In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss discusses the idea of taking a “mini-retirement” while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. His point is that we Americans have it all wrong. We work hard through our youth to save up for a retirement in old age. That seems backwards to him – we should have our fun now, while we still can.
This is something I’ve always believed in. “You have the rest of your life to work,” I’ve counseled others who have considered taking a few months away from cubicle land. We’re fortunate to live in this historically unique time and place where jobs are plentiful. You’re not going to starve and there will be work for you when you come back, at least if you’re lucky enough to be a college graduate in America.
However, mini-retirement has costs and benefits that need to be considered. In my own life, I’ve tried to alternate my creative pursuits (writing) and my career (web person). I’ve taken several mini-retirements so that I could write. Here are the costs and the benefits:
August 1991 – December 1992: I leave my nascent career as an Information Assistant in Washington, DC, and move home to Florida. I work as a temp while I write a novel. I’m completely broke, live with my parents and yet am really happy.
- Cost: I’m “behind” some of my friends who are becoming successful in their careers.
- Benefit: I write a novel, my most important life goal.
July – October 1996: The Internet has just begun to take off. I’ve created my first web site, so that I can publish my fiction. I leave my library job behind and take several months off to travel and write. I also think there has to be a way for me to find a job doing this new web stuff.
- Cost: None. I don’t make any money for three months but I get a new and much better job as an Internet Content Consultant.
- Benefit: I work on my writing and edit the script of an independent film, Carrots and Onions. Reading someone else’s screenplay convinces me that screenwriting is something I can do. Perhaps more importantly, with my web job I’ve switched fields. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a career not just a job.
December 2001 – May 2002: A few months after 9/11, it’s a terrible time for a mini-retirement. My plan, formalated earlier in the year, of taking a couple months off to travel and work on a screenplay stretches into a half-year of intermittent freelance work.
- Cost: My finances suffer a major blow from the months of semi-paid freelance work. And when I finally find a new job, it pays less than my old job. My friends are buying homes, piling up $$ in their 401Ks, having kids. And spending lots of time in the office.
- Benefit: Though it’s tough to see as I look at my bloated credit card balance, the work and connections made during this time will pay off later. I finish my script, Mount Pleasant, which in 2006 will win the Film DC screenplay competition. And, with plenty of time on my hands, I become part of the local film community and meet people I will work with in the 48 Hour Film Project (2003, 2006) and DC Shorts. I also get into photography, a hobby that will bring me much joy.
Mini-retirements are not without cost. However, they’ve added a richness of experience to my life that is truly priceless.
I’ve met Tim Tate, the noted Washington glass artist, a couple of times. One of his glass sculptures, a really cool rocket, was stolen from Artomatic and held for ransom. It was only returned after a dramatic midnight exchange – Monopoly money for art. An individual named “The Collector” took credit for the theft. His aim was to increase this city’s appreciation of its art and artists.
This was a brilliant PR stunt, one that was expertly pulled off by “The Collector” or by Tate himself. It garnered both of them a story on the front page of Style in The Washington Post.
Did Tate set this up? Anyone who has met him would argue that he was certainly capable of such a masterstroke. After all, he’s a man who once had 99 films made about himself, including one that I wrote. But whoever did this crime is a marketing genius who should be applauded for bringing excitement and intrigue to the world of art in DC.
I’ve done the 48 Hour Film Project twice. For those who haven’t experienced this weekend of madness, it’s a contest where you have 48 hours to make a short film. You pick a genre out of a hat and everyone has to use the same character name, prop, and line of dialogue.
On the weekend of May 5, a hundred teams from around Washington set out to make their short films. The results are being shown this week at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.
Both times I’ve done 48 Hour, it was an amazing learning experience – it’s like Hollywood in a microcosm, with all the highs and lows of any filmmaking experience, though on a smaller scale and budget than what gets made on the West Coast.
Here’s a story of my 48 Hour experience from 2003, when me and the team of Midnight Motley set out to make a mockumentary.
Uncle Sam wants YOU to listen to his podcasts! Government web sites are increasingly using the tools everyone else is using (podcasts, videos, blogs) to communicate with the public. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted some of the many government podcasts that are out there. For example, NOAA (the agency I work for) created a podcast on a research mission to Greenland.
I had the opportunity to take some pics of Caveat, an improv troup that is part of the Washington Improv Theater. It was a lot of fun – they’re a very creative group and they came prepared with ideas of what they wanted to do, which really helped. We shot in Meridian Hill Park, a city park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Once known as the “most violent national park in the region,” it is now safe and scenic, the way it should be.
An impromptu slide down the stairs race.
The Caveat improv group.
I attended the Web Content Managers workshop on April 24 at the FDIC training center in Arlington. It was a great workshop, with lots of opportunities to meet other gov’t web folks and learn new things. Here are my notes from the conference:
Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, The World Bank Group, “Social Media: Transforming Communication Between Government and Its Customers”
- World Bank gets criticized in the blogosphere, drowning out the Bank’s message (this was before the latest scandal). The Bank needs to be part of the conversation rather than being defined by it.
- Solution is to let groups of employees blog, provided that each blog has a strong governance body and that users are interested in it.
- Example: Private Sector Development blog has personal stories of staffers in the field. This blog gets more traffic than their department’s web site.
- “Communication 2.0” is to help the experts communicate rather than controlling the process.
- Social media is evangelized throughout the organization by the installation of RSS readers, so staff can follow blogs, and a “BuzzMonitor”, showing mentions of the Bank across the web.
Alex Langshur, PublicInsite, “How to Re-Orient Our Websites Around Users’ Top Tasks and Get Top Management Support”
- We should reorient our sites around the keywords that users use in searches, which demonstrate the type of content they want. This means to change the categories of your site to match those keywords and to optimize your pages around those keywords.
- Outdated pages should be deleted since they gum up your search results.
- Use data on what users are “voting” on with their clicks to depersonalize the web site debate. Let the data decide rather than the “Hippos” (highest-paid person in the room.)
- What’s the mission of your site? It must be a measurable criteria. What are the top tasks of your users? Iterative improvement over time. No major redesigns, just constant tweaks and changes.
Kathryn Summers, UMBC, “Getting Users From Point A to Point B: Designing & Writing Tasks for the Web”
- Nearly 50% of the US population reads at an 8th grade-level or below.
- Log-ins, forms and search are difficult for low literacy readers (she showed heartbreaking videos of older people who couldn’t figure out how to log in to banking sites).
- Breaking up long paragraphs and sentences, avoiding acronyms, using simple words and shortening text are all ways of improving comprehension. This also improves comprehension for high-literacy readers.
Brian Dunbar, NASA.gov, “Success Stories From the 2006 Web Best Practice Award Winners”
- Web stats on usage are used to counter critics.
- Most popular items on his site are images, lesson plans and mission coverage.
- NASA is decentralized with multiple web sites.
- NASA.gov is relaunching in October, the 50th anniversary of the agency.
Some (but not all) of the presentations from the meeting are online.