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My Secret to Success? An Island in the Arctic

Here's how spending a year on a tiny Norwegian island helped one developer forge a whole new career.
The view from Chen's house.
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Many start-ups pass through highs and lows, a pivot, or an accelerator perhaps.

Winston Chen took a more unusual path. 

Chen had been a CTO in Boston, where he had two kids and a bunch of start-up ideas circling around in his head. It was a good life, up until he watched a TED Talk with Stefan Sagmeister. In it, the designer spoke about his year-long sabbatical in Indonesia.

"It was an irresistible idea," Chen recalls of the speech. "Ever since I saw that, I wanted to do it."

Friends of his Norwegian wife told Chen about Rodoy, a scenic Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle that's home to 180 or so souls. 

Within three weeks, the Chen family had decided on a year-long stay on the island. It was "one of those let's jump before there's water in the pool" kind of decisions, Chen admits, but despite some last-minute cold feet, he got on the plane.

"I didn't think of it as a sabbatical, because a sabbatical has a connotation that you go away and you're going to come back and do the same thing," he says. "I really thought of it as a retirement year," in which he'd sort through old notes, dig through ideas, and do plenty of hiking and fishing.

Creating an App 

Things turned out a bit differently.

As the days grew colder and shorter, Chen sought ways to pass the hours indoors. A developer by trade, he started tinkering with ideas, becoming particularly drawn to a text-to-speech app. 

The project evolved into the Voice Dream Reader, which is one of the top ten selling education apps in more than 40 countries.

"I thought it would be nice if the app could generate enough money to pay for a good vacation every year," says Chen.

Today, it's his full-time job.

Stay Passionate

Chen believes the lack of financial pressure to find a successful idea helped him find his passion.

"If I were in this environment in Boston and I wanted to start up a company, I'd want it to be VC-backed," he says. "I felt like in a high pressured environment--an incubator, Silicon Valley, the Boston area--the pressure to get to a plan that works is very, very high, whereas a lot of ideas take time as you get to know your customers better. But things are tainted by the fact that you have to generate a return for the VC and you're in this pressure cooker environment."

He adds, "I wrote this thing because I'm passionate about it. I wasn't even thinking it would be a commercial success."

In other words, "do the thing that you can't help yourself but work on," he says. "Passion is the one thing an entrepreneur has to have."

Scratch the Travel Itch 

Don't ignore the urge to travel, says Chen.

"Go somewhere where you can draw a little bit of distance between you and your normal environment. Even if you don't develop an app, even if you just spend time in a beautiful place, the benefit of that year will continue long after it's over."

If you're worried about what effect taking a sabbatical might have on your career, don't expect it to be a bad one.

"When you come back and are looking for a job, this is the story that your boss is going to remember out of all the people they interview," he says. "If someone really has a problem with the gap year, that's not a place where you want to work."

And yes, it's OK to take a year off.

"Don't give yourself a goal like 'I have to build an app,' or 'I have to start a company,' or 'I have to write a book.' Just go off and be free-form about it, and maybe, just maybe, during that year you can find the thing you're most passionate about."

Do you agree that getting away from it all is an unsung route to success?

Last updated: Jun 5, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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