The case for sabbaticals
Picture a young Albert Einstein working as a patent clerk in 1905. He has a steady job, but his mind remains restless, filled with ideas that clash with the rigid conventions of physics. During the day, he mechanically processes patent applications. But away from the office, he plumbs the mysteries of the universe. This freedom allows bursts of imagination outside his daily routine. He asks, what would happen if you rode a beam of light? That year, he publishes four revolutionary papers that reshape science.
This is either the beginning of a tragedy or an incredible boon, depending on whom you ask. If you’re running the patent office, you might wonder why someone of such intellect would not be interested in improving the office itself, instead of imagining themselves riding alongside a photon. If you’re a scientist you might wonder how close we were to actually losing Einstein, if the patent office work was just a bit more time-consuming or difficult!
Today, it's nearly impossible for most professionals to enjoy such intellectual freedom. In the always-on economy, taking months or a year for unstructured exploration has become extinct. Two weeks of hurried vacation is the norm, if you're lucky. Sabbaticals are a quaint relic, reserved for tenured academics. Yet history reveals the immense value of this "long time.”
And we’re paying the price. Creativity has stagnated across industries. The few who escape enjoy epiphanies like Einstein in 1905. The always-on economy has robbed most professionals of this gift.
Isaac Newton did some of his most important work during the year Cambridge closed for the Great Plague in 1665-66, producing the principles of calculus, optics and gravitational theory. Albert Einstein worked at the patent office for 7 years after college before his "miracle year" of breakthroughs in 1905. Charles Darwin spent 5 years traveling the world on the Beagle voyage, crucially important for formulating his theories of evolution.
Marie Curie took a break from her studies to tutor and study independently, and this started her on research that led to Nobel prizes.
It seems to happen more in creative circles. Tolstoy took a break to recover from a spiritual crisis and immersed himself in studying religion, eventually ending in writing Anna Karenina. Joseph Heller took a year off after writing Catch-22 to travel and reflect.
Paul McCartney, not one to make lesser songs and known for his incredible work ethic, took a break to spend time on his farm. This is the man unburdened by creative roadblocks, who composed Hey Jude while driving to meet John Lennon’s ex-wife and son.
Not to mention Eat, Pray, Love. Or when James Cameron spent a decade becoming a significant oceanographical explorer and inventor in his own right, and then made Avatar. Or where JK Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English, and started writing the Harry Potter novels in that time.
It also happens in entrepreneurship, especially in tech, where people start companies after taking breaks from selling their previous ones. Brian Acton comes to mind, where he took a year off to travel after leaving Yahoo and then came up with WhatsApp. Drew Houston wrote the code for Dropbox during travels too. Travis Kalanick the same re Uber. Max Levchin apparently same for Slide and Affirm.
This is also the answer to one of Patrick Collison’s questions, on why people sometimes decide to make big changes to their lives.
Most days, people don't decide to change their lives in big ways. On a few days, they do. What's special about those days? How much is it about the stimulus versus their own inner state?
Because they almost never get a chance to.
Now, it’s most easily visible in the creative industries or startups, places where ideas have outsized impact, but surely these aren’t the only places where a break has disproportionate impact.
The answer, as in many things, lies in the Bible, which introduces the concept of rest as a pillar of productivity. When the ur-text of the world talks about God needing a day off, the Sabbath, the concept has staying power. Later, this evolved into the sabbatical year in Judaism, where people took every seventh year off from working the land.
It was common for a while. More common, anyway. In academia, for instance, sabbaticals became common in the late 19th century where professors took a semester or a year off for research and writing, or often rest.
It helped when they were brilliant of course, like Charles Darwin taking a 5 year voyage on the Beagle, or Stephen Hawking taking a year off to focus on A Brief History of Time, or the many breaks of Noam Chomsky. Darwin called his time on the Beagle "by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the idea quickly spread in academia. The theory being:
Academics underline the importance of sabbaticals in providing uninterrupted time for research that is used to think, explore new ideas, master new techniques, develop new collaborations, draw together previous work, set work in a wider context, and provide personal discretion in research direction.
But it’s also the case that
…it’s taken from the word "Sabbath" and the literal dictionary meaning of it is 'recur- ring period of rest', 'a leave usually taken every seventh year'. The concept of sabbatical can be traced back in the con- text of academics. It had started in the late 1880 in Harvard University in the form of incentive to attract potential faculty members. On the lines of Harvard University, other institutions like, Cornell University and Wellesley College brought such system in the middle 1880's. Other universities like Columbia University adopted such a system in 1890 and Brown University in 1891 (Eells, 1962). Fifty US universities had introduced the system of sabbatical leave plans by early 20th century.
Academia aside, even in specific fields like pharma or clinical science, academia, or more generally on business, the research broadly states that it’s beneficial for people in all of them to have a sabbatical.
There are still stories of sabbaticals to focus on a particular project, but those are different altogether. That’s a different way of working.
And the industry did try copying this. IBM, 3M, Intel etc tried experimenting with sabbaticals. But none of it took. Not really, anyway.
Around 4% of companies offered paid sabbaticals, according to the Society for Human Resource Management as of 2011. By 2019 this rose to 11% of employers offered an unpaid sabbatical program and 5% offered sabbaticals with pay. Which sounds great! Like this.
QuikTrip requires all full-time employees with 25 years of service to take a four-week sabbatical. At 30 years, 35 years and 40 years, employees must take additional sabbaticals.
Wait, this isn’t a sabbatical. Mostly these are equivalent to extended vacations, five weeks according to the leading anecdote! If you’re European of course, this is risible.
Or look at this gem:
At Edelman Financial Services, where employees are eligible every six years, HR professionals notify the employee's supervisor at the beginning of the employee's year of eligibility. "Three months prior to the approved sabbatical date, the employee is asked to submit an outline, a syllabus of the proposed personal plan, goal or objective while on this leave," Becker says. "We want for employees to be descriptive, but we don't want the syllabus to become a burden. Once reviewed by HR, each proposed syllabus is sent to the CEO, who often asks questions about the interesting trip or event planned and then gives final approval.”
While this might be useful for improving job performance at Edelman, it is emphatically not a sabbatical. It’s not a break when “returning employees put together short presentations about their sabbaticals and post them on the company's intranet.” That’s an opportunity for virtue signalling wrapped up in a rather stressful few weeks.
Which is a crying shame. Because we know how these breaks help people who are lucky enough to take them. By helping them learn new things, but helping them to get time to think more deeply, by taking time to travel and experience life. We know from countless examples how pivotal this "time off" can be in incubating new ideas, digging deeper into existing ones, and acting like the starting gun for a new journey. And yet, for most professionals, taking a substantial break remains all but impossible. It is a lost art, the province of the privileged few.
The remaining question is one of opportunity cost and the benefits. Because the costs are easily visible - a year’s salary or so, gone. The benefits are diffuse, a new passion, a new project, a new way of thinking, inspiration, all hard to either measure or anticipate. Invisible to the naked eye perhaps, but no less real for it.
I grew up in a pretty academic household. For us, getting degrees was a matter of familial pride. Pretty much an end in itself. We spoke in hushed tones of a revered uncle who spent half a decade on a PhD, and then realised he wanted to study something else so abandoned it and went on to do another. This was for his second doctorate. To be clear, this was seen as a good thing.
And rebelling against this, as headstrong kids are wont to do, meant that I ended up doing a Masters and then an MBA. The MBA wasn’t particularly educational, but it was undeniably useful, because you were surrounded by smart people who were all trying to figure out what they wanted to do next! The quest was more important than any outcome.
And also, in fact, the only real legible way I see for most working professionals is to do an MBA. Which also explains its high popularity. It’s one of the only ways for mid-career professionals to recharge, take some time to explore for personal development, reflect on their lives, or to pivot careers.
For what its worth, as someone who’s done one, I’m very comfortable to call it a socially sanctioned sabbatical. There’s some learning, but not nearly enough nor at all anywhere near the rigour a normal Masters program ought to have.
Instead, it’s almost entirely one of selection bias, which helps employers hire from there. But everyone’s in on the core premise, which is that if someone spends $200,000 and two years of their lives mostly in the pursuit of exploration, they might have learnt some skills that it’s worth starting them out in a different line of work.
Let’s think about this in a fractal sense. We’ve normalised taking time off every week. We take time off every month or two through public holidays. We even take vacations every year. But beyond that there’s a gaping hole. There are no longer breaks corresponding to half a decade of work..
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a vacation. In fact, most often to be successful it probably shouldn’t be one. Instead, it should focus on a different enough pursuit, perhaps a project, perhaps a goal, that takes you away from the routine. Vera Rubin, the famous astronomer, took time off from graduate school to take care of her kids. As those with kids know, this is not a vacation, but it is a break. She went back later to finish her PhD and make her famous discoveries about dark matter.
Julia Child was an amateur cook but she was working for the Office of Strategic Services as a research assistant. She was good too. While there she invented a way to stop underwater explosives from being set off by errant sharks by designing a shark repellent. And after she met and married her husband, she took a break, went with him to Paris, and went to Cordon Bleu. This worked out rather well I’d say! So did Martha Stewart by the way, who took a break from Wall Street in her 30s to try out cooking and catering. Closer to my heart, Stan Lee took a break in his 40s. And when he returned, he created Spiderman.
More people should have this option, and not just at the cost of a societally accepted fiction that costs a quarter of a million dollars. There should be more options. There should be an understanding that taking a year off after a decade of working is the norm, to rejuvenate and come back full force, or to go try build something else.
I can’t help but think this is the single biggest problem as exists in our workforce model today! We better solve it, for our own sakes. If innovation is indeed that which we lack, if creativity isn’t common, if rigidity and bureaucracy threatens to drown us, we can’t not do it. When people are escaping the workforce through forging their pathless paths or aiming for FIRE, this is what they’re running from. We should help them out!
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