your liabilities rise and you loose the ability to be who you want to be, you relinquish your future freedom. My take on happiness is that it comes from inside regardless of material possessions. It comes from meaning, from being generous to others, from appreciation for what you have (air in your lungs, loving family members, a sense of community, good health) and from empowerment/freedom (working for a growing/exciting industry, having power over your future, being financially free), etc. When I was young my goal was to be rich, but as I became wealthier I started understanding that money is a means to something else. And its this “something else” that either makes you happy or unhappy.

History: Maybe the more influential book I read was “the lessons of history”. This book challenged many of my previously held beliefs. Its a book that helped me settling my anxiety levels by virtue of understanding why the world is as it is today. Main takeaways:

  1. Equality and freedom are incompatible – hence the need for (corrupt) Governments
  2. The world has always been about competition for resources – in the last 3500 years we’ve only had 200 years of global peace
  3. Out of 100 new ideas, 99 will probably be inferior to the one they propose to replace
  4. Sin has flourished in any age; Romans abused children and were phedophiles, men have been dishonest and governments corrupt. The higher you climb, the dirtier it gets.

Its nice to be romantic about the world but history shows brutality has plagued the world for thousands of years. It has and always will be a brutal place to live, at least until humans are humans (i.e, forever).

Free-will & determinism: Do we have free-will? Or are we simply deterministic apes following our instincts with no control over our decisions? The question has kept philosophers busy for centuries but the consensus seems to be the latter. This has been a remarkable personal realisation which changed the way I see the world. No more room for pride or guilt. No more blaming of people. If we want to change behaviours we have to change incentives and/or the environment around us. Much like we’d change the zoo configuration if we want animals to behave differently. We’re simple primates acting in pre-deterministic ways, looking for survival and reproduction and those 2 instincts guide all our behaviour, one way or another. It removes a lot of the fantasy and romanticism in life, but allows you to see reality as it is.

Conspiracies: I’ve been deep on this rabbit hole. My understanding is that it is another form of religion. As with any religion, it helps us solving the mysteries of the world and helps alleviating the pain of the uncertain nature of the universe. We can’t cope with not understanding many dimensions of life, so some people resort to religion, others to conspiracies. Its very tempting to think you finally got it .. that you finally understand the whole picture .. but believe me, the world is far too complex for the easy answers found in (most) conspiracies. And even if 50% of them are real (may well be the case), how does it help you living a more fulfilled life? Remember, your thoughts affect your reality, so sometimes may be best to naively ignore them, particularly those you can’t do much to change. I still read them as I find it a much better source of information than mainstream media (totally discredited by now after Brexit and Trump), but make sure you take it with a pinch of salt. Humanity is not the wonderland I’ve been told as a child/teenager .. but it may also not be as bad as some conspiracies paint it to be.

Final thoughts: There are no accidents in the universe. If you’re reading this blog then part of you is looking for answers that a sabbatical may give. But again, if you’re moving forward, if you’re excited about life, if you look forward to Monday and not to Friday .. then a sabbatical is not for you, at least not now. But realistically how many of us live for Mondays? Most of us are stuck in a job/industry whose best years are behind or adds little to the world (like me in Finance). If it no longer makes sense selling your precious time for a salary (however high it may be) ..then be bold, jump and trust things will be allright. We’re not plants, we have no roots sticking us to the ground, we’re free to move. Or if you have no savings, then reduce your liabilities and/or increase your assets so that you can get the option in a few years time. Our passage on this planet is ephemeral. We’re bacteria to this world. Nothing really matters that much, not even our legacy. We’re just here 70 odd years in 50 billion universe history. Take yourself and your life less serious and enjoy our short passage here.

@ricardo_afonso_

 

 

 

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