After a hiatus I've suddenly (and somewhat randomly) started listening to podcasts again. The end of this intermission was marked with this episode from Roman Mars' 99% Invisible series on the subject of the Kowloon Walled City, a 6.5 acre enclave in Hong Kong that became home for 300 interconnected high rise buildings that grew organically over time without input from a single architect, and untroubled by local planning or health and safety regulations, on the site of an old Chinese military fort. At its peak in the early 1990s, the city was home to 33,000 people, which made it the most densely populated place on earth (equivalent to 3.2million people per square mile).
Roman interviews photographer Greg Girard who spent five years in the city before it was demolished in the early 90s and took an amazing series of images (including the one above) to document it. I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a short time in 1994 with my now wife. It must have been just after the city came down, so I missed seeing it in person but we did live for a few months in the infamous Chungking Mansions, which might have been approaching an approximation of what living in the walled city could have been like, so it was fascinating.
Since then, I've listened to a few of Debbie Millman's excellent Design Matters podcasts including this interview with Stefan Sagmeister (famed graphic designer and author of the wonderful Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far).
Amongst other things Sagmeister talks about the sabbaticals that he has taken - in his case quite lengthy time away from his successful practice:
"I learned in the first sabbatical that it's maybe the best strategy that I ever came up with - to make sure that what I do remains a calling and doesn't deteriorate into a job or a career."
Debbie Millman introduces the interview with her own story of the guilt and worry she felt in taking a longer than usual hiatus from work whilst in the midst of applying for a new job:
"All I can remember about that trip now was the amazing food, the wailing wall, and how thoroughly stressed out I was for nearly the entire time I was there. Perhaps I needed to worry. Perhaps I felt guilty not working. Perhaps this behaviour was simply how I reconciled my shame. But looking back on it now my fear of being infinitely unemployed was palpable. I never once considered that I was worthy of getting a new job. I only realised now that in the grand scheme of things the time between gainful employment was very brief. Had I given myself the freedom of discovery of a foreign culture. Had I even the slightest confidence in my abilities, I might have come back capable of bigger, better opportunities."
The irony is of-course, that when she got the new job, she quickly found that it wasn't everything she'd expected and it was only after leaving that she discovered her real calling. Sagmeister's sabbaticals were upto a year long, albeit with a long gap between them. That might not be realistic for all of us, but it's that thought about giving yourself permission to take time out, however brief, which is the important one.
The Kowloon enclave seems like metaphor. It's very easy to allow irrational concerns to pile on top of one another until we have our own densely populated, walled city of doubt. Sagmeister talks about how much of the work that he has completed in the years since his first sabbatical has been anchored in experiences or inspiration from that sabbatical year. We're very good at being hard on ourselves. Sometimes we need to remember to give ourselves the freedom to the build space into our lives.