The Year I Bought Time: My Sabbatical

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Time for exploration
Time for exploration
Time for exploration

2013 was the year I never dreamt would happen. But it did.

I had one year not to work. To be exact, I had eleven months that I called “self sponsored sabbatical” to plan the day as I pleased, within the parameters of meeting the needs of my two small children and one very understanding husband. I did not have the budget to go back to school or travel the world as I may have wished, but I had the opportunity to rest, reflect, savor my small children, and consider what new roads I might want to go down in my career.

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I have always worked. I needed to work for money, but I also loved working. Since 9th grade, when I started working at my parents’ tiny ice cream store, straight through graduate school, I worked part- or full-time. In 2012, I was in my 12th year at iMentor, where I served in multiple executive leadership roles while I juggled my other important roles as a mother, wife, sister and daughter. As much as I loved my work at iMentor, I felt in heart that it was time for change. But frankly, I was tired, physically and mentally, and out of ideas about what the next right thing might be. Years seemed to fly by as my babies morphed into kids, and I wanted to buy time, and hold them as I figured out what to do next.

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Even though my husband had always wished I would work less and spend more time with the family, he was incredulous about my decision. “Are you really leaving without lining something up?,” he asked. But after talking through our finances and why I needed this time off, he supported me one hundred percent, even if he was a bit nervous and definitely jealous! I realize that for so many individuals (including my  husband!), not bringing in income for even few weeks is just not an option, no matter how much you wish for that time off, or try to save up for such an occasion. That made me feel incredibly lucky, but also guilty at the same time.

During my first week on sabbatical, a friend sent me an inspiring and incredibly intimidating Ted talk called “The Power of Time Off” by Stefan Sagmeister, a designer in New York City who closes his design shop every seven years for a year-long break.

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Sagmeister decided that rather than spending the first 25 years of his life learning, the next 40 years working, and the last 15 or so years in retirement, he would switch the order and “borrow” about five years from retirement by inserting year-long sabbaticals into his working years. He talks about how all his work started to look the same when he took no breaks—a big problem for a creative mind. He makes a very convincing business case for time off, recalling how much he enjoys his job again when he returns from his breaks. He also notes that everything he created in his business in the seven years following his first sabbatical originated as an idea that came to him during that single year.

Seeing what Sagmeister was able to accomplish by “not working” for a whole year was exciting, but it also made me feel that I would be expected to have something amazing to show for my time away from the workforce. And I had been thinking, “I just want some time with my family as I figure out what to do next!” It made me resent this amazing man just a little bit for having that whole year off to focus only on himself and his creative needs.

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If You Need Some Time

Similar ideas about the way we think about work and rest are expressed in a book by Tim Ferriss called The Four Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I have a bit of trepidation suggesting this book—Ferriss does not seem to understand the value of finding work that is truly fulfilling (at least at the time he wrote the book; he seems to enjoy his writing and lifestyle guru career now, and surely he’s spending more than four hours a week on this career). He declares that the best job is simply the one that pays most money for the fewest hours, and essentially denounces the idea of the traditional full time work model altogether. I feel this is a major flaw in his argument.

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However, he does understand the value of time and how we use it, which is why I believe his book is worth reading. He offers practical advice on time management, charting one’s own career path, and negotiating for flexible as well as remote work arrangements. One year, before the thought of a sabbatical entered my mind, I took one of Ferriss’s suggestions, which was to make a list of everything I would do if I did take a sabbatical year. I knocked out just as many things on my “sabbatical wish list” that year as my actual sabbatical year. He urges his readers to see how illogical it is to waste their precious time stuck doing work that requires them to be away from the people, activities and places that make them happy in order to make money for things they don’t need.

Another book I recommend is Reboot Your Life, a book I found through a coaching client who is planning her own sabbatical. It’s a well-balanced planning guide for those who want to, or need to explore time off to “reboot.” What I especially appreciate about this book is how it covers not only the sabbaticals that you plan, but also the ones that find you, in the form of layoffs, illness and other unexpected surprises in life. The four co-authors, who call themselves sabbatical sisters, based the book on their own “reboot” experiences and run retreats throughout the year to help others plan their time off. They cover everything from setting sabbatical goals and lengths to the financial planning aspects of the process.

The author took time to play with her children and her options, just like the mural suggests.
The author took time to play with her children and her options, just like the mural suggests.
Photo by Chong Oh

What I Did With My Time

My own sabbatical year was not as creative and productive as Sagmeister’s, but it was filled with discoveries about my own priorities. Now I know I will never have a six-pack or lovely, toned arms. I now also know that I just do not make time for seven hours of sleep. I just never got around to making those things happen, no matter how much I thought I wanted to. Other things came easily. I deeply and slowly enjoyed my children, even on the days I was exhausted by their boundless energy and…whining. I developed friendships with smart, strong and kind mothers I met at school. I managed to learn to ride a two-wheeler bike (once), practiced Spanish, and served on lots of committees for which I did tremendous amount of free work. I had countless meetings with nonprofit leaders and recruiters, which enriched my network, and made me feel important.

But the year was not always smooth. There was the ridiculous pressure I put on myself to try to play the role of a perfect stay-home-mom, while running around to reinvent myself professionally. There were some uncomfortable conversations about money with my spouse. Even though our family’s finances were strong for the time being, I was not used to being completely dependent on my husband financially. I also found myself mentally practicing what to say in case someone new asked, “What do you do?”

The toughest part of the year was the anxiety I felt about my future employability. That anxiety was so strong at the beginning of my sabbatical that I ran from one information meeting to another, which often turned into informal interviews for jobs I did not really want. The voices inside my head were saying things like: What if everyone forgets about me and stops calling? What if I can’t go back to work when I have to? This pretty much ruined the first several months of my sabbatical, even as I was crossing things off my sabbatical bucket list.

With enough time, however, my confidence started to creep back, and I became more present, remembering that this had been a deliberate choice, a gift. I also realized that I no longer wanted to have another “important job” under my belt before I started doing what I’d secretly wanted to do for many years: support other nonprofit leaders’ work through coaching, a talent I discovered I had during my time at iMentor.

With the support of my network, which became stronger rather than weaker during my time off, I emerged at the end of the year with a whole new career as an executive coach to nonprofit leaders and other executives who seek to do their jobs better and enjoy their lives more. I make less money (for now!) than I did before, but I get to control how much and when I work each week, with whom I work and where I work. Almost every day, I know in my heart that I’m helping good people doing important work to make the world a better place.

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It was a year well spent.