Wow. Has it really been a year since I went on sabbatical from management consulting? It’s been twelve months since I accepted my last project, so this seems like a good time to reflect on what I learned during my year of travel and debauchery.
What a year it was! I learned that the world is indeed a beautiful place, full of history and wonders, all set across the tapestry of our shared human values. Patrick and I attended the Women’s march in Washington DC, walked the Roman Forum in a state of awe, learned how to relax on the southern coast of Spain, and expanded our knowledge of the world in South America. I’m profoundly grateful for my travels, in no small part because it was a full year of unbroken time with my husband. He is, after all, my favorite person. 😊
I hoped my sabbatical would give me a fresh perspective on my life, and it did. But that doesn’t mean it was always easy, or pleasant, or simple. You can’t expect to change without going through some growing pains along the way.
What I Learned on Sabbatical
Here are the five biggest things I learned during my year off.
What My Heart Wants – During my consulting years, my brain called most of the shots. Because of this, I spent my time in efficient, productive, and profitable ways. Then I decided that I needed a sabbatical. That was a purely emotional decision, and I had a hard time rationalizing it. Predictably, this caused me a lot of anxiety.
HOW DARE I DO SOMETHING JUST BECAUSE I WANT TO? HOW SELFISH. (screamed my business-brain)
But here’s the thing. My heart knows what it wants, and that’s okay! On sabbatical, I learned that it’s okay for decisions to be emotional, personal, and exploratory. And it’s okay to do something because you want to, even if you don’t know why. Sometimes those “I can’t explain it but I just need to do this” moments are a sign that you’re onto something. In my case, it led to one of the best years of my life!
Letting Go is a Life Skill – Last February I was feeling miserable. We were traveling, and that was great, but I was on the phone with a client negotiating how I might fly home for the summer to run a project for them. I really didn’t want to go! But I felt like I had to, because if I stopped working even for a minute I’d never work again, right?
Thankfully, I realized what a chicken I’d become! My work had become a security blanket, and I was gripping the edges with my fingers. The next day I told my clients that I was ending my remote coaching projects and going on sabbatical “for real” starting in April of 2017. Letting go is a life skill, and I wasn’t very good at it.
As soon as I went on sabbatical, and stopped faking it, the benefits of my time off began to accrue. Go figure! But I wasted four months figuring that one out.
Decompression is Uncomfortable – Once I stopped consulting, my values changed in unexpected ways. My introversion came roaring back, after decades in an extrovert’s job. And the externals that used to drive me, things like goals, praise, and accomplishment— they began to seem shallow.
To my surprise, I’ve become averse to the superficialness of corporate life. Particularly the buzzwords, circular trends, and the endless bouts out self-congratulation. And while doing meaningful work still holds an attraction for me, the corporate Kool-Aid has turned sour. When I visit LinkedIn these days, it looks like a massive ego party, with everyone patting each other’s backs and trying to look good for the cameras. I used to be fine with this. Heck, I participated with gusto! But now the whole thing makes me queasy.
Over time, I’ve made my peace with these changes to my personality and attitude. But while the shift was happening I felt deeply confused. Why were my values being upended? And why did things that used to excite me become tacky? Decompression can be painful, and if you’re going through it, my advice is to be patient and go easy on yourself. You can’t force your way through, it’s more like a long and bewildering surrender.
Worth it! (but ouch)
Coworkers aren’t Friends. Sorry! – Traditionally I’ve had a small number of friend-friends and a larger number of work-friends. This never seemed like a problem while I was fully employed. On sabbatical though, work-friendships get weird! Like when you meet someone for lunch and all they talk about is work, because that’s been the basis for your entire relationship. And it’s not their fault, because you used to lap that stuff up. But now you feel like you’re listening to a proctologist describe in detail all the butts they’ve looked at this week, and you’re like DUDE, I’M EATING. PLEASE STOP.
My work-friends are lovely people and given enough time a few of them will become friend-friends. But it’s tough! When the context of work drops away, you might wish you’d spent more time cultivating your non-work friendships. I know I did.
What it Means to be Free – This one’s a doozy. Even though my sabbatical is coming to an end, I’ve never felt freer. Isn’t that strange?
Consider this: For years I told myself that I couldn’t travel. But this was a lie! A more accurate statement would have been “I could travel, but other things are more important to me right now. Like paying off my mortgage.” And while this might sound like a quibble, or merely a matter of word choice, it’s really not.
We humans have a tendency to lock ourselves in boxes, while pretending that someone else is the jailer. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called this Bad Faith and it’s the thing that happens when we’d rather say “I can’t” than face the anguish of difficult decisions. Even your job title can become a prison under the concept of Bad Faith. After all, a consultant behaves in a certain way, dresses in a certain way, and uses certain words. If we’re not careful, we end up playing a role, trapped by our own labels.
“Well, I can’t do this because…”
“Well, I wish I could do that! But…”
“As a consultant, I must…”
The opposite of Bad Faith is living authentically, which isn’t about traveling the world or even following your dreams. Instead it’s about acknowledging, moment-to-moment, that you’re free to pursue all your options.
You can stay in your job, or quit, or look for a new one.
You can take a risk, or not.
You can spend your money on a house, or travel, or donate it.
You can stay in a relationship, or leave.
You can keep your peace, or speak up.
You can follow the rules, or not.
Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that any of these choices are better than the others. Or that consequences don’t exist! Only that they are indeed choices, and we get to make them. The person we are today, and the choices we’ve made in the past, those things are only as limiting as we decide they are.
Going on sabbatical taught me that freedom is a state of mind, not a state of employment. But I don’t think I could have grasped that without experiencing what freedom-from-work felt like. Just as it’s difficult to appreciate the architecture of a building while you’re standing inside it, you might need some distance from your regular routines in order to gain a new perspective.
An End to My Sabbatical
All in all, it’s been a great year. Along the way I’ve caught up on some zillion hours of missed sleep, read a hundred books, and watched my stress level plummet to zero. Who even knew such a thing was possible? I’ve remembered how to play, and how to rest, and what it means to be a human being who does things, instead of a job title with legs.
When I started this sabbatical, I figured it would have a specific end point. But instead it seems to be petering out, like a ball rolling to a stop, half-hidden in the tall grass. And now I’m left with two questions. Where am I now? And what do I want to do next?
Oddly enough, the answers are easy to come by. Where am I now? I’m in this place called “my life” and I like it just fine. And what do I want to do next? Right now, I want to write novels, but that doesn’t mean I can’t consult if some of that meaningful work floats across my desk. But I expect I’ll be picky.
The best part? Every day I get to choose.
Thanks for reading, friends. 😊 Have a great day.