Take Your Shoes Off: Ben Feder talks about work/life balance, Bali, and the power of living deliberately
Ben Feder is the co-founder and Vice-Chairman of ZelnickMedia and ZM Capital. He has a proven track record as an investor in the media and telecommunications sector and is currently the President, International Partnerships, at TenCent Games. From 2016-17, he served as Chairman of the Board of Verto Analytics, before embarking on a year-long sabbatical in Bali with his family. On May 1, Radius Book Group will publish Take Off Your Shoes: One Man’s Journey from the Boardroom to Bali and Back, Ben’s reflections on his year abroad. We had the chance to chat about the experience and how it changed his outlook on business, meditation, and how he’s adapted his practices now that he’s back in New York City.
Verto Analytics (VA): What triggered your decision to take a sabbatical, and why specifically Bali?
Ben Feder (BF): Throughout our marriage, my wife, Victoria, and I thought about taking extended family time away from work. When my oldest child entered high school, l realized that if I didn’t seize the moment, it would pass and never return. I realized that I was living my life conditionally: when this happens, then I will do that. But the conditions are never quite right; no situation ever ripens to perfection. So I decided to invest in my family and my relationships in the way I invest in businesses. If you don’t invest, eventually the wheels come off the bus. I didn’t want to risk that with my family. I also felt deeply in my bones that I needed a long break and decided to take myself out of the game temporarily to explore and renew.
Bali was partly a deliberate choice, and partly a happy accident. When we considered a destination, Victoria and I drew up a list of criteria and from there filtered potential spots to a short list, including simply vagabonding around the world. Bali was not on the top of the list. But after a few serendipitous conversations and a recon trip to our first choice, we changed course. Thank goodness for that, because Bali is a magical place.
VA: What are your do’s and don’ts for someone considering taking a sabbatical?
BF: The first thing to conquer when considering a sabbatical is the mindset that it’s impossible to do without losing your money, your mind, and your career. I do believe it’s possible, even for those with modest means, to take extended time off. We all need to make choices about living the life we want and the important thing is to be deliberate about those choices when we can. If you find yourself living a life that is either at odds with your intention or if you are simply being carried away mindlessly by the urgencies of work and home, I think it’s crucial to pause and ask what’s important.
The next action I’d recommend is doing a lot of research online, in person, or through books. One resource that I found particularly helpful was a small book called Escape 101. It’s full of useful and practical advice and encouragement.
Finally, plan ahead. If you’re like most people, you’ll need plenty of time to save up money and create a plan for a sabbatical. It’s not something I’d recommend doing on a whim.
VA: What is the most surprising thing you learned?
BF: The biggest takeaway from my sabbatical is the power of living deliberately. We all get tunnel vision when wrapped up in our daily routines, and it’s only when we can step out of those routines that we begin to open ourselves to fierce possibility. Even when the stakes don’t seem to be terribly high, it takes courage to see past the day-to-day and make a brave choice to try something new. I took my break from an exciting career in order to reconnect with my family and recharge my batteries. But everyone is different and courage and being debilitate can take many forms.
VA: What is the most useful thing you learned that you can still use today, now that you’re back in the US and back to your “normal” routine? Or more accurately, how has your sabbatical changed your concept of a “normal” routine? (related: What was the biggest challenge in re-introducing yourself into life in the US?)
BF: While in Bali, I engaged in mindful mediation and yoga. That was easier to do while on sabbatical than it is while I am actively engaged in work and the frequent travel it entails. Work-life balance is easy when you’re not working. These days, my intention is daily practice, but my actual track record is about five or six days per week. I’ve even taught yoga at work, which I found immensely gratifying. And I enjoy mentoring entrepreneurs and business leaders, talking about how my practice, paradoxically, helps me achieve more.
If you follow an intense meditation practice (especially the Buddhist strand) to its logical conclusion, it leads to a monastic life. That’s obviously not me and not possible for a typical urban professional. At the same time, following the capitalist life to its logical conclusion is not, in and of itself, a recipe for wellness. So the biggest challenge I found when re-integrating to life in the US was synthesizing these two worlds into a cohesive lifestyle. Said another way, the challenge is to both be and do simultaneously. It’s been a bit of a trick but I think I have arrived at a good place.
I also paint when I can. I first started to draw in Bali. When I stand in front of a canvas with a paintbrush in my hand, I enter a state of flow that both shuts down my inner monologue and allows me to appreciate beauty. I think we all have some creativity in us, and it’s crucial to express it actively, even if that means just cooking a nice meal. I had never painted prior to my sabbatical. It’s yet another benefit of my time away, one that also contributes richly to my life.
VA: What’s the next thing you’re going to apply to your life back in the US?
BF: I’m really enjoying my work and family life at the moment and am not thinking too much about what’s next. I’ve started to learn Mandarin. It’s a daunting language and a big challenge but I’m keen to do it and I hope to be able to conduct business in the language one day. At some point, I’d also like to exhibit my paintings. I don’t know why; I’m just proud of the work and want to share it.