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Why I chose to become a ‘time billionaire’

Growing up in a middle-class family where good grades took precedence, Swanand Kelkar had a ‘later’ box that kept bulging. This year, he decided that ‘later’ was now

Swanand Kelkar says an year-long sabbatical is the best of both worlds for him.
Swanand Kelkar says an year-long sabbatical is the best of both worlds for him.

No! It didn’t hit me in a bathtub. The idea of a sabbatical had been simmering in my head ever since I read about the concept of “time billionaire". The word billionaire is defined as owning and having control over a billion monetary units but if you can reach a stage where you own and control 100% of your time, you would still be a billionaire—but in a different dimension. You would be a time billionaire. That set me working in two directions; towards getting my finances in a place where, at least for a while, I could afford to have no external claims on my time, and figuring out what I would do with that time, if and when I became a time billionaire.

I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have achieved the former by the age of 40 and I think two factors helped there. Not having children, at least in this limited context, is an advantage, and owning a loan-free house, although it makes no sense in a spreadsheet, put my mind at ease. The second part of the exercise was much harder. One morning I took a blank sheet of paper and started writing things I would do if I had 100% control over time. I decided that unlike the hobbies section of a curriculum vitae, I would not have generic platitudes like “reading books" or “listening to music". The other filter I employed was if that thing meant so much to me, there would be some evidence that I have dabbled in it at some point in my life. I had to show myself that evidence. This was to weed out wannabe or just cool-sounding things like learning to play the guitar. I haven’t strummed a single chord in my life. Nor have I written a single line of code, which is why learning the coding language PYTHON was also struck off the list.

Around this time, I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal about a guy called Max Deutsch who taught himself chess for a month and played a match against World No.1 Magnus Carlsen at the end of that month. Digging a bit, I found that Deutsch had set out 12 really difficult tasks for himself to achieve in a month each and although my raison d’être was different, I thought I had hit upon a good structure to do things that I always wanted to. I would immerse myself in one activity for a month, ideally under the watchful eye of an accomplished guru, and at the end of the month have some sort of measure of how well I had done versus my 30-day-younger self.

Many of the 12 activities on my list can be bucketed as things that I have engaged with in the past and, for reasons that most working professionals are familiar with, couldn’t really pursue. Growing up in a typical middle-class Marathi family, studies and good grades took precedence over everything else. Any interest that deviated from that single-minded pursuit was relegated to an ambiguous box called LATER. School, college, professional degrees, job, marriage, car, house, EMI—the treadmill grew faster and the LATER box kept bulging. I felt like I had two options—quietly abandon the orphaned box by the roadside and breathlessly continue on the treadmill or decide LATER is NOW.

The hardest part was asking for time off at work, as a sabbatical isn’t a common thing, at least in India, and here I am grateful to my boss and employer, Morgan Stanley, for indulging me. Had they flatly refused, that would have been the end of it, or had they asked me to quit and do whatever I wanted to, I don’t think I would have done it. An year-long sabbatical was the best of both worlds for me; I got to do things I always wanted to while retaining my job. To be sure, I really love what I do, which is equity investing. So this isn’t coming from a place of boredom or frustration with what I am doing but more from the aching realization that there is a much bigger world out there, both literally and figuratively, which should be explored, at least a bit. The prospect that I would be welcomed home after my explorations was comforting. The other important stakeholder I must thank (see, I still can’t get rid of corporate lingo) is the missus. She was supportive of this endeavour from the minute I broached the subject and is equally, if not more, excited about it. Had there been even a hint of doubt in her mind, this would have been a non-starter.

Here’s the long and short of it—starting mid-February I am going to spend a month each doing 12 different things. To start with, I am going to Madurai to do a 28-day yoga teachers’ training course at the Sivananda Ashram. I have done yoga for many years now without having been able to establish a serious routine. In fact, I did a short 21-day course way back in 2002. I want to reconnect with the practice and hopefully integrate it into my daily schedule for good. At the end of it, I am hoping to become a certified yoga teacher who can teach anywhere in the world, although I do not intend to.

I have received lots of questions from lots of people ever since I announced this. I keep saying that I feel equal parts scared and excited about the journey ahead and have gotten a whole range of reactions—starting from “why on earth would anyone want to go through this stupidity" to “I am so jealous because I want to but can’t". The older generation is especially worried and I need to reassure them that I have thought this through. The millennials totally get it and despite being only a year into their jobs, are itching to do this. I have to tell them to think it through. I am also asked if this is some sort of an inward journey of self-discovery or an attempt to address some burning existential questions. I must confess that I really don’t have any such lofty goal. In my mind, this is a practitioner’s approach of actually doing things one always wanted to and although that isn’t the objective, if in the process I do stumble upon insights about myself or life in general, those would be welcomed with open arms. I am also not thinking too much about what changes I would see in myself or around me by February 2021 but rather, am focusing on the next 24 hours of executing what I have planned.

Over the past year that this idea has been cooking in my head, I have had many moments of self-doubt and a multitude of “what-ifs". In those moments, I have turned to the famous former ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky for inspiration: “You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take." These are 12 shots I think I have earned and can’t wait to take.

Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.

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