Back to Plato’s Cave

Last Friday, September 14th, I went to sleep under this sunset on Venice Laguna:

Reflecting on the fact my paternity leave is coming to its natural end.

The day after, Saturday September 15th, I woke up early in my cheap, awesome, and oversize two-story ten-beds bungalow in Villaggio San Paolo, close to Venice. A relaxing place for a family. I packed our stuff, loaded the car, and went for a last swim in the Adriatic sea before the departure.

It’s been two amazing weeks in nice company, amazing food and weather, relaxing and cheap accommodation in low season. The two final weeks of my ten weeks paid paternity leave at Hooli.

I spent the entire Saturday traveling. First, from Jesolo to Milan by car – 4 hours, thanks to a car accident that slowed us down by more than an hour. After a quick lunch break at the in law’s house, I left Italy (alone, Baby and Mrs will join me mid week) to take a couple of trains to German Switzerland – another 5 hours on the road.

I arrived at home late in the evening with a strange mix of feelings. Relaxed, but scared. Calm, but disturbed. Anyway, I was tired enough that it took me less than an hour to drop dead and sleep a long dreamless night.

The day after, Sunday September 16th, I woke up very early. The weather is still nice in Switzerland, summer is not over yet. It’s an amazing day! But it’s last one of my paternity leave. It’s the 74th consecutive day off. And I’m alone at home.

Yum… 15 EUR for a cappuccino, what a steal!

In last two weeks I haven’t felt very productive, except few mails to readers and an Italian newspaper interview (where they published something like 10% of what I sent to them).

But that’s ok. I was “on vacation” from my longer vacation, relaxing at the beach and sipping a cup of coffee in Venice.

But no, it doesn’t feel ok today. And I don’t only mean the price of beverages in our beloved Venice (which of course I didn’t drink).

I’m eager to work!

Wait, before you judge: I’m eager to work, but I’m scared of coming back to work. I feel the desire to be productive, but I’m not sure I want to be productive in the way I’m supposed (asked? Demanded?) to be.

Ivan “The Zar” Zaytsev – A modern poet

The day goes by in a heartbeat.

It’s Sunday evening, I’m doing what any responsible person would do the day before coming back to work after 74 days off: eating junk food and drinking a beer while watching Italian Volleyball team rocking in the World Championship. 

Meanwhile, my backpack is still packed and the apartment a mess.

That’s when a very close friend and colleague texted me:

Hey RIP, are you finally back?

I replied probably sadder than I wanted: “Yeah, vacation is over 🙁 paternity leave is over 🙁 Coming to Hooli tomorrow 🙁

“Ha ha, welcome to the real world!

To his defense: we’re both Italians and we joke a lot above the line of what is considered politically correct these days (i.e. we allow ourselves to talk about things other than the weather or the traffic). He didn’t mean to be offensive or disrespectful. He really is a very close friend. We’ve been to Maldives and Mexico together. He’s part of the Italian Hooli investing club and, finally, one of my wedding witnesses.

But his joke hurt me a bit this time.

The real word.

Is this the real world?

The one where I sit most of my time at a desk?

Doing things I wouldn’t do if I hadn’t to?

In exchange for money amounts that I’m not sure I actually need?

Is the blue pill the real world?

Or has your/our view of the real world been re-positioned, re-centered around some common misconception, and you stopped questioning and follow the herd?

All the people who challenged it in the past are the people we admire today. Still, when one does challenge it, one is ostracized and ridiculed.

The fathers of modern capitalism predicted that today we should all be working 15-20 hours per week, since several decades. Why the hell should I feel wrong while I question the system and the society?

The Plato’s Cave is a pretty popular metaphor about truth and perceived truth. Slaves in the Plato’s Cave are enchained and can only see their own shadow and those of others.

For them, the world is bidimensional. They don’t challenge their reality. One day a slave is freed and leaves the cave. Mind that he didn’t feel the desire to escape, he didn’t know of a different life while enchained. He now sees the other prisoners, the fire, the cave itself, the sun… the world for what it is: a completely different reality!

After the initial emotional shock – and the denial of the new truth at first – he realizes that the new life is superior in quality. He then goes back into the cave to free the others, to tell them that they were all wrong all the time. But once back in the cave, with his sight declined in underground environment due to sunlight exposure, the other prisoners didn’t believe the word of a weak and spoiled outcast. They preferred the certainty of the cave.

Here an animated video, narrated by Orson Welles.

For the sake of completeness, it’s arrogant to define “outside the cave” the “true reality”. It might just be a bigger cave. For sure there are truths beyond our imagination. Realizing that the cave is not the absolute truth means acknowledging you still know almost nothing, just a little more than what you knew before.

A similar allegory can be found in Flatland, a story of a two dimensional world interacting with a three dimensional “alien”. Or The Matrix. Or This is Water.

On Monday September 17th I came back to my Hooli office. The weather was nice, my colleagues were nice, everybody greeted me and asked questions. My boss told me: “RIP, welcome back! Take your time, read your emails, don’t stress yourself out! I’m happy to have you back!

I’m back working 50% for two extra weeks. It’s called “ramp-back time” and it’s meant to ease your coming back after a long sabbatical. Everything is perfect! So far it’s being the most comfortable after-sabbatical experience one could ever have. I work for the best company in the world.

My Plato’s cave is very comfortable. It has nice free food and ping pong (two dimensional?) tables!

The real word… I’ve been thinking about my friend’s words for the entire day. I still do.

Which one is the real word? Is this one where I’m sitting at a desk reading almost nonsense stuff? Is this one the real world?

It looks strange because in the last two and half months I’ve experienced a different reality. True reality. Or at least that’s what it felt to my body. My stress level has never been so low. I walk flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. I talk to people and laugh. I look for authenticity and connectedness. I’m not prepared to re-activate the bullshit/diplomacy shield.

While on paternity leave, I’ve been spending my time in a way that I felt much more productive then I could be here at my desk. I’ve been immerse in natural environments that looked pretty real. How come (and since when) did we call this other one the real world? And for how long will we keep doing this?

I know my body will adapt back to an inferior state. I know my mind will settle down on a survival mode. I perfectly know what’s the price of this comfort zone.

But I have been outside the Plato’s Cave so many times in the last 10 years, and this time for so long that I can identify long lasting effects. Longer than those happening after a short-term vacation. I have no idea how I will handle normal vacations from now on. Vacations are useless. One week, two weeks or even 3-4 weeks vacations are useless, a placebo. You don’t get out of your default behavior. You only have the perception of relax. It’s like having your head under water all the time, and from time to time you’re allowed to just take a single deep breath before having your head under water again.

A seventy-four days vacation is another thing. A different level. An awakening experience.

I strove to be ultra productive at the beginning of my mini sabbatical, setting unachievable goals, but as time went by I slew down, adapting to my body rhythms. At the end of it, I felt way more relaxed and productive at the same time.

So now I’m facing a greeter gradient when I compare before vs after. This state of mind is the new default behavior I would like to install. It’s just a matter of when.

Mind (again) that I’m saying this while I’m aware that I’m the luckiest guy on Earth, and that I work for the best company around. Still my heart is somewhere else. I found some clarity even though I didn’t finish my self-analysis. I actually realized that my self-analysis will never end: it just started and it will be my main occupation in one of the future stages of my life. Not during next one – I will still be productive in a traditional way, creating value and and producing goods after FI – but once productivity will become less appealing to me philosophy and self investigation will be my occupation. That would be my actual retirement.

Possibly, on the seaside, laying on a beach 🙂

A baby step for BabyRIP, a big step toward Financial independence!

19 comments

  1. Hi Mr. RIP,

    I feel your pain. I wish my company was so understanding and welcoming with people returning after a long break: most are overwhelmed by the amount of work to do from the moment they come back and one week after they’re overstressed again 😦 It’s as though they should “be punished” for having been able to enjoy time off while everyone else stayed in the office.

    Luckily in your case, you have a plan for the future. Knowing that you will retire in the near future gives you an approximate end date which should make the trasition easier. Or at least, I hope so for you! Keep writing articles in your blog, I enjoy reading them 🙂

      1. Let’s not forget that a work relationship involves two entities who freely agreed to work together.
        If they didn’t want you to take your time off or if they’re resentful for your taken freedom… they have the tools to break the relationship up.
        Same for you.

        Want to keep getting along together? No “punishment” allowed

    1. it’s a double edged sword though.
      in the past, I was able to revolutionize my life because I felt discomfortable enough – and I always landed on a better spot.
      I know, one should “move toward something” instead of “move away from something”, but that’s one of my shortcomings I’m working on.

  2. I’ve been on “vacation” for the last 2 or so years. Mrs W even longer (parental leave).
    It’s quite interesting, from a scientifical/psychologocal perspective what’s happening to me.
    When you don’t have to prepare to (ever) go back to a job, when you don’t HAVE to work for money many people would expect that you reached complete happiness and freedom.
    Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s a thing called parenting. Should I spend as much time as possible with the kids? Is that a good thing? How much time should I spend with the kids? How should I spend that time? Tricky questions. I’m not mastering the answers.
    What projects should I spend my time on? I have dozens of ideas (to make this world a better place…) that I want to implement but time is very very limited. Which one should I spend most of the time on? Am I spending enough time on the ones I feel strongly about, whould I refocus on the ones I have the talent AND the willingness to do? Confusing…
    Life beyond FI could be challenging.
    Having someting to retire INTO (project/hobby/mission etc) is key. Parenting is not enough of a “mission”.
    You’ll look back to this time and think: why did I not quit years earlier. That’s my guess 🙂

    1. Thanks Mr W for your first hand experience report 🙂 I know FI is not happiness, FI is freedom. Freedom is an enabler of happiness (but so is commitment, it’s complicated).
      What I seek is peace of mind and self actualization. The tool is authenticity. For which I need freedom.

  3. Hey. I haven’t even had the benefit of a sabbatical, but feeling the same pressures. At some point, the balance of additional security will tip over to the fear of wasting my remaining life. I’m now more cautious with the birth of my son and may be overly cautious.

    1. That’s probably true. Actually, at Hooli, is common to say that after a parental leave you’ll be glad to come back to work, cause you can have some rest!
      It’s assumed that spending time with kids is stressful and devastating for your sleeping pattern, but that’s definitely not my case. BabyRIP sleeps 10 hours straight and is very calm (for now).

  4. “Take your time, read your emails, don’t stress yourself out! I’m happy to have you back!“. This has to be the best boss ever. Maybe actually working for a such a great company is hurting you in a weird way. If you worked for a shitty company it would be much easier to decide to move on. But maybe it’s just the first days and then you’ll find yourself happy at work, who knows.

  5. Hi Mr.Rip,
    thank you for another in several aspects enlightening article. When we left our temporary cave in Milano today, we were wondering what kind of athletes were staying in our hotel. After reading your post and using the magical search power of the internet, I’m now pretty sure that these are the national volleyball teams of Russia and Finland.

  6. Hi Rip,
    Will you be interested on Reader’s Case Study ? this may provide analysis for your readers and help them gather your opinion on their situation.

    Regards,

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