What if...we got radical on retirement?

Design guru Stefan Sagmeister believes that we should steal back some of that time to transform our lives while we’re working

Most of us enjoy our career, in many ways it defines us – we worked hard to get where we are and we’re good at what we do. Income is a big incentive, but we’re still driven, still competitive. Weeks off can feel like wasted time that makes us anxious – who’s moving ahead while we twiddle our thumbs? – and irritates our clients. So we’re always available digitally, even at weekends or on holiday. Trouble is, that means we never relax and even though we get a buzz from a major project, we sometimes feel stale and can see it in the work we do. At times like those, it’s easy to ask what exactly all this work is for.

Designer and typographer Stefan Sagmeister felt the same. Sagmeister and his New York-based company are legendary for their packaging and design productions for musicians including Lou Reed and David Bowie. But in October 2009 he revealed in a TED talk that he’d noticed he too often got bored, produced tired work and didn’t feel happy. His solution was to reboot, refresh and reenergise himself by taking chunks of his future retirement time and injecting it into his life now.

Stefan Sagmeister

Sagmeister observed that we spend the first 25 years of our lives learning, then about 45 years working. At the very end are 15 years of retirement. His new pattern would steal five years from that retirement time so he’d retire later; and every seven years while he was young and could benefit from it, he’d close the company for a year.

How could that conceivably be effective? The lack of money, the missed opportunities! What would you do with those 12 long months? And the first sabbatical was disastrous at the start, until Sagmeister planned a timetable to investigate the things that had originally stimulated him. At the end of a busy year not only had he avoided burnout, but he and his team had widened their horizons, got back in touch with what excited them and unexpectedly found a level of productivity and creativity that altered their work. “Over the long term,” Sagmeister was surprised to find, “it was financially successful. Because of the improved quality, we could ask for higher fees.”

After a year, Sagmeister and his team had widened their horizons and found a whole new level of creativity

He mentioned a few others who used the same idea. Spanish superchef Ferran Adrià closed his restaurant, What if... we got radical on retirement? Design guru Stefan Sagmeister believes that we should steal back some of that time to transform our lives while we’re working elBulli, for five months a year to experiment with his kitchen staff. It paid off; Adrià annually received 2.2 million reservation requests. Manufacturing company 3M gave its engineers regular sabbaticals. ScotchTape and Post-it notes were two things that resulted. (Current examples include Google, which famously gives their software engineers freewheeling time to pursue personal projects.)

The result for Sagmeister was renewed meaning: in his life, his achievements and for the wider world. “The time was clearly enjoyable for me. But probably even more important is that rather than just benefiting a grandchild or two, the work that comes out of these years flows back into the company – and into society at large.”

For more creativity- and productivity-boosting ideas, see Sagmeister’s TED talk The Power of Time Off

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