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Why to Take a Sabbatical

A surprising amount of creative regeneration can be wrung from a mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. This is the first installment in a miniseries within that blog that will explore the theme of work-life. It will run each Thursday for the next six weeks.

sab·bat·i·cal s?-'ba-ti-k?l (n.): In theory, a self-actualizing, regenerative, and employer-supported journey of adventure and reflection that gives workers a respite from work for a month or longer. In practice, very rare.

That’s how the vast majority of us would define sabbatical if pressed. Sabbaticals are typically seen as financially and practically out of reach for all those except the smartest and most fortunate. Yet the idea of an extended paid vacation strikes a chord of deep longing in our workaday hearts.

Last year‚ the Society for Human Resource Management conducted a survey of U.S. businesses and found that fewer than half offered paid time off to employees. Of those that did‚ the majority (88 percent) based employees’ paid leave on how long they’d been with the organization. On average, one year of service earns 15 paid days off, whereas 10 years of service qualifies workers for 24 paid days off. Sabbaticals are a different beast. In the academic world‚ they are considered yearlong breaks to pursue a course of research, and typically professors are paid half their salaries. Just 27 percent of companies in the U.S. currently offer sabbaticals, and only 6 percent pay for them.

In some cultures, however, they're the norm. The word sabbatical comes from the shmita or Sabbath year in religious teachings. The Torah mandates that Jewish farmers work for six years and then take the seventh for rest. The Sabbath day—and secular weekend—continue this tradition. The modern-day sabbatical is an extension of this. I believe that there are three types of sabbaticals: lateral, generative, and recuperative.

The lateral sabbatical follows a rich tradition of learning and exploration. It includes activities such as teaching, volunteering abroad, or working in an industry related to yours in order to gain new skills in a given area of expertise. These sabbaticals are usually financially supported by academic institutions or businesses (for longtime employees).

A generative sabbatical—that fabled and rare year off—is the most idealized. It is forward-looking and optimistic: Your employer hopes to harness the new ideas and energy it creates upon your return to work.

A recuperative sabbatical is the most needed and the most practical. It is often unplanned and occurs only after the “sabbatee” reaches a breaking point, brought on by a chaotic workplace atmosphere of on-demand innovation, parallel work streams‚ and always-on digital lifestyles. The pressure to constantly over-deliver under budget is causing us to lose our ability to control and channel our energy in positive ways. We’re burned out on work we once loved because we’ve run out of room for randomness, spontaneity, and serendipity—all of which are crucial to creativity and innovation. Often the only mode of repair is to desperately, suddenly take a week off (instead of quitting or running screaming from the building).

I refer to this kind of recuperative time off as the “go away and try to remember whether you still like yourself” escape. It would be nice if we didn’t need this type of sabbatical, if our society and corporate culture were different, and we managed our time and relationships better. In reality, we not only need but also deserve them.

Fortunately, a surprising amount of creative regeneration can be wrung from the quick getaway. I speak, of course, from experience. After working on a very difficult design project for nine months last year, I found myself desperate for a break. The client’s plans had expanded greatly in size and scope, and my responsibilities had grown exponentially. At the same time, I was juggling the family duties associated with having a toddler at home and a sick parent needing care in another state. It was increasingly hard not to feel that I was doing a lot of work, but none of it well. I had to get away to find my voice again.

After a grueling cross-country trip to see my ailing father, and before another major client deadline hit, I managed to take a short recuperative sabbatical. I went alone to a friend’s secluded house in the mountains. For four days, I had no schedule. My only goal was to make a list of work-life issues that felt out of balance—and to seek some resolutions.

At first, I did nothing. I ate simple, wholesome foods. I slept in. I sat in the sun. Soon, the quiet and solitude helped me find my equilibrium, psychologically and physically.

On the first day, I was captive to my inner voices of responsibility, blame, dissatisfaction — what author Brennan Manning calls the “I shoulds.” It’s the typical mental chatter that disrupts the first days of any vacation, reminding you what you left undone or where you could have done better. I agree with Cube Grenades cartoonist Hugh MacLeod that “being fucking amazing is job one,” but I also have limits as a human. So, like a newcomer to meditation, I had to find a way to let those thoughts run themselves out.

After reconciling whether I had been doing good work, I asked myself whether I had been doing the right work. Serendipitously, Bud Caddell put his Venn diagram “How to Be Happy in Business” online that same week. In it, Caddell asks us to examine the intersections of what we do well, what we can be paid to do, and what we want to do. The only way for me to do this was to reconnect with my past interests. I had brought with me all my grad school notebooks, thesis work, and journals. I scoured them, rediscovering hidden gems of insight and ideas for projects. I was happy to see how many of them still held up after eight years. It dawned on me that the topic of my thesis was embedded in my current client projects. I’d been doing the right work after all!

It’s amazing how, when you’re alone and things are quiet, hours can seem like days. By the end of day two, I noticed that I was relaxing into the rhythms of my own intellect in relation to the time of day. Without meetings to attend or emails to answer, I discovered that the early hours of the morning were ideal for creating, thinking, and synthesizing. Midday was great for physical exertion and a break from mental tasks. The latter part of my day was best spent seeking inspiration by reading or listening to music. I saw that most of my days at work were scheduled in exactly the wrong way, spending my vital creative hours fighting fires and ignoring the times when I really needed to sit back.

I spent my remaining time off drawing, writing, and thinking; the same way in which I’d hope to spend a generative sabbatical. I slowed down and realized that what I had been working on, although hard, was exactly the right thing. Once I got away from the grind and back in touch with my own voice, I realized that I still liked myself and my job, and that what I needed was just a small note of self-appreciation.

It’s six months later. I’m not on a sabbatical as I write these lines. But I’ve held on to much of the goodness I found back then, such as trying to incorporate my natural rhythm into my work tasks and keeping the passion for the subject matter at the forefront of whatever I do. Yet I long for another sabbatical, a longer one or more frequent short ones. Part of me wonders whether, if I took an extended generative sabbatical, I would discover some other, deeper, better passion—one that I suspect but can’t confirm while embedded in the place I’ve chosen. For all these reasons, I say the purpose of any sabbatical is to press our boundaries, reconnect our inner narratives, and ask ourselves the dangerous questions—all the while adding quality to our lives as creatives.

A version of this piece appeared in the April 2010 issue of design mind magazine.

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