A Tale of Two Sabbaticals – Interview with two Investment Bankers who are taking 6-month to travel the world

When Janet and Stanley walked through the door at Slim Taste, a typically crowded lunch place made mostly of paper in Lan-Kwai-Fong, I felt sunshine on my face.

It’s not just their colorful T-shirts (with teddy bears on it in Stanley’s case) and sandals that instantly stood them apart from all the other suits and ties in the restaurant, but the energy they are beaming, sparing excitement. It felt as though they were the most alive people in the room. Well, they were the best looking for sure.

“So, how does it feel to be free at last?” I asked without hesitation.

“Busy!” comes the surprising answer. Not that surprising really, considering the two are off to South and Central America for 6 straight months to visit some of the most wonderful places man has ever seen. A lot of planning is required, and without the resources of multi-billion-dollar banks under their belt, even the lack of a printer could prove to be a pain in the rear.

I have known both Janet and Stanley for quite a while, still it came as a shock to learn that both of them suspended their highly-paid, well-respected jobs at top tier investment banks, to do nothing but traveling and raising fund for a charity. After all, it is rather uncommon for mainlanders working in Hong Kong to pursue this path. I had burning questions in my mind which I’m sure many others do too, so I sat the two of them down and fired away.

Me: It’s amazing how the two of you synchronized your sabbatical taking, how did you time it so well?

S: Actually you know what? We have a legally binding agreement which sets a deadline to leave our current jobs and that if one person quits and the other doesn’t, the deal breaker will have to pay a hefty penalty! (Are you kidding me??) We even got a friend at a professional law firm to draft a two-page contract. The penalty is not small you know, multiple months’ salary!

J: Haha yeah, Stanley was so worried that I’m not going to quit after he has, since he quit a month earlier than me. It worked out well as a catalyst though, forcing both of us to carry through with the decision we made.

Me: Wow that’s amazing. I guess it’s a big commitment to give up your jobs. Will you get to keep your pay and position during the sabbatical? And Bonus?

S: Our sabbaticals are completely unpaid, but the position is kept in the sense that my email account still works but no more access to it of course, but there’s no guarantee I won’t be laid off by the time I come back… bonus wise, I’m entitled to the pro-rata bonus for the number of months I have worked this year.

J: In my case, they guaranteed that I’d have my job after 6 months. I’m the first of such case in the history of the firm, so I had to draft my own agreement with the bank! My year-to-date performance will be taken into account when deciding bonus.

Me: That’s not bad at all, at least you got some bonus going for you. How long have you guys been preparing for this?

S: Since February! – which is when I got my year-end bonus. We thought about quitting back then, but Janet’s bonus was delayed to the end of April. By then, it was only 3 months away from my sign-on bonus lock-up in July, so I finally told my boss in July.

J: Yeah we pretty much finalized everything by April/May.

Me: I’m curious as to how you told your bosses, what were their reactions?

S: I just walked in and told my boss that I wanted to travel. It’s rather straightforward. Some people have suggested that maybe I should make up an excuse like family issues or something, but telling the truth is always the easiest. Words are bound to come around that you ended up traveling in South America instead of staying at home!

J: Exactly. I just told my boss that I needed a break. He too was quite understanding.  They are somewhat concerned about me jumping ship though, and the fact that it might set a “bad” precedent for other employees, given I’m the first one, but once I explained it to them, it was fine.

S: The key is to be firm. If your boss knows you’ve made your decision and that you would rather quit if you are not allowed to take a break, they would usually be accommodating.

Me: Sounds like you guys have really cool bosses! Is it really that easy to take sabbaticals in Hong Kong’s i-banks?

S: My firm had 3 people doing it in recent years, although they are foreigners and HK locals, guess it’s less common for mainlanders. But it shows that it’s definitely doable, especially if you say you are going to learn mandarin, which is what the 3 guys ended up doing….

J: It’s easier than most people think.

Me: OK here comes the big question – why are you doing this?

(after a long pause and deciding who goes first…)

S: I’ll go first. The decision was really inspired by my climbing experience last year in Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest mountain). The week I spent with friends in the wild, camping and all, really inspired me. Many negative things disappeared or were trivialized in the face of nature. You realized that what you thought were essential things are not really all that important. We can still live without blackberries, mobile phones, electricity, shower facilities or even clean water for example! Even the concept of “time” seems to be different. I realized that traveling really opened my mind and I wanted to do more of it. 2 weeks of holiday a year is just not enough. Through subsequent travels, I’ve met with more people who I will never meet working for an i-bank in Hong Kong, and they can give me ideas I wouldn’t even know was possible otherwise.

J: I agree with Stanley. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long long time, 5 years at least! After some years working, you get to a stage where money making and corporate ladder climbing is no longer the most important goals. I’ve always liked traveling and mingling with people from different cultural backgrounds. It will help me to find my next goal in life.

Me: Agreed. Why didn’t you guys do it earlier? Or later?

J: I wanted to do it earlier, but as a girl it’s not safe to travel alone, and it’s hard to find somebody who can spend 6 months traveling with you. A lot of people SAY they want to quit, but there are a lot more “talkers” than “do-ers”. So it’s a natural decision once I found Stanley, who has strong execution skills! (LOL)

S: Anybody who’s been an Investment Banking analyst has probably thought of quitting, like hundreds of times. I used to work in London, and back then it seems to be a shame to quit without seeing what HK and Asia is like. Now is the best time to do this.

Me: Have you calculated the financial and opportunity cost of this sabbatical?

S: Our traveling expense will not exceed 100k HKD per month. (Janet jumps in to say 50K is probably more than enough…). I haven’t really thought about the opportunity cost. This stage in life is more about experience than wealth accumulation. It’s not like I have mortgage to pay or kids to feed.

J: The benefit definitely outweighs the cost of taking a sabbatical. Plus, the benefit is life-long and permanent, while any financial loss is only temporary.

Me: Did your parents agree with you on this assessment?

S: Yes they were very supportive. My dad said that it is good to get out of your comfort zone, you become more courageous! My mum had some concerns, mostly about whether I can still get a job afterwards etc, typical Chinese mum mentality.

J: My parents are supportive too. They love traveling as well and are actually seriously considering to come along or to meet us somewhere in South America! My parents also contributed 10K HKD to our charity fund raising effort as an anchor investor.

Me: Talking about the charity you are trying to raise money for, what’s that about?

S: That’s also inspired by my other group of friends from London who climbed Kilimanjaro last year. Unlike us, they climbed with another objective – to fly a kite at the top of the mountain and make that the highest flying kite in Guinness Record! It also seemed like a great opportunity to associate with some fund raising. We regretted not doing something like that last time, so wanted to do something meaningful this time.

J: Again, this kind of charity work is something I’ve wanted to do for a long long time. Finally the opportunity comes. (Stanley: so I’m like an angel granting all your wishes!) I’ve been to Africa twice and seen some kids in dying need of help. My first fund raising experience was for my trip to Ethiopia with Deutsche Bank, who was sponsoring a local medical centre there, I raised GBP 1,500 for a Cancer Charity back then. My own experience made me think that charity for children is the most meaningful. It made me realize how lucky we are, and that we are not any different from those children apart from having been fortunate enough to be born to different families. Furthermore, there’s not nearly enough awareness in Asia compared to the UK and other western countries. Read our full story onhttp://www.simplygiving.com/sawonders

Me: Last question from me, what advice do you have for fellow bankers who are thinking about doing the same thing?

S: If you are thinking about it, just do it, you won’t regret it. My short trip to Guilin last week has already turned out to be very rewarding, I met a hostel owner who cycled around China and now running a top rated (by tripadvisor) hostel in Yanghsuo. I never meet people like that in Hong Kong. Being an I-banker in HK makes you think there are only two options in life, IB or PE. That’s a very narrow view of the world.

J: This kind of experience is not always available when you want it, money maybe, not experiences. Sometimes it’s like getting stuck in a vacuum, the more you stay there, the more you are stuck. Once you are married with kids, it’s never going to be the same again, so seize the moment!

Me: Thank you so much guys. All the best for the next 6 months!

As I waved Janet and Stanley off to their Spanish lesson (very good idea given their destinations), I thought of two things.

First, taking a sabbatical should be the easiest thing in the world to do! Yet it is the hardest in a social environment like China and Hong Kong. Are we already too trapped in a cage made of money, family, status, that we have lost ourselves? It is scary to think that, we might already have been tamed, and are now sitting comfortably in this cage, with the key to freedom in our hand and not willing to use it. Stanley’s dad is right, getting out of your comfort zone is good.

Second, if you are working as a banker in Hong Kong, then you have been on the receiving end of good fortune, but how many of us have been on the giving end?

Why give? Because you can.

<The End>

Written at Holy Brown on 25 August 2011, on behalf of www.life-after-banking.com. All Rights Reserved.

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