A week ago, my self-imposed, self-sponsored career sabbatical turned three months old. Despite its infancy, there have been several unexpected setbacks, unforeseen road blocks, and a week or two when I wanted to call it off entirely by sending out an S.O.S. flare for anyone close enough to come to my rescue. That said, deep down, when quiet, centered and mindful of the moment I am in at the time — nothing can sway my commitment to staying the course. I am learning volumes about how the autopilot manner in which I was living and working before was contributing to my own unhappiness, stress, anxiety, and illness. In breaking those old routines, I now have the space, time, and energy to refine, adjust, and change my approach to daily life.
I am now diving deep into research and development opportunities that have rekindled my passion for the work I do and expanded the areas in which I specialize. I am slowly creating new, more balanced daily routines that include regular exercise and healthier nutrition. It is my profound hope that when my sabbatical ends and I return to full time employment in whatever form that arrives, I will sustain this young, nurturing, and vital new approach to my every day. I hope I can infuse the same purposeful rest, reflection, contemplation, and focused learning that I strive for now into whatever work I do going forward. Already, my days and the hours within them seem longer. Through regularly embracing a state of mindfulness, I am learning to remain present and content in the fact that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, and wherever I am eventually headed is already enough.
“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”
– Walt Whitman
Mapping a route forward
Family members, friends, colleagues, classmates, and clients alike have all inquired about both the how and the why of this experience. As such, I decided that once I found my bearings a few months in, for whatever it may be worth for them and you, I’d sit down and map out the journey thus far — sharing the peaks, valleys and pit stops I’ve visited to date.
While I am not known to be particularly risk averse when it comes to making career moves, I had never walked away from a position that on paper made such logical sense given my aspirations. Prior to leaving my job, I spent months researching how others managed similar career detours in order to be as prepared as I possibly could. I also needed evidence that others had found the sabbatical as critical to their development and overall contentment as I felt it would be. Nearly every source I came across championed the time wholeheartedly and without reservation. They also all seemed to agree on the basics of setting yourself up for success during a sabbatical or any major career transition for that matter.
Cleaning house financially
Save. Downsize. Pay off debt. Practice budgeting. Keep saving. Rinse and repeat. While I’ve always been fiscally minded, this process led to me selling my downtown condo and moving into a studio apartment rental in a cheaper neighborhood while I continued setting aside money to fund the break in steady employment. My research into how others managed to self-fund their sabbaticals all shared similar advice. Avoid taking on new financial liabilities. Monetize your hobbies if viable or consider taking a part time job to keep money coming in and cover any expenses your savings or other income source doesn’t meet. Figure out what your monthly budget will be and practice living within that budget prior to actually venturing out on your sabbatical. Of course, everyone will have a different experience as to what such preparation entails based on individual circumstances. Whether self-sponsored or employer sponsored to some degree, cutting back will foster the means with which to cover unforeseen expenses and to fund research, education, travel and/or the pursuit of new and exciting career opportunities.
Leveraging the power of less
A few weeks into my sabbatical, right before boarding a plane with my parents to fly to Morocco to visit my 93-year-old Grandmother and extended family, I received a call from my apartment manager that a major water leak in the building had impacted 17 apartments and mine was one of them. As I began to panic, I asked her to check my apartment and let me know if the 15 travel and creative journals I’d kept over the past 20 years were damaged. I was incredibly fortunate to learn that they survived. The water had taken another path through the apartment.
In that moment, I realized that I had very little attachment to the rest of my possessions. What a gift the universe just handed me, I thought. I now have immediate and visceral evidence of the few material items I want to preserve for myself. I had already downsized significantly when I moved and yet there was still more I could release and let go of if I needed or wanted to. Less clutter means more space, and less to organize and clean. Upon returning from my vacation a few weeks later, I set about the process of doing just that — taking yet another few steps closer to a powerfully minimalist lifestyle. Given the forthcoming end of my lease, I am now moving to a slightly cheaper apartment – further emboldened by the gift of having less to lift as I do so.
Surviving the first 100 days of solitude
By day 45 of the sabbatical, I was in between career development intensives and up to my chin in research that had begun to overwhelm me. Once I no longer had a set schedule which forced me to interact daily and occasionally decompress with people sharing a common job, goal, mission, or even commute, I found myself alone in the winds of an arid social desert. It has been isolating, lonely, and discouraging at times. From my prior research, I was aware of this challenge, but given I’m blessed with a supportive extended family and several dear friends, I arrogantly didn’t pay much attention to the need to prepare for it. The vast expanse of the daily social drought I had just created in my life swiftly stalled my progress late in my second month. As an introvert and occasional recluse, I simply never imagined it would be as challenging as it so quickly became. In some ways, the comfort of social connection when working a regular job is for better or worse baked into the system. Much of our identities are tied to what we do for a living, where we do it, and with whom we share the effort. Without these identifiers, it is easy for insecurity to creep in as we tread down a foreign path alone to discover what’s next.
Towards the end of my second month, this loss came crashing down on top of me. My two-week vacation overseas the month prior and its subsequent afterglow had successfully distracted me enough to miss the impending threat. For nearly a week, I found myself listless, sitting in my apartment, staring at the walls for a good hour or two or five. I would then mindlessly binge watch show after show from my overfull DVR while snacking myself into a food coma. By the end of each day, I felt so down that I had to summon what felt like a Herculean effort to force myself out of the apartment for a long walk through the neighborhood or to my gym down the street for some semblance of a reset. Clearly, I also needed to burn off hundreds of empty calories if I had any hope of keeping on track with my new health goals that included losing the 25 pounds I had gained over the past several years.
On the last day of this downward spiral, I forced myself into the gym yet again. Before I could even find a treadmill to claim, I noticed a group of people playing pick-up volleyball on the basketball court. I didn’t know any of them and their skill levels instantly intimidated me. I have loved volleyball since I first picked it up in high school and went on to play on intramural teams throughout my time in college in California. When not wrestling with doubt and fear, I know that I’m actually quite a competent player and can be competitive with some of the best intramural players. So, despite my edit screaming, you’re too old, too out of shape, you’ll injure yourself again, and you’re not good enough, I walked right into the gym, across the court to the benches, dropped my bag and introduced myself to the woman coordinating the league which would start a couple of weeks later. She was welcoming and encouraging. Before I knew it, I was playing game after game for a good hour and a half. I was rusty, but took steps to improve on each skill one play at a time. The joy filled memories of playing in college came flooding back. It was competitive, fun, focused and in it’s own way, a meditation on the power of play.
Smoke signals: calling on and engaging with your tribe(s)
Introducing myself to new team members with every new game, I started to feel much better and it was so much more than the simple endorphin release. I had fallen into flow again for the first time in weeks amidst people who shared my same passion for the game. Afterwards, I went for a long walk through my neighborhood before returning home to reflect on how I had afforded the space for this gloom to take over. In the year plus prior to starting this sabbatical, I had forgotten and frankly neglected, all the other parts of my identity outside of my position at work. That night, returning to playing a sport I so deeply connect with among others who felt the same, I was reminded of the critical importance of keeping connection to the people and activities that support, nurture, encourage, and push us to thrive in the face of obstacles we encounter. The next day, I called my parents as I do at least once a week to tell them about how much fun I’d had and how I was joining the league. I called friends in other cities I hadn’t spoken to in weeks or months to re-connect, catch up and share my new adventures. I began calling on my tribe quite literally. I then made plans to travel to visit as many as possible. I needed to pull them closer than I had in the past. When I was working full time, there never seemed to be enough time to do so. Or more accurately, I often felt too drained by my work to reach out beyond it. Now, with plenty of time and energy to spare, there would be no excuse not to do so. This is perhaps the greatest shift I have experienced recently — regularly seeking out and connecting with my broader community of neighbors, teammates, former colleagues, teachers, friends and family.
Filling the well
The experience I had returning to the volleyball court woke me up to how much more I needed to do to do keep my well full. I needed more than my studies to look forward to. Plenty of cognitive science research supports the notion that anticipating a positive future is one of the most critical components of well-being. As such, I made a list and set about the work of planning my days in ways that allowed me to inject more inspiring activities many of which were well aligned with my other sabbatical goals. So far, I’ve managed to join that volleyball league, travel more often (even if for only a few days at a time), explore more of my local neighborhood and greater Chicago, volunteer for causes I’m passionate about, and make a return to my work in the theatre. Next up, I hope to get back to my love for photography, practice speaking French more often, start learning Spanish, and line up a piano class.
“Rather than ever feeling as though I’m simply passively waiting for the next opportunity to align with my future, I focus instead on patient active acceptance that the questions are the journey now, the uncertainty is the gift that affords me space to explore freely for as long as it continues to serve me.”
Resisting the pull of shoulds
My closest friends and family will tell you that I’m a pretty confident guy. If pressed however, most will also admit that, like most everyone else, I struggle with doubt and the incessant drone of the societal shoulds that surround us all. These guilt-laden thoughts reach me almost daily and there is truly no point in trying to fend them off. Instead, when I feel them creep up on me, I acknowledge them for what they are, accept that I feel concerned or worried and then let them mosey on their merry way. The truth of this journey is that I have earned this time and space. I work hard to apply myself daily towards development and opportunities for learning. The fact that I am forty-something, perceived to be under-employed, and redirecting my life’s course is by design. The only energy I need expend on measuring up to, living up to, keeping up with, or staying on course is to acknowledge that for now, my road is under construction and the fact that I have the ability to explore alternate routes is in and of itself more than enough.
Embracing uncertainty, sitting still and waiting
Patience. I grow more patient with ever day that passes taking me farther from the confines of the unhealthy daily work routine from which I separated myself. Since the separation, I have taken at least 10 informational meetings with employers I might potentially want to work for in the future. Every single time, I feel a spark of relief for the potential opportunity and a nudge to pursue it until it turns into steady employment again. Naturally fueled by shoulds and the same fears that I worked so hard to overcome prior to taking this sabbatical, the push can be powerful. So far, I’ve been impressed by my ability to lean back, pause, breathe and resist the impulse. The truth is there is still so much more to discover on this journey and while opportunities come and go, I’ll know when the right one comes along at the same time that I am ready to receive it. This break isn’t indefinite, but it is still very young. I did my due diligence in preparing for it and I am nowhere near actually pulling the alarm bell and making a swift exit from it. I cannot yet see what my career will look like afterwards and that is okay. My future is uncertain in that respect and that is also okay. In my stillness, I am not afraid. Rather than ever feeling as though I’m simply passively waiting for the next opportunity to align with my future, I focus instead on patient active acceptance that the questions are the journey now; the uncertainty is the gift that affords me space to explore freely for as long as it continues to serve me.
Continuous open exploration
Before my last day on the job, I met with a cognitive behavioral science expert who left me with some of the best advice I received. She said simply that she hoped no matter what happened during the sabbatical, that I would remain open. She hoped that I would remain open to potential, to opportunities that may not make logical sense at first, remain open to thrilling, dynamic, empowering, and radical opportunities that could change the course of my life entirely. I think about that almost every day. It is perhaps the greatest source of power I find in this journey – that I truly can control my next steps, the direction I head, and which map I follow. And so, I continue to remain open and hopeful.
There is a wealth of valuable advice to glean from studying the paths of others before navigating your own. For what it’s worth to anyone, these are only a handful of lessons I have found useful thus far or have recently learned the hard way. So for all of my friends, family members, colleagues, classmates, clients and acquaintances who have mentioned contemplating a similar leap, I say, do your homework, study hard, plan accordingly, and jump! Your early map will need revisions more than once, so sketch in pencil to start, invest in a good eraser, and relish the unknowns as they present themselves!