For some people, ending a seven-month sabbatical with a bad head cold and nearly 24 hours of plane travel would have been anti-climactic. Looking back on the year anniversary of the experience, it seems weirdly fitting. During my travels, whenever I would check in with family, my mom would ask “Are you ready to come home, yet?” and for months I would say “no.” I was learning too much from the places that I visited, the people that I met, the activities that I engaged in. I had this extraordinary sense of wonder and possibility and openness to the world. I was seeing the answers emerge to the questions that had led me to take a sabbatical in the first place: how do I want to contribute positively to the world? And what do I want the rhythm of my life to be?
But, when I reached Cape Town, my last planned destination, I was run down and getting sick. I lost my phone in a taxi cab (it was amazingly returned to me but stressful to navigate nonetheless), and when my mom asked, “Are you ready to come home yet?” I emphatically said “yes.”
In my life before sabbatical, when I arrived home, I would have immediately put my head down and with unhealthy intensity tried to turn my ideas – for what has since become Optimistic Anthropology, for how I wanted to structure my life, my travels, my days – into actions. But, I couldn’t do that. My cold was so bad, that by the time I reached DC, I was concerned that I had lost my hearing for good.
I holed up in my friend’s guest room for a couple of days catching up on sleep, getting over my cold (and getting my hearing back), and watching episodes of The Great British Baking Show. I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t try to start building what came next until the calendar page had turned to June and I was feeling like myself, and that I would give myself time to figure things out.
From there, I spent all of June and most of July reconnecting with people all over the country– friends, colleagues, family member – catching up, asking questions, listening to advice – and figuring out the work I thought I wanted to do and who with and to what end. The answers continue to evolve.
On the occasion of the first anniversary of the end of my sabbatical, I was thinking about the lessons and experiences that have stuck with me and have proven relevant and transformational in the year since. There have been a lot, but I thought I’d briefly share four:
On Inner Wisdom.
I used to think of wisdom as something that was earned by living life. The more you’d lived, the more wisdom you had. But, with the help of many teachers, I’ve come to recognize that all of us possess wisdom, that there are lots of thing in the world that behave as barriers to recognizing it, and part of our work here on earth is to figure out how to stay or reconnect to it. The thing I learned during the first two weeks of my travels while visiting the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, is that inner wisdom isn’t like Beetlejuice – I can’t just call on it three times to unleash it. Instead I have to pay attention – to what my mind, heart, and gut are telling me and to what the world is showing me – and I have to be patient and trust that the inspiration and answers I am seeking will emerge
On Being Intentional.
Before sabbatical, when I would travel for a couple of days or weeks, I would always try to pack in as much in as possible. I did this because I feared that I would never have the chance to return to that particular place. While that was still true on sabbatical, it wasn’t a sustainable way to travel for seven months, and honestly it isn’t a sustainable way to live. So, I learned to shift my frame away from “do as much as possible” to “make a purposeful choice about whatever I do.” The truth is that no one knows me or what I need better than me. So, when I wanted to skip a hike after a tough day on the trail, or opt out of the evening boat ride, or read a book, or hole up in a hotel room during my first two days in Prague in order to kick a cold, I didn’t feel guilt. I recognized that there were certain things I had to do for myself in order to be able to make the most out of my whole experience.
On Being Ready to Receive Feedback and Advice.
Before I started my last job in an organization, a good friend of mine who is a headhunter, said to me “Why are you going to work for someone else again? I think you are ready to run something or strike out on your own.” I poo pooed her at the time, and for the two years I had that job, even though I had quickly realized that it wasn’t the right fit for me. At the end of 2016, I took a break from my sabbatical and returned to the U.S. to visit my family for the winter holidays. I went on a walk with my father and he encouraged me to start my own business. Like with my friend before him, I didn’t want to hear it.
A couple of weeks later, after an amazing eleven days on a cooking tour of South India where I traveled with a wonderful group of people, I was at our final dinner. My friend Peter, a 50-something Australian who was traveling with his lovely wife Linda, and I were sitting next to each other and talking about the politics and cosmos as we had taken to doing throughout the trip. He turned to me and said, “I know you didn’t ask my advice, and I haven’t known you long. But I also know that you are trying to figure out what to do next. You are interested in so many things, and in our conversations together you’ve helped me see some things very differently. Have you ever thought of becoming a consultant?”
And while other people, friends and family who knew me well had suggested the same thing, I wasn’t ready to hear this idea, to receive this idea, until I heard it from Peter. It’s help me recognize that in my life, there are many things that people who care about me and know me well have shared with me as feedback, as advice (and I’m sure plenty of things that they’ve avoided sharing, but wanted to say). In the past, I haven’t listened because I wasn’t ready to receive them. But, from my sabbatical, I also began to learn the power and importance of being open and ready to receive useful feedback and good advice, even if I decide not to take it.
On Experiencing Profound Joy When There is Pain and Suffering in the World.
It was an absolute privilege to be able to take a sabbatical and travel the world for seven months. I had the chance to experience incredible beauty and kindness, engage with history and culture, extraordinary landscapes and mindbending art, and learn and grow every day. There was so much joy.
However, that joy could sometimes be hard to reconcile with my commitment to making the world a more positive and equitable place. I read the headlines from home every other day that I was away, and they hit me hard. Quite often, I was the only American around, so others couldn’t understand how I felt.
The day that has stuck with me the most was when Trump attempted to put in place his first Travel Ban. I was in Kerala, a state in Southern India where ~30% of people are Muslim and a shop owner asked me “Why does your President hate Muslims?” It was heartbreaking. All I could say in reply was, “I don’t know, but please know that I don’t, that the vast majority of Americans don’t.”
However, I feel like having the experiences I had on my sabbatical has given me a deep energy and positivity that I am able to share with others. And I believe, that we can do challenging work, on our most seemingly intractable problems with joy and determination, humor and rigor. And I’m concerned that when we omit the joy and humor, the work eats away and good and great people and their ability to affect positive change.
The culture writer Linda Holmes recently tweeted something about this incongruence so perfectly, that I thought I’d share it here:
In the last year, a lot of people have reached out or been connected to me because they were interested in learning more about my sabbatical, or are considering taking their own and wanted advice. I thank you all for your interest and support and appreciate your willingness to share of yourselves with me. You have inspired me to write about my experience, and to think about sabbaticals as a way to help our fellow changemakers better align who they are with what they do.
You’ve also helped me develop a part of Optimistic Anthropology’s business – Sabbatical Design Services – in which I help other people design their sabbaticals with intention. In the future, I’m hoping that some of them will share their lessons and experiences on this blog too.