4 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Took a Sabbatical

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CMO of Unison. Mindful marketer.
May 19, 2024 at 6:33PM UTC

The two-year sabbatical that changed my life began with three minutes of deliberation and two simple words: “I quit.” But there was nothing rash about it. I’d been moving toward that crossroad for a long time.   

I was 39 and the director of relationship marketing strategy at a prestigious advertising agency in Los Angeles. I was really good at my job. Yet, 15 years in the advertising business had changed me. Where once in my much younger years I’d been outgoing and exuberant, now I felt more jaded, hardened, sarcastic. Worst of all, I wasn’t happy. I wondered: Where did that joyful feeling go? A still, small voice said, “Just leave it. Leave this life. Sell your home. Go find out if ‘happy’ is still possible.” I needed to bolt. To run. It was no longer a choice. 

I cashed out and traveled all over the world, including India and Southeast Asia, as well as a lot of places in Africa and in the Middle East. I soaked up new places and cultures, made great friends and learned a lot about myself. When I returned to the U.S. two years later, I was joyful, humbled and grateful. 

When I quit my job so many years ago, I had no expectations in terms of career objectives. I didn’t know what I hoped to gain from a break. But the sabbatical helped me realize that the workplace was where I really could do my best life work by shifting things from the inside. I was eager to see what could happen if I took my newfound joy combined with my deep years of marketing expertise to do more good in the world.  And I’m better for it, too: my sabbatical made me a more mindful marketer and leader. 

You’d be amazed at how often people who know my story approach me for advice. How did I do it? What did I get out of it? I’ve learned that in many cultures, it’s expected that you will take an extended break at some point in your career. But that's not the case in the United States. If you’re ever fortunate enough to have the opportunity to leave your worries behind, here are some key lessons from my life-changing sabbatical:

1. Hit the road.

A sabbatical shouldn’t be a staycation. There is no better way to open your eyes than traveling to other countries, and there are savvy, inexpensive ways to do it. (Hostels, anyone?) I devoted myself to getting to know people who were completely unlike anyone I’d ever been exposed to. We tend to put people in boxes, making all sorts of assumptions. Well, those boxes are pretty much completely invalid — and that’s putting it kindly. I learned that people are beautiful and complex, and that our stories and ideas about others are not always true. That fundamentally changed me as a person and as a marketing professional, making me more empathetic to consumer and human struggles.

2. Spend time alone.

I decided that it was essential to strip away everything that I had surrounded myself with and that I had become comfortable with. This included my job, my home, my geographic comfort zones and my crowd. Traveling alone was key. If you want to find yourself, solitude is critical. It forces you to be honest with yourself and gives you clarity on what is really important, so you can make smarter choices about who and what to surround yourself with when you return.

3. Seek experiences and insights you can apply when you return.

I was burned out when I quit, but by the time I returned, I had a new attitude and energy that made work a joy. I came back with insights and skills that made me a better marketer and helped me do breakthrough work. For example, traveling to unfamiliar and even dangerous places by myself taught me to use all my senses and really pay attention. That is a valuable skill to bring to a job. And because I was brimming with a new understanding of and affection for people, empathy and getting to know customers became a cornerstone of my marketing philosophy. 

4. Find ways to keep the sabbatical alive.

Even though I am happily back in the pressure-packed world of work, I don’t want to lose my connection to those things that made my time away so stimulating. That means continuing to make regular time for solitude and meditation. It’s also important to have a special place, no further than one or two hours from where you live, where you can go once a month or so to recharge your batteries. I’ve also committed myself to annual international travel to ensure that the fruit of my sabbatical won’t ever wither away. Reconnecting to the magic of the world and other cultures through mini-sabbaticals for mind and body gives you a chance to build on your experiences. If you get the chance to take an extended break, don’t treat it as a one-and-done thing.

Making time for an extended career break may seem impossible. But in my case, trading in the cynical, sarcastic, burned-out old me for the energetic, grateful and peaceful new me was worth the risk. For me, the ultimate anti-career move was the best career move I ever made. 

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