Things I learned while taking a sabbatical

Things I learned while taking a sabbatical

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Since taking time off of work, I’ve had a ton of epiphanies. Most of them happened within 90 days of quitting my job. But even now, after a two-year sabbatical, I’m still discovering new things about my relationship with “work.”

Let’s rewind a bit …

Thinking about taking a sabbatical from work

It was early 2018 and I was feeling run down, unappreciated, and a little lost. The company I worked for always wanted more from its employees, and no matter how hard I worked, I never felt like I was doing good enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly appreciative for the opportunity and time I spent working there (I appreciate every job I’ve had, no matter how crappy or difficult it was). I just wasn’t stoked about the path I was on, and more importantly, I wasn’t proud of the person I was slowly turning into.

I worried that if I quickly changed jobs or joined a new company, I could find myself in the exact same situation again a couple years down the road. I didn’t have a workplace problem, I had a ME problem! So I set my sights on taking a sabbatical. A full reset. A career break. I wanted to discover what my life would be like if I completely removed “work” from the equation.

Planning a year off of work

It’s a gutsy move to leave your job without another one lined up. No matter how much planning I did, there was always a little voice in the back of my head saying, “I wonder if I’m going to regret this later.”

Before handing in my resignation, I considered these three things:

Can I afford this?

How much will taking an unpaid sabbatical set me back in my journey to FI?  I ran several nerdy cost models and calculations. But it’s a tough question to answer, because a lot can happen in an extended period like a year or more! Ultimately, I decided that no matter what the financial cost was, it was going to be an investment in myself.

*I later wrote an article on this topic, “How much does it cost to take a year off work,” that explains the methods of trying to calculate a sabbatical year and why it doesn’t really matter in the end.

Who will hire me after 12 months off?

Am I committing career suicide? Before I quit, I asked old bosses, mentors, professional recruiters, etc. and got a wide variety of responses. Everything from, “No way, I would never hire an employee who just took a year off”  to “You will always be able to find work, Joel. I wish I did that when I was your age!”.

IMO there’s no perfect advice to give someone thinking about taking sabbatical leave. All I’ll offer on this subject is this:

  • When you want to get back to work, be prepared for a longer-than-usual job search NOT just because you will be overlooked quicker than other candidates, but because you’ll have changed so much as a person and will be pickier about any new job you want to take.
  • The most important question you’ll get asked from a prospective new employer is: How did you fill your time during your extended leave? Make sure you’ll have a worthy answer.

What am I going to do with my time?

I’m a list maker, so I compiled a huge list of things I wanted to do and try during my year off. These were passion projects, trips, and even just simple little things that I hadn’t gotten around to because I felt like work was always in the way.

The first 90 days

It was a weird experience going from a full schedule every day to nothing planned during an extended break. Instead of the world telling me how to live and what to do every day, I got to decide when, where, and how I did things. All this freedom got me reflecting on the way I made everyday decisions, like:

  • Before setting my alarm at night, “What time do I *feel like* getting up tomorrow?”
  • Before going to the store to get groceries, “Do I even like this store?” and “I wonder what else is around here?”
  • Before doing something that was on my personal goal list: “Do I really want to be doing this?”

Questioning everything led to a lot of self discovery and several epiphanies …

Epiphany 1: My to-do list was written by the old Joel.

How I thought I’d be spending my time and what I actually ended up doing was very different.

  • I thought I’d be travelling and exploring a lot … Turns out I enjoy my own backyard more.
  • I envisioned myself picking up old hobbies … Turns out that I’d dropped them for good reasons.
  • I thought I’d get bored at home … But unemployed life is just as busy as regular life. It’s just filled with different things.

Epiphany 2: “Finding yourself” isn’t productive. Instead, build your future self.

I felt a little lost when I left work. So naturally, I thought I needed to “find myself” again. You know, re-discover my inner purpose, whatever that means. I was trying to answer questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

But then I realized that discovering who I *was* might make me feel better about my past, but it wouldn’t help solve much for the future. Constantly looking backward meant I wasn’t looking forward.

So, I started focusing on who I wanted to be in the future and building ways to become that person. I’ve been more productive since thinking this way.

Epiphany 3: It’s not about me. It’s about everyone else.

I was raised to always tithe and give money to charities. But up until a couple of years ago, I had never donated my time. Since I had an abundance of time, and no income, I tried switching things up to do volunteering.

Helping others is one of the most fulfilling things in life. I’ve worked out that the more I focus on others, the happier I am.

Epiphany 4: Respect for other people’s lifestyle is crucial.

Just because I was feeling stuck and needed a break from work, it doesn’t mean that everybody else feels the same way.

Some people really enjoy their career (I envy them). Most people can’t afford to take a sabbatical. It’s unfair for me to encourage others to quit their jobs and take time off work like I did. Instead, I need to respect everyone’s individual situation.

Epiphany 5: Going “back” to work doesn’t mean going backward.

At first I assumed that after my break, I’d go right back to the same job in sales that I left. Even if I started in a lower position than I held before, I would approach it with a fresh perspective, new attitude, and work my way up again.

But time away made me rethink my priorities in life. It got me discovering and developing new skills I never thought I’d have. I stumbled across opportunities I never thought were available to me. That’s how I’m blogging here right now (talk about a career change)!

Epiphany 6:  Coast FI, here we go!

This one should probably be explained in a blog post all on it’s own …  I’ll get working on that! 🙂

Basically, my wife and I realized that there’s no point in racing to achieve FIRE if it makes us miserable along the way. We will cross the finish line in due course, whether we hit FI in 5 years, 10 years, or even 20 … we’re not in a rush to retirement anymore.

Joy is our north star, not money.

Epiphany 7: Maybe I could have had all these epiphanies without even taking any time off work at all!

I can’t go back in time and change the decision to quit my job. But, my theory is that 90% of the personal development that a sabbatical brings can be gained by simply:

  • Changing your mindset
  • Changing your attitude toward “work”
  • Reassessing your priorities (spending more time on #1 and less on #10)
  • Doing more of what makes you happy
  • Slowing down and just enjoying life more

I could have done these while working. And, you probably can too. Something to think about before pulling the trigger on a sabbatical yourself!

Welp, that’s it for now. Would love to hear if you’ve taken unpaid time off and/or have come to similar conclusions about work life … and does anybody work at a place where they pay for employee sabbaticals? If you do and you haven’t taken one, why not? If you have taken paid leave, what’d you do?

Cheers! And have a wicked week ahead!

– Joel

*Photo up top by Simon Migaj

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