You can build your own sabbatical. It is both risky and rewarding. I realize that not everyone can do this, but if you are thinking about it, here are some things to take from my experience.
Define what you want to explore: You don’t want to jump into a void. I thought about four things that I wanted to explore. For me they were: understanding the political context in the U.S; thinking more about human rights in the context of organized crime; trying to figure out how you could structure advocacy in a more multi-sectorial way; and, exploring how others are approaching social change, looking for tools that were new to me.
Ask what’s important for you: For me it was controlling my own agenda. I applied for only one fellowship. I was a finalist, but didn’t get it. In the end, they asked me to narrow my approach and I thought, “this is the first time in years that I don’t need to respond to the interests of a foundation.” So, I didn’t. I also didn’t get the fellowship. But, being able to explore what interested me; to think broadly, and be able to change my mind mid-stream was important to me.
Think about what you want to do with your time: In my previous work, I felt stuck in certain patterns. I wanted to think differently about my relationship to work, to rest, to see family, to lose weight and to think about how I might construct my life somewhat differently. In addition to the issues I wanted to explore, I wanted to use my time toward these ends.
Plan ahead and save money: In my head and in our household, we started planning 18 months before I actually left my job. This long lead-time allowed us to save money and plan spending so we had a cushion.
Think broadly about your assets. I banked my frequent flier and credit card miles to use during the sabbatical. That helped, but what really made a difference was to think about what and whom I knew as part of my assets. They could be deployed in the service of my sabbatical.
Barter: Using knowledge gained and relationships built over my career, I bartered lectures for plane tickets and help arranging meetings. This allowed me to travel and talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. I was surprised by how many people offered to help. THANK YOU TO ALL.
One colleague negatively critiqued this approach. Her view was that as a woman I was selling myself short and not making people pay what my time is worth. This might be true, but my priority was the freedom to explore and I bartered my way to it. I’m good with that.
Tell people what you are doing and why: Well in advance of leaving my job I wrote a few paragraphs explaining the ideas that I wanted to explore during my sabbatical. I was shocked at the positive response. A lot of people offered to help make the sabbatical work. One friend and colleague – Carlos Heredia at CIDE in Mexico – wrote a course curriculum that included understanding the US political context and asked me to co-teach the class! This was huge as it forced me to teach things that I wanted to learn. Another – Gordon Hanson at UCSD – made it possible for me to talk with people working on artificial intelligence, creative uses of geospatial mapping and encouraging political participation.
The long lead-time was important because many of my contacts are academics and they have to plan farther in advance than I do. The time made it feasible for those willing to participate in my bartering scheme to make the arrangements.
Your human assets might be more willing to help you than you expect. Think about what they might need to be helpful to you.
Say yes to invitations that you didn’t have time for before. For years people had invited me to visit them but I didn’t have time. On sabbatical, time is one of your assets. I got back in touch with people who had made previous offers for collaboration and travel, and asked if the offer still stood. Often it did. These were some of my best trips.
Accept help and pay it sideways: I asked people for help this year and they gave it to me. I had moments when I felt bad about this. But, it wasn’t hard to beat those moments back because that feeling was overtaken by the fantastic conversations and connections I made by taking advantage of what was offered.
I now feel a real responsibility to respond to their generosity. Sometimes my generosity is reciprocal but more often I find myself using the assets at my disposal to help other people. Just two examples, now that my children are grown, I see the extra bedrooms in my house as assets and deploy them for students and others needing a place to stay in DC. Also, I’ve been a volunteer for many years, but after this sabbatical, I think of it in a different way. I see using my skill set for others as a way to repay all of those who helped me – albeit indirectly.
The sabbatical year was not a cakewalk, but I’ll save those learnings for another post. What you can take from my experience is that a DIY sabbatical is possible. Think broadly about your assets and put them to use. You will likely be surprised at how many people become part of your process, how much you learn and how rich it makes you feel.