Chen got the idea from watching a TED talk by designer Stefan Sagmeister.
“He presented this absolutely irresistible idea,” Chen remembered of the initial inspiration. “He said, ‘Why don’t we take five years out of retirement and spread them throughout your working life?’ ”
In the talk, Sagmeister claims, “The work that flows out of this year flows back into the company and into society at large, rather than just benefiting a grandchild or two.”
Marcus, 6, and Nora, 4, eat dinner on their first night at home in Rødøy. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
Chen told the idea to his wife, Kristin Botnen. Leaving work, though, at a time when jobs don’t exactly grow on trees? That’s hard.
“You know, I wouldn’t say we are perfectly conventional,” Chen said. “But we’re not totally crazy either. So we feel the gravitational pull of what you should do as well as anybody.”
The Botnen Chen family left Boston to live for a year on Rødøy, a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
Two summers ago, they broke that gravitational pull. Chen quit his job as chief technology officer at Kalido, a Burlington, Mass., company that builds software systems for big corporations.
Long daylight during the summer made the short growing season productive, and wild berries were a regular part of family’s diet. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
Botnen, who’d been staying home as a mom, took a job as a schoolteacher in a place desperate to have one — a place about 3,500 miles from Boston, east and way north, past Greenland, beyond Iceland. The family headed to Rødøy, a small granite island jutting from the Norwegian Sea north of the Arctic Circle.
Botnen was born in Norway, so that made it easier. But it wasn’t about returning home, or fleeing Boston, either.
Rødøy’s population of about 180 includes a doctor, who uses the pictured ambulance boat to treat residents of neighboring islands. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
“For us, this was not an escape,” Botnen said. “We really liked our lives. But we still wanted a year where we could just do something completely different.”
Marcus on one of the family hikes. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
It was completely different. They used the daylight that burns until the wee hours of the morning that far north to explore the island of about 180 residents. Winston and Kristin and their kids Marcus and Nora hiked and camped. They discovered beaches so clean and the water so clear, they looked tropical — except for the really cold water.
And they went out on the water to fish for the big cod that swim down from even further north in the Barents Sea.
Residents of Rødøy celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
They hung the cod to dry outside the kitchen of their hilltop home. They made chips by frying fish skin. They picked berries that flourished under the long days of sunlight. And they plucked eggs from seagull nests to fry for breakfast.
It was wild. It was pristine. And it got dark.
Those very long days turned into very short ones. During the deep Arctic winter, the horizon held the sun down for months.
Kristin cooked a traditional American Thanksgiving for neighbors on the island. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
“The Northern Lights are the only consolation for the Arctic winter, which is otherwise dark and stormy and cold,” Chen said.
Botnen added, “I don’t think the cold got any of us. But the darkness — I think that could make any stable soul a little bit shaky.”
Click to enlarge: See Winston Chen’s schedule to make the hours of arctic freedom productive. (Courtesy of Winston Chen)
To keep their souls stable, Chen mapped out an hourly schedule in a spreadsheet, color-coded for personal and professional times, chores and family time. He dedicated an afternoon to each child. Tuesdays were for Marcus, who was 6 years old; Wednesdays for Nora, who was 4. For the first time, Chen said, it seemed like he had the time to do what he wanted.
Chen devoted part of his weekly schedule to “Daddy Time” with each of his children. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
Marcus crafts during “Daddy Time” with Chen. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
“I had a list of things that I wanted to do,” Chen recalled. “I had oil painting, photography, blogging, learning Norwegian, learning how to play the ukulele, reading long books that I haven’t had time to read.”
During the summer months, the sun hardly ever sets. Chen snapped this photo on a camping outing at two o’clock in the morning. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
And he also taught himself something new that changed his fortunes: He wrote an iPhone application that reads text out loud.
“Part of that was occupying my time when it got dark,” he remembered, calling it just a project. “So I wrote it without knowing that it would see the light of day.”
Other island residents made their livelihoods from the teeming waters, including this eagle. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
It did see the light of day when Chen posted it on Apple’s app store under the name Voice Dream. People started buying it, including visually impaired people, commuters and also teachers who got it for their dyslexic students.
At $10 a piece, the app is now selling more than 500 copies per week.
Screenshot of Voice Dream, the iPhone app Winston Chen developed during his family’s year away in the Arctic.
Its commercial success flies in the face of the dogma of the Boston tech sector, which is all about the cluster: bringing smart people together in open floor plans. Chen did the opposite — something almost biblical — by withdrawing alone to a remote wilderness, searching. Chen said he never would have created the app without his arctic adventure.
But during the Arctic winter, the sun hardly clears the horizon. Kristin says the darkness can make your soul “a bit shaky”. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
“Living in a place where you’re not distracted by the day-to-day,” Chen reflected, “where you have time to think, where you’re not in a hurry. Then with all these ideas floating around, it becomes as simple as: What do you keep going back to?”
He kept going back to Voice Dream. And after a year above the Arctic Circle, the family went back to Boston.
At home in Arlington, the family has been living off the income from the app. Voice Dream works in more than two dozen languages. Botnen said the year was a dream, but not because of the app.
The reward for enduring almost perpetual darkness is the stunning northern lights. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
“It’s hard to measure success based on the end-product,” Botnen said. “Because the process, and the year that we had, really was a good one.”
Chen could go fishing and pretty much guarantee coming back with something for dinner, like this pollack. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
The family would dry their fish outside the kitchen window. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
A retirement year inserted into their working ones, it was a year that helped them find new riches, both personal and professional.
Double rainbows cut into the sky after a Rødøy rainstorm. (Courtesy Winston Chen)
To read more and see additional photos, visit Winston Chen’s blog, Arctic Dream: Our Family’s One-Year Adventure Living on an Arctic Island.
Marcus, Kristin, Winston, and Nora (left to right) left their “Arctic Dream” in the summer of 2012 to return to Boston. (Courtesy Winston Chen)