Why I Take Sabbaticals

Why I Take Sabbaticals

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?

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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.


As I rested and recoverd, I started to indulge my other interests -- programming, music, motorcycling, paragliding. I dived deep into all of them. I had a small career as a musician that is still paying dividends. I got really deep into my first love -- programming -- which allowed me to build a career more aligned with my core values.

My sabbatical ended, bizarrely, with me going back to work at the same bank, but with a double promotion in exchange for three years off. The world is an incalculably weird place.

I remember from time to time that conversation in Tower 42 and I smile at my naivete. How narrow my vision of the world and of myself was. The world is a rich and wonderful place, bubbling with opportunity. 

I took three years to return to work. And in those three years I had learned that the world and its worries and its work and its jobs would always be there. The important thing was that I be there, strong and enthusiastic, with a desire to shape the world to my will. If this person was not there, there was no point in the world being there with all its jobs.


What I Learned

What I learned from that first sabbatical was this -- that nothing bad happens if you take a break. There is nothing to fear, and in later posts we will take a closer look at where this fear comes from and what it actually is.

I also learned that work is a small part of life. The world is huge and it is weird and it is wonderful and the tiny slice of it that you see at work is nothing. Out there are experiences and learnings that can make the difference between a life endured and a life enjoyed.

I also learned that when one lets serendipity into one's life, it can take us to places we never imagined. Add a bit of randomness, get comfortable being uncomfortable, meet everyone with curiosity and an open heart, with no desire to conclude a transaction, and see what happens.

Today I am on my third sabbatical. Fourth if you count study breaks.

  • My first sabbatical made me a programmer
  • My study break made me an excellent programmer.
  • My second sabbatical brought me my spiritual practice.

This is my third and it seems to be unfolding a new career as I can really dig in and write and write. 

I can say with confidence that if I were to do it again, I'd not change a thing. The kind of experiences I've had as a traveller, as a musician, as an entrepreneur, the amount of time I've been able to spend with loved ones, the kind of personal growth and richness I have experienced -- I would not exchange these things for the world.

Why I'm writing this book.

I'm writing this book for those of you who wake up on weekdays with a headache, those of you who're heading for burnout and collapse but won't give yourselves permission to take care of yourselves.

I'm writing this book for the wanderers amongst us who are curious and hunger for more from life. You who sit at your desks and read travelogues, wishing for the far off mountain and the open road if only you could take some time off.

I'm writing this book because hustle culture has lost its balance. It is neither desirable, nor is it possible to hustle 24/7. In fact it is a form of extreme broken-ness. There are many of you for whom this is the very last thing you should be hearing. As it is so many of us have a broken relationship with work and suffering. Turning it into a fetish is not helpful. I'll talk also about what a healthy relationship with work looks like and how to develop one.

I'm writing this book to tell you that it is ok to want rest. You haven't failed. The modern work environment has deteriorated so much that the deck is stacked against your mental health and well-being.

I'm writing this book to tell you to take some time to connect with your joy. It is an investment that will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life. Joy and happiness are always within reach if one knows how to find them. In this book I'll tell you more about how to practice following your energy to a career that's more aligned with whatever turns you on.

In the end I'm writing this book because I wish it had been there for me when I needed it.