Thursday, August 6, 2015

236. Overdue for a long sabbatical

When you think of a sabbatical, one usually associates it with college professors. Typically granted it is often a paid leave dedicated to travel, research or writing a book.

However, anyone can take a sabbatical, as it can be further defined as a “break from one’s career lasting usually up to one year.” This extended leave is likewise usually attached to a goal, often travel, but could be anything—such as reenergizing, or caring for a family member.

Last spring, in addition to my full time job at the Alcohol and Drug Board, I was the working president of a greyhound rescue, coaching high school baseball and writing for two newspapers. It nearly broke me. My health quickly deteriorated, I was tired, anxious and generally in a stress-induced bad mood. Trying to do everything, I didn’t do anything very well.

Later that summer, I was miserable and my wife said I should leave everything. Take a break; get my life and health back on track. Not ready to leave my job, I took a two week vacation and left the greyhound rescue organization. It didn’t help. I was still physically tired and mentally exhausted.

As many know, the trouble with vacations is that you spend extra hours at work preparing for your time away and then extra hours catching up with work after you return. And travel, even to the nicest places, can likewise be stressful—and expensive.

At that point, we decided that I needed (and later my wife as well) to make a major move. We sat down and looked at the situation. We tried to anticipate the future and analyzed our financials. The two biggest reasons most people don’t take extended breaks is that they can’t afford it and they can’t leave their job (and hope have it when they return). Good jobs are still difficult to find, making leaving one a risky proposition.

For us to be able to afford it, the stars needed to align— and we needed to make some changes. In addition, and far riskier, we had to look at using our retirement—something that almost everyone, including myself, would not recommend. If we could reduce our monthly expenses, we could afford a temporary hiatus.

I created a 12 month plan, which honestly I never really thought would come to fruition. I have been working multiple jobs and/or going to school since being an early teenager. Could I really just quit my job? Did I really want to use my retirement money?

The answer soon became, can I afford not to? My health and mental well-being was heading toward a desperate level. I kept coming back to: What good is retirement savings if I don’t live to retirement— or if I am too unhealthy to enjoy it if I do live to retirement?

In doing a little research, I was surprised that there was support for the idea.

Clive Prout, a Washington state life coach who helps people plan sabbaticals, said the most fundamental question is why?

“Some people I see just want a longer vacation. They like their jobs and want to come back to them. Other people aren’t happy with their work and want a break for as long as possible. And if they can return to something else, that’s even better,” Prout said.

Elizabeth Pagano, cofounder of said, “The concept of working for 40 years and then retiring is outdated. People should be able to inject bursts of time off into their career paths.”

I’ve maintained for a long time that Americans work too hard—sometimes out of ambition, but often out of necessity or fear. There is nothing wrong with had work, but I think we need more balance. Recognizing the value of time away, a surprising number of companies now offer paid and unpaid sabbaticals ranging from a few weeks to a year.

My goals include not only getting healthier, but enjoying life a bit. I am looking forward to reading some books, watching some Great Courses lectures, writing, playing with my dogs, photography and spending time with wife. I am looking forward to a lack of structure.  One goal would be to write a book, but only if it happens organically.

I was surprised with the support I received from others. Many said they wish they could do the same; others were supportive but couldn’t imagine taking an extended leave.

One colleague summed it up by quoting from a poem by Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

After all, that is the point. As far we know we only get one chance at life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed and there no sense in reliving the same miserable day again and again. The anxiety in me fears everything that could go wrong—and plenty could. But maybe things will be okay.

Dan Clements, the author of Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Simple, offers this advice about doubt.

“Don’t let the uncertainty of a sabbatical stop you from taking one. The best sabbaticals are taken with a dose of faith. Learn to trust that things will work out. They almost always do, and there’s no return on thinking otherwise.”