What I Learned on Sabbatical

Wow. Has it really been a year since I went on sabbatical from management consulting? Twelve months without a project, it 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, and for a 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 i wasn’t always easy, or pleasant, or simple. Change always comes with bumps along the road. My sabbatical was a delight, but there were growing pains aplenty.

What I Learned on Sabbatical

I’ll share the five most important lessons from my year without working:

What My Heart Wants – During my consulting years, my brain called the shots. And because of this I spent my time in efficient, productive, and profitable ways. My decision to go on sabbatical 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 good! On sabbatical I re-learned that decisions can be emotional, personal, and exploratory. 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!

We traveled here for no good reason.

Letting Go is a Life Skill – Last February I was struggling. We were traveling and I loved it, but I was negotiating with a client how I might fly home for the summer to run a project for them. And 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.

Thankfully I realized what a chicken I’d become! Work was my security blanket, and I was gripping the edges with my fingers. I went on sabbatical “for real” starting in April of 2017. Letting go is a life skill, and I wasn’t very good at it.

When my real sabbatical started, the benefits of my time off accrued quickly. 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 feel hollow.

I’ve become averse to the superficial aspects 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, much of the corporate Kool-Aid has turned sour. When I visit LinkedIn, sometimes it feels 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. Conflicted too. Why were my values being upended? And why did things that once excited me become tacky? Decompression can be painful! If you attempt 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! – Throughout my adulthood I’ve had a small number of friend-friends and a larger number of work-friends. And 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 it’s like listening to a proctologist describe all the butts they’ve looked at this week, and you’re like DUDE, I’M EATING. PLEASE STOP.

A sabbatical might reset your bar for friendship. My work-friends are lovely people and given enough time some 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. Are you ready for it? Here we go: 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 maintaining my earning power, and saving money, and working.” And while that 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 pursue stability, or seek out adventure.
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 and constraints 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.

I’m home right now, but I can leave when I want. Really!

Going on sabbatical taught me that freedom is a state of mind, not a state of employment. But I had to leave my job behind to figure that out. Just as it’s difficult to appreciate architecture while you’re standing inside the building, you might need some distance from “normal” to gain a new perspective.

An End to My Sabbatical

Over the last year, 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 my sabbatical, I figured it would have a specific end point. But instead it’s 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, and travel, and enjoy the people in my life. 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.