Four years ago, I decided to take off 2020 as a sabbatical year to travel the world.
We moved out of our house at the end of January, and left the city I’d lived in for 22 years. Without a house or car, we set off to see the world with nothing but a backpack.
Starting in San Diego, our plan was to venture up the west coast—all the way to Vancouver, Canada. From there, we’d cross the United States, visiting lots of cities along the way, to end up living in New York City for a month.
Next, we’d go to Europe and spend a few months exploring. Australia and New Zealand were also high on our list of places to visit.
After spending the past year helping my wife battle some life-threatening health issues—not to mention the fact that I was already feeling burned out from many years of workaholism—to say I was eager to hit the road and breathe in the fresh air of new adventures is an understatement.
I was ready for a sabbatical.
We made it to San Diego the first week of February, and within a month, we got to visit Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland.
In each city, we hosted a meetup and got to hang out with awesome people.
But by the time we got to Seattle in early March, it was clear we’d no longer be hosting any meetups. The city had the very first COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and was the first to begin placing restrictions on gatherings.
Over the next few days, we realized we’d also no longer be leaving the country to go to Vancouver. This was especially disappointing to me because Vancouver was the first city we would have visited that was new to me. Every other city up to that point was one I’d already visited. It felt like Vancouver was when the true adventure would have started.
We had originally planned to start our sabbatical year on the other side of the world, in Australia. But Laci’s health was still recovering from last year, and we decided to start things off a bit slower and begin in America.
In hindsight, that ended up being a good decision (for reasons we couldn’t have known at the time).
We canceled all of our upcoming flights, buses, and trains. Utilizing any form of public transportation didn’t seem like a good idea at the time.
We didn’t know what we were going to do.
It’s one thing if you’re on a trip and your vacation gets canceled: it’s disappointing, but you simply return home.
But we didn’t have a home to return to.
We were effectively homeless.
We had an AirBnb already booked in Seattle, so we simply stayed put, ordered groceries to be delivered, and my wife and I spent a lot of time during those weeks embroidering and playing Nintendo Switch, respectively.
Biding our time, we extended our stay in Seattle.
As the days remaining at our AirBnb dwindled, we needed to figure out what we’d do next. We hadn’t planned on being in Seattle for more than a couple weeks. Yet, here we were over a month later.
Seattle is a nice place to visit, but the cold, gray, and rainy weather was starting to have a negative effect on Laci’s mental health. She wanted to be anywhere else.
I had been training for a marathon, and was going on socially-distant runs in the cold rain, so I certainly didn’t mind the idea of changing the scenery either.
With flights, and other various forms of public transportation out of the question, where could we even go?
Laci’s idea was for us to rent a car and make the 7.5 hour drive to Boise, Idaho. While much longer than a flight, we’d be able to remain socially distant.
We had visited Boise a couple times before (for a conference) and really liked it. Compared to Seattle, the weather forecasts looked like a dream.
It was settled, then. We would drive to Boise.
The car rental company sent two employees, driving two cars, to our AirBnb; one to leave with us and the other for the two of them to drive back. Customers weren’t allowed at the office, but this ended up being way more convenient for us anyway.
Masks were worn, surfaces wiped down, hand sanitizer used, and social distancing practiced. Before we knew it, we were on the road.
It felt incredibly freeing to drive on the open road. We’d hardly interacted with any other humans in the past month—let alone gone into any buildings or used public transportation. Even our groceries were dropped off at our door with no contact.
Yet, somehow, we couldn’t help but feel like we were doing something bad.
There was a lot of shaming going around on social media at the time. The notion of travel for any reason was taboo, to say the least. It wasn’t a good time to be a nomad. But it’s not like we could have known there’d be a pandemic when we began planning this nomadic travel year 4 years ago.
If you travel somewhere far away, and you have a bad time, all you want to do is go home. Home is where you’re protected. Home is where you’ll find your own bed and pillow. Everything is familiar and safe.
Because the pandemic hit while we were traveling, this created complicated feelings. There was this overwhelming sense of wanting to return home, because the pandemic experience seemed inextricably linked to our sabbatical. If we simply ended the sabbatical and returned home, things would go back to normal, right?
Of course, the rational side of our brains knew this wasn’t true, but two things were still hard to acknowledge: 1) The pandemic is everywhere. Nowhere is safe. 2) You have no home to return to.
I’d been documenting our sabbatical journey thus far, but when we arrived at our Boise AirBnB, I didn’t want to share. I felt scared to mention online that we’d traveled at all—even though we took great measures to do so responsibly. I imagined people calling us out for traveling across state lines during a pandemic. I just felt exhausted and didn’t want to bother with tedious explanations about the great lengths to which we went to do this safely, or why the weather was so important for my wife’s mental health, or that complicated nature of being “homeless” in the middle of a pandemic makes things tricky.
Our first AirBnb was a two-week stay not far from the green belt near downtown Boise. Every day, I went on a run along the water—sometimes 5 or 6 miles, other times 10, 12, or 15 miles. It was beautiful. Having lived in the very brown, hot, and humid city of San Antonio, Texas most of my life, I’m still hardly able to comprehend the crispness of the air and the beauty of the purple mountain range visible from nearly anywhere you walk.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize I didn’t have to limit myself to looking at beautiful landscapes only on my desktop background.
My brain still has a hard time computing the mountains are not a virtual wallpaper of some kind.
It came as no surprise when the marathon for which I’d signed up officially announced its cancellation.
But I continued running. Up until this year, running for me was somewhat of a masochistic practice—the Texas heat (especially during the summer, but even throughout the year) felt like it was beating you into the ground with a baseball bat. I thought that kind of discomfort was just what running always was.
Imagine my delight to experience running in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Boise! It was heaven. I understood now how one could actually consider running an enjoyable hobby.
Our next AirBnb was a house in Meridian, Idaho, (essentially, the suburbs). We booked our stay for a month still uncertain as to what our long term plans would be. We would later end up extending our stay another month in the same house.
I decided to run the marathon on my own. I would cover the 26.2 miles self-supported.
There were no pacers.
There were no crowds.
There were no tables with drinks.
There was no fancy finish line with everyone waiting.
It was just me and the miles. I wore a running vest to carry multiple water bottles. It’s a considerable amount of extra weight.
I felt as prepared as I could be, but I was about to discover a whole new level of pain.
- First 7 miles: Easy 😃
- Miles 8–12: Moderate 😳
- Miles 13–19: Hard 😣
- Miles 20–22: Agonizing 🥵
- Miles 23–26.2: Pure Pain ☠️
Running a marathon in the suburbs meant a lot of sidewalks. If you run, you know just how brutal concrete is on your feet.
Every step after mile 22 was pain. I had to stop a few times. All I wanted to do was quit, but I knew I’d never forgive myself if I did.
Somehow, I finished and managed to take a photo that didn’t look like I was hurting as much as I was.
“I’m never doing this again,” I thought, more than once during the run.
But I know myself too well: this wouldn’t be my last marathon.
Over the course of the 3 months we stayed in Idaho, two major things happened:
- I started a media company, seanwes media, with a single, flagship service: Daily Content Machine. “We turn your weekly show into daily content.”
- We decided to move to Boise.
seanwes media is the services arm of our business. I’d been dreaming it up since 2015. In fact, I had planned to launch our services business by the end of 2019 so it would run during my 2020 sabbatical year, but because of my wife’s health complications, we weren’t quite able to finish. We decided to wait until 2021, upon my return from sabbatical, to launch.
I spent all of 2019 training Dan on my team to run the business during my sabbatical year. We planned out all of the quarterly promotions for 2020, and he was prepared to run them all.
Dan turned on one of the our key promotions for 2020 at the beginning of March—before anyone in the U.S. was even aware of the impending pandemic. We were relying significantly on this particular campaign for the year’s revenue.
As luck would have it, the promotion ended up concluding on the exact day the U.S. realized the pandemic was a huge problem and everyone started freaking out. While sales of digital would later bounce to record highs in the weeks and months to come, on this particular day, spending took a nose dive with everyone clenching tightly to their wallets.
The campaign performed 14% as well as it did last year. Which is to say it was a catastrophic failure. The problem was further compounded by record high cancellations of memberships—drying up the subscription revenue that was keeping our business afloat.
We had carefully prepared for my sabbatical years in advance. In a pandemic-free world, our plans would have easily carried us through 2020 to 2021 when I’d return from sabbatical. But we were no longer living in a pandemic-free world.
We needed to pivot.
It was time, I decided, to launch seanwes media—ahead of schedule.
Fortunately, because we’d intended to launch the Daily Content Machine last year, a lot of the initial work was already done. There were plenty of logistical details to figure out, but we more or less just had to turn it on.
Before I could even start to promote the service in any kind of real way, we were already at capacity. Without even trying to get clients, we had more than we could handle. This was a very good problem to have.
In fact, I had to put a freeze on new clients so we could make sure things ran smoothly and we were able to take good care of our current clients before scaling.
“Hang on a minute though, Sean. You’re now working on sabbatical?”
“Doesn’t that mean your sabbatical is over?”
I’m still on sabbatical through the end of 2020. The nomadic travel aspect of our sabbatical is over due to the pandemic.
However, I’m still abiding by my one, key sabbatical rule: no obligations.
This means I am free to do whatever I want to do. I can choose to do anything in the moment. If I want to spend the day running, reading, writing, or watching documentaries, I can.
How To Write pic.twitter.com/QufG3NjjXw
— Sean McCabe (@seanwes) June 14, 2020
It even means I can do things that look like “work” if I want to—so long as I’m choosing to do it, and I’m not obligated to do it.
It’s not the activity itself that makes something “work”. It’s a matter of whether you’re obligated to do it.
Choosing to write, for instance, gives me energy.
Being obligated to write takes my energy.
This leaves me free to work on the business whenever I want. The important part is that everything runs without me if I don’t feel like working—which it does.
In a sense, starting a business on sabbatical has been incredible. I work ON the business instead of IN the business, and I only work on it when I feel like it. In this sense, it gives me energy! It also ensures I create an asset that generates value in my absence.
Though the year had a rough start financially, we’re now on track to have an even better year than anticipated.
I’ll talk more about seanwes media and the Daily Content Machine some other time (there’s a lot to share), but if you’re interested in learning more about the service, go watch the video overview I have at seanwesmedia.com.
There wasn’t much to do during a pandemic while on a sabbatical year outside of running, working on a new business, watching tv shows, eating ice cream, and sleeping. It was a little boring, but life was more or less pretty chill.
Come to think of it, life was not unlike what it was before we moved out of our house and decided to travel the world on sabbatical with nothing but our backpacks…
…only now, we didn’t have our own pillows, furniture, kitchenware, or high speed internet.
It didn’t look like world travel would return to anything like what it once was any time soon, so if we were just going to sit in a house and let the time pass for months on end, why not sit in our own house instead of an AirBnb?
We started looking for a place to rent in Boise.
One of the good options we found unfortunately had terrible internet. After running my own business for 14 years, and working from a home office, I vowed the next house I moved into was going to have fiber internet.
And boy am I glad I stuck to that decision.
We found an incredible place that was better than the first in every way while also having fiber internet.
As a content creator, I cannot tell you how happy this makes me. When working with large video files, the upload speed is critical. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
While we sold most of our belongings, we did have a few items in storage back in Texas. Most of that was comprised of my studio gear and a few large pieces of furniture. I’m really glad we kept them.
We used a moving pod service to transport our belongings up to Idaho.
Since we didn’t have much stuff, moving in was a breeze. It only took a few hours for the movers to unload everything, and within 1.5 days, almost everything was out of boxes and set up.
We don’t have very much, but what we do have is nice and simple. The house feels cozy. I can’t emphasize how big of a difference it makes to have even the most basic things such as your own bed and pillow to sleep on (as opposed to living in AirBnbs).
My home office/studio is fairly complicated. From my quad monitor display, to the rack mount, to the cameras and lights, it usually takes me about two weeks to fully set up whenever we move into a new place. But I really enjoy the process.
It’s been a really fun sabbatical project for me to nerd out about setting up my office again. Everything from spending 3 days on the cable management to setting up motion sensors, smart devices, and NFC-triggered HomeKit scenes. It’s also been a blast to design the space for filming and splash some color on the walls with my LED lights.
I’ve been documenting my studio rebuild over on my Instagram story. Follow along in real time @seanwes. If you missed any of the stories, don’t worry. You can view the “2020 Studio” highlight on my profile.
I was busy running some cables in the office upstairs when I heard Laci yell.
Did I imagine that?
Laci yelled again. It sounded like pain.
I rushed downstairs to find her holding her leg in agony.
She had stood up too fast from sitting on the couch and got dizzy. She tried to grab the wall for support, ended up rolling her ankle, and when all of her weight came down onto it, she heard a snap.
Paramedics came and took her to hospital. They wouldn’t let me ride with them because the hospital was not admitting anyone but patients due to the pandemic.
We learned she’d broken her ankle in 3 places, and it would require surgery.
They put her under to splint it and sent her home that night.
Remember also: we don’t have a car anymore. We actually weren’t planning on getting a car again anytime soon either given that we moved downtown where everything we need is within walking distance.
Fortunately, a friend who lives here was able to pick Laci up from the hospital. They’ve also generously lent us their car to take her to appointments.
A few days later, I drove her to surgery. That was last week as of the time I’m writing this.
The surgery was successful. Laci now has a plate and eight screws in her leg. She’s taking it easy and keeping her leg elevated. About a week later she got a boot. Recovery will take several months and involve physical therapy.
Fortunately, my sister was able fly up and help us out, which has been amazing. It’s crazy how much the loss of one leg affects everything. I mean, she can’t carry a glass of water.
Having extra help is makes a big difference.
So there you have it! You’re now caught up in real time with our sabbatical adventures.
I’ve had a number of people ask if I’ve been disappointed or depressed to have this year of travel—for which I’ve been planning 4 years—dashed by the pandemic.
Honestly, no. I haven’t been sad or depressed because of the perspective I’d gained from my wife’s health scare last year. We weren’t sure if she was going to make it.
Actually, let me put it more strongly: there was a time where I felt convinced her life was over.
But she did get the help she needed, and she did recover. Every day, I pinch myself. I can hardly believe she’s still alive. I’m grateful for every day she’s here and that we get to be together.
We have everything we need, and we’ve discovered that’s a lot less than you think. It really does fit in a backpack. Truth be told, we overpacked.
All of this “traveling the world” stuff was just a bonus. It was just a gift.
Sure, we only got to do it pandemic-free for one month. But I feel grateful. Any amount of travel we got to do this year was gravy on top of the gift of having your loved ones alive and healthy. It didn’t feel like something was taken away from me.
I just feel gratitude.