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Sabbatical Stories - Little lessons from Nepal and beyond

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Trey and Susie set out on their sabbatical last year with a full agenda, travelling to 3 continents in 3 months. They explored new countries, had some great adventures and learned a couple of lessons along the way.

Being a sporty, exercise-mad kind of guy, Trey was keen to kick off the sabbatical with a little hike in Corsica – the 14-day GR 20 Trail, also known as the toughest long-distance trail in Europe. By day seven, Susie was miserable.

“I really wasn’t enjoying it… but [if I didn’t finish the hike] I had this whole guilt thing, like I’d ruin the first month for Trey… I had a big black cloud over me.”

What Susie realised was that they were both putting pressure on themselves to have an epic, once in a lifetime sabbatical.

Realisation #1 – Be flexible.

This led to their first big lesson about sabbaticals, as explained by Susie. “We don’t have to make this once in a lifetime—we can do this every three years!... It doesn’t mean to say we sit here and waste time, but if it’s not working out, we learn to be flexible. We make changes we’re comfortable making and we don’t feel guilty about it… it made me look at [the sabbatical] from a different perspective.”

They cut the hike short, and with an extra week up their sleeves and a flexible mindset, they fit in a visit to their former hometown of Amsterdam to see friends and play in their old stomping ground. (A super bonus was that I also got to see them and catch the beginning of their sabbatical story).

As they left Amsterdam, Susie and Trey were excited to be heading to Nepal, where again, they would need to seriously invoke a flexible mindset to get the most out of their sabbatical. Trey explained their volunteering debacle, “We went to go volunteer for a month in a school… we end up in this village in the middle of nowhere… It was very confronting. No running water, [outside squat toilets]… The next day we walk into the school to go talk to the teacher and they say, ‘oh yeah, we knew you guys were coming… but by the way, there’s a festival on this month… so the kids are on vacation, there’s no classes… but you can hang out in the school if you like.’” They weren’t going to be teaching kids in Nepal, a huge disappointment.

After a week of doing odd jobs in the school, it became clear there wasn’t much for them to do, so they changed the plan. They hiked the famous Annapurna trails for a week, enjoyed the festival, then headed to a yoga retreat. This turned their Nepal experience around.

Trey and Susie continued on to Japan for two weeks and then down to Australia to visit some friends who had recently made a ‘treechange’, cashing in their successful San Francisco careers for a simpler lifestyle in the countryside. For Trey and Susie, their friend’s experience offered a new perspective and was the catalyst for a new way of thinking about how they wanted to structure their life and where they wanted to live. But it didn’t come in a lightning bolt, insight came gradually.

Realisation #2 – You don’t need an ‘Aha’ moment.

Many people assume that sabbaticals result in an ‘Aha’ moment, Susie explained that while they were on sabbatical they "kept running into people that were having these huge sort of epiphanies…[but] that never happened for us.” And this is okay. Sabbaticals offer the chance to step out of your normal life and experience new ideas and information. It can take time to process this. Realisations on a sabbatical can feel like little puzzle pieces slowly falling into place, day by day, gradually revealing a bigger picture.

Sometimes a sabbatical helps you realise what doesn’t need to change, like Trey realising that all he wanted to do differently was just “…to get up a little earlier in the morning.” This simple detail in itself is affirming—that on the whole, Trey is contented with his life, and no big changes are needed. Go Trey!

Even when there is no ‘Aha’ moment, positive change can build slowly and naturally. Following the month in Nepal, Susie realised she felt healthier when she was on a more plant-based diet. She kept following this when she returned home and realised she was getting a lot of creative satisfaction from exploring new recipes and flavours. Now, rather than trying to get her professional and creative satisfaction solely from her work, she’s expressing her creativity in her “little food crusade”. This means she feels more balanced and motivated at work. Susie is now also exploring a part-time culinary course that will set her up for a career change in the future.

These realisations didn’t come in a lightning bolt ‘Aha’ moment on sabbatical. The insight came step by step, while on sabbatical and after returning home, with the sabbatical experience as the essential catalyst.

Realisation #3 – Step away to step up.

Where I give both Trey and Susie the most kudos is how they managed their exits and re-entries regarding their jobs. They work for different companies, but both in leadership positions in similar, fast paced start-up environments. Both needed to prepare their teams for the three-month sabbatical. The best test of your sabbatical exit preparations is not how you leave, but what happens while you’re away.

When Trey and Susie returned, they both faced the same (horrible) reality. Everything was good. Nothing was burning. Everyone had managed just fine without them. Their teams had even grown as a result of the additional responsibility and exposure in the organisations. Naturally, they both questioned, “What value do I bring now?” But after a few weeks, they found they had more time to focus on strategic value adding, allowing their more capable teams to manage the operational responsibilities. Their respective organisations also realised their value and both were offered huge promotions. Trey on his third day back, and Susie a few months later.

Trey and Susie had an amazing, globe-trotting sabbatical filled with experiences that they’ll love for life. They also had some unexpected realisations. Being flexible and spontaneous improves the travel experience. Removing the pressure of to have an ‘Aha’ moment means you can gradually and naturally let change filter into your life. And, letting go of some responsibility at work means you can focus on what really adds the most value when you return.

Now they’re planning sabbatical number two!

I want to thank Trey and Susie for being such intrepid and insightful people and for sharing their stories and insights with me to inspire all sabbatical dreamers out there.

So… When will you take your sabbatical?


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Beyond a Break – Recharging sabbaticals for a thriving world


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