Life Sabbatical Series 1: What's a life sabbatical and who is "allowed” to take one?

Last fall, when I decided to quit my job, put all my possessions in storage, and travel the world for what ended up being seven months, I told my friends and colleagues that I was taking a “life sabbatical.” I was fortunate that many people “got” what I meant by this phrase very quickly, but there were many others who would ask, “What does that mean?”  Which is fair, because “life sabbatical,” as far as I know, is a phrase that I made up.

Findhorn Beach, Scotland

My definition of life sabbatical is: “a period of dedicated time where individuals can engage in an intentional practice of reflecting on key questions they have about their lives and how they want to use the answers they discover to  shape of their life going forward.” 

This is a broad definition for a reason. I believe there are likely as many ways to structure a life sabbatical, as there are people who want (and need) to do it.   And I think that providing the space and support to allow people to “do the work” of reflecting on key questions and using the answers to inform their life going forward is powerful.  I know for me it led to epiphanies about what I value and unleashed joy, creativity, possibility, and a new understanding about how I could positively contribute to the world.  (More about that in future posts.)

What it also revealed to me is that I don’t believe that the life sabbatical experience should be limited to only those in certain identity groups.

I recognize that my own version of a life sabbatical was very much possible because of the privilege I have as a result of some of the identity groups to which I belong.

I think this is important to state, because while there were some things I chose to do in my life that made seven months of travel possible, the impact of my choices paled in comparison to those that were a result of the situation into which I was born. I’m an able-bodied English-speaking, American Citizen, who is white, and I was raised in an upper-middle class community.

Namib Desert, Namibia

Being a white, American Citizen who is able-bodied allowed me to travel throughout the world, physically access almost anything I wanted to experience (though being a woman sometimes limited this), convert my nation’s currency easily, and virtually always find people who could speak my language and news outlets covering the latest events in my home country.  The socio-economic status I was born into enabled me to attend an elite university and graduate without debt; to have access to networks and jobs that paid well enough for me to live comfortably, establish good credit, and put money into savings; to inherit little windfalls when family members passed away and be given monetary gifts throughout my life.  It also meant that if I found myself in a really sticky situation, I had people to call or email who would provide a social and monetary safety net for me – such as places to stay and loans or money if I was in need of cash.

I share this honestly for three reasons.

  1. First, because I think too few people – particularly my fellow upper-middle class, white, American women – acknowledge how the privilege of our birth informs our ability to undertake personal “journeys.” 
  2. Second, because I want to be a partner in figuring out how life sabbaticals can be undertaken and meaningful for anyone who desires to take it on, regardless of the circumstances of birth or their identity. 
  3. Third, I want to figure out how we as individuals, as well as our institutions, communities, and systems can be better at encouraging and enabling everyone to embed periods and practices of reflection and learning into the rhythm of our lives. And I’m particularly interested in figuring out how we can do this with our brothers and sisters and gender non-conforming siblings who are people of color, and/or immigrated to the U.S., and/or are doing work to improve their communities while receiving low compensation.

This post is an introduction.  I decided to write it because since I’ve been back from my life sabbatical, many people have asked me to share how I approached it, including a couple of conversations recently that lit a fire under my feet(or fingertips) to start writing.  Over the next couple of months, I’m going to share some of the thinking and work and stories that went into and came out of my own experience.  I’m also hoping to highlight the stories of some other folks who have undertaken their own periods and practices of intentional reflection.  And finally, I’m hoping to find partners who want to play with and explore “how might ‘life sabbaticals’ become accessible for all who want and need them?”

Like this post?  Then please share it any way you can – by sending it to someone in particular, or posting it via social media.

Please let me know what you think of this post and these ideas.  What resonates with you?  What would you like me to write about in future posts?  And if you’ve taken a “life sabbatical” how did you approach it?  Leave a comment or get in touch via email.