Who Me? Take a Sabbatical?

When funnyman Steve Martin’s book Pure Drivel came out it enjoyed critical raves and enthusiastic sales. Although the author has long been recognized for his fertile comic mind, he told the Today Show’s Matt Lauer that the book would not have happened if he hadn’t taken time off. His sabbatical unleashed, Martin said, an avalanche of creative ideas.

Martin is not alone in discovering that taking time away can reap enormous benefits. Nicola Freegard was a successful (and frazzled) Hollywood music production executive. After a particularly stressful project, she decided to spend a year driving around the United States with her cocker spaniels as companions. Eventually, she settled in Tucson and began to clarify her goals. She decided she wanted to combine design and textile production with her concern for the environment. Furthermore, she wanted to work with great people and travel to exotic places. Today she heads Earth Works, a company that markets environmentally sensitive products for the home.

Despite numerous stories extolling the profound rewards of taking time away, it’s an idea that is not being as heartily embraced as it might be. In fact, many people find the whole notion downright terrifying. Not surprisingly, I’ve noticed, these are people with the least to lose.

Because the notion of regular sabbaticals throughout our lifetime has been so ignored in recent times, there’s some confusion over what constitutes a true sabbatical. People often claim to have taken a sabbatical when they actually took a sidetrip — usually not one of their own choosing. Divorce or a job loss frequently sends people into a tailspin, causing them to drift until they get their bearings. Calling such times a sabbatical diminishes the true objective of time off.

My definition of sabbatical is time away with a purpose. The purpose of such a time is not to abandon your life, but to enrich it. In the original concept, first defined in the Old Testament book of Hebrews, a sabbatical was to be taken by everyone, every seven years. During this year off, fields were to lie fallow, debts were to be forgiven, relationships were to be repaired and introspection was encouraged. Over time, of course, the notion disappeared and today many people don’t even observe a weekly Sabbath, much less consider taking an entire year of restoration.

After taking my sabbatical seminar a few years ago, Veneta Masson wrote an inspiring article about it for a health care magazine. In the article she said, “In 1998, I will have been an RN for 35 years. I should be coming up on my fifth sabbatical. …What if nurses, especially nurses in clinical practice, were granted time away from the physical, mental and emotional intensity of patient care for personal renewal? Wouldn’t nurses nurse more effectively if they themselves are well cared for?”

Obviously, my answer to the questions, “Who me? Take a sabbatical?” is a hearty, “Yes. Why not you?” And I’m not alone in singing the praises of such an adventure. The authors of Six Months Off interviewed over 200 people who had done so and without exception they all found that doing so enhanced their lives and careers. I have never met any sabbatical-taker who doesn’t rank it as a top life experience.

Like every worthwhile undertaking, a sabbatical requires thoughtful planning plus a creative approach to shifting gears for a while. Just like starting a business, taking time off seems fraught with obstacles until the right idea occurs. Then enthusiasm for the envisioned project begins to create momentum and attract necessary resources.

A good starting point for thinking about your own sabbatical can be as simple as this little exercise. Start writing down your own thoughts by completing this sentence:

I want time away in order to accomplish_________.

Once you have the big picture in sight, begin to list all ideas — both tame and wild — about how you might fulfill the mission. Then get busy carrying out the logistics.

Whether you want to see the world, find time to complete a project without interruption, study a new language or jumpstart your creative spirit, a sabbatical is an old idea that deserves to be rediscovered and put to use by those serious about discovering their biggest selves.

Is It Time for Time Away?

Here are several signs that it is the perfect time to consider a sabbatical:

  • You can’t remember the last time you had a new idea that you were excited about.
  • You’ve reached all of your goals.
  • You’ve reached none of your goals.
  • Your kids think you’re a nerd and you suspect they’re right.
  • You have a nagging suspicion that you’d be really good at something if you only had time to learn how.
  • You get wistful every time a plane flies overhead.
  • Nobody ever asks you what’s new.
  • A longterm relationship or job has come to an end. It’s time to write a new chapter.
  • You’re tired of being an armchair traveler and want to see distant lands for yourself.
  • You’re ready to find a new hometown.
  • You feel drawn to donate your time and talents to a humanitarian cause.
  • You need time to do research or start a long-term project.
  • Your soul is weary.