When Should You Take A Sabbatical?

One of the questions you might consider at some stage in your career is whether it is a good idea to take a sabbatical or not. The answer to this question, like many other big decisions in life is “it depends”. Let me tell you a story about the time I took a four month Sabbatical at a critical decision point in my career. 

I had been working for Sasol for a few years and had been in an on-going discussion with my supervisor about a promotion. However, the promotion kept getting postponed for reasons that were not clear to me. Getting passed over repeatedly for promotion is not a good sign in your career and could be an indication that you need to think about making a change. 

At the time I also had another problem with the role I was performing. I felt like a commodity. I didn’t feel that my personal contribution was making any difference. I felt as though anyone with the right qualifications and appropriate experience could do the job. There was nothing unique about my contribution that could make a difference. I felt like I was ‘just another tool in the toolbox’. This was a more deep seated problem than being passed over for promotion, and one that I only started addressing much later in my career. At the time my ‘reward language’ was based on promotions. That was how I wanted my contribution to be recognised. At this stage in my career paying me more would have been nice, but wouldn’t have made me feel valued. Coincidently (and we’ll discuss this again in another section on synchronicity) I was given an opportunity to take a break from work, and the timing was perfect.  

At the time I was doing a lot of rock climbing and some of my closest friends were working in England, and their two-year working visa was coming to an end. They decided to do an around-the-world tour for a year and the first leg of that journey was to spend three months rock climbing in North America, followed by a month of back-packing through Mexico. When they first invited me I thought ‘you’ve got to be joking, I’ve got a job and financial commitments; I have a car to pay off and a rent agreement. I can’t afford to take time off, and I’m not going to give up my job for a holiday like this, as appealing as it may seem’. However, six months before this epic journey was due to start I found myself at this cross-roads in my career where I knew I had to make a change but I didn’t know what to do. 

So I started thinking of ways I could potentially make this sabbatical happen. The more I thought about it the more I realised that this type of opportunity was once-in-a-life-time type of stuff. I wondered how I would feel later in my life if I didn’t take this opportunity. Would I kick myself for years to come? I knew I wasn’t going to get another opportunity like this. I also had a dream of climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, so the trip appealed to this dream too. Although I didn’t get to climb El Capitan when I got to Yosemite, I did learn an important lesson about team-work and having someone to help you when you need help. 

I decided that I would explore options and approached my employer and asked for some time off as unpaid leave, to take a sabbatical. I had started living by a motto that helped me increase my courage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I expected them to say no. However, to my surprise and delight, they agreed to gave me the four months I asked for. The lesson here, was that regardless of what I think may or may not happen it is really important to ask, explore, test and find out where the potential boundaries may or may not lie. If you don’t ask you will never know. It turns out that this was going to become a recurring theme through my career – what I think may or may not be possible is not what others think may or may not be possible. Sometime you will be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes you will be disappointed. Don’t make assumptions – learn to ask the question, regardless of how unlikely it may be or how difficult you think it might be. This principle of testing and validating an idea is something that has become more important aspect of my career management. 

The break from work was good for me. I strongly recommend that everyone takes at least one sabbatical in their career. The advantage is that you get an opportunity to rethink what is important to you and reassess your options. Breaking away from your normal routine helps to give you a different perspective and clarity. Our brain has a magical ability to come up with new solutions to problems when we take time away from those problems. I’ve learnt more recently that we have two different thinking modes: focussed and diffuse thinking. Taking time out enables us to use our diffuse thinking mode, which is the most important way in which we deepen, network and cross-link our thoughts, learn new things, find solutions to problems and build long-term memory. 

Taking a sabbatical at the right time is a very good idea, if you can find a way to make it work. You will be amazed at what is possible when you set yourself an ambitious goal or challenge. It takes courage, and it gets easier the more you practice. If you can’t take a sabbatical then consider going  on a shorter retreat. In fact, I would highly recommend that you take several retreats over the course of your career.

When I got back from the sabbatical I managed to make a very impressive change in my career that involved changing my role within the organisation I was working in at the time. There are many more solutions than simply looking for a new job. I like to consider unconventional solutions to problems. You can read more about the change I made here. 

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