I didn’t realize it at the time but I had been living my adult life in roughly 4-year chunks.
And these chunks for me looked like this:
- Focus: ~3 years dedicated to one thing
- Experiment: ~6 months keeping your focus while doing things on the side, having a new discovery
- Sabbatical: ~6 months of taking action on key learnings from your experiment
- Transition: ~3 months to figure out the next focus
While life is short, I believe life can also feel long when we think about our life in chunks.
Chunks serve as valuable time markers, like how plays have acts or basketball games have quarters.
If life was one straight shot, the beginning and ending might be memorable, but the middle will probably be blurry.
By thinking of my adult life in chunks, I’ll have 12 beginnings and endings once I’m 66. That’s 12 unique focuses, experiments, and sabbaticals to experience.
Pretty rad eh? Let’s use my life as an example.
Tam’s Life Chunk #1
FOCUS: 2014 - 2017
Dropped out of college. Started and failed my first business. Realized I had no idea what I was doing so I applied for jobs at different startups. Hustled everywhere I worked for little to no pay. Read books and devoured podcasts. Volunteered at all the startup conferences in exchange for free access and networking.
Learned everything I could about business. Built real skills in writing, marketing, and community building. Became a consultant to a few happy clients where I finally earned an honest wage. Three years of hard work to build a decent reputation without a degree. Mama, I made it.
EXPERIMENT: Jan 2018 - July 2018
Had a curiosity to explore the world and myself outside of startups. Kept my day job and experimented with my first international trip. Traveled to South Africa, Mexico, Thailand + more. Discovered big learnings about myself, including a desire I never expected.
With no distractions and being in a completely different time zone, I found myself with a lot of free time in Chiang Mai. Bored, I gravitated towards playing chess again. It was a game that I used to compete in back in high school, but never had the time to truly dedicate to studying.
Until now. And I became obsessed. To the point where I wanted to give this new direction a serious run.
SABBATICAL: August 2018 - Jan 2019
I sunsetted all my clients to study and compete full-time in chess. I had no specific goal. I wanted to see my full potential. How far I could push myself. And chess just happened to be the medium to do this.
I studied for 4+ hours in the morning, taught chess in elementary schools in the afternoon, and gave private lessons to kids in the evening. I competed in tournaments from Friday nights to Sunday afternoons. Analyzed games with my coach. Repeated the cycle for six months.
By the end of my sabbatical, I could stand toe to toe with ranked experts, sometimes beating them. And I ended my journey with a win against a nationally ranked master. Easily one of my top 5 experiences in my life.
Transition: Jan 2019 - March 2019
Investing more into chess didn’t make sense to me. To go from chess expert to international master would have taken me more time/energy than it did to get me to be a chess expert.
I felt like I got more than enough out of this experience. And there was so much more of life to see and experience.
I started looking for a FT-job. I had a few good offers, some remote with good pay. But the craziest offer I received was an opportunity to move to Toronto and start a new business with an entrepreneur I’ve been following for years.
It paid less and my salary would be in CAD. The job itself was a bit vague. I’d have to move and start over in a new country.
But it sounded fun, challenging, and felt like an amazing learning opportunity. So I took it.
Life Chunk #2
FOCUS: March 2019 - Jan 2022
I focused on building an in-person community of entrepreneurs in Toronto. I learned so much about designing experiences and building relationships. It was going really well but after a year, COVID hit. And this new business had to shut down.
Luckily, I still had a job building community virtually but it wasn’t the same experience. By the end of the three years, I knew I needed a change. The icing on the cake was when I got COVID after the holidays. This eventually turned into long COVID which left me with extreme fatigue and massive brain fog for no explainable reason.
Experiment: Jan - March 2022
Having long COVID was one of the worst experiences of my life. I had no energy to do anything. I couldn’t take more than 4,000 steps a day or else I’d be completely wiped out. I had to cancel dinner plans with friends because I didn’t have the energy to engage in conversation. My body felt like a constant battery warning—10% left, all the time.
So I stayed inside all winter and did super low-energy things: binge Netflix, sleep, talk to my therapist, and cry.
It felt like my fun life was over. To get back into the old me, I knew I needed to learn something because I love to learn. But my brain couldn’t handle anything too intensive. So what could I do?
I’ve failed to learn Spanish several times throughout my life. With nothing else to do, I downloaded Duolingo again and practiced for 10 min a day. I didn’t think much of it. But surprisingly, the habit stuck. And it made my days a little less shitty.
During this time, I also had more VISA issues, and I couldn’t legally work or stay in Canada long-term. So I quit my job, moved back home with my mom, and had to figure out my next steps.
SABBATICAL: March - October 2022
My body needed to rest. Apparently, no one knows how to cure long COVID since it was so new. The experts said it goes away naturally with time.
So I said fuck it, let me relax in Mexico. Maybe I could practice the Spanish I was learning. And if I have the energy, I could take dance classes again. Turned out to be the best decision I had that year.
With time, I slowly got my energy back and felt at 80% energy after six months. I started diving deeper into Spanish and took dance classes every week. I extended my Mexico trip from four weeks to four months.
My friend was getting married in Greece later that year. So I made the most out of my first Europe trip and spent a month in Spain to dive deeper into bachata. I didn’t plan any of this. This rest period naturally turned into a dance/Spanish sabbatical. And it was awesome.
TRANSITION: October 2022 - January 2023
Unlike chess, dance + Spanish are two things I would like to continue learning. But I spent my savings fueling my unemployed sabbatical life. So I needed a new job to support myself.
During my sabbatical, I had been a freelance writer for a company that my mentors founded. When I came back from Europe, they called me asking if I’d be interested in working full-time with them. Hell yes!
FOCUS: January 2023 - Present
I believe my focus for the next 3 years (or more) will be my role at Hustle Fund VC and becoming the best bachata dancer I can be.
I don’t want to think too far ahead. But I also see my future to explore other Spanish-speaker countries like Argentina, Peru, Colombia y más.
I never ever thought I’d end up here typing this blog post from México City. Pues, most of my life has been unplanned. So who knows where life will take me?
Reflections after two chunks of adult life
You can do a LOT in your life when you think of your life in chunks.
By the time I’m 52, I can have 8 potential chunks or 8 chapters of life to focus, experiment, and explore.
We overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years. And we have no idea what we are capable of in ten chunks of life.
Three years of focus is enough time to go deep into something.
You’ll walk away with enough data points to decide if you want to continue. Committing for 3+ years in a craft is already an amazing feat.
Sabbaticals are awesome.
For the people who have money: why not take a break from work to go on a sabbatical? Why not explore something you’re genuinely curious about? Why not have an amazing life experience that may teach you something about yourself?
Do not underestimate how long transitions can take.
Job hunting can take longer than you might think. From looking for the right opportunity, going through the interviews, making a decision, and waiting for a start date. It can take months. If I had a re-do, I would have budgeted for all of these variables.
All chunks look different.
Your focus may be longer or shorter. You may have longer experiments and shorter sabbaticals. The point is that thinking about your life in chunks expands your mind on how much life you can experiment with.
For example, I’d love to learn MMA one day. Or possibly live in another country. The timing is not right now because I’m focused on something else. But maybe I’d be ready in a different chunk of my life. Life is short, but I would argue it is also long. Seize every day.
I'll end with this epic comic from SMBC.
Tam Pham's Blog
I write about my adventures, learnings, and reflections on living my weird, unconventional life. Subscribe below!