I handed in my resignation letter the first week of 2008, just as the early birth pangs of the Great Recession were being felt. A year later, not much had gone as planned. I had quit my job to buy a cafe in Santa Barbara, California, where we were living, but after months of negotiations, the cafe was sold to a different buyer.
I didn’t have a backup plan in the event the cafe didn’t work out. I scrambled and began trying to build a consulting business. In six months, we were out of money and for a few months my in-laws kept us afloat. Within about eight months, though, things were coming together and I was making pretty good money as a consultant.
Because I didn’t need to go to an office everyday — I worked with a phone and a laptop and hopped on a plane a few times a month — my wife and I decided to take advantage of our freedom. I was on a chairlift in Lake Tahoe at Heavenly Mountain the week of Christmas 2008 when the idea occurred to me. We would rent out our house and travel. When I get an idea that really captivates me, I move fast. Just after Christmas I began advertising that our house was available for lease. Within a few days we had a signed lease from ideal renters. In February of 2009, just a little more than a year after I had quit my job, we packed up our car and our 15-month-old son Jackson to depart on a six month road trip.
Driving north from Santa Barbara, we planned to spend three weeks in Lake Tahoe before journeying eastward across the United States to Washington, D.C. Once we reached the East Coast, we’d move westward again and eventually return to Santa Barbara.
I believe a warning is in order:
If you are considering a “sabbatical” from life as you’ve lived it, know that sometimes sabbaticals have a way of turning into a lifestyle. Living epicly is like crack. Once you get a taste you can’t stop; you just have to figure out a way to keep it going.
When we departed on that road trip we viewed the next six months as an interlude in our life. I would continue working but work was less important than the adventure. Once our journey was complete we would return to Santa Barbara and buckle down, live respectable lives, send our kids to the right schools, serve on the right boards and live happily ever after.
At the end of six months on the road we returned home to Santa Barbara. Another six months later, I announced I was a candidate for United States Congress.
Two months later, with my wife and now two kids, I moved into my in-laws garage.
Talk about a whirlwind.
It was a very embarrassing time for me personally and I retreated from many relationships. All the people who told me I was crazy when I’d quit my job were being proven right.
I was twenty-one years old when I graduated from college and moved to California where I took a job I’d been groomed for at the Reagan Ranch, the home of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. The ranch was being preserved in the tradition of other presidential homes like George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Over the years I worked with men and women who’d served at the highest levels of government. I exchanged Christmas cards with people like former United States Attorney General Ed Meese.
By the time I was twenty-six years old, I was the deputy director the Reagan Ranch. I had raised millions and millions of dollars from philanthropists to preserve the former president’s home and build the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara. Saying things like, “I’d like you to consider a gift of one million dollars,” while sipping a Grey Goose martini was not uncommon for me. I visited donors on their yachts, flew on their planes and often found myself staying at some of the most luxurious hotels in the United States.
Jerold Panas, one of the most renowned fundraisers of our time, referred to me as a star. I could pick up the phone and call a United States Senator or a Fortune 500 CEO and they’d take my call.
I worked with a lot of rich, famous and powerful people. The first time I heard the name Sarah Palin was when she had just taken office as Governor of Alaska in 2006. At that time I was told she would likely be the next Republican Vice Presidential candidate, more than two years before the rest of world was introduced to her.
When I ran for Congress, I was asked in an interview what member of Congress past or present I most admired. I answered Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills Quarterback turned politician. After serving in Congress, Jack Kemp went on to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Administration of the first President Bush and would later be a Republican Vice Presidential candidate. When I gave the answer Jack Kemp, it wasn’t just because of what I’d read about the guy; it was personal experience from the time we spent together.
My wife and I had a great life. When I say that I had an “enviable” job or that I made “good” money, I don’t want you to just think I had a good corporate job with anonymity. I was kind of a “big deal.” Though I had given up my job at the Reagan Ranch, as a consultant I ran in the same circles. As a congressional candidate I did as well. Then in what seems like the blink of an eye I was living in my in-laws garage.
I had bet it all on winning my election. I cashed out my retirement for living expenses so I could be a full-time candidate, and then as a full-time candidate completely stopped my consulting work. If anyone is looking for a manual on how to go from rising political star to living in your in-laws garage, I can write it.
When we moved into my in-laws garage we had little idea what we wanted in life. We knew we didn’t want to live in the garage forever, but still, we didn’t really know what we wanted long-term.
When we moved into the garage, my in-laws gave me more than a roof over my family’s head. They gave me time.
Let me tell you what I did with that time.
I slept in.
I think it’s important I establish some trust with you up front. While it may sound good to say that after my first night of sleep in the garage I got up at 5:00 in the morning and began working on a plan, it would not be true. For the first few weeks I slept. I think I was still recovering from the emotion of my election and trying to let it sink in that I actually was living in my in-laws garage.
My daughter, who was not yet one year old when we moved in, slept in a crib just a few feet away from me. She’d wake up in the morning and wait for me to stir. Each morning, when I finally sat up and put my feet on the floor, she would clap. I remember thinking at the time, “I have no money and I live in my in-laws garage, but my daughter still claps for me when I get out of bed in the morning.”
My son was now three years old, and other than the first two months of his life, as long as he had been alive, I had been around. I had been working but I did not get up and go to a job all day, five or six days a week. I was thankful for the extent to which I was able to be present the first three years of his life. Living in that garage, I began to think about how I could continue to be present every day in my kids’ lives. I thought about going back to the grind and thought about what I would miss. Not only would I not be present for my daughter the way I had been for my son, but I would not be present for either of them moving forward.
I wanted to be both a full-time bread winner and a full-time dad. I didn’t know how to do it yet, but I was starting to sense that getting a job wasn’t the answer.
After five months in the garage we moved to Tahoe during the winter of 2010-11. My wife’s grandfather had a cabin we could stay in while we continued to figure out life and build our income again, which we were clumsily doing. More importantly, we were learning.
That winter was such a special time for our family. We had our own space again, even if it was borrowed, and we enjoyed family meals with just the four of us. At night, after the kids went to bed, Monica and I would talk about our dreams. We talked about what it would take for us to be able to have two homes — one in Santa Barbara and one in Tahoe. Remember, at that time we were still broke. We were living off the charity of others. A home in Santa Barbara and a home in Tahoe did not feel out of reach, though. We just had to decide what we really wanted, and then go for it.
We had no idea at the time what a life-altering exercise we were going through. We re-thought everything and came up with new answers to everything. We were on the verge of re-inventing our lives.
This book is about that process.
We didn’t know it then, but those conversations were about exiting the rat race, living like millionaires, and being happy, now. We also sensed that we couldn’t just go off the old playbook. We couldn’t do what our parents generation had done because the world had changed.
In this book you’ll find talk about loneliness, depression and failure. This book is about how hard times affect relationships. It’s about marriage, kids, vacuuming and sex. It’s about losing everything and then figuring out how to rebuild your life on the foundation of the things you value most.
I also happen to think it’s a darn good story, one of epic proportions, just like yours can be.