50 things I learnt by taking a 6 week mini-retirement

A personal account of my summer

A year in the making, my wife, 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter headed off for the whole of the UK’s school summer holidays on a round the world trip, inspired by my co-founder of Customer Thermometer and Tim Ferris’s concept of the mini-retirement

It was a summer I’ll never forget and one I wanted to record for posterity.

To quote Tim Ferris:

  • A sabbatical is a one-time event. Mini-retirements are meant to recur throughout a lifetime.
  • A vacation is short, and often involves a tourist lifestyle with little immersion in a new way of life. A mini-retirement is long (one to six months), and allows one to fully participate in his new environment.

My wife and I have worked hard; really hard for the last three years, and decided that it was time to reward ourselves. We left on 22nd July and returned on 1 September and visited Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, San Diego, Carlsbad, Disneyland, Brisbane, Cairns, The Barrier Reef, Palm Cove, Sydney and finished in Ko Samui in Thailand.

I learnt such a lot – about life and business from both people I met and things I read and have written this as a record of the trip, in the hope others might be inspired by my observations:

  1. Doing truly memorable things requires big decisions – little ones just don’t cut it. We didn’t just stumble upon this trip – it was a year in the making.
  2. I’ve discovered my love of creating a vision for something and seeing it through. It will be important to develop another one when we get home.
  3. Seeing your children’s faces when they meet Mickey Mouse at Disneyland is quite special.
  4. Descending in a helicopter from ground level, into the Grand Canyon rendered me speechless. Those of you who know me will realise that’s quite impressive. It made me remember the inscription that will be on my tombstone – “It’s not a rehearsal”.
  5. It’s a big gamble taking 6 weeks off when you work for yourself and I don’t yet know what will happen when I get back to my desk. Nothing is certain, but what I do know is that I focused on building a platform and pipeline for the three months before I left and so I will arrive home with confidence.
  6. Disney is the master of creating the total experience. You can absolutely apply this to your consulting business. Perhaps not with water shows and fireworks, but by adding value to clients in ways they wouldn’t expect.
  7. Watching different attitudes towards customer service around the world has been fascinating. In Thailand, we were greeted at breakfast for the first time as “Mr Mark – welcome – we have the soya milk for your daughter as requested.” I hadn’t even given them my name. My daughter was also presented with a Mickey Mouse cup for her juice. Tiny amounts of effort, massive amounts of added value. Would it surprise you to know this same hotel responded to every email politely and promptly too?
  8. Mini-retirements give you time to read all those things you don’t have time to read.
  9. Tripadvisor.com and crowdsourced reviews are making and breaking hotel and restaurant businesses around the world. The iPhone and Android apps are must have travel companions. It’s the difference between an average and amazing experience. Because of Tripadvisor, we walked 500m to a restaurant in San Diego when standing outside a perfectly good looking one and didn’t regret it. The same will apply to your customers when looking for consultants too. Reviews, ratings and testimonials are so important, regardless of industry.
  10. I was taught about the power of networking years ago. It should be taught at school as an essential life skill. If you’re travelling, even in your own country, take the opportunity to meet people you know along the way. To my Australian colleagues – it was a pleasure.
  11. Going out of your way to create something different reaps dividends. Think Purple Cow.
  12. The Joe’s Crab Shack restaurant chain is a shining example of a superb customer experience – balloon sculptors at tables, waiters dancing to random tunes during your meal, a brand which makes you want to buy a t-shirt on the way out (they’ve sold several million already) and competitions while you eat – “first diner to provide a non-digital photograph gets a free entrée”. What are you doing to set yourself and your business apart?
  13. Hotel reception staff: don’t reel off memorized scripted greetings and farewells – be human for goodness sake.
  14. If you’re providing reporting instructions for an event / meeting / venue – put down all the information you think might be necessary. Think about how to make your customers’ lives easier, not harder. Small things like airport terminal names or numbers are actually rather helpful.
  15. If you move from Ethiopia to Las Vegas and become a taxi driver – I take my hat off to you. That’s a big decision. Big decisions are good.
  16. Ethiopian taxi drivers taking your first ever fare, learn where the airport is before you start your newly chosen career. Particularly when it’s 10 minutes away and you can practically see it from your pickup location. What basics do you not have a handle on, to do your job?
  17. We met friends along the way and it made us both realise that really good friends will always be really good friends, regardless of how far apart you live and how often you see each other. In my experience, the same is true of good customers. Even if they’ve not bought from you for a while – it doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t in the future.
  18. RANT: Many Americans (particularly in Disneyland) need to take a good hard look at themselves as they won’t live long enough to see their children grow up. I’m talking about obesity here and it made me REALLY cross. Also, it’s one thing to jeopardise your own health – but please don’t inflict the same terrible values and habits on your children. A final point, I’d suggest if you can’t see your feet whilst standing up, it’s probably a good idea not to be eating the giant ice cream sundae. Seriously.
  19. There has to be a better way of enjoying yourself than looking thoroughly miserable, sitting in front of a slot machine in a casino, with a cigarette, at 7am.
  20. Have a place for everything – it speeds up your day and makes you less stressed when you can’t find it. How many hours do you (I) spend looking for stuff? Even more important when you’re travelling.
  21. It’s OK to tell your kids they can’t have the plastic junk they make you buy in gift shops. Maybe we’ll stop producing it eventually and save a little landfill space? And no, I’m not Scrooge.
  22. Australians are totally nuts for top quality coffee.
  23. Deep fried ice cream should be made illegal.
  24. “You can stroll 100m to find a well OR you can run 10km and not find one.” – Freedom Ocean #ep18. Or in other words, I should pause sometimes and think before taking action.
  25. It is possible to get an apartment like this for just over £100/night inc breakfast.  A few minutes of research online can save you $00(0)’s. Visit www.agoda.com (but keep it under your hat.)
  26. Don’t get to 70 and claim you’re getting too old to do stuff, when you’re actually fighting fit… Try stuff, you might surprise yourself.
  27. Take time to listen to others’ opinions. You may not agree, but you’ll learn something.
  28. Don’t say “Have a nice day” whilst mumbling, looking in the other direction, being insincere, not quite finishing the phrase, after you’ve heard a complaint or late at night. It makes you look ridiculous.
  29. Got someone important arriving at your office? Make them feel welcome – have everything ready way in advance – boil the kettle before they arrive if you have to. Don’t run around in a flap after they arrive. (And don’t send up rollaway beds and make them up at midnight when the request was made 6 weeks before).
  30. Make your emails and written instructions clear and concise. Read them back to yourself. Make sure there’s no ambiguity. The same applies to requests made over the phone – it’s always a good idea to request a taxi big enough for your luggage 😉
  31. When someone buys from your business – don’t forget to remind them of the other things you do along the way. Gold star to the fabulous servers at http://www.bucadibeppo.com/ who tell you about the function rooms and specials… whilst showing you to your table.
  32. Smile, make conversation and ask questions to strangers around a pool from time to time – you just might just learn something and you never know where it may lead.
  33. Surprise your customers once in a while, even when they’re already delighted with you. Offering free beer and food at 5pm works a treat – especially when it’s a surprise. Hilton Homewood suites – you’ve a fabulous model there – thank you for a great stay.
  34. Airlines – it’s time you started innovating. You’re all the same. Virgin is still the only one to set itself apart from the crowd, and that was years ago. It just can’t be that hard. Ever thought of a free flight lottery for a random seat number to create some excitement? Ever thought of stewards occasionally breaking out into a dance routine, or smiling (sorry)? Ever thought of addressing customers by their names (like Singapore Airlines do)? Try something please – in the last 20 years, you’ve gone backwards.
  35. Don’t be scared of taking a 4 year old with a peanut allergy and a 7 year old around the world – they adapt very quickly.
  36. What has my 7 year old learnt? “I learnt that when a blue whale jumps out of the sea it’s called breaching” (we saw one), “how to say “hello” in Thai and that I don’t like the taste of beer.” Yet.
  37. It’s probably not a surprise that I learnt 4 year olds say the funniest things. When sitting in a boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon after the most memorable helicopter trip of my life we ask “Lucy, what can you see”. She replied… “Nothing.” Well worth the £300 round trip for her don’t you think?
  38. Most emails aren’t particularly urgent after all so it seems – people really can wait.
  39. Accept you will lose quick turnaround project-based opportunities if you’re the face of a small business and go away for 6 weeks – it’s the nature of the beast. Be polite and follow up appropriately, be honest and they will come back another day. I hope.
  40. You can make money while you’re on a six week holiday. Next time we do it, it will cover my salary. It’s good to have a vision.
  41. I’ve learnt I don’t really need to run from the house screaming for air after three days’ looking after my children – I’ve not felt like that once since I’ve been away and they’ve been with me for 42 days!
  42. There are a LOT of people with iPads and Kindles sat by swimming pools around the world and it’s noticeable that Wifi in resorts is no longer a nice to have for geeks – it’s pretty much essential for normal people too.
  43. Be consistent with your customers. Set expectations and meet them. Don’t give a goody bag of snacks and drinks to your customers on one 10 hour flight and not another because you’ll disappoint. Don’t give children a funpack thingy on one flight and not another, because you then fall short of expectations and children notice stuff like that. MacDonalds I’m sad to say are one of the best models of consistency, because they have a system and follow a process.
  44. If you open a folder ready to drop in everything you’d like to read, watch and listen to a couple of months before you embark on a big trip, you can get through a lot of material. Just make sure you’ve a notebook to hand. And it doesn’t get drenched by the pool.
  45. I don’t know about you, but I get quite disillusioned with my country and where you live. Travelling opens your eyes to other countries, how other people approach things and can go a long way to restoring your faith in human nature. It also helps if a few thousand people don’t try to set fire to the UK for the sake of a few plasma TVs and pairs of trainers while you’re away.
  46. It’s OK to be sad returning home and coming to the end of a break, but it’s also good to return full of optimism, thanks to the effort you put in place before you left and the plans you’ve made while you’ve been away.
  47. Commit to recording memories of your experiences for your children – they will love looking at photos and videos of themselves growing up. We’ve already paid for our Albelli photobook to archive our story. The 2,200 photos will need to be thinned down a little though!
  48. Review your life once in a while and commit to making small changes – implementing big change is harder. Mini-retirements help you to see the wood from the trees.
  49. Embrace change. Embrace your constraints. Doing both will make you A LOT happier.
  50. Has 6 weeks away been life changing? Not quite. Has it changed our outlook on life, seeing us and our children grow? Yes. Are we already thinking about our next mini-retirement? Yes, absolutely. It’s like everything in life – if you do it enough, it becomes a habit, whether that’s good or bad.

I hope you pick up a nugget or two from the observations and if you are going to embark on a mini-retirement – I’d love to hear where you’re going below…