Radical sabbatical

Dec 04, 2017

We all need a lengthy, unadulterated turning-off of our brains. How do you start? Try taking a break from the lifelong grind.

Sabbatical – rooted in the Greek word sabbatikos – the word speaks to the act of taking a break. Historically, such a break has been exclusive to those in academia or religious ministry, and less for business professionals. But, like everything else, times are changing. In fact, so much so that even the U.S. Navy offers sabbaticals – called Career Intermission Programs.

For many individuals, sabbaticals are planned events.

I’m a planner. Since high school, I’ve had a plan. I’ve crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is by pursuing degrees and careers that aligned to my personal road map – each experience and position was a stepping stone to the next. Like many of my Gen-X peers, a strong work ethic was the common thread that wove each of those experiences together.

Seven months ago, I started my sabbatical – and it was not a planned event. I wish I could say it was. For a planner, an unplanned and self-initiated sabbatical is not a stress-free situation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

It was hard to recognize that working harder to change a situation was not necessarily smarter. Deciding to stop doing what I knew best, even when in conflict with personal values, was hard. Leading up to the leap, doing what I did best posed a paralyzing conundrum and the thought of considering anything else was quickly associated with failure.

But, was is it really? I was about to find out.

My sabbatical started off slow – there were lots of emotions to navigate and the mental acuity was just not there. In fact, my brain felt like it had an outdated computer drive. One of those old PCs where the RAM was so overtaxed that all one heard was a dull grinding.

About five weeks into my sabbatical, I ran across the book Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want, by Tess Vigeland. Wow, there were actually others who had felt like me. Vigeland said the book “is also about finding a new definition of success.” Tess poses the important question – who am I without my job?

To figure that out, I needed to heal my brain – easier said than done. At the onset of my leap, friends and business acquaintances all wanted to know the answers to two questions:

  1. How do you decide to take a sabbatical?
  2. What do you do on a sabbatical?

As I’ve shared above, the answer to question No. 1 was – I didn’t know. I was winging it!

Let me tell you, there are a lot of folks out in the professional world who want to take a sabbatical. It’s the elusive mirage that sits just a bit out of reach; mysterious, attractive, and seductive. Sadly, the early weeks were just the opposite. They were filled with fear, doubt, and a general feeling of “what the heck!”

The answer to question No. 2 also elicited a consistent comment from everyone who heard of my story – just pursue your hobby! The reality is, I have no hobbies. I worked. My life consisted of working. I felt I was trapped by my work because I was an owner/partner. What awoke in me one day was the realization that nothing is as permanent as you think. I’m not alone in being caught in the ambition trap, or perpetually living in the “should syndrome.” They both result in too much work.

My journey is now in hindsight and I can share with you the lessons I picked up along the way.

  • Your brain needs rest. We live in a society where it’s normal to be jumping from activity to activity. A harried pace is second nature. A “just in time” mentality. We all need lengthy, unadulterated “turning off” of our brains. How do you start? Just stare into space, stare at the waves, get lost in the butterflies in your garden, or anything of the like.
  • Sleep! Nap! Then, sleep some more. Sleep is undervalued. Take a nap, sleep in. Just because! Don’t apologize.
  • Get moving. Our bodies, our temples. We all know we only get one life, yet we don’t take care of that life as we should.
  • Manual labor is good. Getting your house in order leads to spiritual renewal – the piles and projects can all benefit from decluttering. In some weird way, the manual labor leads to the mental decluttering that leads to mental clarity. I’m sure some research has been done on this!
  • Creativity comes from clarity. Period.
  • Have fun. Why not! Spend time with those you love – family, friends, pets. Make a list of all those you’ve not seen because you were busy working. If you are en route to meet one of them, take a detour and stop by to see the sights. They won’t mind if you are late!
  • Meet a friend for lunch. And have wine. Living in D.C. where politics cuts through everything, you can always count on a good glass of wine to a attract positive and bipartisan conversation.
  • Make no excuses. You are where you are because you made it so. Deal with it and don’t run from it.
  • Leave the ego at the door. You are a person, not a title. It seems straight forward, but again, we all tend to lose sight of that when running in that gerbil wheel.
  • Consider alternatives. Be open to opportunities that align to life goals. It’s OK to want to do something new, even if you end up sticking to your knitting.
  • Figure out what you don’t want to do. It’s just as important as knowing what you want to do, if not more so.
  • Trust your gut! Comes in very handy when considering the previous two points.
  • Read. There is so much to learn beyond your own area of expertise. Before my leap, all of my reading was on books about marketing and business. This summer, I rediscovered an old love – reading for fun. During the eclipse, I read a nonfiction book about the solar system. Imagine that! Whether fiction or nonfiction, each bit of reading helped my brain to heal.
  • Play. For this one, my granddaughter was essential. Even if you don’t have a child in your life, find opportunities to play. Try seeing a matinee on a weekday; even better, see a movie on opening day, first showing. Pretty cool!
  • Get to know yourself. Really spend time with yourself. Alone. Thinking. Quietly. As I’ve come to learn, so many of us actually don’t do this. Note: This is not the same as meditating, a habit I hope to one day develop.

There are many nuggets of wisdom beyond the ones I’ve shared here. Of course, this gift called “my sabbatical journey” could not have happened without the support of my family and my strong network of friends and professional colleagues. What’s next for me? I’m looking forward to working with people I like and respect. No regrets. It’s been a good journey. Now, it’s time to be productive, purposeful, and happy!

Sylvia Montgomery is a business development manager for Timmons Group. She can be contacted at sylvia.montgomery@timmons.com.

Subscribe to the electronic version of The Zweig Letter for free.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.