Fast Company

These people spent a year on a boat and lived to tell the story

Last year, Deb Meyerson and Steve Zuckerman dropped out of successful careers and went sailing with their kids. How do you make a dream a reality? Good fortune, of course, but also resolve, discipline, and a willingness to live with uncertainty.

It's evening in Kargi Koyu, a speck of a village on the Aegean coast. The heat of the Turkish summer has given way to a stiff, cooling wind, and to stars. The sky is bursting with constellations, punctuated now and then by the odd meteor. Listen closely. Aboard the yacht Nowornot, home to the Zuckerman-Meyerson family for the past year, you can hear the sounds of the sea.

"Hard to port . . . hard to port!"

"I am!"

Things aren't clicking the way they're supposed to tonight. The Nowornot has been trying to set anchor for over an hour, but it can't find traction in the steeply sloping sand below. Deb Meyerson and Steve Zuckerman have never tried anchoring at night before, and they're tired and irritated. Their kids, Danny, Adam, and Sarah, are hungry.

Yet for all the groping in the dark, this crew -- this family -- copes impressively. As Danny, 14, helps his dad negotiate the anchor, 11-year-old Adam zips about in the motor dinghy, tethering the ship to rocks ashore. Sarah, 8, feeds the lines around winches. They work well together -- out of love, but also out of acquired competence.

For the past year, Deb, Steve, Danny, Adam, and Sarah have lived together aboard the Nowornot, a 52-foot, two-masted boat that isn't as big as it sounds, especially if you're a family of five. They have sailed from the south of France across the Mediterranean Sea, exploring Italy, Greece, and Turkey. They have cooked and eaten together, played baseball together on the beach, and slept together on deck. School has been held onboard most weekday mornings, parents presiding.

This is the fruition of a dream Meyerson and Zuckerman have shared for many years. That it has actually come to pass is, in some ways, remarkable. Both are classic Type A achievers who have invested years in building reputations and a modicum of wealth. Meyerson is a professor of organizational behavior, and she enjoyed dual appointments at Stanford University and Simmons College. Zuckerman was a partner in the private equity firm of McCown De Leeuw & Co.

You probably have a dream like theirs. It centers on a beach in Bora Bora, perhaps, or on a novel you've thought about writing since college. You'd like to bike across the country or pursue a master's degree in Eastern religion or run for mayor. You'd like to ditch the job for a while and do something wildly different, something that's true to who you are.

And you don't do it. Let's face it, not everyone can afford to abandon a year's pay, or to bear the risk that they won't return to the sort of financial security they left behind. For many of us, though, money isn't really the issue. We're just afraid. We're afraid of forfeiting what we've accomplished professionally, wary that our bosses and colleagues won't take us as seriously as before. We worry about losing momentum, of losing out on the next big project or the next rung on the ladder.

Here is the story, then, of a couple, of a family, who actually made the break. Theirs was not a hasty, spurious escape. If anything, Deb Meyerson and Steve Zuckerman were meticulously intentional in the way they planned their year away. Ultimately, though, they couldn't be certain their careers would survive. They weren't sure how their children would respond or how their marriage might change. They only knew this: The trip was too important for them not to do. "We were willing," Meyerson says, "to live with uncertainty."

"I want to go on this trip, but I don't want to give up all the things that I have to give up. . . . I don't think it is worth it. I have to give up baseball for a year, but worst of all, I have to give up my friends. I think maybe when I am in college I will thank my parents for taking me on this trip. But right now, I am definitely not thanking them."

-- Adam's journal, September 22, 2002

The year of Nowornot was born in 1982, when Deb Meyerson, then 25, traveled with her family to Turkey. She and her brother hitchhiked to the beach at Olu Deniz, "one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been," Deb says. "A turtle came up to the beach and laid her eggs, and I stayed up all night watching the turtles hatch. I saw this family there on a sailboat. I have such a vivid image of them. And I just knew I wanted to do that someday."

What makes such a dream real? Good fortune, of course, but also resolve and discipline. Six years ago, Meyerson and Zuckerman began thinking seriously about their getaway. They chose 2002 as a target year, because Sarah would be old enough to participate safely and Danny would be young enough to leave school with relatively little trauma.

They took sailing vacations to make sure the kids' stomachs wouldn't turn with every wave. And they began to unwind their work. For Zuckerman, this represented a natural turning point in his career. He had decided he didn't want to spend his life in private equity. On the other hand, "I was in a business where you raise 10-year funds, and while nothing is written in stone, there's a certain obligation to stick around." So he began describing his plans to his business partners, eventually helping recruit his successor.

Meyerson's visiting professor contract at Stanford would end in 2002, and her book, Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work (Harvard Business School Press), would be published in August 2001. (It's now out in paperback.) She timed other projects to end around the same time. She also applied for a tenured position at Stanford's education school but warned that she wouldn't be available until 2003.

Still, she was concerned about the effect a year away would have on her work. "How could I leave without losing momentum?" she thought. "I do work that's important to me, and I've been able to find jobs and create affiliations that have allowed me to do work that's meaningful." What would happen to all of her professional relationships and to her projects when she distanced herself from her office by two continents?

The decision-making process reflected exactly the sort of people Zuckerman and Meyerson were: passionate but deliberate control freaks who sweated the details. "Deb makes decisions via a very lengthy process," says Su-Moon Paik, a close friend. "We had heard about the trip for so long, we never were sure it was going to happen."

Ultimately, though, it was a question of Nowornot. The name derived from a comment Sarah had made years before. When she asked after one dinner to have dessert later, Meyerson said it was "now or never." Sarah replied that "now or not" made more sense. It wasn't that she could never have dessert; she just couldn't have that dessert that night.

Careers would always be there, in some form. Home would be there. It was time to sail. Now or not. The family set off on July 31, 2002, from Cap Ferrat, France.

"I love sailing. The blue seas. Sailing the white caps. Seeing the fish and whales. Oh, the beauty."

-- Sarah's journal, February 8, 2003

The first two months were the roughest, and it wasn't just the seas. Things kept breaking on their French-made yacht. The Italian captain whom the family had hired for the first few weeks was able to fix everything, but the problems tested Zuckerman's and Meyerson's confidence. More than that, everyone was confronting the reality of living very much together, all the time. "At home, my parents went to work, we went to school," observes Adam. "Here, we'd be together a little too much." It didn't help that the kids, plucked from their lives in California, were ambivalent about sailing in the first place. There was sniping between parents and kids and between brothers and sister. Meyerson's mother, Marcia Meyerson, arrived for a visit in Italy in mid-September and whisked the kids away for a few days in Genoa. "I sensed," she says, "that they needed to be away from each other."

Soon enough, though, the family found its pace. Each member had a role: Meyerson was the sailor, Zuckerman the technician; Danny manned the anchor; Adam piloted the dinghy; and Sarah took charge of the bumpers. The kids took turns cooking, cleaning, and shopping, chores they had never had explicit responsibility for before. The family's Ten Commandments were committed to paper (among them, "Thou shalt pick up thy stuff"), defining norms of behavior. School began October 1, bringing its own rhythm. Each morning, Meyerson taught the boys, and Zuckerman tutored Sarah.

The upshot was the family learned to live with one another and flipped the intensity of sharing space on its head. The absence of privacy, they learned, was also an opportunity for intimacy and connection. Parents got to know their children in different ways, and the children came to know and understand their parents, for all their foibles. Mom, they kidded, could be temperamental and had trouble relaxing. And Dad could ramble. "We're a little more human to them, for better or worse," Meyerson says.

They huddled in the cockpit to watch the awesome natural light show of Stromboli's volcano. They woke to see the first light dawning over Corsica. They learned to water-ski and wakeboard, and they played baseball and soccer wherever they found an empty beach. In Rome, father and sons stayed up at an all-night Internet café to watch their beloved Giants play the World Series.

And they discovered a new theory of time. Other sailing families they met called it "wa" -- a feeling of composure and slowness, an ability to be completely present. In California, they delighted in making each moment count for something. But life moved more slowly on a boat. To be precise, it moved at 7 knots, and that, it turned out, could be delightful.

"One of our goals was to make time the resource of plenty, so we could enjoy our kids, do things for ourselves, and enjoy simple pleasures we don't allow ourselves at home," Zuckerman says. Grocery shopping was one. Instead of a rushed stop on the way home, a trip to an Italian market was an event to savor. Small moments came to define the voyage.

"I went home in February for a week of work," Meyerson recalls. "I'm glad I went. It was a scary glimpse into my life. I was struck by seeing some very good friends living the kind of life I lived. They looked and talked about just how tired they were." It was a vision from her past. Was it also one of her future?

"When I was told that this trip was a certainty, 12 months seemed like forever; but it has gone by so fast that I can recall most of the 340 days like they were yesterday. I've been looking forward and waiting anxiously for the day that we would arrive home, and still am, but now I have mixed feelings."

-- Danny's journal, July 25, 2003

On August 6, 371 days after first setting sail, Meyerson and her kids left the Nowornot in Athens to fly home. Zuckerman sailed on to Spain to sell their home of a year.

The first dinner back in California was burritos -- real burritos, long promised. Danny, Adam, and Sarah took delight in reuniting with friends and in rediscovering their big house. Meyerson prepared for her new post at Stanford, which she won just a week before setting sail. Already a grant deadline loomed.

Much had changed. Among the kids, Sarah had learned to manage her temper. Adam had grown more confident. Danny had revealed a comical side. Mom and Dad, meantime, had learned to better confront their differences. And, of course, they had discovered wa.

Will the changes stick? Meyerson and Zuckerman worry about retaining the spirit of their year's adventure. Will they get sucked back into their old routines? Both parents want to create rituals that will preserve the intimacy their family has enjoyed -- regular dinners together and evenings reserved for board games. But they know those are disciplines that can be easily abandoned. The wind will help. Every time there's a good wind, they will remember the lessons of Nowornot. "But I don't know," says Zuckerman, "whether this year was enough to break us of our habits."

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