When people ask me how my 3-month sabbatical was, the answer is more complicated than the one I usually give. Time doesn’t generally allow for nuance.
“It was great. It was a wonderful opportunity to step away from the day to day work grind, and just be, without the expectation of being productive. I am very fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity.”
Truth be told – the sabbatical was way more personal than professional. But we all know that the personal profoundly impacts the professional and vice versa. It may have been a false set up for me to think of my professional roles and responsibilities as separate from who I am personally. That’s not to say my job fully defines who I am, but it is a significant portion and I do spend a significant amount of time at it each day. As such, it makes sense to me now that focusing on my inner journey and making some important personal decisions (more on that later) strengthens me as a person and will serve me well in my professional role. In many ways a step back created the space to question my reactions or behaviors in the face of stress and uncertainty…and it created the opportunity to imagine something different without the obligation to react.
So for those who were looking for bold new insights into the Foundation’s future, I’m sorry to disappoint. That just didn’t happen. However, I can safely say that now that I’m back on the job with a clearer and more rested head, I see the work a little differently than before. Remember, stepping back creates space to see things differently, a practice reinforced on sabbatical and one I am committed to integrating on a regular basis. Few decisions require immediate response, and most are improved with a deep breath and some time to digest.
When I have the chance to delve more deeply into my experience, what surprises me most is that I continue to learn and understand even more about myself nearly a month removed from my 3-month time away. I am surprised when I unexpectedly view something differently because I had the opportunity to step away from it. Things that usually annoy or bother me seem less of a nuisance than before, and for reasons that I better understand now. I find myself being more patient with people and more patient with ambiguous or unsettling situations. In other words, I find myself being more patient, period. And I find myself being more grateful and more appreciative of others. Can these things last? Well, that depends on me and my attitude. Sabbatical, I realize in hindsight, is as much a state of mind as it is a gift of time. Sustaining it requires adopting its principles in daily living. Not an easy task, given life’s stresses, but an important exercise none the less.
So for those wondering exactly what I DID on sabbatical, I categorize my time with the following four “R’s”:
No surprise here…I slept a lot. It’s no secret to anyone that the daily grind of work life often wears us down. Our sleep suffers. Our emotional health suffers. Our bodies suffer. I have known many people who have retired in the last few years and they have all said the same thing to me: “I can’t believe how much I slept for the first several months.” My experience was no different. I slept in, I took naps, I fell asleep watching TV. And yet, I slept through the night. The lesson here is that the body and the mind need more rest than I’ve been giving them. The challenge will be finding that time and giving myself permission to take the time to “do” less and “be” more so that I can be more rested and thus more energized for the daily work that lies ahead.
I spent time at different locations on three continents (how often does one get to do that?). I started with a 12-day trip to Quito Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Perhaps going to a key location where Darwin developed his theory of evolution was a good place for me to start my own sabbatical journey of discovery.
After a return trip home, I packed my car and drove cross country with my dog, Zander, to Portland Oregon where I rented an apartment for a month. In some ways, Zander was more welcome in Portland than I was (man do they love dogs in Portland!). He was a hit everywhere I went and made it easy to explore parts of the city.
Following a quick road trip home, my nephew Adam and I spent a week in Barcelona Spain. This was a trip promised to him between his senior year of high school and starting college. He’s a big soccer nut (player, fan and all-around trivia nerd) and really wanted to see Lionel Messi, the world’s best soccer player, in person. Let’s just say European soccer is a spectacle and the FC Barcelona match we saw versus Malaga did not disappoint. The city of Barcelona is a beautiful, very accessible city. We loved every part of it. Adam was an exceptional travel companion and our time together created memories that will last a lifetime. Travel is a great way to provide perspective on our own living situations, and an appreciation of other cultures. I plan to travel more in the coming years.
Reflection, I discovered, is not something one plans and schedules. It happens when you free your mind of distractions and create the space to ruminate on questions or thoughts that cycle through your consciousness unresolved. I find I do my best reflecting when I’m walking Zander, working out, reading a book, or showering. For me the big unresolved question centers on retirement, and all the unknowns and variables therein. I’ll be 52 in a couple months. That gives me approximately 10 good years of work before I can really think about “slowing down” (I dislike the word “retirement” because I think I’ll always do some kind of work – I just don’t want to work this hard forever). I want these next 10 years to be meaningful and productive, but what that means has not been entirely clear to me. And unless I carve out the space to figure out what this means, I don’t believe I will bring my best self to my work, and ultimately I won’t do my best work. Honest and productive reflection, I’ve discovered, is not for the faint of heart.
In her book “Quiet” Susan Cain makes the case for the value of introverts as critical contributors in a fearlessly extroverted world. Reading this book while on sabbatical brought new insights into how I organize both my professional and personal time. Bottom line – there’s too much external noise in my life and it’s getting in the way of my introverted need to process, chew on and make sense of things before I speak them aloud. So, I’ve made some decisions. First, I decided to sell my condo in the newly hot Downtown East area where development activity has intensified, and move to a quieter part of downtown. I move mid-December. Second, I will carve out time each week to shut my office door and indulge in unstructured reading, writing and otherwise mental meandering. This, I believe, will be regenerative and provide clarity of purpose when one might not have previously existed. Lastly I will create what Cain calls “restorative niches” – a place you go when you want to return to your true self (after acting out of character because your job or life situation demands it). I’m an introvert in an extroverted job. I need physical and temporal spaces where I can return to my introverted self to recharge. Without these niches, I know I will find myself again with less energy and a lack of clarity and purpose.
It is important to acknowledge that nothing fell apart at the Foundation while I was away. I credit that to good planning and an extraordinarily good team. The sabbatical provided the opportunity for the Foundation to consider its succession planning needs (I won’t be here forever and everyone is replaceable). Joel Luedtke stepped in as Interim Executive Director and did an outstanding job keeping the wheels moving forward. A number of work colleagues were shocked and concerned that a grant round would be initiated and completed while I was away (What if they make some bad funding decisions?), but I trusted both our team and our process to do excellent work. I was not disappointed. Tracy Lamparty, our Grants and Operations Manager, paid attention to all the details and made sure no bill went unpaid, no administrative issue unsolved, or grantee need unmet. In the end it was a good lesson for us all. Yes, our VISTA Program Manager, Salena Acox, left for greener pastures out West, but that would have happened whether I had gone on sabbatical or not. Staff sometimes leave for other opportunities.
So what happens now? Well that’s entirely up to me. I can’t control what the world throws at me, but I can control how I respond (that’s very Serenity Prayer, huh?). The perspective I gained on sabbatical, both about my internal wiring and my external influencers, will provide a more healthy approach to the ways I choose to respond. It’s all part of what I’ve playfully dubbed my “sabbatical zen.”