Sabbatical story: A career break I gave myself

Brightly coloured stick figure image prompting reader to decide to take a sabbatical I was running on empty after close to 7 whirlwind years in management consulting. Working insane hours, juggling multiple projects, pleasing or at least trying to please clients, partners, senior managers and colleagues had taken their toll.  I decided to give myself a career break, a sabbatical leave to pull my personal and professional self together.

Adorning a wall in my home office is a collection of Story People prints. I love Story People for their colour, whimsy and quirky statements. Like this one Epiphany, which is especially fitting for this post:

She saw herself reflected in the store window & then the sun changed & she disappeared & all she could see was her eyes & she remembered thinking, I make a very nice floor lamp & that was the day she decided to quit her job.

The Day I Decided to Quit my Job

I have Epiphany on my wall to remind myself to never be a Floor Lamp in my career. My own epiphany came around the 7-year mark as a Human Resources Consultant with a major business services firm.

On my walk through the Royal Bank underground on my way to catch a Go Train from Toronto’s Union Station, I did indeed see myself reflected in the store window. I saw that my former self had disappeared, replacing her with a briefcase-carrying woman in full business costume, complete with pearls, pumps and leather purse. Crazy, I’d worked so hard to become her. Being a consultant in a major firm had been my dream job. But over those 7 years, I’d lost something. I’d given up aspects of myself to fit the mould, the persona of a perky business professional.

As I looked at my reflection, I found myself envying the mannequin in the window who was wearing a colourful relaxed outfit and had a joyful expression on her face. The picture of a free spirit on a life adventure.

Mannequin. Floor lamp. They’re pretty similar right? Ok, so the metaphor isn’t completely comparable since I wanted to be the floor lamp. I mean the mannequin. Whatever.

That moment of recognition, or perhaps non-recognition of the person I had become, was a career turning point for me. The reflection I saw was a ramrod stiff replacement of myself. A robot. Dressing the part. Always ready to serve. Flick the switch – on comes the smile to light up the room. The good woman, charged for action 24-7.

I decided that day to quit my job.

Planning my Sabbatical Leave

Like many of my major career decisions, before and after, it was for me a bridge to action.  Crossing the bridge was itself a journey that unfolded over the next 6 months, supported by countless micro decisions. For those 6 months, I allowed a kind of chronic tension to exist in my life – the tension between knowing I was moving on, but staying until I knew where I was going.

In the end, after much brainstorming, networking, and soul-searching, I decided I would start my own business. But not until I had given myself a time out. I planned a sabbatical leave, giving myself up to 1 year to travel and de-stress from the previous 10 years of intense study, work and relationship challenges.

My goal? To get clear, centred and renew my sense of self.

But Where’s the Money Going to Come From?

I had secured enough financial support to keep me going for 6 months without a salary. It meant tapping into my savings for a rainy day. What can I say – the monsoons had arrived. It was time.

I had also lined up at least one means of financial support during my travels. In my initial brainstorming of travel destinations, bicycle touring in France was high on the list. An avid cyclist, I couldn’t afford to pay for a tour, but what about becoming a guide? A former colleague had joined one of the major international biking and hiking tour company based out of Toronto. Three telephone calls later, two interviews and several calls from me to pester the recruiter, the offer arrived. I was hired to guide three bicycle tours in France.

Finally, I had a realistic plan in place for earning income on my return – supporting executive recruiters during the first stage of the headhunting process at an hourly rate of $75. I had met for coffee with several independent researchers and owners of Toronto search boutiques. The demand was strong. Whatever financial footing lost during my travels, I was confident could be realistically recovered within 6 months of my return.

“I Quit” . . . btw can you help me fund my sabbatical?

Next step was to hand in my resignation to my boss and the firm that had provided a great home for my earning and learning for close to 7 years. Despite feeling out of career alignment, I still felt tremendous gratitude toward and sadness about leaving the firm which had become like a family to me. You can’t spend 12-hour days and frequent side-splitting laughter with others and not feel a certain kinship.

The night before I went in to give ample 2-months’ notice, I had a dream in which I had been in a car crash. My boss needed to give me an emergency blood transfusion. It was one of those bizarre nightmares you wake up from and think, whoa, that was intense.

The image of it stayed with me all morning prior to and during the big “resignation” meeting. As the dream predicted, my boss was totally supportive. At one point, our conversation turned to ways I could do free-lance work for the Firm during my sabbatical. Before I left his office, we had agreed to a plan for me to visit European offices to learn about best practices and share lessons with Partners back in Toronto.

It wasn’t a blood transfusion, but pretty close! Now I had yet another means of financial support and was able to maintain relations with my former supervisor and partners in the Firm.

Let the Adventure Begin

With the first four months of my sabbatical plan nailed down, financial resources in place, and formal notice issued, I let family and friends know. For the most part, they greeted news of my upcoming adventure with enthusiasm. Friends and colleagues frequently expressed a little envy. My parents, though supportive, were a tad fearful. My cautious big bro thought I had seriously lost my marbles. What can I say, he’s an Accountant. He was reassured at least that I had made a financial plan!

Probably the hardest part of following through on my sabbatical leavve was saying goodbye to family at the airport. With my return flight TBD, I was off for up to a year of travel.

During my travels I wrote daily in my journal and pulled Tarot cards to reflect on my values, beliefs, goals and needs. It was a navel-gazing journey, one I could have taken without boarding a plane and loading myself down with a back-pack.

Upon my return to Canada 9 months later, I felt refreshed and renewed. Instead of being distracted, I actually looked deeply into people’s eyes and could see them clearly. Listened to their words and heard them clearly. Embarking on the launch of my small business was another new adventure, as was reconnecting with my business colleagues and sharing stories of my journey.

Moral of the Sabbatical Story: Don’t become a Floor Lamp

Taking a self-funded sabbatical leave was the right decision for me at the right time. Having a plan before quitting my job was the right approach for me. Now if I could only tighten the process by about 50 percent, that would be good too.

My wise father cautioned me: no matter how bad you’re feeling in your job, don’t quit until you know where you are going next. He had taken risks in his career that brought him close on a few occasions to losing our home. With a wife and five kids, he had a lot at stake. 

There are others who throw caution to the wind. Leap and the net shall appear. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Though interesting to me in theory, these statements were not my practice then, nor  strategies I recommend to clients who struggle with a similar tension in their lives.

Instead, I suggest “do not quit your job until you know where you are going next.” But don’t ever stay in a job that doesn’t demand your best self and bring moments of joy and satisfaction into your daily life. Don’t become a floor lamp.

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