Sabbaticals for the Rest of Us - Lessons from My 4-month Leave

 Click for "The Power of Time Off" Ted Talk by Stefan Sagmeister

Click for "The Power of Time Off" Ted Talk by Stefan Sagmeister

Sabbaticals are traditionally a time of paid leave for academics to travel or work on projects that would not be possible to focus on during a given academic year. The structure of the academic sabbatical is often for these professionals to take such a leave every seventh year*, with both the word and its frequency having roots with the word "sabbath". 

These rejuvenation periods are a unique opportunity to take a step back from the daily grind. Universities understood the benefit for an individual to have a chance to think, discover and experience a different perspective. After all, they employed thinking professionals.

Given our thought economy, doesn't it make sense to expand the use of sabbaticals?

Some companies already make use of these as a benefit to employees but there's also benefit in considering whether we as individual want to explore the potential for "paid leave" no matter whether our employer would foot the bill or not. The difference? We ensure we build the financial footing to be able to take the leap with or without financial support from our employer.

I'm not necessarily talking about full out financial independence here—though achieving that level of freedom is easier than one might think—but I am talking about setting ourselves up to be able to spend time away from our profession to do other things.

Opportunities for self-prescribed sabbaticals could include:

  • The use of a downsizing "package" prior to returning to work for another employer.
  • Saving a year’s salary or any combination of efforts that makes it possible to take a significant amount of time away from predictable, steady paid work.
  • Moving from a two-income to a single-income household for a predetermined amount of time, if that's our living situation. Note: Of course, our significant other will likely want us to reciprocate! 
  • Downsizing our lifestyle to build sabbaticals into our lifestyle on a regular basis, especially if we tend to work on a contract basis.

The only option I'd never advocate is getting into debt to take a sabbatical. It's not just because I think debt is a lousy choice—which I do—but because it layers on a preoccupation that makes it difficult to feel free to think and do without the pressure of a productive or "monetizable" outcome to your time away from the daily grind. If you don't think that's the case, you may want to read my previous post on the effect of scarcity on our ability to think and be present.

The ability to experience immersion in a new area of interest can happen in a number of ways, either part time or full time:

  • Volunteering
  • Working
  • Writing/reading
  • Studies - structured and unstructured
  • Other character-building activities
  • Navel gazing (aka loafing)
  • Extended travel

Experiencing any of the above as a full-time option would be most desirable, given that true immersion means extricating oneself from our current reality and diving into new environments and experiences. It’s this break away from the known that’s so effective, so eye opening.

Case in point: there’s no better way to learn a new language than to live in a region where it's the primary language spoken. Part-time evening studies usually don't cut it and, in the grand scheme of things, full time efforts are usually more time efficient.

My First Sabbatical

Prior to leaving my corporate job, I chose to take a four-month leave by saving up a year’s vacation time and combining it with eleven weeks of unpaid leave. I was granted this unconventional request by requesting it over six months in advance and by showing that I'd ensured that everything was or would be in place to minimize any impacts related to my absence.**

It was a great decision and one I’ll always be thankful I chose to make. I took the time to pursue full time studies in Kinesiology, enabling me to complete a second major by taking courses that were not often offered during evenings and weekends. I took a full 6-course workload, ensuring my complete immersion and commitment.

This experience was fantastic for a number of reasons:

  • I gained insight into a new lifestyle: I’d not been a full-time student in over a decade and Kin student culture could not be more different from my experience in the Executive MBA program. It would be an understatement to say that the attitudes and values differed.
  • I was able to spend time away from my corporate job and consider it from an outside perspective. I found that being somewhat removed was extremely helpful in that respect.
  • I satisfied my appetite for knowledge in the area of physical fitness and lifestyle management and regularly apply what I learned.
  • I made new friends I still keep in touch with years later.
  • It made me better at my corporate job because I had a new way of looking at old problems and it gave me more tools to tap into when collaborating with others.

Overall, it left me feeling happier and more fulfilled. I realized how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing in all aspects of life: as a salaried worker, as a student, as a small business owner and in my various roles as a family member and friend.

It also helped me realize that change is good. It’s both refreshing and reaffirming. In a way, it prepared me for the need to address a necessary change less than two years later: deciding to leave my corporate job.

The Benefits of Time Off

The benefits of time away are numerous, but I want to focus on the top two.

Sabbaticals:

  1. Make us better at what we do.
  2. Help us step back and examine our lives in a way tending to day-to-day matters doesn't afford us.

1. Getting Better At What We Do

A sabbatical isn't just about being able to reboot. Yes, it offers some mental, emotional, psychological and physical rejuvenation, but it can also make us more effective, no matter what we do once it comes to an end. As I’ve written about in the post about being a generalist, becoming immersed in new experiences and challenges makes us better versions of us both personally and professionally.

2. A New Frame of Reference Can Be Life Changing

Once we reemerge from a sabbatical, a number of unexpected outcomes might await us.

We may:

  • Determine that what we’d been doing prior to the plunge is right for us and we recommit to our previous path with a fresh perspective and renewed energy.
  • Discover a new interest and redirect our efforts in this new direction.
  • Merge our past and recent experiences into a new recipe for a more fulfilling life.
  • Feel thankful for the opportunity we’ve given ourselves and pursue yet another endeavour; deciding that both what we used to do and what we’ve just completed aren’t quite it.
  • Feel lost and unsure of what to do next and wander the desert for a while.
  • Change other aspects of our lives that we’d been conveniently ignoring for some time because we were lost in our busyness.

No matter the outcome, I'd venture to say that few of us would regret change that results from the experience. If anything, what we’re most likely to regret is not trying something new.

All too often we blow our fear of the unknown far beyond the proportions of reality. This tendency leads us to avoid taking a position when it comes to change, or at least hedge our bets. We let our aversion to risk dictate our decisions, at least until the status quo becomes so unbearable that taking the leap will be a relief, no matter the outcome.

That’s why movies focus on taking leaps of faith. The idea is incredibly thrilling, even more so given we rarely act on the impulse in our own lives. After all, we are rational[izing] and creatures.

Want more insight into the power a sabbatical can have on reigniting your curiosity, creativity and productivity? This TED Talk titled The Power of Time Off by Stefan Sagmeister might do the trick.


Have you ever taken a sabbatical or are you considering taking one? Care to share your thoughts?


*It should be noted that these are no longer a given in academe and many requests for sabbatical are an involved process that can result in the leave being granted or denied.

**I also knew deep down that if the leave were not granted I would likely walk, which likely made it easier for me to ask for the time away.