A Brief Review of My 2023 Mini-Sabbatical

Chris Woodall | 2023-08-29

During the summer of 2023, I took 3 months off from June to September as I transitioned between two jobs. I wanted to experiment with taking some free time to travel, move, and reconnect with my hobbies. I found this time to be very beneficial for my physical and mental health, and I am very grateful to have had the privilege to have been able to take some extended time off from work. I found some perspective and space that will serve me well in my future endeavors.

I had an immediate temptation to make these 3 months big and impressive. I wanted to tick off some impressive climbing objectives, travel (Peru, Switzerland, and Spain came up), or road trips across the USA. I could have done any of these things, but not all of them. Also, I was experiencing a little “burnt-out” 1. Jumping straight from one high-output activity to another was not the way to recharge. I needed to shift gears, get curious, honor my values, and let some good stuff happen to me. To help myself focus I listed out what I wanted to get done:

The un-moveable activities – Squamish, Maine, and the move – became the main elements of how I scheduled my time. I also had to take into account the real facts of my fitness, and what I valued most. This summer included a fair bit of travel, some more domestic activities (decorating, moving, organizing, cooking, and cleaning), lots of climbing, and re-engaging old and deep friendships. This ended up being the first longer break I have taken in my career and I have called it my “mini-sabbatical” 2. Let’s look over some of what I did!



The focus of June was travel, visiting family, and spending time away from home on the West Coast.

June 1, 2023: My last day at BETA

I finished up on June 1 and my co-workers gave me a great send-off. I received an awesome vest. I will remember all of the great times at BETA and I hope for their continued succeed. I learned a ton about motors, controls and software engineering during my time at BETA, and I refined elements of my sense of self, leadership style and have a deeper knowledge of who I am and what works for me.

Visiting My Parents

Stinky, the pet tortoise

The first order of business was to drive to New York to visit my parents. I got a chance to explore some of the local mountain biking, which was amazing and right out the back door. I can’t believe I never explored it before! Along the way, I also met up with one of my cousins who is in medical school and has taken up climbing. I spent a lot of time hanging with the parents and seeing my Oma.

Getting some tacos with the family
James playing pedal steel guitar

I also got to see my brother play at Skinny Dennis in Brooklyn, which was a great time. This was restorative

Climbing at Hanging Mountain with Ian

On the way back to Burlington I stopped by Hanging Mountain in Western Massachusetts which is a recently opened crag managed by the WMCC (Western Massachusetts Climbers Coalition). The climbing here was incredible and I highly recommend it.

Hanging Mountain

Spending a Week in the Adirondacks with Ian

After a few days back home I went to the Adirondacks camping at the Sharp Bridge Campground. During this time I finally got to check out Crane Mountain, hike Allen Mountain, and do some memorable climbing at Ragged Mountain and Tilman’s Arete.

Climbing at Crane
Climbing at Ragged Mountain

Overall this was a restorative time, with some brewery hopping involved. The hike of Allen Mountain was a challenge for me as it ended up being a very long day (around 20 miles). I underestimated both the length and difficulty of the day. However, it was beautiful full of some wild strawberries, grouse, and great views… It was also full of mud and a wet slab.

Squamish Trip

I drove home and then headed straight onto a plane to Vancouver with my partner Emily and we spent a day hiking around town, going around Stanley Park, eating some good food, and assembling our dream climbing team!

Stanely Park

That night we drove up to Squamish settled into our amazing AirBnb and got on a bunch of classics: Cat Crack (5.7), Neat and Cool (5.10a), Quarryman (5.8), and a few other great climbs. I felt ready to do some longer climbs

Flying Circus (5.10a)Emily at the Smoke Bluffs
Me climbing near Quarryman

The next day we did Spirit of Squamish (5.8), which brings you right up next to Shannon Falls.

The rest of the trip involved some rest days, pushing the grade up to 5.9. I explored some new areas near Murrin Park (Splitsville)and generally, I left the trip feeling strong, and excited to climb more. I first went to Squamish in 2015 and I have been back a few times. It is one of my favorite places and I feel so fortunate I was able to share it with some of the friends I made in Burlington.

I departed Vancouver straight for Washington


Trip to Washington State

I visited with my friends Steph and Rob in the Seattle area (and Tim). We went climbing at Keechelus Ridge, where I got to climb a few sport routes at all grades including a 5.10c which I onsighted. I was feeling very strong. The next few days were filled with a lot of chilling out, hiking, paddle boarding, hanging out by lakes, and helping out around the house and garden. I was also introduced to an awesome Chicken Biryani recipe.

Towards the end of my time in Washington, we took Rob’s RV down to Index, WA where we climbed a bunch of classics (Senior Citizens in Space, Godzilla, Rattletale). I was very proud to have led Godzilla at 5.9+ with some encouragement cleanly. This was a test piece for me and a major milestone in my climbing comeback. In some ways, I am starting to feel I am getting close to my peak again.

This time ended up being pure fun, enjoyment, and a lot of introspection too! I am so grateful to have such great friends.

Moving to Arlington, MA

For my next adventure, I ended up moving from Burlington, VT to Arlington, MA with Emily. We packed everything up. Here is where I admit that I played a lot of Legend of Zelda TOK during this time… However, the move was done. We had a nice big breakfast with all the parents, and I belayed up a couch. I am so glad to have such a supportive family, a great partner, and friends who were willing to lend a hand.

Hanging around and climbing in the North East

Over the next few weeks, I concentrated on settling into life in Arlington:


A Trip to Colorado

I started of August with a trip to Colorado to visit my friends Tim, Tom, and P. I got to spend a decent amount of time in the Boulder area and climbed Eldorado Canyon, the South Platte. I also went to a C++ meetup which was an awesome re-introduction to the software engineering community.

When climbing we did:

Overall I found the climbing fun and humbling, I need to get my multipitch speed and efficiency back up, and I need to get my climbing headgame together.

Eldorado Canyon
South Platte

Back in Arlington

After Colorado, I spent more time settling into the apartment, reading some papers on the SPARC reactor and Tokamak Fusion Controls, and generally enjoying life in Arlington. For a good overview of Tokamak Fusion Controls (and in this case Reinforcement Learning as the control law) recommend watching [“Jonas Buchli & Federico Felici: Magnetic control of tokamak plasmas with deep reinforcement learning”](Jonas Buchli & Federico Felici: Magnetic control of tokamak plasmas with deep reinforcement learning).

I also started practicing the Mandolin more regularly again and put together an arrangement of “Rise” by Eddie Vedder for violin and mandolin.

This is the mp3 version exported from Musescore, a live version should be recorded sometime soon!

I also spent some time wrapping up a few personal projects including getting the audio plugin I worked on last Christmas break up and running (see Wahmbulance). A write-up will be coming shortly!

Heading to Maine

Towards the end of August, I headed to Island Falls, Maine where I spent a week with Emily’s family. This was a week packed with:

What’s Next

I am starting a job as a Senior Real-Time Controls Engineer at Commonwealth Fusion Systems. I will still be programming in C++ and Python, but my focus will be on control systems for Tokamak Operations. This is a change from my past roles which have all been explicitly in Embedded Software Engineering or Electrical Engineering. I have grown into a controls engineering role working at BETA implementing, tuning, and designing motor controllers for PMSM motors. I am excited to continue to grow in this field and learn more about the physics and engineering of fusion reactors.

I have been doing some arrangements for violin and mandolin and want to keep on doing that, and recording more music.

I want to have friends and family over routinely to have great conversations. I have found that even one evening chatting with friends is a remedy for so much stress and anxiety in my life.

I am planning to continue investing time and energy into rock climbing. I have a few 5.10c/d projects on my list and want to bust through that barrier.

I want to continue to learn about mushrooms and foraging. I have found that by learning about mushrooms, and what to identify I am looking at the outdoors in completely new ways. Places I have gone many times to climb now have a whole ecology that is so interesting to learn about. I find it fun to see and identify things I have not seen before, and forage for the very limited set of mushrooms I know how to identify (Chanterelles); however, this has been interesting to me.

I am planning on continuing to read, and write about what I read.

I commit to improving my health.

I want to build community, and friendships and continue to grow my relationships in my life.

I am curious about hydroponics now and am planning on starting a few hydroponic projects.

Lessons Learnt

  1. My anxiety is reduced, and my sleep is better; however, this has I think less to do with work and more with a feeling of peace, hopefulness, and a feeling of security about my place in the world. I think a key insight is to get good sleep (8 hours as a target), and have strategies for coping with nighttime anxiety (reading, writing, meditation, etc.). For me, nighttime “yoga nidra” meditations have been very useful if I am keyed up at night.
  2. I have a lot of energy, and I am excited to get back to work. I am excited to learn new things and to be challenged in new ways. Keeping non-work projects, and focuses fresh seems to be a way to unlock a lot of energy. My work is important to me, but it is not mine in a lot of ways. We collaborate on work with our peers, and having creative and athletic projects that allow you to grow and are self-driven is important for me to maintain a healthy amount of energy.
  3. Weight loss doesn’t come for free. I kept hoping that by changing circumstances with work my weight would start to decrease, and while the trend is down; just removing work did not reduce my weight. However, having a more active day-to-day lifestyle and eating better food does help. Lasting change comes from lifestyle change and good habits not from massive shifts (most of the time).
  4. Let curiosity guide you.
  5. Value growth over being “the best”
  6. Planning is hard, and entering a mini-sabbatical without the fitness required to take on some of your bucket list items is hard. If I choose to take extended time off of work again I will likely do more work around choosing a few bigger objectives to hit and train for them; as well as, scheduling good time to relax, reset, and reassess
  7. Plan fun and exciting things all of the time. Most of the trips I went on would be possible to fit in during a work schedule in an abbreviated form. Just make the time to go and do the things that make you whole.
  8. Building systems/doing projects as a way of achieving goals works for me, even if it is not the most efficient.

Lists of Things






Mushrooms Foraged

Projects Worked On

  1. I am still not 100% on the definition of burnout. In this case, I was feeling some combination of being less effective at work, unable to make good progress in my normal hobbies, and like I had an eroded set of boundaries in my life between life and work. In some ways, it felt like the wheels fell off of my normal motivational systems. It would be wrong to say I was doing bad work, but I wasn’t having fun anymore. When I think of this I think of some comments from the embedded.fm discussion of burnout. I think it is sad that this experience of burnout is so common in the engineering field. ↩︎

  2. The concept of mini-retirements or mini-sabbaticals came to me from “The Four Hour Work Week” and listening to the Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Essentially, the idea is that we normally would wait to take time off from work until retirement, but there are so many variables out of our control about how healthy, fit, and financially stable we may be in retirement. So it makes sense to take some time occasionally during our youth to have longer periods of time away from the strict confines of an office job. For me, this has meant travel, self-directed learning, and being curious. However, in the future for me, it could mean going back to school for a period, traveling more broadly, trying to start a business, or doing something outside of the confines of the 9-5 office job. The hope for me is to bring new energy and joy to work. ↩︎