Learning, Creativity, and Health: Centerpieces of a Structured Sabbatical
When was the last time you learned something just for fun? Or experimented with a new way to express your creativity? Do you prioritize your mental and physical health like you think you should? Have these three things ever been at the very center of your everyday life?
Each of these things rarely made it to the top of my priority list, let alone a starring role in my daily life. For as long as I can remember, I chose something different to place at the center of my life. My primary focus was my career — I did great work, I was paid well, I felt accomplished. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When things at my last job were feeling stagnant and it was time for a change, my usual instinct was to find another full-time job. Instead, I did something that felt radical, risky, and was a complete departure from my comfort zone.
I kicked off a structured sabbatical.
I first heard about structured sabbaticals when I was visiting a friend in New York City. He was working on a new project called Recess Labs, which is an experimental entrepreneur-in-residence program in New York City for talented people working full-time on unconventional projects. This time away is dubbed a “sabbatical,” but it’s a new twist on an old concept.
Traditionally, you might think of a sabbatical as a period of paid leave granted to a university teacher to use to study or travel. Those who take sabbaticals keep their job and are often paid during their time away. Even big companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte are getting in on the action by allowing employees to take sabbaticals after they have been with the company for 5 or more years.
What makes this new sabbatical remix different are two big shake-ups.
First, the face of a structured sabbatical looks less like a tenured professor and more like someone in the tech industry who is leveraging their job security to take time between gigs. Rather than being granted permission to refresh and renew, the new wave of sabbatical takers are entrepreneurs, freelancers, startup founders, or business owners hitting the pause button on their own accord.
Second, this period away doesn’t look like your last week-long island getaway. A structure sabbatical has, well, structure. Rather than taking a few months off to travel and surf, people who are choosing to take structured sabbaticals are focused on passion projects full-time. For me, having goals around projects I am passionate about has been a powerful key to my structured sabbatical. I wanted this time to look less like an extended vacation and more like time to reset, refocus, and reenergize.
“Some of our fellows are working on ideas in retail, cryptocurrency, and logistics with the potential to be major businesses,” said Sib Mahapatra, founding fellow at Recess Labs. “But, we also have fellows who are writing novels about tech.”
The Three Focus Areas of My Sabbatical
Each day, I think of my sabbatical in terms of three focus areas:
- Writing a book
- Taking a 5-month intro to programming course online
- Improving my physical and mental health
I had thought about writing a book for years, but I shut the door on the idea thinking that I was too busy. I always seemed to have something else to focus on that would have a more immediate payoff. Now, I am able to devote time to this project, learn about the world of publishing, and even allow people to show their support by pre-ordering my book.
Learning to code had been on my to-do list for a long time, but I never committed to putting it at the top. I feared it would be too hard to learn, and I rationalized that if I were to take time to learn something new, it should probably be a new skill that fits more clearly within my current career. If I wasn’t going to be a developer, why learn to code?
When I thought through the beliefs I had around learning new things, I decided it was time to make a change. When had I bought into the idea that I shouldn’t dive into a new topic if it’s hard to pick up, doesn’t come with an immediate payoff, or may not advance my career? It was time to start cultivating a growth mindset!
I decided to give a new idea a shot — I am taking on learning to code precisely because it was hard. The reward isn’t a promotion, a raise, or a new skill to add to my resume. The reward is the process of learning something new.
My physical and mental health had never been completely neglected, but for years they weren’t as high on my priority list as they should be. I knew if I wanted to see new healthy behaviors stick, sink deeper into spirituality, and create the wellness I deserved, it was time to make my health a focus. Each day of my sabbatical, I reflect on what I did that day to put my health at the center. I hold myself accountable for making my health a priority.
Putting these three areas at the center of my structured sabbatical was uncomfortable at first. Everything in me wanted to give in, find another great job, and get back to doing work for a paycheck. The growth has come in sitting with the discomfort of trying something new on for size, and seeing how having new priorities opens up unseen possibilities. A month into my sabbatical, I can already feel a realignment with my values.
Maybe an extended period of time on a sabbatical isn’t realistic for you today. What we can each do, though, is think through what lives at the center of our lives. Is the thing sitting at your center something you are proud of? Does it reflect who you hope to be? What would happen if something else took center stage, even for just a weekend? What is something that seems to always fall at the bottom of your priority list that deserves to be closer to the top?