Sabbatical Update, Week 23: Final Reflections

13 minute read

In the final weeks of my sabbatical, I settled into my new home, finished up a variety of projects, and got ready to start a new job.

If you're currently on Control-Alt-Backspace, you can read this post on Soren's Zettelkasten.


Selections from the Zettelkasten:

  • NoEvidence – be exceedingly careful about saying there is “no evidence” for something or believing those who do (h/t Scott Alexander for noticing this massive problem with science journalism and giving it a name)
  • PhoneAnxiety – a theory of why people increasingly dislike talking on the phone
  • BeBold – if things you do don't go wrong occasionally, you probably aren't being bold enough
  • MiscellaneousLifeTips – beginnings of a collection of lifehacks and random suggestions

Around the web:

I have several more blog posts planned for the following weeks.

Tasks and projects completed

  • Accepted a job at RemNote (on which more later) and handled all the negotiations, paperwork, preparations, etc.
  • Finally finished migrating the insurance flashcards which I started in week 2 and hilariously said I'd finish within a week or two. (It's not that they took more active time than I expected, it's that I forgot about them halfway through.)
  • Continued to work on making my apartment more livable, buying some new appliances and furniture, hanging up pictures, and so on.
  • Caught up on a variety of correspondence.
  • Visited family for Christmas.
  • Reread all of Tiny Habits and actually processed it this time, making several hundred flashcards in RemNote and doing all of the exercises. I don't want to speak too soon, but I am really liking the method and hope to publish a full review at some point.
  • Published the stuff mentioned above.

What all did I get done?

Let's talk about the sabbatical as a whole now for a bit! First of all, let's see how many of the projects I was hoping to look at I actually got to.

Finish developing and open-source several tools I’ve been using for myself but haven’t had the time to clean up and share, including a bookmark manager called RabbitMark, a tool for finding mnemonics for numbers using the Major System, a solitaire solver, and my mnemonic medium plugin for TiddlyWiki (which is generalizable, but currently embedded in Grok TiddlyWiki and not licensed for reuse).

I published the solitaire solver and my time tracker, which I didn't mention. I didn't get to the other three, though I made some steps toward the mnemonic medium one.

Make further improvements to TiddlyRemember, my TiddlyWiki plugin for syncing with Anki.

This is a rather vague goal, but I published a major update with about a dozen new features, so I'll call this complete.

Publish a TiddlyWiki edition based on my Zettelkasten. Many people have wanted to borrow what I have as a starting point, but there’s currently no easy way for someone to take my published version and re-purpose it, especially without instructions.

Clearly done.

Finish working through (or at least a substantial part of) The Rust Programming Language and write some real code in Rust.

I ended up working on learning JavaScript and React instead, since that became more immediately useful for me (being what I'll be working with at RemNote). Not completed as planned, but completed in spirit.

Work on skills in algorithms and pure math.

While I didn't do none of this, I didn't do enough to say I even partially did this.

Write up and publish a large selection of Anki card patterns.

I don't think I touched these at all! These don't really need uninterrupted time to work on, so I'm not particularly put out by it.

Make several more TiddlyWiki videos demonstrating how we can build TW tools for particular use cases.

I made several more TiddlyWiki videos, though they weren't part of the planned series of demos of particular use cases. I still hope to do more of those in the future.

Reintroduce 4,000 Anki cards from college that I haven’t been reviewing.

I'm not sure if I did exactly 4,000 (Anki doesn't provide me with an easy way to check), but I know it was more than 3,000 (because 3,000 of them were in one deck which went from fully overdue to empty), and it was a large part of the set that I was interested in getting back into circulation immediately. Done in spirit.

Spend some time on the career planning resources from 80,000 Hours, which look fantastic.

I didn't get around to this (largely because my next job found me during the sabbatical).

Read at least two books from my lifetime reading list per month (or equivalently fewer if I pick something really long from it).

These were more work than I anticipated. I did read several things from my lifetime reading list, but I averaged a little less than one per month.

Take several camping trips before the weather cools off too much. (I do this every year even when I’m not on sabbatical, but I want to make sure it still happens.)

I did this.

Return to doing regular weekly posts on this blog.

I did do a couple, but couldn't fairly call them “regular.”

Overall, I'd say I did something like 50% of what I put on my plan, which I think is a fairly respectable hit rate for an idealized list of projects. I did things that weren't on the list, too.

I did vastly underestimate the amount of time and effort that would be required to move and set the stage for my next few years, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to do that on sabbatical – while only time will tell for sure, I think it's highly likely I made significantly better choices given more free time to research and act and mental space to reflect, which will reduce the number of big changes I have to make in the coming years.

I'd also say I could have done a better job at maintaining a routine. It fell apart once I started doing things I hadn't initially planned on, which meant I stopped doing these posts nearly as regularly, and consequently I stopped making sure I had concrete accomplishments to point at. No worries – it's not like I horribly wasted my time or something – but if I do a sabbatical again, I'll be sure to keep this in mind.

Then again, maintaining the ability to change plans on the fly is important, too. If you have to rigidly stick to a routine every day, you might as well be employed!

Final reflections

Believed at the beginning and confirmed over the past six months: Extended periods of time off work are underrated, at least in American culture. We focus on retirement as the time when we get to do whatever we want without worrying about being paid for it, but I think that's misguided. You might never make it there at all. Even if you do, you'll probably be old enough that it'll be harder to do a lot of things. And you'll be missing out on the opportunity to learn new things, plan the next parts of your life, and enjoy your freedom at different stages of your development as a person. I think spreading the time off throughout your life just makes more sense. (Stefan Sagmeister has a TED talk about this which is worth watching.)

Not working doesn't mean sitting around playing video games all day for months, but it doesn't mean never doing that either. A good sabbatical should include a mix of being lazy, taking care of business you've been putting off, and doing new and interesting things you can't easily do while you're working. Just like when you're working, you need to do a mix of things for the maximum amount of enjoyment, fulfillment, and health.

Let's talk about money, because when you tell people you're taking a sabbatical, a lot of them either worry about your financial security or are impressed, and many people dismiss the idea of sabbaticals on account of the cost. It's true that if you take time off when you're young, you can't rely on periodic investments of small amounts of money to finance the whole thing. And I spent, uh, quite a bit of money without earning any money to speak of:

To be fair, somewhere around $7,000 of that was expenses associated with moving (buying out the remainder of a lease, paying deposits and fees, buying new items for my new apartment, getting equipment to move my stuff, and probably some other things I forgot). I also had to pay over $600 per month – literally more than my rent at my old apartment – for health insurance, which didn't help. Yay America.

Nevertheless, the whole thing was more expensive than I anticipated; excluding moving expenses, I had expected I would spend about $2,500–$3,000 per month including the health insurance, and it came to more like $4,000, more than I had been spending in a typical employed month. I thought I just wouldn't spend much money for a while: I'd have more time to cook and do things for myself instead of paying others to do them, wouldn't have any commuting expenses, and could just put off any significant purchases. What actually happened was that, having a bunch of free time, I wanted to start new things and take the time to fix things that required buying stuff, sometimes pretty expensive stuff.

I certainly could have done this on less money, though, even without doing something dramatic like putting my stuff in storage and moving to a cheaper country. I bought a bunch of stuff during my sabbatical because I knew I had the money. So if you are not blessed with a combination of lifestyle and occupation that leaves you with enough margin to easily save $33,000 (plus a comfortable buffer), that doesn't necessarily mean you can't ever take a sabbatical, it just means you definitely need to get your finances in good order, make it a priority, and think harder about stretching the money you do save for longer.

If that still sounds totally unattainable, think about this: while being good with technology gives me significant earning power and many of my readers would not have nearly as easy a time as I did, I am also not rich by any standard definition of the term. I'm still only four and a half years out of college, and my household income only barely exceeded the median in Minnesota averaged over the years prior to my sabbatical. (Of course, I can expect to do much better over my entire career than average than someone in a profession which is criminally underpaid, assuming I stay in tech and it continues to be stupidly lucrative, but I didn't borrow my sabbatical money against my future earning power.) The difference is that I started with a moderately strong income and kept my expenses unusually low. That's the basic recipe for buying yourself freedom, whatever it looks like for you. I'm not saying it's easy for everyone – it definitely isn't – but it's possible for a whole lot of people who believe it isn't. If the idea speaks to you, don't dismiss it out of hand.

My next steps

As mentioned previously, I've accepted a position as a software engineer (ish – my role will likely be somewhat flexible, like my overall persona) at RemNote, and my first day was today. This opportunity lines up very neatly with many of the things I've been working on, including software, spaced repetition, note-taking, and online collaboration and community.

In case anyone is wondering, I remain committed to the Anki and TiddlyWiki communities, which have some overlap with RemNote, and I've made sure that my continued contributions to them are with the full knowledge and blessing of the company. I don't believe RemNote is a strict competitor or a superset of either tool. While it's a powerful learning tool and I hope it will become more powerful and versatile, partly through my work, it's also naturally complex; at least in the near future, I think there are many users who will be well served by an effective spaced repetition tool but will have little interest in combining it with notes and a knowledge base, and RemNote will consequently not be a good fit for them. As of now, there are also some types of knowledge that I find a difficult fit for RemNote, although this may change in the future. So there is still a strong place for Anki in the ecosystem as a whole. As for TiddlyWiki, I believe it remains the gold standard if you want to build or customize your own information system without writing software from scratch, which is what I attempt to teach in GrokTiddlyWiki. This Zettelkasten now does pretty much exactly what I want, and I can change it on the fly if I need something else; I have no plans to move to a different system. TiddlyWiki is also fully open-source and doesn't require any centralized infrastructure, which gives it big advantages in some use cases.

That said, for the right people and the right kinds of learning, RemNote is rapidly becoming a huge coup, and I'm excited to be part of (if everything goes right) taking it from the effective-prototype stage to the prime-time stage. Even if it doesn't turn out as well as we hope, this really is a whole new type of learning tool, and giving it our best shot stands to teach the world of knowledge-management tools a great deal.

Obviously, with exactly one measly day of work behind me – if you can even call your first day of a new job “work” – I don't know exactly how working at RemNote will turn out for me. Still, for those who are skeptical about defaulting to open, I think this is a great example of why sharing your knowledge, enthusiasm, and expertise for free is usually a good deal (see also Why The Best Companies and Developers Give Away Almost Everything They Do). I would never have found this position without becoming engaged in the Internet community of other people interested in these topics by freely sharing my ideas and attention – nor, indeed, would I even have gotten deep enough into the specific set of interests that make me a good candidate for the job. I wouldn't likely have applied to RemNote because I had barely even used the product at the time and there wasn't anything particularly striking about the position as advertised, but I got interested when the founders saw my work online and floated the idea with me. Most important things happen by accident, but some accidents are more accidental than others – or, put more seriously, you can exert plenty of influence on what kinds of accidents are likely to happen to you. That's how I got here.