My shocking and scandalous launch into an unplanned career detour
Taking a sabbatical isn't something I ever associated myself with actually doing. Sabbaticals are dreamy and indulgent, not a thing that my career plans would ever make time for. I was on an ambitious path that involved hard, steady work. I was going places and I was determined to prove myself and see how far “up” I could go.
And then I got that strange phone call from my boss. The one where her voice sounds far-away and a little too sweet. I met her in the meeting room to immediately hear I was let go. Call it “laid off” or “separated” or “dismissed.” It’s really all the same thing, because it meant that I was suddenly and inexplicably kicked off this fired-up path that I was pounding out in front of me.
It took me 21 years to get there, but I never saw it coming. A thunderbolt hit me, in all its mythical greek significance as a destructive force. For everyone who’s been through this event in their career, you know the gutting impact. But this post isn’t about that. This post is about the other side of the thunderbolt — the ENERGY it holds.
I’ve taken an unplanned, thunderbolt sabbatical. And it’s been incredible.
Finding a new rhythm to life when you’re on sabbatical requires some focus on discipline, to structure your time in a way that’s productive and nurturing. I’m naturally a doer with a strong bias for action, so finding ways to keep busy that weren’t “busy work” was key for me. My calendar started to look like an amazing kaleidoscope of interests. And I started really learning some important stuff.
Volunteering: I finally had the chance to work at the day shelter, volunteer with a local refugee support non-profit, and serve on the marketing committee of a great networking group in the local innovation community. Lesson: My value goes far beyond my career ambitions.
Parenting: This past summer was me in a full-time mom-a-thon, for the very first time in my parenting career. I had to balance all the needs and the wants (both my own, and those of my children). I had to be prepared at any moment for both the great and the grumpy (if you have children, this needs no further explanation. If you don’t have children, maybe you’ve already heard about this in detail and made a less demanding choice in life). Lesson: I absolutely love being a mom. AND I also need and appreciate the traction and connectivity of work and finding purpose outside of raising children.
Painting: I hadn’t picked up a paint brush in over a decade. Maybe 15 years even. For me, getting back to the canvas gave me a uniquely personal sense of freedom. Of expression. Permission for experimentation. I dove back into the fueling influence and inspiration of ARTISTS. Lesson: I am creative and need to express that part of myself on a regular basis to light my heart on fire.
Yoga: This was nothing less than total transformation for me, inside and out. I even completed 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training to get my certificate (yay!!). During this time of questing for what comes next in my career, I needed to do hard things. I needed to find what’s solid and unmovable in me, those core truths that can’t leave or be broken. I faced things in this process that surprised me and even scared me, saddened me. Things I’d carried so long I thought they were mine. Lesson: I am enough. I am strong. I am part of a tribe. I am in progress, and I am perfectly imperfect.
All these lessons have given me back a powerful sense of self. Never have I felt more energized to dive into problems, to quest for why, to peel back layers, to give back, to connect, to grow. I’m reminded of my maternity leave, when I had 3 months away from day-to-day office responsibilities and my brain could simply decompress. Ideas started to come to me effortlessly, so I jotted them down, sketched them out, and collected them for when I returned to work. When I returned to the office, I had a whole stack of ideas that I was ready to kick-start. This is the value of jumping off the rails, even if just for a short time.
Industry is talking: The value of taking an actual, real break
The benefits of taking a break are happily gaining more and more attention in industry circles. And not just a coffee break or a mental health day. A detour. Not just stopping on the tracks but jumping off the rails for a bit. We need to shake things up and allow NEW to come in. New perspective. New ideas and influences.
Sabbaticals aren’t just for academics. They serve anyone looking to refresh their creativity and their strategic perspective. Stefan Sagmeister has an excellent TED talk about his design firm’s practice of taking a 1 year sabbatical every 7 years. His entire firm. And he can measure the return on that investment for the 7 years that follow. The one year break is essential for them to bust up the habit of adaptation, which gets boring. The value of his firm is fresh thinking, and sabbaticals shift them from the mindset of doing a job or chasing a career to following a calling. That is powerful.
Celebrate the Gap
My unplanned sabbatical allowed (forced?) me to rediscover old interests, connect more deeply with friends and richly expand my network, develop new skills, travel, get healthy, tackle key household and financial planning, take care of special projects that never would have been finished on top of a full time job, and most importantly, taking care of family needs including crucial connection time with my children and spouse.
My home feels restful now; it’s organized and efficient and allows my creativity to flow. The clutter and half-done projects are taken care of. It’s like an amazing and refreshing exhale.
I think if you see a gap in someone’s career map you should congratulate them (!) and find out how they used that time and how great they felt when they jumped back in. And if they have a gap just prior to joining your company, lucky you! They’re fresh and ready to bring in ideas and tackle challenges in a way that your nose-to-the-grindstone employees won’t even comprehend.
My own, personal Thunderbolt Sabbatical taught me one major, life-changing lesson: I am destined to create. To pursue new ideas and innovative approaches. To connect with people and create connections between ideas. I know that I would never have fully embraced this about myself without having experienced an unplanned sabbatical that radically shook my beliefs about who I am, what my value is, and what I’m passionate about. I had to “wander in the desert” to melt away the stories about who I thought I should be. And now, full of thunderbolt energy, I’m standing in my power.
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