The case for sabbaticals
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 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!! :)
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”.
As a 33 year old who’s chosen to drop out of life for the past year and wander the world in search of my next challenge, I very much appreciate the case study here. I think it’s a huge loss to humanity that people don’t understand the value of being temporarily retired during mid life. It gives you perspective and distance to start to understand what the rest of your career might optimally look like, as opposed to suffering from myopia always just staring at the next rung of the ladder.
Sabbaticals only free you up to do lots of thinking if you don't have kids or your spouse is the primary caregiver.
The one person who took a "break" after her Ph.D. to take care of her kids managed to do well after going back to work did so in spite of having kids, not because of the "break."
Basically a load of confirmation bias.
Loved the post Rohit. There are many subthemese which should be explored further. Indeed I think the most useful function of MBA is as a very costly sabbatical (except in India if you are a 23 year old in IIMA right after IIT - it exhausts me to even think about it). Anyway, don't take sabbaticals if you work in big Pharma. I correctly did not take my six month paternity leave, correctly assuming that if not there during the reorganisation, will definitely get screwed, the social media posts not withstanding.
Really well written. I think academia is still best suited to offer sabbaticals, but is no longer carrying its weight in attracting or holding onto talent that is best suited to take those sabbaticals.
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 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.
I recommend getting a part time job. Maybe 20 Hours a week and then periodically do side projects in which you reach 40 hours a week. Very few people know that you can survive very well on 20 hours pay a week. There are so many purchases which are unnecessary. EDIT: Maybe not everywhere in the world. Here in Germany the cost of living is quite good
Really our entire culture around work needs a complete overhaul - not to mention the economic conditions that allow employers to lock in workers for fear of their livelihood and survival, trapping them into the nonstop grind that makes a simple idea like a sabbatical seem an impossible privilege! Imagine actually having time for self-development - let alone something that helps others - and it’s that out of reach for most people!
Rest is also a form of resistance where we testify to the truth that the end of human living isn’t economic productivity. It’s good to be restored for more work but that need not be the only or primary purpose of rest.
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......
If you really want to justify that this is a worthwhile thing, your analysis can't just cover the successes. That's guaranteed survivor bias.