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6 Personal Aha’s From My Starbucks ‘Career Coffee Break’

How to get the most out of a sabbatical

An amazing perk of being a tenured Starbucks employee is the option of a taking a career Coffee Break (yes, it’s actually called that). After 13 years as a Starbucks executive, I stepped back…and have recently wrapped up 12 luxurious, self-investing, introspective months, and could not be more grateful for the experience. I decided to try to capture my ‘aha’s’ from this year, for a few reasons:

  • Committing to new intentions — like any investment, a sabbatical should provide a longer-term return. Sure, 12 months “off” is sweet, but I hope to extend the benefits I got from it into my post-sabbatical life. While I am generally not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do feel compelled to declare some intentions of what I will do differently moving forward.
  • Pay It Forward – not everyone has the luxury, nor desire, to take a break. If a nugget or two from my learnings resonates with someone else, splendid. Plus, I get that LinkedIn is not intended for personal diarizing, so it behooves me to offer some insights from which other’s might benefit 😉
  • Re-visit – I suspect in the months to come I will need a reminder of my sabbatical state-of-mind. Much like flipping through vacation photos – it won’t restore the tan, but it might remind me to breathe.

So, grab a coffee (or a glass of wine) – as much as I tried to write a pithy “10 things I learned whilst on sabbatical”, it turned into more of a soliloquy…

I write this at risk of sounding super-trite and fluffy. But I came across this quote at the beginning of my sabbatical, that helped shape how I used my year:

“The definition of hell: on your last day on earth, the person you have become meets the person you could have been.”

It made me think – why does that have to be hell? What if I more envision a high-five happening? What would I have to do now to make that happen??

I spent much of this year musing esoteric words like Purpose…Potential…Personal Mission… I also learned this year that I am hard-wired to achieve. I don’t mean that in a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back way, but a realization that I NEED to be achieving to feel good. Apparently, it is innate in me to set objectives, break it into strategies, push for action, and analyze my outcomes – my ENTJ endures! Without work to drive the agenda, I approached other facets of my life with the same intention and focus I would normally put into work. And it was awesome: some great travel (the highlight, running a half-marathon from the Eiffel Tower to the Palace of Versailles!); got in great shape (focused on strength not weight); picked up some new skills (started a business, wrote a website, learned to blog); cooked a lot; re-connected with old friends & colleagues; expanded/nurtured my professional network; read lots of great books; best of all, spent an amazing amount of time with my kids 😊. Net, I learned that I am happiest when I’m pushing to be my best self in all facets that I care about.

MY INTENTION: I will strive to carve out time for all the things that make me happy, not only because they make me happy, but because they feed my need for achievement…which I need to be happy. (how’s that for cyclical logic?)


AHA #2: “NOT ENOUGH TIME” SHOULD BE RE-PHRASED TO “NOT IMPORTANT ENOUGH”

Interestingly, I learned as much by what I chose NOT to do this year. If I didn’t make time for something when I literally had all the time in the world, then it clearly is not a priority to me. For example, you’d think my house would be cleaner and more organized after a year — it’s not — turns out it’s because I don’t care about it enough to do it, not because I don’t have time – how liberating! I also did not learn to code, scrapbook the photos, garden, nor expand my ukulele song repertoire beyond 3. Oh well. I did become surprisingly good at Subway Surfer, and for that I am embarrassed.

MY INTENTION: I will no longer use “not enough time” as an excuse. If it is important or valuable enough for me, I will make time. Just as important, I will cut myself some slack about the things I don’t make time for. I own the choice.

AHA #3: A YEAR OF INTROSPECTION IS NOT FOR THE FEINT OF HEART

While having time for self-analysis was a gift, not every day was sunshine. Even the most confident, self-assured person will have vulnerable days when second-guessing creeps in. I had countless ‘what have I done’ moments, when I wondered if I was (am?) risking career-suicide by taking a year off. I also had ample time to troll around LinkedIn and found it to be a double-edged sword. Great for staying connected to colleagues, an excellent learning/sharing platform, and of course it’s the de facto job marketplace. However, quoting a recent article on social media by psychiatrist Norman Doidge, it is “a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves – and everyone else – and making comparisons all the time”. I found myself having to give myself pep talks to avoid getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I DON’T know or haven’t accomplished, and to focus on the excitement of how much learning and growth opportunity I have in front of me.

I believe I am not alone here. I read a great book at the start of my sabbatical called “Year of Yes”, by Shonda Rhimes. Yes, the Queen of Thursday Night TV Shonda Rhimes; creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, etc. By all external accounts, a hugely successful woman, who should strut when she walks, but whom actually struggles with her own fears of inadequacy. What?? My favourite quote: “I need to believe that Beyoncé’s life is perfect. It keeps me going.” Of course, that was before Lemonade…further underscoring my notion that no one has the perfect, all-figured-out life, despite the glossy exteriors.

MY INTENTION: First, again I will cut myself some slack – not only will the desire for perfection most certainly kill me, I believe it’s an illusion that anyone can actually achieve it; Secondly, I will try to help prop others up. I think everyone needs a little more cheering on, and a little less critique.

AHA #4: NETWORKING: ACTUALLY FUN, SHOULD BE PRIORITIZED, AND SHOULD BE A 2-WAY STREET

In hindsight, I have not made networking a priority over the course of my career. My practical excuse had been time — as a rigorous prioritizer, investing into my network did not seem urgent given I was happy with my career progression. I will also admit that I’ve often had a visceral reaction to the word ‘networking’, viewing it a bit schmoozy, inauthentic, and self-serving. I have changed my tune about networking during my sabbatical. I had coffee/lunch with 100+ people in the past year, including many blind-date-ish encounters with friends-of-friends. My intent was not one of job searching, but rather I was genuinely interested in hearing about other peoples’ career journeys, how they had thought through transitions, and what excites them about what they are currently doing. I was struck by 3 things: 1) that I actually really enjoyed it, 2) people were amazingly generous with their time and stories, and 3) I had viewed networking as self-serving because that’s what I had been doing. Each and every person I met with this year added insight and fodder toward my thinking about my future. Thank you for that (you know who you are!), but also for prompting the realization that I too need to more generously give back.

MY INTENTION — I will be much more intentional about making time for others, to share my journey and experiences, and help them come up with their own insights.

AHA #5: THEY SAY YOU ARE THE AVERAGE OF THE 5 PEOPLE YOU HANG OUT WITH THE MOST. MY FAMILY MAKES ME A BETTER ME!

I love my family more than anything in the world. Thank you, Doug for your unwavering support; twelve months of listening to your wife’s navel-gazing is a lot to ask of a husband, and you were a trooper! Ben, Robin, Sam, it’s been a JOY to be in your daily orbit this year. While you may not have enjoyed all my home cooking experiments (sorry about that salmonella casserole…), I hope having Mom around all the time this year has had more upside that just convenient chauffeuring to early morning swim practices!

MY INTENTION: Be present when I am present. As work winds back up, time spent with my family will of course shrink. I will better savour that time – put away my phone, my laptop, or whatever other attention-stealing distraction that will eat into being present with you. Please hold me to it!

AHA #6: YOU WILL KNOW IN YOUR HEART WHEN IT IS TIME FOR THE NEXT ADVENTURE

One fact has rumbled in my brain throughout my sabbatical – that statistically, I am likely going to live until I am 90. That means I have almost as many years in front of me as behind me (ok, I’m using the word ‘almost’ loosely here). Theoretically, I could go back to school, switch careers and become a brain surgeon. Ok, I don’t want to be a brain surgeon, but you get the idea – I want to be continuing to grow and learn, so that I’m still excited about the cool shit I am working on 20 years from now.

I recently hit my 13-year anniversary at Starbucks…more than half of my career. I have seen it grow from ~2500 stores in a few countries to ~30,000+ worldwide; I’ve worked alongside some of the most amazing leaders in the world (including being the first ever to skype-meeting with Howard Shultz!); I’ve honed my brand stewardship skills on one of today’s most iconic brands; I experienced the 2007-09 crisis days during which Starbucks had to transform to stay alive; and I learned that culture/customer experience/employee experience are tantamount to all. I have learned that you can love a company. But I know in my heart it’s time to go. Time to stretch my brain into different spaces and see my thumbprint on other businesses. To start the next 13-year chapter that will be as great as the last.

MY INTENTION: I am taking the leap and going off on my own! I am excited to now be helping others’ grow their brands and businesses, putting to bear the skills/experiences/lessons I have gathered thus far. 

In a blink…my own Year of Yes had come to an end. Forever grateful, forever transformed, and committed to 6 intentions, that I would recommend to all:

  1. Carve out time for all the things that fill you up; it’s a need, not a want;
  2. Admit what’s not important to you, and enjoy the liberation
  3. Strive for personal excellence vs perfection; cheer others on to do the same
  4. Feed your network; be a connector
  5. Be present when you are present, especially with your loved ones
  6. Take the leap!

“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough”   — May West

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