The Sabbatical

I wanted to address an issue that’s come up a couple of times in the past few months among a couple of colleagues of mine. It’s an Old Money concept called The Sabbatical.

The best off-the-cuff definition I can give is that it’s a voluntary break from the normal routine, usually involving a retreat from work or professional life and maybe social life. It often involves relocation, stepping away from the routine, the work, and the social scene. It’s purpose is to give the mind and body a break, to recharge, to reflect, and to get a little perspective.

I’ll say this up front: I know a sabbatical is not possible for everyone. It may not be financially feasible. It may not be possible to step away from family commitments for a month, much less a year. In highly competitive industries, taking a sabbatical might be the equivalent of career suicide: if you’re not burning the candle at both ends every day of the year, competitors and even colleagues may take your place.

I understand all these things. Still, I’d encourage everyone to consider this concept as a option, whether it’s in the short term or the long term. If you can consider a sabbatical now, do so. If it’s something you’re going to have to work for, save for, and plan for, do so.

Here’s why…

Acknowledging that taking a break might be a good thing is generally a healthy thing. Very few of us lead lives that are so rich and so rewarding that we don’t need a break from them at some point for some period of time.

We don’t know that we’re in a rut or in a bubble until we exit that routine and/or that environment. We can’t see what we were doing and how we were living until we have some time and distance away from our daily lives. Only then can we say, Oh my god, I can’t believe I was doing that every day! What was I thinking?!?

When we get a break in the action, we become aware of possible options that we have going forward. We can see, Oh, I don’t have to live like that. I don’t have to own that. I don’t have to behave that way.

These options can represent gradual changes in our values and our priorities. These options can represent a shift in how we see ourselves and our world.

If we fear leaving our professional life for more than a couple of weeks, we need to ask ourselves why. Have we put ourselves in a position where, even if we’re wealthy on paper, we can’t really go without earning an income for more than two months? If so, we need to examine our lifestyle, our spending, and our values.

If we feel that having material possessions is more important than having financial freedom–which could give us the option to take a sabbatical–we need to examine our lifestyle and our values.

If we feel insecure about not being ‘A List’ or one of the ‘Top Ten’ or whatever professional designation we strive to achieve or maintain, why do we feel that way? Is professional success the be all and end all, even after we’ve achieved financial independence? Are we compensating for a deficiency in some other part of our life?

And where does a rich, varied, and possibly non-linear life fit in? Where does a year of reading books and backpacking across Europe fit in? (Answer: obviously after the pandemic. Less obvious answer: when you finally get…what? That corner office? That new house? That new wrist watch?)

As I’ve said before, most people facing the last years of their life regret two things: that they didn’t take more risks and that they didn’t leave more behind in terms of a legacy. Notice they didn’t say: I wish I’d spent more time climbing the corporate ladder, or I wish I’d redecorated the house more often.

So know this: taking a sabbatical, taking some time off, selling your business (and maybe selling your house, too) and leaving a particular way of life behind for a year or even longer is a risk. You may be miserable not working 10 or 12 hours a day. You may hate living in a foreign country. You may be miserable without your flatscreen TV and your SUV and your hot tub. You may feel adrift, useless, lacking purpose, and like the whole endeavor was a waste of time. You may never be able to recoup your financial or career ‘losses’ that taking time off cost you. You may blame Byron for the whole damn stupid fiasco.

Or…you might wake up one morning and realize you don’t feel stressed. You’re not angry all the time. You don’t need to buy something in order to feel better. You’re okay with the way you look. You’re okay with the amount of money you have in the bank. You’re okay living in a small apartment. You’re okay not being on social media. You’re okay with life happening person to person, in the present tense.

And the risk is that you might prefer your life this ‘new’ way. The risk is that you may have to accept that somewhere along the way, with the walking away, with the disruption of the routine, with the tranquility of the schedule-free day, with the unfamiliar, spartan surroundings, with the luxury of the uncluttered mind, somewhere among those disorganized, spontaneous days when you lost your ‘to do’ list and then lost the idea of comparing your life to anyone else’s…you realize you’ve changed.

There’s also the risk that you’ll realize that the drama your family regularly engaged you in at home was just that: much ado about nothing. You may find that your friends were just relationships of convenience, based on sharing an workplace, or being in the same geographic location. You may never see them, or your country, the same way after some time apart.

And when/if you return to work and social life, to the life you knew ‘before’ you took a step back, you’ll find yourself not so quick to judge, brag, assume, or jump on board with the latest trends. You’ve had a chance to look at the circus from above, from a little distance, with a little perspective. Things are not quite so black and white. Perhaps dogma doesn’t travel well.

And you may never know the value of what you’ve done until, perhaps, you sit down for a job interview upon your return. The human resources person asks you, So what have you been doing for the past year? Evenly you reply, I took a year off and worked on a farm in Wales, tending sheep, reading English literature, and working on a novel I’d always wanted to write.

And regardless of whether or not you get the job, there’ll be a priceless gem waiting for you in that moment: the look on that other person’s face.

  • BGT


5 thoughts on “The Sabbatical

  1. Your post is so timely! I’ve recently decided to take a sabbatical starting in September. While I have loved my 26-year career, I’m ready for my time to belong to me…to be more active, get my hands in the soil, be outside more. I know we’re fortunate for me to be able to do so, but part of that “luck” is our discipline of saving and not taking on debt. I’m so looking forward to seeing how life changes after this shift!

  2. As before, I am chiming in from the perspective of a parent – because I have given thought to this very topic recently.

    The two things standing between me and a long-term sabbatical are health (insurance) and education (of my children).

    Among the many wonderful things my career in government service has given me, I have access to what I truly believe is some of the best medical coverage that is readily available in the USA. Unfortunately, this has been a very necessary thing for my family – without going into too many personal details, suffice to say that my son in particular has complex but treatable medical concerns that are best served through my health plan and its network until he is independent and able to secure his own.

    My son is in college now; my daughter will be in a few years, and is currently in an excellent private school for which she receives a partial scholarship based on demonstrated need. A condition of that scholarship is that both parents work and contribute unless unable to do so, so work we must – we feel that strongly that she is where she needs to be right now.

    It’s likely that my “sabbatical” time will come as I retire from civil service and take a break before launching a second career, which will be something I love and have wanted to do for many years but cannot currently support the pay cut to make happen. My husband has a much more flexible career than my own, made possible in part because of the security of mine, and when we are truly empty-nesters who have launched our young people out into the world, we have plans. Plans for relaxation, plans for travel, plans for service, and plans to return to a new work-life fully renewed and ready.

  3. I love the idea of having a sabbatical and have been considering taking one once I end my current contract in 3 years as by then my youngest will have finished University. However, for me this is only worth doing if I can travel and live overseas for a few months. I have lived in Australia for 16 years but most of my friends and family are in Europe. For my trip I am thinking the UK, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus (where my mother lives) – clearly not an option at the moment! I just wanted to share something that your readers might find interesting and very different from the US. Here in Australia there is a legal right to have 3 months of paid leave for every 10 years of service. This is called Long Service Leave and is build on the fact that we are largely a nation of migrants (not unlike the US) as our indigenous population is only 3% and about 30% of Australians were born overseas (myself included!). What a great way to be able to keep in touch with family, especially back in the days when going back to the UK mean a month long boat trip!

  4. Hello Bryon,
    My father was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on a different kind of sabbatical than what you have described, but the positive impact that his sabbatical had on our whole family could be imparted by either type.

    In 1970, my mother and father, and my four brothers and I (who were all between the ages of 6 and 14 years old), lived in Ireland while my father taught at Trinity College for a year. The experiences that we had while we were there had an immeasurable impact on our lives, and I consider it to be the most formative experience of my childhood.

    I attended a girls school where we were taught latin, french, and gaelic, along with the usual subjects. I learned to write with a fountain pen and have never looked back. I also learned to cross a room with a book balanced on my head, pivot on the balls of my feet, and return from whence I came. I am still in contact with some of the friends I made at that school even now, 50 years later. I can also still do the book thing, which is a source of great amusement to my husband and two adult children. 🙂

    My whole family already knew how to ride to a certain extent, but we greatly improved our abilities with twice-a-week lessons at Iris Kellet’s and fox hunting on the weekends. We went on holidays and explored every corner of that “fair green isle”.

    We could have had some of those same experiences if we had not lived abroad and had stayed home in suburban Philadelphia. But it was being away, together, that made it so much fun and so impactful.

    Interestingly enough, my husband had a very similar experience. The year that we were in Ireland, he and his family (father, mother, and four siblings, just like mine) were in Hawaii while his father was on a sabbatical from teaching to write a book. Four years later we met at boarding school. The rest, as they say, is history.

  5. I recently had a small scale type of sabbatical where I temporarily eliminated 2 things in my life in order to add two things over a three week period. I eliminated news and texting to make room to organize my library and try out one enriching lifestyle change, yoga. I completed the library, but was unable to multitask in the yoga on this first attempt.

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