I had been employed for 35 years without pause in the design consultant industry. In June of 2021, I separated from my job without an immediate plan to acquire a new job. I called my unemployment a sabbatical, which brought light to what seemed like a possible dark time. One month ago, my sabbatical ended when I joined EUA with great excitement and a pent-up drive to do great work. But, before I leave this strange yet meaningful sabbatical period of my life, there are thoughts worth thinking about and learning hopefully worth sharing.
No such thing
First of all, I learned that in our business driven, economic centric world of work has no such idea as “taking a sabbatical”.
In sabbatical, I was on my own. The old adage that we “graduate” from school, we work in “the real world”, and then we “die” has hints of truth – and tons of darkness. Gallup has reported for decades that two-thirds of us who are working in an industry are ready to leave our jobs if the circumstances are correct. No one wants to work without meaning until they die. Good work is not meaningless labor if you love what you are doing and have relationships with the people you are doing it with.
I felt fear for much of my sabbatical time. Fear is the inhibitor of taking the actions of change. Good change takes time and requires social support from family, friends, and colleagues. Since I don’t want to simply die someday having contributed low value labor, I parabolically put my middle finger forward in my mirror and to my own economic expectations. I took lots of deep breaths while I didn’t work and consulted the people I love and trust. I had emotional support from my parents, practical encouragement from my three kids, and loving unfettered support from my future wife.
I was loaded with fear, but I held the privilege and responsibility to take the actions that the world of work does not support. Based on there being no such thing as a sabbatical in work culture, I learned that taking one must be a purposeful choice with a network of relationships surrounding it.
Social Norms @ Work
I learned that my colleagues and friends were supportive, curious, and a bit concerned when I changed my LinkedIn status to “Sabbatical”.
One close friend shared that they were jealous that I made a choice to go on sabbatical. While I did not mean to cast jealousy, I did make a choice to risk a few months being poor and without a team. The truth is I didn’t have much of a choice after 18 months in the pandemic. Strategic design work was stalled around me. Since I chose to hone my career into expertise, and I proved I was unwilling to back up and take on other roles, I naturally brought my current career path to a conclusion in June 2021. I decided to wait for the work world to breathe before I reentered. I submit that I am passionate, which means I am a lot stubborn. (My kids are laughing at me right now, knowing I just stated an absolute truth about myself – they know…)
At about this same time my news feeds began filling with talk about the great resignation/migration. Many of my networks were on the move. Possibly the noteworthy era of change has an anecdotal connection to the idea of taking a sabbatical. I’m not certain that my choice and the work trends that continue are representative of each other, but I believe that any lack of social norms at work makes it easy to make another choice away from a current work position.
I learned that separation from a work team was impacting my ability to think and do.
The History of
I learned that sabbatical means a yearlong break. This idea traces back to the origins of written language, circa 3200 BC., and culminated with the dictate of shmita in the book of Leviticus, 530’s BC, which states that:
“…in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land… …you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Leviticus 25
Sabbatical began where many of our ideas reside – good economics. Agriculture is a pivot point that supports society. Throughout history, agricultural disasters are always followed by a dark age. If the growth potential of your land is expended, then you were certain to not preserve the economic successes of the next generation. Letting the land rest and naturally replenish is good. Based on history, a sabbatical is logical.
I learned that a sabbatical of the mind is not a high value experience in our work culture. If we get tired, we sleep. If we burn out, we try to take a short vacation. If we need quiet to think, we are each on our own. We live in a culturally noisy world, making time to disconnect can be quite discomforting. I counted how often I went for my phone at the beginning of my sabbatical and witnessed a diminishing effort to stay “connected” as the eight months progressed. As soon as I separated from the design profession, I felt anxiety as I had no labor of production to produce. If I left my phone in the other room, I quickly went to find it those first six weeks.
If the mind is the field on which value, meaning, and purpose are grown, then letting the mind rest must have value. While I was reading, teaching, exploring, and trying a few experiments of work, I sensed my mind relaxing. At about six months into my sabbatical, I was again having conversations that were growing ideas in my mind. At that transition, I became restless and desired to reengage in the design profession.
I learned that in academia there are expectations when a professor takes a sabbatical. In each seventh year of professorship, a sabbatical forgives the responsibility of teaching. But in this forgiveness of responsibility, they are expected to engage in higher level thinking, conduct self-directed research, and prepare for a boost in scholarship potential at the time of restarting.
I believe I did this. While I watched my financial coffers diminish, I started an LLC, took a part time teaching gig at Ball State University, read a fair amount, and traveled around to see new things that excited me. Of equal importance to me is what I didn’t do. I didn’t attend any conferences. I didn’t join any groups. I barely wrote anything worth sharing.
By the end of the first six months, I was aware that I don’t have much of an entrepreneurial drive, I require teammates to bounce ideas with, and I simply want to work. I started plowing the field again and quickly made connections of value, leading to my new position as Director of Workplace Strategy at EUA. It all makes sense today, but at the moment, I had little idea of how the sabbatical investment would grow.
Meaning in Work
I learned that I love work. This expression is substantially different from saying that I love my job. A job is an exchange of resources with the goal of creating a sustainable value proposition. If I can do something of value and what I do has value to a company, I can work and receive remuneration. The variables that come into play in this exchange over time are immense.
I learned that work integrated with meaning, purpose and value is worth doing. I learned that finding meaning, purpose and value requires time and thought. I learned that time to work is independent of timesheets and billable hours. I learned that learning is mission critical to discovering meaning, purpose and value.
I love my work and, after a 35-year search, have found a home that wants me to bring my best to the practice of design to empower our creative teamwork and heighten our results to our clients. At 55 years old, I have finally found work.