On Retirement

Studio D just wrapped up a three-and-a-half-month project for a San Francisco based client. It included an unexpected lesson.

Our team of eight, alongside the client, worked across three continents — including the last two weeks holed up in a house in Mill Valley surrounded by tall pines, where we built our data models, frameworks and prioritized findings. Our popup studio setup is designed to provide the client stakeholders with the mental space for data-wall walkthroughs and home cooked meals — not just aligning to the deliverables — but exposed to the intent behind the process. Intent impacts everything downstream, and its misalignment is the main reason why organisations that run field research fall well short of their considerable potential.

As with all popup studio projects, there is plenty of time to get to know colleagues — over long morning walks, meals and late night verandah conversations. One of topics that came up (over particularly enjoyable sake) was retirement; specifically, what it means in this day and age to be retired?

Like many of you, my assumptions about retirement are based on my parents’ experience. My dad (who will likely read this — hi pa!) joined a UK corporation aged 16 and worked through to retirement aged 55. After a couple of years of pottering around he was traveling in Jaipur, India, and met a couple of female backpackers who walked him through the local silver market. Soon after he decided to start a jewelry business. The following years took him to the silver producing parts of the world, returning with tan lines, laden suitcases, and a nuanced understanding of demand. I know he put in the hours, but compared to his corporate job his new business never came across as being “work”, because he wasn’t beholden to anyone — he grew organically, and it still operates at a scale that makes sense to him. It left me inspired.

So what is retirement?

In the Bay Area, the topic of fuck-you money comes up a lot as a retirement goal. In part it’s because the conversation around income, stock and finance is so tied to the mythology of the area, and that most people know of a social or work peer who has achieved the freedom to step away from their job. What I don’t like about the phrase is that it’s a reaction to a negative, it implies that earning good money and being happy cannot coexist. I’ve been around corporations most of my life, and understand what they, and society at large, values financially and why. Not all jobs are intellectually rewarding or provide space for personal growth, but there are many that are — if you’re in the right place at the right time, skillful, and lucky.

Back to sitting on the verandah in Mill Valley — my colleague defined retirement as “doing only what you want to do”. She acknowledged she was part-way there, and suggested that I was fully retired.

So what is my retirement?

Four things provide me with the freedom that she described:

  • The first, and most obvious is in knowing the cost of living and having the savings to breathe.
  • The second is that Studio D passion projects have diversified our income streams to the point where we no-longer require consulting clients. The Handbook, SDR Traveller, retreats, expeditions, plus a few other things bubbling up, all generate relatively predictable income; and while revenues ebb and flow, they complement each other well. While we generate the bulk of our income from consulting, it affords us the absolute freedom to only take on projects for the right reasons.
  • The third is in maintaining a light footprint, including no offices or full time employees. This might change if the right opportunity came up, but there’s no rush.
  • The fourth, and most important, is in recognizing how little money is required to be happy, fulfilled. I start each year with a figure in mind for the year to live comfortably; after which everything, including whether to take on more work, is optional.

If you know me, you’ll appreciate the hours I put in to bringing these things to life, and that it always takes a team. But for all of the past four years, it has not once felt like work. Is that retirement? You tell me.


Writing this from our home base in Tokyo, while running through checklists for the first Expedition of the year—to the Borderlands of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Spent last weekend in the Black Rock Desert trialing expedition gear, the photos on this page.

We have a couple of spots on the Masterclasses in Shanghai, Singapore and Jakarta remaining. Amsterdam, Paris and London Masterclasses have just launched.

Finally, our 2018 retreat schedule is now up. If you want to understand how we arrived here, join us in Myanmar, Japan or Lebanon, where you’ll meet the people that will inspire your own retirement.

— Jan

Side/boot notes:

A few years ago I ran a six-month project studying nomads — from the digital nomads of millenial lore through to agrarian nomads in Somalia. The 4-Hour Workweek is a bible to many in the digital nomads community, but for a certain cohort it grants permission to fuck people over in their Ichabodian pursuit of their fuck-you money—income without pride or a recognition of consequences. Related: Kyle Chayka’s realistic/biting article on Digital Nomads.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.