Life Sabbatical Series 3: The Openness Equation

Thanks again to everyone who’s reached out in response to the Life Sabbatical series!  Our conversations have been so generative in terms of finding other life sabbaticalers, and helping to recognize the thinking behind my own process.  Please keep the feedback and ideas coming! 

And if you're in Washington, DC, and seeking a facilitated, joyful, communal experience where you can ask big questions, explore the answers, and begin aligning who you are with what you do, consider registering for the Life Sabbatical at Home 4-Workshop Series which I'll be facilitating in February and March!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about why traveling extensively during my life sabbatical was such a powerful context in which to determine how to align who I am with what I do.

Over the 20+ years I've been traveling of my own volition, I’ve been fortunate to backpack in state and National Parks all across America, explore religious and historical sites in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, visit far too many museums in New York, Madrid, Paris, Berlin; trek and camp for four days in the Sahara Desert in Morocco; learn to cook South Indian food in Kerala and Tamil-Nadu; and practice my mediocre Spanish with artists in Guatemala and cab drivers in Buenos Aires.  More often than not, I didn’t have a cell phone or a computer or a tv, so during long rides in cars, trains, buses, and boats I’ve often stared out the window or reflected on life or made up stories in my head.  While traveling, I listen to a lot of music and podcasts, and read many books – a mix of novels, nonfiction, and books to steep myself in history and context of the places that I am visiting.  And occasionally I've asked too many questions about politics or religion and been urged to ease off.

When I travel, everything just seems more joyful (even during delays and frustrations and confusion), every day is ripe with potential, every place and interaction provides an opportunity to learn and connect.  I have space to notice little things and ask questions about big things. I am more likely to laugh and cry. I share things about myself that I never talk about at home. I’ve met people who live all around the world and those people have become great friends, sometimes just for a day or a week, and on occasion, for many years.

This description of openness makes me think back to essay I read back in college called The Painter of Modern Life. Charles Baudelaire wrote it in 1863, but the way he describes being open the world – through a character he terms the flaneur -- feels so relevant to me in describing my experience of traveling while on life sabbatical: “…the mainspring of [the flaneur’s] genius is curiosity…a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale…The lover of life makes the whole world his family…[and] enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.”

In the last blog post in the Life Sabbatical series, I wrote about the four questions to ask yourself when planning a life sabbatical.  One of these questions is:  “Where or in what contexts am I most open to the world?” 

I believe that the answer to this question is different for each person. For me it's traveling, for Baudelaire, in the age of industrialization, it was in city crowds.  But, I suspect that for some people it might be in their garden, or out on a long run, with their families, making art, during meditation or prayer, or when they’re in nature.  And it could be somewhere else or something else all together, or a combination of many of the above.

Lately, I’ve been exploring a lot of resources on the concept of openness and what contributes to it (I’ve shared links to some of these resources in this separate post).  And I think that these resources are helping me to understand the characteristics of places and spaces and activities that make us most open to the world.  At root, it’s kind of a simple formula:


Boredom + Awe + Joy = Openness to the World


Here's my thinking and some illustration to support these concepts.



A fellow visitor reflecting in the Voided Void or Holocaust Tower at the Judischer Museum in Berlin. 

A fellow visitor reflecting in the Voided Void or Holocaust Tower at the Judischer Museum in Berlin. 

In our vastly overstimulated world where there are screens everywhere, so much information at our fingertips, 24-hour news cycles, an expectation of immediate response, it’s possible to never be bored. In fact, it seems a lot of us (myself included) lament not having enough time.  To steal a concept from Craig Mod, contemporary life and our incessant stimulation from technology and responsibilities fragments our brains.

But, boredom helps make us whole again.  It provides time and opportunity for the fragments to heal, it allows space for our brain to solve problems and discover novel solutions and surface great ideas.  And it creates opportunity for connection to other people, by urging us out of our own little worlds and into striking up conversations, as well as listening and sharing intently. 

There are lots of ways to be bored.  While traveling, I find that it’s on planes, trains, automobiles, and boats that I most have the opportunity to zone out and stare at the landscape going by.  And what’s amazing is that some of my biggest and clearest revelations came to me, often fully formed, while doing just this.



I love the dictionary definition of awe: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”  Many people associate the concept of awe with religion.  But, where I’ve most experienced a sense of awe is when I’ve had the opportunity to experience novel things – from the extraordinary natural landscapes and wildlife in Namibia and Botswana to looking at inspiring art and architecture in Berlin and Rome.  The newness is inspiring and challenging, I felt overwhelmed and inspired, and unsure of the norms and if what I was experiencing was real. Awe is vulnerable.



Not everyone experiences joy and openness to the world while doing the flying fox over the Zambezi River, but I sure as heck did!

Is there anyone who doesn’t appreciate pleasure?  While the source of pleasure might be different for each of us, every person has some places, activities, objects, and people that bring them joy. 

I am fortunate that many things bring me joy.  And yes, I do have a bit of a taxonomy of my own joy, which I'll spare you. But through it, I've recognized that a large source of joy in my life comes from the opportunity to learn and share learning.  I always knew that I loved learning, I've often joked that I can get excited and interested in any topic if someone else is excited and interested in it.  And being in a space of openness to the world allowed me to recognize that my appreciation of learning is a bit different than others around me.  It also enabled me, for the first time, to recognize and call myself an anthropologist.


Openness to the World

The contexts in which we are open to the world allow us to tap into your inner wisdom, our amassed knowledge, and our emotions in expansive ways.  Being open allows us to feel energized, curious, reflective, challenged and/or surprised.  And it also creates spaces where we are willing to accept feedback and criticism and experience discomfort without being defensive (or at least being less so).  The space of openness is a powerful because it enables us to recognize who we are and what is important to us.  So, where is your immense reservoir of electrical energy?

I’d love to hear what you think of the Openness Equation.  Does it make sense to you? Do you think something’s missing?  And when you think through these concepts does it help you identify contexts in which you are open to the world? Let me know by leaving a comment on the blog or reaching out to me through any of these channels: