Impact of Ideas

Leave work for a year to go live on a remote island? How a TED Talk inspired me to take a mid-career sabbatical

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
Winston Chen's son, then TK-years-old, walks across a beach on a stormy day. Photo: Winston Chen

Winston Chen left his job at a software company in Boston and moved his family to the island of Rødøy, population 108, for a year. Here, Chen’s son walks across a deserted beach on a stormy day. Photo: Winston Chen

By Winston Chen

Odysseus…Gauguin…Robinson Crusoe…and me?

Many people dream of the ultimate escape: throwing all the baggage of civilization away and taking off to live on a remote island. But few people—particularly professional couples with young kids—actually go through with it. And yet, that’s just what my family did: we left Boston, and my reliable job at a software company, to go live on a tiny island north of the Arctic Circle for a year, unsure of what exactly we’d do there or what we would face upon our return.

Stefan Sagmeister: The power of time off Stefan Sagmeister: The power of time off The seed of this idea was planted three years before, when a friend made me watch a TED Talk by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister. He presented a tantalizing idea: “We spend about 25 years of our lives learning. Then there is about 40 years reserved for working. And then, tucked at the end of it, are about 15 years of retirement. I thought it might be helpful to cut off five of those retirement years and intersperse in between those working years.”

It struck a deep chord with me. I was an executive at a small software company, a typical management job where I spent the bulk of my working day in PowerPoint. I’d been working for about 10 years, and felt like I was just going through the motions. We live in a society that celebrates strong work ethics and delayed gratification—all good things, but we’ve taken this cultural mindset to the extreme. We deny ourselves the time to do anything significant outside of work until we’re physically and mentally well past our prime.

Ever since watching that talk, my wife and I wanted to take time off to go live in a faraway place. It took us three years to work up the nerve to actually do it. We finally decided to seize the moment when our children were old enough to remember the adventure, but not so old that they’d started elementary school. My wife, a teacher from Norway, was itching to get to back into the classroom and found a teaching job at a small island in Arctic Norway called Rødøy. Our launch sequence began.

We rented out our house, furniture and car, and packed four big duffle bags. With loads of anxiety and fear, we took off for an island that we had never set foot on with a population of just 108 people, determined to live on my wife’s teacher salary for a year.

While Stefan Sagmeister’s goal for his year off was to rejuvenate his creativity, mine was more loosely planned. I wanted to give myself a year without any concrete goals. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with our children with no objectives other than to be together—very different from before when I only had time to manage the children through daily routines. We communicated in a more relaxed and empathetic way, and I got to know both children in profound ways.

The Botnen-Chen family. From left: Marcus, Kristin, Winston and Nora, with the beautiful scenery of Rødøy in the background. Photo: Winston Chen

The Botnen-Chen family. From left: Marcus, Kristin, Winston and Nora, with the beautiful scenery of Rødøy in the background. Photo: Winston Chen

I hiked and fished. After dropping the kids off at the island school, I would carry on with my backpack and fishing rod and go off. I took photography more seriously, because I could afford the time to think about the picture rather than rushing just to capture something. I learned to play the ukulele and started to paint in oil after a long hiatus.

Three months into my island year, I rediscovered an old passion: programming. Just for fun, I started to develop a simple app that would read web articles or PDF files out loud using synthesized speech. I called it Voice Dream Reader. It quickly became a full-blown obsession as I realized that the app had the potential to transform the lives of students and adults with difficulties reading.  Fun, passion, excitement—suddenly I knew the “next thing.” I worked on developing it slowly but surely, and kept on with the other activities I was enjoying so much on the island too.

In the summer, with the kids and my wife out of school, we let the weather steer our days. Warm days meant taking our skiff to a beach on any of hundreds of nearby islands; cooler days were for hiking; rainy days were reserved for crafts projects and board games. Sometimes we stayed up hiking till midnight, taking in spectacular hours-long sunsets.

I think that people hesitate to make bold moves like the one my family did not because it’s hard to leave: leaving is actually the easy part. I think it’s the fear of what happens after re-entry that keeps even the most adventurous families from straying far from home. When we headed home after a year, we had no jobs and no medical insurance waiting for us. And we were immediately up against mortgage and car payments, plus all the costs of living in an expensive city.

But strangely, we felt truly at ease on our first evening back in the States as we sat on an outdoor patio with good friends talking about our respective summers. For our friends, summer had been a juggling feat—the careful balancing of their two demanding full-time jobs with their children’s jumbled activity schedules. The logistics of this had been worked out with two other sets of parents months in advance, in a strategy session that required laptops, a projector and plenty of wine. In contrast, our summer had entailed waking up in the late morning every day and making a big breakfast, then exploring an unthinkably beautiful island.

A stunning sunset over Rødøy. Photo: Winston Chen

A stunning sunset over Rødøy. Photo: Winston Chen

Throughout that first evening of our return, I could feel palpable stress coming from our friends, a successful couple with substantial means. But my family, even with no income, felt at peace.  That was when it dawned on me: our island year wasn’t just a memorable adventure. It had made us different people.

After we returned, I trudged on with the Voice Dream Reader app, even though it was not selling much. Focusing on this, rather than getting a traditional job, was a far bigger risk than any I had taken before. But my wife and I often said, “What’s the worst that can happen? We go back and live on the island?” We were clothed with the armor of confidence forged from the newfound knowledge that our family could be very happy living on very little.

I continued to improve the app until it started to generate enough income to sustain us. It wasn’t instantaneous, but today, nearly two years later, Voice Dream Reader is a bigger success than I could have ever imagined. It’s been a Top 10 selling education app in 86 countries. But more importantly, my work is immensely satisfying. With Voice Dream Reader, students who struggled with visual reading are able to listen and learn like everyone else. Adults who had trouble reading all their lives—not knowing that they have dyslexia—are now devouring books. It’s making a difference in people’s everyday lives.

So many people who hear my story tell me how much they yearn for a similar experience: to take a big chunk of time off to pursue their heart’s desire. To them I say: have no fear. Most people are far more resilient to lifestyle changes than they think. And careers, which are rarely linear, can be just as resilient too.

The upsides of taking a mid-career year of retirement are potentially life changing. By giving yourself time off and away, you’re creating a climate teeming with possibilities. Perhaps you’ll find passion in a new kind of work like I did. For sure, you’ll come back with new confidence and fresh perspectives to fuel your career, plus stories and memories to enrich you and your family for life. And you don’t have waited till you’re 65.

Winston Chen is the creator of Voice Dream Reader. Find out more about this reading app for auditory learners, or check out his blog about his family’s life on Rødøy

A view of the village below.

The Botnen-Chen family was used to Boston. So this small village near the Arctic Circle offered big adventure. Photo: Winston Chen