JJ lives in Utah with his wife and four children, where they enjoy paddleboarding, hiking and skiing. His day job is at a big tech company in the heart of Silicon Slopes.
The company offers paid four-week sabbaticals to all of its employees when they complete five years of service. After reaching the milestone, JJ used the time for an adventurous family road trip in the USA.
In this interview, he talks about the benefits of the sabbatical scheme, the joy of exploring closer to home, the challenges of travelling with four kids, and the biggest life lessons from the experience.
JJ and his wife also run a travel blog called The Minivan Bucket List, all about their adventures road tripping around Utah and the West. You can follow him on Instagram: @jjs.bucketlist.
What exactly is your tech company job?
My role is in product marketing, which means I’m responsible for the whole process of bringing a product to market – the product’s messaging and positioning, identifying personas and target customers, the go-to-market strategy, the product launch, and ensuring that sales people and customers understand the benefits of the product.
I love it because it’s a very entrepreneurial role and it gives me the chance to interact with a lot of different functions across the business, from product management to sales and marketing to corporate strategy.
Has your company always offered paid sabbaticals?
I don’t know exactly when they started offering paid sabbaticals as a benefit but it was well before I joined the company. I was an MBA student when I received an offer and I remember being kind of blown away when I first heard about the possibility of getting a paid sabbatical.
“People love talking to each other about what they did on their sabbaticals, so it’s kind of a unifying shared experience.”
Tech companies are known for some pretty lavish perks, but I don’t recall other companies doing anything like it at the time. A few have caught on now, but I’m honestly surprised more companies don’t do it.
Even after working here for several years, I still see it as a differentiator when comes to competing for talent.
How does the sabbatical scheme work, and does it bring benefits to your workplace?
You become eligible for a four-week sabbatical after you complete five consecutive years of service to the company. You’re eligible starting on your fifth anniversary and you have up to two years after that to use it. If you don’t use it by your seventh anniversary, you lose benefit.
Then, at the ten-year mark, you’re eligible for a five-week sabbatical. And this is in addition to an unlimited PTO policy, so it isn’t just that the sabbatical is a great perk, it’s that the company has this culture that values balance and rest.
No one is expected to be answering emails or attending meetings or taking care of little things here and there while they’re out. Your teammates step up and fill in for you while you’re gone because they know you’re going to do the same for them when they’re gone. And people love talking to each other about what they did on their sabbaticals, so it’s kind of a unifying shared experience.
There are so many benefits that the sabbatical perk brings to the workplace. For one, it’s a great recruitment and retention tool. It’s pretty rare these days for people to last more than a few years at a company before moving on, but here it’s very uncommon for people to leave before they hit their five-year mark.
How did you plan for your four-week sabbatical?
The pandemic threw a big wrench in my sabbatical dreams, but it got to a point where I just really wanted the time off, regardless of the international travel situation.
When I first joined the company, I saw other people really go all out and do things like a spend a month in New Zealand or Hawaii. I always thought that would be incredible and had been saving money to do just that for a while. But one of the biggest lessons I learned in 2020 because of the pandemic was to better appreciate all the amazing things I have close to home.
“I started wondering what other adventures close to home I had been missing out on.”
After the first month of everything being closed down we were pretty desperate to get out of the house, so we decided to take a little socially distanced day trip out to the Bonneville Salt Flats. It was just a two-hour drive from my home in Utah, but I had never once been out there. And it was amazing!
First of all, there wasn’t another soul within miles (let alone six feet), and second of all, driving my minivan full of kids out onto the salt flats and flooring it just felt like such an adventure.
I started wondering what other adventures close to home I had been missing out on. I made myself a Utah bucket list, and eventually my wife and I started a blog called The Minivan Bucket List to document all our road trips.
Fast forward to 2021. When it came to take my sabbatical, we still entertained the idea of doing something crazy like spending a month in Hawaii. But in the end, we decided to keep going with this idea of finding adventures close to home.
So, I used my bucket list as a guide, and I plotted a course from Salt Lake City down through Arizona then over to California and back to Utah. I was able to check a bunch of stuff off the bucket list, such as taking my kids to Lake Powell, seeing Horseshoe Bend, going to Sedona, visiting a ghost town, and more.
My favourite thing we did was take the ferry from Newport Beach out to Catalina Island, which has this laid back Mediterranean vibe to it. It felt a bit like going to Italy without having to leave the country.
What were the biggest challenges of travelling with four children?
Traveling with kids can be hard. But being at home with kids can be hard, too. So why not travel anyway?
The biggest challenge is that you really have to let the kids dictate the pace of travel. Kids are unpredictable. You don’t know when they’re going to get hangry. You don’t know when they’re going to get so sick of driving that they melt down. But we’ve learned to embrace the slower pace.
A lot times it means a four-hour drive ends up taking six hours because we make an unplanned stop in some random small town to play at a park for a while. But if you learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, then traveling with kids is much more enjoyable.
How do you think your children benefited from the experience?
I think travelling in general has so many benefits for young kids, and this trip was no different.
It teaches them they can endure hard things and be resilient. It helps them bond with their family members. It exposes them to new places, diverse people, foods and cultures, and helps them understand there’s a much bigger world out there than just the one at home.
And you don’t need to go abroad to do that. We drove through Arizona and experienced the Navajo culture. We visited LA and ate Korean barbecue. We sailed to Catalina Island and met people on the ferry from South America.
My hope is that travelling teaches them to appreciate the diversity of our amazing planet!
What were the biggest life lessons you took away from it?
The first stop on my sabbatical trip was Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. Even though Horseshoe Bend has become one of those places on Instagram that’s really cliché to visit, I still wanted to see it for myself.
It was one of the things I was most excited to check off the bucket list. But after a long day in the car with kids (and multiple unplanned stops like I mentioned earlier), I was afraid we weren’t going to make it before dark.
Luckily, we made it just in time for sunset and walked up to the edge of the cliff right as the sun was going down. The Instagram photos don’t do the place justice at all. It really is spectacular to witness in person. And we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen!
“I came back from sabbatical feeling rested and more productive.”
Earlier on the drive we were talking about what brings you joy. So, at that point I turned to my wife and kids and said, “Guys, remember when you asked what brings me joy? This! Experiencing this with all of you.”
So, the biggest life lesson I took away from my sabbatical trip? Do more of what brings you joy!
Also, invest in a tripod and don’t trust strangers to take pictures of your family. They always turn out the blurriest in the most epic places.
Have any of your travel sabbatical experiences been helpful in your work since?
Definitely! The overall experience in general was immensely helpful. The biggest benefit is that I came back from sabbatical feeling rested and more productive.
In my case, I was eligible to take my sabbatical back in June 2020, but I didn’t want to travel back then because of the pandemic and the vaccine hadn’t been developed yet. But after spending nearly 18 months working from home and feeling pretty burned out from the stresses of the pandemic, I didn’t want to wait any longer.
After we got vaccinated and places opened back up, we hit the road. Taking a sabbatical this year was just what the doctor ordered. I took that time to really unwind, spend some quality time with my wife and kids, and I came back feeling much better and ready to get back to work.
Do you plan to travel more in future, and if so, how will you balance this with work?
I still plan to travel quite a bit, though nothing quite like this multi-week, multi-state road trip. We’ll continue to explore places in Utah we haven’t been and mainly just shorter weekend trips.
Our next bucket-list adventure we have planned is to try some glamping! I’ve never done it and there are some pretty cool-looking places nearby.
We plan on spending the night in a pioneer-style conestoga covered wagon near Capitol Reef National Park, then another night in an off-the-grid, solar-powered yurt in Goblin Valley State Park.
What advice would you give to someone who is planning a family sabbatical and wants to get the most out of it?
Do a bit of soul searching beforehand and ask yourself what most brings you joy. Then make yourself a bucket list of places and experiences that will do just that.
Once you’ve made your list, plot everything on a map (I use Google Maps ‘My Places’ feature), and figure out how you can check off as many as you can on one trip. That will ensure that your sabbatical is an experience like no other!
You can visit our site to download free bucket lists for Utah, Arizona, and California if you need some inspiration to get started.
Inspired by JJ’s story? There are more tales of sabbaticals and career break adventure in our interview series. You can also plan your time off with our career break travel guide.
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