During my corporate career before my sabbatical, I traveled a fair bit. OK, a lot. My work trips took me to South America, across Europe, parts of Asia, Canada, and all across the US. As most who have done frequent work travel will know, these were not glamorous adventures. Mostly, I went from airports to hotel rooms to offices to restaurants. Sometimes, if I found myself with the odd free day or weekend in between trips, I managed to squeeze in some sightseeing.
So, during those working-traveling years, whenever I chose to travel for personal pleasure, I planned very carefully. I wanted meaningful journeys that would go beyond touristic voyeurism; that would be, somehow, purposeful, transformational, and, inspiring. Happily, even though such personal trips were not as frequent as the work trips, they gave me all that I’d hoped for and more. And, that travel approach is now deeply-ingrained. I can never be simply a tourist. When I travel to a place now, it is with particular goals to learn new things — both about the place and about myself. This brings a deeper satisfaction than rushing around from tourist sight to tourist sight, taking pictures/selfies and checking off to-do lists. [Sidebar: This poem, ‘For the Traveler‘, by John O’Donohue sums it up for me.]
To me, a sabbatical is also such a meaningful trip or journey. Most of us who choose to take one have approached our professional years with a certain dedication and diligence. During that time, we may have pursued certain hobbies or interests, as feasible, on the side. Or, not. So, when we choose to turn our attention full-time to one of those pursuits, we aim, of course, to make them meaningful, purposeful, transformational, and inspiring.
So, Stage 1: Altitude — The first few weeks/months of the sabbatical where the required ongoing adjustments to lifestyle, habits, and identity drive/determine pace, satisfaction and future vector and acceleration — is key. The adage, “Begin how you mean to go on,” couldn’t be more true. That said, let me share that this is the stage where I had the most mis-steps when I started out. Consequently, this is also where I learned a lot of hard lessons and gained insights both about the sabbatical process and myself.
We talked earlier about the power of habit and how we need to plan and create new habits to make the most of our sabbatical journeys. Once we’re airborne, to stick with the flying analogy, we need continued awareness to ensure necessary course corrections. As with even best-laid plans, ours are likely to hit unforeseen snags or serendipitous diversions, all of which need to be addressed to avoid crashes (metaphorically speaking).
How much we can allow for snags and diversions will depend on the overall timeline of our sabbatical, of course. As I mentioned, I veered off-course too much in my early months. Partly, this was because I hadn’t done the requisite homework and planning prior to starting the sabbatical. And, partly, it was because of the “shiny new idea” (SNI) syndrome, where I was drawn to perceivably more interesting things to do with my time than what I had already planned.
If you’ve been following this series, you’ve probably now got a good handle on the need for prior research and planning as described in the earlier stages. So, assuming you’ve done that, what happens if, in the early stages of your sabbatical, as you’re on your predetermined path, you start to lose confidence in its viability and/or are drawn to something new and different? How do you know whether you should abort your current mission, crash-land, and take up a new route?
I stole an approach from classic project management once I understood that this was happening and I was losing both precious time and peace of mind. This approach requires that, with each planned milestone, you have a very specific go/no-go checklist that helps decide whether to keep going or to stop. It’s about taking stock in a very deliberate and considered manner. If you’re not familiar with this technique, I suggest googling or getting a good book on project management techniques from your local library. These checklists are meant to be particular to the milestone and unique to your journey, so I don’t want to get too prescriptive with them.
Let me, however, add three cautionary notes on the following: roadblocks, mistakes, and closure/resolution.
Don’t mistake all roadblocks as signs of mission-abort. The most common roadblocks are: time, discipline, money, talent, know-how, courage. If you sense a challenge with any of these, either you need to revisit your earlier plans and tweak them accordingly and/or you need to reach out for help. This is also why your plans should allow for review time and milestone checks. For example, if you had planned to take a year off to write a book, allow yourself at least an extra six months in that timeline. If you’d set aside $X amount for a South Asia backpacking tour, allow yourself at least another 25% more in that budget.
Second, understand that mistakes are unavoidable. The goal is not to pretend they didn’t happen or even to try to move on quickly from them. Depending on the type of mistake, you will want to approach it differently to learn from it and avoid it from happening again. As Eduardo Briceño writes:
Mistakes are not all created equal, and they are not always desirable. In addition, learning from mistakes is not all automatic. In order to learn from them the most we need to reflect on our errors and extract lessons from them.
Experience can only be the best teacher, as the saying goes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect on the learning to be extracted from it. [Sidebar: Another good reason to make journalling a keystone habit, as described earlier, during your sabbatical journey — it can be a place for just this kind of reflection.]
My biggest stumbles and fumbles during my sabbatical have come when I’ve been uncertain, despite all my research and plans, of either my own intentions at a given point in time, or of potential outcomes. So, this has led to, in some cases, either knee-jerk reactions as I’ve sought more clarity or resolution or a depletion of willpower as I’ve lost some faith in myself.
Closure and resolution are natural and universal human needs. However, we can learn to get more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Jamie Holmes, the author of ‘Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing’ describes “our central meaning-making system that responds to incoherence in a predictable sequence” or what happens when people are faced with something that doesn’t make sense as follows:
First you get a little shot of adrenaline; you’re surprised….. They say first you have the behavioral-inhibition system, which says, “Okay, there’s an error, now I kind of stop what I’m doing, now I look around, now I get more pattern-hungry, now I try to figure out exactly what it was that violated my expectations.” And then there’s the behavioral-approach system, and that’s action, that’s resolution.
When things suddenly look like they’re going off-course, despite all the planning and precaution you’ve taken, first determine what kinds of roadblocks you’re facing and revisit/tweak your plans accordingly. Make sure that you’re reviewing your go/no-go checklists as well.
When it feels like you need to take immediate decision or action in response to a mistake or get to closure/resolution, first reflect on the mistake itself, as mentioned above, and what can be learned from it.
After the above two steps, before you make a decision or take an action, try doing what Holmes describes further:
In experiments, the way that they lower people’s need for closure is, they tell them right before people are about to make whatever judgment, like of a job candidate or something, they tell them, “You’re going to have to defend your decisions later on,” or, “Think of the consequences of your decision.” It’s not enough to just say, “I should take my time before a decision” because we all know that, we just don’t do it. One strategy is to formalize those kinds of reminders. Write down not just the pros and cons, but what are the consequences of the decision? And also think about how stressed you are that day. Are you feeling rushed? Is your need for closure particularly high that day? Then it’s even more important to be deliberate.
Next time, we’ll discuss Stage 2: Cruising — This is where things should be settling in somewhat and going well. But, there are, potentially, some new things to watch out for so that we can maintain our set pace, vector and acceleration and manage any unexpected turbulence.