Upgrading and rebooting... my 3 month break from the autopilot life
2012 was a great movie where a host of natural disasters came together at the same time and threatened to destroy the world. For me, 2012 was the beginning of a set of life-changing choices that came together all at once. I was living in India and building a new organization for Microsoft and got engaged and married despite never having the desire to do so before I met Rupa. Two weeks after we had gotten engaged on 11/11/11, I got a call from my VP and mentor at Microsoft saying he was leaving for a startup, and I needed to come along. I loved Microsoft and never thought I would leave there either, but after a weekend of research and a few hour-long interviews later, I was sold. I still remember coming home and talking to Rupa about the opportunity and that we’d have to move to the US right away. We had talked about it after my 3-year assignment was up, but this would be in about 3 months. Decision made, I set my start date as Mar 1 and finished the wedding and 3 receptions (it is India after all) in Dec. We went to our honeymoon in the Maldives in late Jan and then I was on a one-way flight back to the US in Feb. We also decided to buy a house, so Mar was my version of the ending of the 2012 movie… just married, left Microsoft after 15 years, at a startup with 100-hr work weeks, living out of 2 suitcases in temporary housing and bought a home in the middle of a massive housing and stock market crash.
how i got there
The next 8 years was a surreal, dreamy cocktail of global travel, riding a unicorn startup to billion-dollar valuations, meeting people all over the world and a set of experiences that will stay with me till the end. It was probably the best life I could have ever dreamt of post marriage (life was very similar prior) with both of us just enjoying everything life had to offer to the fullest. My job had global scope and teams and I had to travel at least twice a year to Europe and Asia. This coupled with the fact I could work from anywhere meant weeks and even months spent in cities like Amsterdam, Sydney or even in Positano in Italy. Covid and 2020 brought that lifestyle to a screeching halt and work became endless days spent on zoom calls and soulless meetings. We were very lucky to live in a part of the world with stunning natural beauty and so could at least go out locally into nature as there was never a mandatory lockdown to stay home. But this time also gave me a chance (forced me) to pause and reflect on what the next phase of life would look like. More than anything else, this came about from nearing mental exhaustion after almost 25 years of uninterrupted work; I left Microsoft on a Friday and started at ServiceNow on the following Mon! Though the countries (lived in 4 for long-term assignments and visited countless others) and scenery where I worked changed constantly in a good way, my field of network engineering is a bit like the power company; nobody cares about you until the power or network goes down. Thus, no matter how well you perform at work, you are always an outage away from weeks of hell comprised of post-mortems and being yelled at by other teams, managers and customers. I have lost track of the number of customer calls I have had to field to explain why their service failed and what we are going to do about it. I still remember in the early days of ServiceNow our then CEO calling out my team because we had just had a huge, 8-hour outage. In front of about 500 people, he points at me and says, “we can continue to grow like crazy, but these guys better get their act together”. This is just the nature of the work, and the experience is shared by all my peers at other companies. We even had a great term for the weeks that followed any large outage…. “Embrace the Suck!”
After embracing the suck ever since I started my first networking job in 1992, I was running near empty entering 2020. After a year of Zoom calls and more of the same suck, I realized that I had no passion left for it. For me, I always had a love for network engineering ever since my first job at (now defunct) Northern Telecom in the 90s. That love only grew over the years and the passion I had for it grew along with the higher levels of management I got promoted into at Microsoft and ServiceNow. But here I was on new years eve of 2020, watching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific ocean in San Diego with Rupa and I realized that it was time to make a change. This was the first spark that ignited the beginning of the end which culminated in me discussing my exit with my VP, and that I would give him 6 months to help find and train my replacement. The news quickly spread and there was shock and disappointment from my team where I had had a hand in hiring every single one of them and had developed some level of a relationship with everyone. It was saddening for me as well, but I knew I was no longer the right person to be their leader. “How can you walk away from so much stock” was (sadly) the most common question from peers, family, and acquaintances. The financial part was never a priority on my mind as tech companies’ stock grants were designed such that you would leave behind significant amount till the day you died or quit, whichever came first. No, it was time to go, and I resolved not to let anything change my mind. But, as fate would have it, another organization in the company offered me a great job where I would not manage anybody and be far away from network engineering and the suck. I negotiated a sabbatical starting in October and not having to start in my new job till mid-January.
planning the sabbatical
I wanted to make sure that the time I had off was not just going to be another holiday. Not that I did not need some time away from work and the US, but I wanted to use the time to completely uninstall my current operating system, upgrade and reboot into a new way to approach and react to life. It was way past time to turn off the work/travel/enjoy autopilot mode and figure out what I wanted with the next phase of my life. Having read the benefits of Vipassana, I decided the best way to start my sabbatical was to go unplug from the world and reboot the mind after 25+ years of no downtime. I also wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny and a place not so hyper-connected like the US. Goa in India was the obvious choice and after not having gone in 2020 (my first time in 22 years), I was really itching to go. But Goa is a 2nd home to me, and I did not feel like I could ‘think different’ there, to use a worn cliché. We talked about it and decided on going to Costa Rica as it’s a place we’d always wanted to visit, and we could combine it with a holiday in Panama. After coming back from Vipassana, I spent some time to think and write down things that I wanted out of the time off. I knew the risk was there of it becoming just another holiday and by writing down some goals, I at least had a reference to go back to. But I also did not want this to be some task-oriented checklist that I had to get through. Rather, these would be guidelines I would use to focus on items that I wanted to experience further. I broke these down into the following categories;
Body: I lead a healthy life at home with a combination of physical yoga, walking, weightlifting and biking. I wanted to really expand my yoga and spend more time walking and doing exercises like situps and pushups. I wanted to come up with a good routine of cardio and weight training that I could use after coming back.
Mind: Daily meditation was something I wanted to do but also see if there was improved focus given no work responsibilities. I meditate every day at home but wanted to see if there was a difference in focus or depth with work gone. I also wanted to spend time being mindless and just being in the moment with no real use of the intellect. Trust me this is far, far harder than you think 😊
Soul: My first goal was to re-read Sri Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ and try to digest some of the deep teachings. I had tried reading it before but did not make it past the first few chapters. I also had bookmarked articles on Karma and Quantum mechanics that I wanted to go beyond the obvious and get different perspectives. Finally, I wanted to experience deeply connecting with nature given the abundance of it in Costa Rica and the low population.
We had planned the first 3 weeks to be a holiday and to enjoy ourselves on our first international trip since February of 2020. We flew into Panama City and spent a few days there just enjoying being in a new city in a country we had never been to before. Then we rented a catamaran and went sailing in the San Blas islands of the Caribbean. This was an amazing time as we had no signal and were visiting many islands that were just sand bars in the middle of the sea, some with people but many empty. Watching the sun sink over the open ocean every evening along with a nice glass of wine was just the relaxation needed to leave the US-paced life behind. We then went to the Caribbean village of Bocas Del Toro and spent a week living an island life with the locals. This is where we got into the habit of doing yoga and deep breathing after waking up in the morning. There is something about doing both right next to the sea, with nothing but the sound of gentle waves lapping up on shore. It is also here that we had time to meditate and start using some of the things learnt at Vipassana. Not having ANY work responsibilities was the best feeling in the world. It is as if hundreds of cycles that had occupied my mind and time were suddenly just gone, liberating me mentally and physically. This also caused the perception of time passing to slow down, and I really began to appreciate the progress of the minutes of a day. With work, it was as if the day was on fast forward and time just flew by. I can literally think of weeks of my life that just went with nothing meaningful to remember other than Zoom meetings and breakfast/lunch/dinner.
It was only after we got to Costa Rica that I felt that I fell into my goals for the sabbatical. Costa is a sparsely populated country and one that is largely unspoiled by the ravages of man (though that is rapidly changing). We spent almost all our time on the Pacific coast, and it is simply stunning with lush, jungle-covered mountains kissing the beautiful ocean on powder-white sand beaches. For those who have read my Oregon blogs, Costa is a tropical version of Oregon. But the beaches are much bigger and far less populated, especially in the Costa Ballena region, where you can walk for miles and only see a few people. The country is also home to one of the five ‘Blue Zone’ regions where an unusual number of people live to be over 100 and in excellent health. I can see why this is possible as the weather is great with clean air, food is made with fresh, local ingredients and the pace of life is slow and deliberate. Not once was I asked about stocks, work, the latest Netflix show, house prices or Covid/vaccine. Most people wanted to know what our life story is about, and it is done in a leisurely way over a drink or coffee. This is also one of the few places I have been to in the world where you can drink the tap water. Is much of the country, it is not treated with chemicals but is straight from the mountains where it is naturally filtered. Think Evian but from the tap!! We tried surfing for the first time, and it was an amazing experience as I had my first ride after an hour of trying. I can see why people surf as you realize just how powerful and beautiful the ocean is and the oneness you feel.
Mornings would start off with the sun shining on my face and the sounds of birds, monkeys and the ocean waves. Getting out of bed was easy here vs. the desire to not get up at all in grey, cold, and rainy Seattle. After an hour of yoga, resistance exercise (situps, pushups, etc) and deep breathing sequences outdoors (of course), we would sit in the garden and watch the sparkling azure Pacific over excellent Costa-Rican-grown coffee. Most of my mornings were spent writing, working on the design for this website and watching videos or reading on topics as varied as dark matter, making chocolate, surfing or Karma. After picking up lunch, we would go spend the entire afternoon on a random beach reading, lounging, and swimming and always ended with a miles-long walk into sunset. Dinner was usually back at our place and on nights we weren’t reading, we would indulge in some Netflix. All the food we ate was excellent, fresh and with nothing processed. Because of this, it quickly digested, and we felt light and vibrant. This relaxed, healthy, and slow-paced life on the coast for over 2 months was a perfect experience and exactly what I wanted from this sabbatical. I cannot describe the energy and joy that comes from a lack of pressure of any sort because there was no work or threat of work hovering in the background. And since I was going back to an entirely new job, I was slowly able to un-embrace the suck and get rid of it altogether by the time we came back.
The slow pace also affected my mind in a positive way as I felt no rush to do anything really. We don’t realize how much unconscious stress or pressure we create in our minds because of work deadlines and demands we put on ourselves for mundane tasks. I have friends who are on the phone or laptop 12+ hours a day and even check mail when they get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. In my opinion, this always-connected lifestyle puts our mind on an always-alert state from which it is never given any rest. While we rest our bodies every night because we have no choice, we never do the same to our minds. This is where I began to realize why meditation is such a powerful instrument in dealing with many of the ills of modern life. A lot of new research studies in medicine are now coming to the conclusion that much of the chronic illnesses that affect our bodies are actually created in and by the mind. Insomnia and headaches are two examples of mind-originated ailments. And lack of sleep has significant impact on alertness, wellbeing, and overall health. While I thankfully don’t have sleep issues, I realized my sleep was deeper and more restful than at home. I also slept fewer hours but felt more rested which I credited to a more relaxed mind. In fact, I overall felt at the top of health the entire time I was there. There was this natural sense of vibrancy and positivity and I can see why people live to a hundred here. It made me realize that perhaps the hyper-connected and overworked lifestyle was responsible for many of the ailments people have and for which the US-pharma industry is only too happy to provide temporary relief in the form of pills. I have never been to a country that has prescription medicine advertisements like the US does. The “richest and greatest” (laughable since its also one of the most indebted) country in the world is also one of the most medicated. My bet is if people learned to disconnect and focus on mental wellbeing, much of their physical ills would simply go away. Even 15 minutes of meditation a day would yield significant benefits.
It took me just about a month to finish Autobiography of a Yogi as I had to read a few chapters more than once to really absorb what was being said. I also took lots notes and jotted down ideas for future blog posts. On my many solo walks or time spent on the beach, I really began to reflect on this entire existence. Being near the water with nobody around becomes a sort of meditation in and of itself. I would find myself lost in thought and reflection based on what I had read or my experience in Vipassana. I truly began to experience oneness with the ocean and all the birds and animals that were about. This comes from being able to relegate the mind to the role of the background TV and just being. The key for me was just being aware of everything and entering a state of mindlessness that can only be described as blissful. I would sit under the shade of a coconut tree and simply watch the water for ages with no real desire to do something. While many would find this boring, I realized I could actually do it for hours if I wanted to. That is because once your awareness focuses, you find there are a million things going on in just a small patch of the beach I was in: the waves, seagulls, small shells with life inside, the swaying of the trees, the wind on my face, warmth of the sun, sand blowing…. all playing an amazing symphony of life of which I could experience part or all of it. I began to understand why people who follow the yogic path shun humanity and go into nature for their learnings. A profound realization came to me one day on a secluded corner of a beautiful beach near Uvita where I realized that the body and mind are nothing more than a loan from this planet. We come from the earth and return to it, regardless of what we do in the middle or how much we accumulate. It clicked to me that this is why we at some elemental level crave nature and even the most ardent of city dwellers go off to the mountains, ocean or the local park. Even going to one’s backyard and into nature creates some manner of positivity inside us. At some level, the body and mind crave to re-connect and sync with what they are made of, come from, and are most definitely going back to.
The 3 months of sabbatical was exactly what I needed to do what we do to our laptops every so often…. upgrade the operating system, shutdown everything and restart into a familiar but also new and optimized space. And my idea of doing the Vipassana course first was the best idea as I entered the sabbatical with a new means of thinking and awareness. I felt that my experience was enhanced by not having too many people around and being in the middle of lush nature almost every day. Other than this crazy American couple we met in one of the condo complexes we stayed in, nobody talked about politics, stocks, Covid or the vaccine. At least in the US, things have become polarized to the point of not being able to discuss things with close friends as everybody is on one side or another. Maybe it is a function of age, but I found the near solitude during sabbatical blissful, empowering and, above all, awakening. This newfound energy manifested itself in my yoga, exercise, eating, sleeping and almost any activity by making it all better. It’s hard to describe but it was as if there was more dimension and engagement in things I did. I began to observe so many minute details during my walks, eating or swimming. We saw so many spectacular sunsets that I lost track, but each one seemed that much more vibrant and alive. I really could have spent a year living this sort of slow, deliberate, and aware life and perhaps even for the rest of my life…. time will tell. 😊 For now, I am using all I learned and experienced as a base from which to build. I will go back and do 10 more days of Vipassana this year and it may well become an annual experience. I do find that in cities it is harder to sustain the sense of calm and takes more effort to enter a deeper state of meditation. Perhaps its because of the many devices emitting their own frequencies that interrupt or even disrupt our natural ones. We are lucky to have a dense patch of forest near our home and that is the closest to what we had to ourselves in Costa. Overall, I am thankful that I planned and set some general goals as that helped me get the most out of the wonderful, unplugged time off.
my advice and thoughts
I would go beyond recommending you take a sabbatical and tell you to make it a mandatory part of your life and career. Looking back, I would do a minimum of 3 months at around ages 40 and 50. I did not do one around 40 as I left Microsoft on a Fri (after 16 years) and started at ServiceNow on the following Mon. In some ways I was lucky in that I wanted to go to a small company and the universe obliged and gave me a chance to be at one of the best. But for others, a break at 40 will give you perspective and direction on what you want to do with the last big productive decade ahead of you before middle age truly hits with all its physical impacts. The one at 50, to me, should be far more focused on yourself vs. your career. I get that most people are addicted to forever climbing the ladder and all the financial benefits it brings but I will wager to say most of those have no idea anymore as to the WHY? I truly believe that the start of the 50s decade is the best time to go through a process of re-engineering your inside to handle the journey that is bringing you closer to the end and reductions in physical capacity. Having talked to many older people and my own experience, time starts to go much faster as you get older. Maybe at a psychological level this is because we begin to realize our own mortality, but more probably because we have found a way to cram even more into our already overflowing schedules.
Start planning it a year in advance and leverage the tools others have shown, to prepare yourself mentally and physically. A year is also a long enough time to prepare your manager and team to have coverage when you are out. Whatever you do, do NOT keep any sort of connection back to the office as it will significantly degrade the reason for the sabbatical to begin with. Ping me if you need advice but remember that your life journey is not the same as mine so all I can offer is suggestions based on my experience. One thing I definitely would recommend regardless, is doing Vipassana as it has far-reaching benefits on all aspects of your life. Read about others who have taken sabbaticals and get ideas from their experiences and advice they have. It is very easy to make it into just another holiday but in my opinion that is a wasted opportunity. Instead, use the time to really engage all aspects of your life, especially the ones not work-related. The other trap is to continue to live on your phone (minus work) and never really get away from it all in any meaningful way. Spend time planning the whats and the hows will take care of themselves. Go somewhere a bit outside your comfort zone as it will push your mind in new directions. Whatever you do and wherever you go, use the time to reboot into a version of yourself that is more aligned with your true self.
The following are some photos from my sabbatical.