While doing errands the other day, I listened to a Ted Talk presented by Stefan Sagmeister, a NYC-based graphic designer and Co-Founder of Sagmeister and Walsh. The Ted Talk was titled ‘The Power of Time Off’.
Earlier on, Stefan had already made the decision to take a third of his retirement time in advance, dispersed as one-year periods between the ages 25 and 65 as he worked. For his third sabbatical, he packed his bags and moved to Bali for a year after he noticed that his firm’s works were becoming similar to each other, almost uninteresting. He narrated that he found inspiration in Bali’s landscapes and inhabitants (especially its animals), created art on clothing and furniture, and ultimately brought back with him lots of ideas and passion that resulted to some of his best works in the seven years that followed.
Going through a sabbatical myself, Stefan’s presentation ‘spoke’ to me as it made me realize the gains I have had, and the emotions that preceded this realization. You see, going on a break is much like work itself, with highs, lows and many moments to remember.
The Initial High
As I started with my sabbatical, the first thing I experienced was elation, mainly because I did not anymore need to face the usual issues that I dealt with at my previous job. I felt freedom – freedom from bosses and colleagues’ expectations, freedom from the routine of an 8-5, and freedom from my own expectations of what my achievements should be. I have not had any real break since I started corporate work twenty years ago; when I did go for short breaks, you would always find me on the computer or on my mobile phone for at least a quarter of the day. In effect, this break was definitely a welcome respite.
After a few weeks, however, I noticed that family and friends kept asking what I was going to do or what company I would be joining next. They even wondered what I was going to fill my days with. At that point, elation turned to doubt. “What if my decision to take a break is wrong?”, I thought to myself. I even started getting upset with these questions as I thought, “surely there is another thing/purpose/activity that family and friends could associate me with?” Later on, I realized that I had poured so much of myself into work over the last twenty years that work has become my identity, a message that I had inadvertently broadcasted to everyone in my circle. I wanted to dispel that, so I started tapping into my creative passions –writing, crafting, jewelry designing and volunteering – all of which got pushed to the back-burner as I scaled the corporate world.
Doubt had been a very important phase during my sabbatical as it pushed my other passions to the surface and made me realize that as much as I love working (and yes, it is OK to be known for the work you perform), I still have as much passion for creating.
As months went by and as I started browsing job opportunities in the market, doubt turned to foreboding. “What if it takes me ages to eventually get the job that I am passionate for?” Pragmatic friends reminded me about the harsh reality of protracted job search, especially with bills continuously piling up. I am fortunate to have saved enough money to afford a sabbatical, but still, with no money coming in, I started to worry. I worried about deciding to get into a job that I had no passion for. I worried about being stuck in the same state for years, eventually losing my zest for learning and sharing my knowledge. I worried that I had maxed out professionally and am now crashing down. I worried that it was only luck that brought me the achievements I have had, and little else.
Almost everyday, I am torn between feeling elated that I finally have my own time to do whatever I wished, and the feeling that I am missing out on the goings-on in my industry. On some days, I would be soaking up recent technology trends, changes in employment practices and management news, eager to be back to solving workplace issues and feeling anxious that recruiters take time with a suitable placement. On others, I would be indulging my creative juices and getting lost in my gemstones, nylons and tools.
With any experience, our perspective pretty much determines how much ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ we get out of life. As for me, the yearning to get back to creating value in employees’ lives is as strong as ever. I miss being part of a team that looks to deliver value to its stakeholders. I miss problem solving and helping companies build better foundations for their future.
But I choose to focus in the meantime on enjoying priceless moments with my daughter, chatting about her school day, her upcoming field trip and crushes. The last few months have also allowed me to attend PTA meetings that I almost always missed in the past. I get the chance to troop to the local market with my husband to pick the day’s freshest produce. Moreover, I now have the opportunity to career-coach former team members over extended lunches, and to video chat with a long-lost friend in Greece who mulls moving back to Dubai for work so she can be closer to her kids.
On hindsight, more than the physiological gains, I believe that this sabbatical has enriched my life by allowing me to re-tap into other parts of myself that I shut down for lack of time or bandwidth. I rediscovered the joys of just being. I became more aware of my emotions, and it made me realize that I have so much capacity to build or re-build that which I believe will bring me closer to my life-long goals.
There is a lot of material out there about taking a break and taking stock of your life – and for good reason. Taking a break really does help us be more refreshed for the next phase of our lives. So, do you dare hit the refresh button?
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