Lessons and Insights From My Four Month Sabbatical

This article originally appeared on SamSpurlin.com.

At the end of May 2021, my colleagues at The Ready consented to a proposal I brought to our monthly Governance Meeting called Sabbatical Policy. Roughly five weeks later, I shared on Slack the output of a writing exercise I used to get clear on my intentions, concerns, and dreams for my imminent sabbatical and officially became the first person at The Ready to partake in this truly amazing benefit: one trimester, sixteen weeks, of paid sabbatical.

I’m now a couple weeks removed from the end of my sabbatical and wanting to capture some of the feelings, insights, and reflections before they are covered up by the daily demands of work-as-usual.

How did I approach my sabbatical?

I thought long and hard about the ways I could “fail” this sabbatical. Knowing my personality and natural inclinations, I was far and away most worried that I’d mess up my sabbatical by being too structured and too focused on using the time productively. Of course, I knew there was some risk of swinging too far in the opposite direction and finding myself getting to the end of the sixteen weeks and feeling like I completely wasted my time. Ultimately, I decided the best way to ensure I was deliberate with my time was doing biweekly retrospectives where I asked myself three questions: What’s going well? What’s not going as well? How do I want the next two weeks to go?

(You can read each of these articles here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

I also decided that for at least the first four weeks, I was going to try to have as few expectations for myself as possible. I figured I needed at least that long to start to recover from some of the burnout I was feeling, and that any decision I made about how to spend my sabbatical while still in that headspace would likely be quite flawed..

Initially I had a long list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to golf a lot. I wanted to play guitar. I wanted to play a bunch of video games. I wanted to start a new podcast. I wanted to explore writing fiction. The list was truly epic. By the time I hit the halfway point of my sabbatical, though, that list had gotten whittled down to just a few things that I was content to spend most of my time on. I’m glad I didn’t end up treating my list of general curiosities as a list of achievements to be earned or a checklist to complete.

What had my attention during my sabbatical?

Guilt and shame

The feelings that hit me the earliest and the strongest were ones of guilt and shame. I almost immediately felt guilty that my fiancée, my parents, and other people I’m close to didn’t have, or are unlikely to ever have, an opportunity to step away from their work like this. Our sabbatical policy is incredibly generous and The Ready is an extremely atypical company. Most of the folks in my life do not work for organizations where this could ever be an option for them. But they’re burned out, too. They work incredibly hard. They do great work. Why should I get access to something like this when they don’t?

I noticed myself doing something gross to help assuage the bad feelings this was creating in me — either exaggerating how burned out I was or exaggerating how much I was getting “done” during my sabbatical. My burnout was almost entirely self-inflicted in that I didn’t have the type of burnout you get from working in an oppressive environment, being underpaid, and dealing with toxicity day in and day out. Sometimes it felt like I hadn’t even really earned the right to use that word when there were obviously people who were much worse off than I was.

I also didn’t really get that much “done” during my sabbatical but I continually found myself reaching for language of productivity to justify why it was okay. Somehow it was okay for me to be taking a sabbatical if I was also doing a ton of reading and working on writing a book. But I don’t think I had too many conversations with loved ones where I confidently and happily said, “I did nothing today.”

Small decisions can make a big impact

On day 41 of my sabbatical, after getting a 90 minute massage in the morning, I took a handful of actions over the course of maybe two hours that fundamentally changed the trajectory of the rest of my sabbatical. They were as follows:

  • Putting the bike rack that I had purchased over a year prior (and had been hiding in the back of a closet) on my car.
  • Finding a local triathlon coach and reaching out to him to schedule a consultation.
  • Booking a set of private lessons with a golf coach.
  • Searching Craigslist for a used road bike, finding one, and reaching out to the seller to coordinate the pickup.
  • Finding a local gym, getting a tour, and signing up for a membership.

These decisions set off a cascade of positivity that I’m still riding today. Some of those things I had been putting off for a year or longer (like figuring out how to install the bike rack on my car which was a required step in finding and buying a road bike). I think the rejuvenation that I had experienced over the previous 40 days of my sabbatical got me to the point where these actions no longer felt like they were beyond my ability. I wish I had gotten to that point sooner since it proved to be such a turning point for me, but I’m trying to learn to be grateful for getting to that point at all.

Ego, identity, and being needed

My identity is largely comprised of the work I do at The Ready and my ego likes being an “important” or “needed” person. Both of these constructs took a beating by realizing that my absence in the day-to-day operation of The Ready was not critical. The work kept going. My colleagues kept doing a great job. I don’t really get the sense that there was much pining and longing for my presence. And that’s a good thing! Truly, it is. It was just interesting to see a large part of my identity basically get put on pause for the better part of four months. It made space for other identities to step into the foreground, but it was definitely strange to no longer be organizing my days by talking to high powered executives or selling six figure consulting projects. If I’m not the org design consultant guy, who even am I?

What am I going to bring forward from my sabbatical and into my work?

Remember the vast expanse of time that summer vacation always felt like when we were kids? Not only did the summer break feel like eternity, it also marked a distinct phase change in your progression through the education system. You’d leave school in June as a fourth grader and you’d come back as a fifth grader. Some of those transitions were even more stark; elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school felt like foundational shifts. I’m thinking about my sabbatical in a similar way. There was Pre-Sabbatical Sam and now there’s Post-Sabbatical Sam. While I didn’t try to fundamentally change my sense of fashion or come back with a wild new haircut, there are a few things that I’m trying to do differently.

Fitness and sleep

My sabbatical helped me remember, or maybe learn for the first time, what it feels like to get enough sleep and to be proud of my level of physical fitness. I think I understand in a much more visceral way how my physical health is the bedrock of everything else. In the past I think I’ve gotten too cute with life hacks and tips and tricks for circumventing taking care of my sleep and my physical body as well as I should have. There are no shortcuts here. Getting enough sleep and doing what I need to do to be physically strong need to be non-negotiables for me. It means sacrificing other things so that these can truly be priorities. No more being “early morning guy” if it means I also become “trying to operate on less sleep than is ideal guy.”

It’s obviously one thing to take sleep and fitness seriously when there’s nothing else pulling at my time and attention. The trick is keeping up that dedication and focus even when the pressures and responsibilities of work return.

No more Imposter Syndrome

Before this sabbatical I conceptualized myself as a relatively green consultant who may have been at The Ready from day one, but didn’t really have the experience as a consultant that matched the expectationsI thought people had for me. I was still early in my career. I don’t really know what I’m doing. Like many, I was operating through a pretty heavy haze of Imposter Syndrome much of the time.

Now, I’m consciously trying to shed that identity. I’m not a brand new consultant anymore. I’ve been doing this work specifically at The Ready for over six years. I’ve been working with organizations for more than 9 years. I’ve been doing individual coaching for over a decade. There aren’t many consultancies that are doing work like The Ready which means I’m legitimately one of the most experienced people in the world in the day-to-day reality of helping organizations transition to more human and complexity conscious ways of working. I’m no imposter — I’m legitimately good at what I do.

What can I take on when I truly believe there’s no longer anything to hide about my professional competency?

Working sustainably

There are lots of reasons I eventually got to a point where it felt like a sabbatical was my only option for salvaging my relationship with my career. Among the most important reasons is a complete lack of boundaries. Not boundaries that I failed to establish with other people… but boundaries I needed to set up with myself. It’s my own personal psychology and baggage that set me up for burnout far more than it was any sort of external pressure from colleagues (or even clients). I realized during my sabbatical that this is truly the work that I want to dedicate my life to and while the specific form it may take over the course of my career will likely change, I fundamentally love working with organizations and people. If I want to do this work for an entire career, though, I need to take a longer-term perspective.

It’s easy when you’re employee #1 and trying to help build something from nothing to just take on more and more. That’s hard for anyone, but it’s especially hard for someone like me who has always felt he didn’t have the experience or expertise to be in the position where I kept finding myself. Luckily, I’m pretty good at learning and am naturally driven to figure things out. The reality of that confluence of factors, though, is feeling like I’m constantly sprinting to keep up with the next thing. I don’t think I have to be constantly sprinting anymore. I can save my sprints for the times where it really matters and I can settle into a more deliberate, hopefully more impactful, way of working that will make it such that when my eligibility comes up for my next sabbatical I’ll have to think long and hard about whether I even need or want it.

Final Thoughts

It was incredibly gratifying to receive such great feedback on all the retrospective articles I wrote over the past four months. I loved the advice, reactions, and thoughts that you all shared with me. I was worried that openly writing about what I was experiencing with my sabbatical would come across as boastful or tone deaf (which I’m sure it did to some folks) but I was hoping that it might be insightful or useful to at least a subset of the folks who read my work. I’ll officially close this project by saying thank you and that I hope all of you get a chance to experience your own sabbaticals at some point, too!

Care to keep following along with me and my work at The Ready? Consider following me on Twitter and reading my writing at SamSpurlin.com. Also, my brother Max interviewed me about my sabbatical on episode 53 of our podcast, Fields of Work. If you want to hear me talk about my sabbatical rather than just read my writing, it’s worth checking out.

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