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What the Bleep is a Career Sabbatical?!

by Maggie Graham, MEd, CPCC

You’ve sat at your desk, dreaming of a break, haven’t you? We all have. Not a vacation, but a substantial break, one where you weren’t returning to the routine that you know all too well at work, to the backlog of emails and requests, to the politics and patterns that drain your energy.

Recent high school and college grads call it a “gap year,” but what if you’re in a different era of life? What’s the term? Jokingly, it could be called “unemployment,” but it’s more than that – much more, in fact. It’s an intentional hiatus from paid work with a personal agenda.

Your agenda can be as lofty as finding your life purpose or as simple as resting (one of my clients told me, “I’ve been working since I was 16, and the longest amount of time I’ve had off is a two-and-a-half-week vacation” – for sure then, it’s past time for rest!). Some people seize the opportunity to travel the world, to immerse themselves in the ex-pat life and move to an international location for a while, to seek religious or spiritual retreat or renewal, to connect with children, grandchildren, or a community of choice. Many people would list all of these reasons for taking a career sabbatical.

Regardless of what draws you to a break in your work routine, there are some key considerations that merit attention.

How do you budget for this time?

There’s no mystery to this element. Except for the expenses that your work covers such as health insurance (include medical, dental, vision, and health care spending accounts) and disability insurance as well as dependent care accounts, your budget looks the same as it does now. Consider the usual categories, and if you’re adding travel, calculate what you normally consider if you’re embarking on a short or multi-month trip.

How do you explain what you’re doing?

This question surfaces at every point in the process – before, during and after. The audience could be those who are merely curious as well as those who have influence over you (such as making a hiring decision when you’re ready to re-enter the workforce). Some reminders include:

  • First, get clear in your own mind that you have nothing to justify and nothing to defend. If you’ve set up your financial infrastructure and personal support system to create an experience like this for yourself, embrace it! American culture tends to overemphasize a strong work ethic, often at the exclusion of refilling our wells and at the sacrifice of our health. It’s absolutely okay for you to set aside time for yourself.
  • Second, calibrate your message to your audience and listen for potential undercurrents. Your conversation with someone in your book group will be different from what you list on your resume and LinkedIn. Watch for jealousy, which the other person owns and must grapple with (your only role is to step away from drama and to refrain from belittling what you’re creating). Recognize that other people’s reactions say more about them than about you.
  • Third, know that you’ll have time to develop your business-like elevator speech about what you’ve done, and you must experience it before you can articulate it to a potential employer. You don’t have to know now what you’ll say in an interview. Just rest assured that you can create something that is palatable to the business world once you’ve gone through this very personal experience.

What do you do during your sabbatical?

Take your personality into account. Are you a planner? A spontaneity connoisseur? Brace yourself because I’m about to encourage you to lean in the opposite direction of your natural inclinations. Don’t swing the pendulum wildly to the other side of the planning spectrum, but let yourself experiment with something slightly different from your usual pattern.

Also, imagine yourself at the end of your sabbatical. How do you want to describe it to others? What are three words you want to use when you’re gushing about it? Use those descriptors as a springboard for outlining your plans.

Finally, consider who you want to be with during this time. If you could immerse yourself in a supportive community, whom would that include? How much time do you want to yourself? Are you an introvert who thrives on solitude? Rest in the knowledge that you are constructing this for yourself. It doesn’t have to look like someone else’s blueprint. At the same time, if you’re looking at the blank calendar pages of the coming months and you’re panicking, explore infrastructures that feel nourishing to you. Possibilities include:

  • Use a book that guides you through an inventory and creation process. Possibilities include Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (I lead groups that are structured around this book), Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy (he leads workshops around this topic), and The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte (she has certified several leaders for her work, and you can find them on her website).
  • Travel with others who also want a deep dive into this topic. Pivot Journeys is one organization that gathers people for this purpose. Retreat centers such as Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen often offer workshops on career and inner exploration.
  • Design an infrastructure for yourself that offers you the balance between structure and freedom that suits you best. Define your desired outcomes and create a timeline and set milestones in place for yourself an invite witnessing, collaboration and accountability that feels nourishing. Research keywords related to your plans such as “expat,” “writing retreats for beginners,” “best places to unplug.” If you want to use your home as your base (I’m a homebody myself, so I relate to this approach), imagine what would feel replenishing for you with your roots intact. What’s the blend of unscheduled time and expectations of yourself? How do you balance time to yourself with community? What’s your inflow energetically and what do you want to offer in the way of service or giving? It’s your time, so you get to decide.

What does reentry look like once your sabbatical is complete?

This phase of your process deserves extra attention because if it’s neglected, all of your learning can unravel as you bring your attention back to the world of work and other responsibilities.

Travel back in time to vacations you’ve taken: what was your first day back on the job like? Were you energized and renewed and excited to see everyone? Or did you drag yourself into work exhausted because your travel had ended literally hours before the start of your workday? If your pattern tends to lean toward the latter, double the time and attention you give to planning this portion of your sabbatical.

Reentry will be driven by finances, timeline, and other obligations that beckon you. In planning this phase, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are three concrete, measurable ways you want to track your progress during your sabbatical?
  • What are three vague, difficult-to-pin-down accomplishments you want to claim at the end of your sabbatical?
  • If you were to receive harsh scrutiny about your sabbatical from someone, who is that person and what do you imagine they would say that would crush you at the end of your sabbatical? How do you want to engage with this person at each stage of your process? Do you want that person to have emotional power and ownership over your experience?
  • If you were to meet just the right person at the end of your sabbatical and that person could tie everything up neatly for you, who would that person be and how can you plan to cross paths with them?

Once you articulate your responses to these questions, you’re ready to begin with the end in mind and define the timeline, the budget, and the pathway for your entire experience. Your journey awaits. It’s time to begin planning!