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Highlights from the comments on Rest
This week Strange Loop published an essay on Rest, and the lost art of sabbaticals. It seemed to hit a nerve, and generated a bit of discussion. I thought to collect some of the more thought provoking ones and continue the conversation!
Shane O’Mara writes":
I often think that we undervalue slack and mind-wandering. I often think of this brilliant quote from Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project: "The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
I absolutely love that quote!
First, Hines writes about Stefan Sagmeister, who made periodical sabbaticals a part of his working identity, and it paid off.
This is great, thank you. The designer Stefan Sagmeister may have read into the Judaic meaning of Sabbatical - he closes his design consultancy every seven years to take a year off, and he's been very open that everything they do after a sabbatical is inspired by thinking he does during it. On the question of being able to afford it: I did some work for a bank once exploring why people don't put more into their pensions and this question came up, especially amongst 20/30-somethings - there's no financial product that lets you save for retirement but which is structured to release a 'pretirement' chunk every seven years or so to fund time off. There's a business opportunity for someone in there......
This is interesting, the idea of a sort of annuity for people to save towards their sabbatical. I think it’s worthwhile, but on reflection I don’t think it’s enough.
People don’t not take sabbaticals only because of the expense associated with it, but it’s the fear of missing out. The opportunity cost of leaving a job and difficulty of coming back to another one.
If you look actually at the people who do take this, they are the ones with high degrees of job mobility - whether that’s entrepreneurs, or software engineers. And they don’t need to necessarily worry about money per se for a few months, but rather need to worry about what comes afterwards, or the dreaded few-month-gap!
I created my own sort of Sabbatical 13 years ago. I handled it poorly and, on the brink of making risk work, I faltered. It derailed my life in good and bad ways. I know that in the time I spent going for it and being free, I was as happy as I had been my entire life.
This is of course the hard part! There are no guarantees in life, and this means that structuring a time away is not guaranteed to get you a life altering insight like discovering calculus. But it might still be worthwhile!
It’s a hard lesson.
Making of a Historian writes:
I love this--I think of course of Russel's In Praise of Idleness and the Idler Manifesto (which led to a Professionalized Idler magazine, of course.)
You argue for the value of the Sabbatical in instrumental terms. That it increases creativity. Helps us do other things. But the real purpose of the Sabbatical is ideally... to do nothing structured. To potentially sit and stare at the ocean all day. The harder argument is to argue that we should do the Sabbaticlal even if nothing useful occurs from it. Just because it's nice.
Practically, I wonder if such a Sabbatical is feasible today. With the demands on our attention--phones, games, TV, schedules can you really get the silence and the freedom necessary for a true break? (Probably why we imagine a lot of 'breaks' as trips away physically--to get away practically from the distractions) Maybe a more radical act of renunciation is necessary?
I absolutely love Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, and think it should be required reading for all.
It’s also a mirror to the previous point of being able to enjoy a sabbatical on its own terms even if it didn’t lead to some life changing outcome.
That said, while it’s easier to argue for the sabbatical using instrumental terms, he’s right that the true benefit might not just be instrumental. It’s also a question of looking at things at an aggregated scale versus an individual scale. If there’s any actual benefit of course that will come out in aggregate, though perhaps not as an individual.
John Raptis writes about this as a problem of overoptimisation!
The more we strive to optimize everything, the more we squander and silently collectively condemn what is not immediately measurable.
Of course, there is a lot of self-censoring when it comes to not taking sabbaticals as well. I have the sense that the people you had as examples here, would have a healthy detachment from their work. To not have it be an integral part of their identity. They certainly didn't have an executive saying to them “hey we are family here”.
I’ve written on here several times about the problems with over optimisation leading to suboptimal outcomes. This is another case in point.
The fact that there is self-censoring is very true. There were other comments pointing out how there’s selection bias here, which is also true.
However I don’t think the examples I quoted had a healthy detachment. Certainly Einstein or Newton or Darwin didn’t really differentiate their work from anything else in their life. They wouldn’t have really understood the delta I wager, though someone did note to me afterwards that Newton wasn’t exactly at the top of the aristocracy and actually worked to help another student while at Cambridge. If someone has a source I’d really appreciate it.
Either way, the fact that the executives didn’t think of themselves as a “family” is very true and probably salient!
Amy Letter writes very movingly:
I work in academia -- as a creative writer I'm not sure I can say "I am an academic"! :) -- and I've had one sabbatical and am looking forward to my next! I also watch all my colleagues rotate through them, and I have to say, they are essential -- whenever someone publishes a book or succeeds in a major project, they credit the sabbatical. People also tend to return from sabbatical FAR more pleasant to be around! Lol. I'm sure there are some personality types sabbaticals would frustrate (lack of routine, no externally-defined measurements of success, etc), but the kind of people who gravitate towards academia are really self-motivated self-over-workers who are creative but prone to burnout. Where I work the deal is one semester at full pay or a full year at 70% pay, which I consider very reasonable, since the University gets to take some credit for everything we accomplish, but some people accomplish things and then move on, so it strikes a balance. For me the key to a successful sabbatical is the complete shift in thinking -- on my last sabbatical I actually TOOK UP a bunch of new hobbies that had nothing to do with my work, but it was a different kind of challenge, different-dimensional thinking. For my next sabbatical I'm planning to spend a year abroad teaching English -- that's still work, but it's a total change of perspective with new challenges. Do I think my creative work benefits from this, even when I am doing my regular work of teaching and admin duties? Oh Hell Yes. Without the breaks I'd be so completely burnt out, and, I suspect, VERY unpleasant and grouchy! Ha!! :)
This is the happiest possible case. I post it here as an example of something we should all learn from academia!
What I note while reading these and many more messages and emails is that a) people are overwhelmingly interested in the idea, and b) the biggest barriers in front seem like the intangible fear of getting “left behind” in some way. The worry isn’t just that its expensive even w.r.t opportunity cost, or just real cost, but that doing so is in some ways stepping off of the treadmill. And once you’re off, it’s hard to get back on!
The interesting thing is that it doesn’t even need a large financial commitment. Because if you’re in your 30s or even 40s, you’re not that worried about a year of lost pay per se, but you’re worried about what happens afterwards. What if your project doesn’t take off? What if you can’t get back your job? Etc. What you need is legibility.
And that’s the key benefit that an MBA provides, that it is a highly legible thing, or a costly signal if you think of it that way. One that’s easily explainable to anyone, and one that has an imprimatur of success imprinted on it through transferred halo from the university and selection effects. While the latter can be copied, the former is much harder! If only a university were to be willing to let start a new program, a zero cost one that too, we might be able to make the world of work a much more enjoyable one!
And since it’s related to this essay you’d probably also like this one!
As always, please do share any articles, essays, poems or books you think are great in the comments!