I take sabbaticals for the same reasons that Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
TLDR; I take sabbaticals because the world is too rich and wonderful a place to only be appreciated through work and I do not want to attempt to live once retired at 65, only to find that I cannot.
I want to gorge on life like a pig at the trough, suck the marrow out of it and taste all aspects of it when I am alive. This is the best way I can think of to honour this human birth.
This means that when I work I work very hard. I take on big challenges and give it my everything. But once everything has been given and there is nothing more left to give, that's when I know that I need to honour the other parts of myself. That it's time to go walkabout. And then I go, nurture and nourish parts of myself that have been neglected, improve my health, deepen my spiritual practices and follow my joy wherever it may lead me.
...but it wasn't always like this.
My first sabbatical was not by choice.
I was living what looked like, from the outside, an excellent life. I was working as a banker in London, flying business class to New York, being driven around in Mercedeses and generally living in the lap of luxury. And completely miserable. For some reason, I never really felt at home in banking. The long hours were crushing and London can be a brutally lonely place. I could not share the preoccupations and priorities of my coworkers and every interaction was a drain on my energies.
With no support structure and no one to show me how to live, I fell into a terrible lifestyle of overwork, stress and the attendant coping mechanisms -- alcohol, parties and so on. After five years of living a life diametrically opposed to my core values, I was completely burned out.
A fog of grey had descended over my preception and there were days when I could do no work at all. The burnout was so deep and so intense that the thought of going to work was enough to make me sick to the stomach. I was an empty husk of a man. I needed rest and no one was telling me to get some rest. Much of what I heard was - "you're so lucky, how can you not be grateful for what you have, you're letting your parents down" and so on. The few friends who supported me did so out of love for me, not out of any great conviction that I'd be better off if I quit.
During this time I suffered a great deal of anxiety and self-doubt. I had failed. Sitting by the huge plexiglass windows at the bar at the top of Tower 42, I told a friend -- My career is over. What else can I do besides banking? What else is there to do?
In the end, leaving banking was no longer a choice. One afternoon I handed in my badge and laptop and I exited that pale yellow building into the pale yellow sunlight of a July London afternoon. For a while I just wandered, still uncomprehending that I was free. I remember walking down Picadilly Avenue in the middle of the afternoon, like a schoolboy playing truant, and I loosened my tie and did a little dance on the street because there, alongside all the anxiety and self-criticism, I noticed the first tiny flicker of joy. Something deep inside me knew that whatever was happening was correct.
Looking back I was lucky that I didn't have a choice, because what happened next defied belief. Not only was my career not over, it blossomed.