One evening, I returned home late. Exhausted from the day, I sank down into our red sofa and rested my feet on the coffee table. The younger kids were already asleep. My wife, Victoria, came into the room and closed the door. She had just returned from a weekend retreat with women working in business and philanthropy. One of them had recently spent a year in Barcelona. I listened to Victoria talk about her friend traveling abroad with her family. It was something Victoria and I had fantasized about on and off throughout our marriage.
Victoria fell silent, grabbed my hand, and gave me a piercing look. “Let’s go.” She then used a word I had thought was reserved for academics and librarians: “Let’s take a sabbatical.”
Dog-tired, I immediately focused on the negative impact a sabbatical could have on the career I’d worked so hard to develop. But I took a beat and considered the possibility. Having poured so much of myself into getting where I was, the thought of suddenly pulling myself out of the game terrified me. We talked more about how we could make the money work and deal with the kids’ schooling.
I reflected on my time at Take-Two. We had achieved great initial success. We had taken the company from death’s door to one of the best positions in the industry. But it was intense work for a long time, and it took its toll.
Now, as Victoria knew, battle fatigue was setting in, and somehow I couldn’t shake it. In the past, my cure for exhaustion had never been rest but rededication. I would recommit to the cause and lean into the machine. Lately, though, when I dug deep for that commitment, I was coming up empty.
The caffeine that fueled my days and the wine that buoyed my evenings also interrupted my sleep, and insomnia was becoming chronic. I could not help feeling the emotional and physical costs of personal sacrifices made for the mission on which I was so focused and in which I so believed. I was getting tired of the endless striving, the ambition, and the desire for more. I wondered if I could simply declare victory and move on.
“I need some time,” I said to Victoria.
I emailed Gloria, an executive coach I knew. I needed a confidential sounding board to check my sanity.
“If I took a sabbatical, would I destroy my career?”
“I’ve coached lots of senior executives and have seen a lot of management situations.” Gloria was at least twenty years my senior. “I know you have a lot at stake here. It’s true that the career risks are high. But to use a worn-out phrase, are you living to work or working to live?
“I’ve advised some terrific executives,” she said, “guys who go from one great job to an even better one. They’re constantly achieving and rising. Do you know what happens to those people?”
“They drop dead of a heart attack at fifty-five.”
That hit me. My own father suffered that fate at sixty-one. I was determined not to let it happen to me or to my children as long as I could help it.
I said to Gloria, “The board is really going to be pissed off.”
“The board is going to do what the board’s going to do. You need to do this for you. You need to work up the courage.”
If I were to leave, lots of people with a stake in my decision—my partners, board directors, and key employees—were not going to be happy with me. Gloria encouraged me to see past pleasing them. She asked me to find the confidence that there would be a career after a sabbatical.
“We tend to live our lives conditionally,” she said. “When such and such happens, then I’ll do this or that. But the conditions are never quite right. Maybe when we’re dead, everything will fall into place. But why wait for the situation to ripen to perfection? Why not act now?”
I added it up. Taking sabbatical would require significant sacrifice. It would mean giving up a leadership position in a high-profile company, forfeiting material compensation, and potentially separating from a business partnership that had been supportive and meaningful to me.
Then one day on my walk home, I glanced up at another man, about my age, walking toward me. Our eyes met for a moment. He looked tense, exhausted, and distracted, and he seemed detached from the conversation he was having on his phone. My doppelgänger trudged past, out of sight, a mere blip in my day, but at that moment, I froze. I felt I could not take another step.
This is where it happens. Where husbands and fathers turn into men they never intended to be. They follow their ambitions, their careers, and their deluded views of what it means to succeed. Somewhere along the way, these well-meaning family men and woman eventually realize that they have neglected key relationships that feed them, relationships that are critical to their well-being. And if that realization comes late in their lives, the time may have passed to do anything about it. Children will have grown, and much water will have flowed under the bridge of their spousal relationships. If I didn’t choose the path, the path would choose me.
On a Sunday morning, when Victoria and I lingered over breakfast tea, I said, “I’m in.”
As the words came out of my mouth, I had some lingering doubt but didn’t express it. When it came to decision-making, I had learned that second-guessing was a paralyzing affliction. I committed. We committed. And when we did, we felt a soaring elation. We were set free by the sheer imagining of what we were about to do. We basked in the weightlessness of our decision. When doubts plagued me, I did not waver. If I needed to leave something behind at work to make this sabbatical happen, it was probably time to go anyway. I felt that initial commitment as pure liberty.
Excerpt from Take Off Your Shoes by Ben Feder, used with permission from Ben Feder, © 2018