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How I came to take a Sabbatical

A sunset in urban India

I remember the day I quit my job to take a sabbatical. I also remember how right after my last day at work I was tempted to commit my fresh impressions to a post. But on thinking about it, I felt I should wait for my new reality to sink in before writing anything. Now though, it is probably a good time to explain how I came to take a sabbatical. Wikipedia defines a sabbatical as “a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year.” It also acknowledges the more modern sense of the term to mean an “extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something”. I think that does capture what I have undertaken to do. Now, the specific goals of a sabbatical may be quite personal and selfish. But I do hope there may be something useful and interesting in what I have to say.

It may sound like the politically correct thing to say, but I did really enjoy working at my last workplace. Every place has its ups and downs and every day at work is different. But I worked with good people so many of whom were younger and smarter than me. What was also remarkable was the breadth of the kind of people I worked with: engineers, designers, technology managers, learning and development personnel, patent engineers, recruitment personnel and facilities personnel. From conducting internal trainings or software development contests, and setting up product experience zones, to brainstorming with design and product guys, to getting actual technical stuff done, it was a great privilege for me to be a part of those experiences.

Yet, little by little, all those days of keeping your head down and working were accumulating into something substantial. It was a feeling of being a spectator rather than being on the field, as far as anything other than work was concerned. Milestones were barely registering, whether it was your four year old’s latest accomplishment, your wife’s own professional journey or mundane things like stuff around the house that needed fixing or even profound things like the world you knew being transformed and replaced with new thinking, while you were kinda busy and not looking. But it boggled my mind how to fix things. It wasn’t so much my job that I was unhappy with as much as the order of things. Or perhaps, the disorder of things.

A vacation is a traditional remedy for a malady such as I was apparently suffering from. So I went on vacation with my family. We drove six hours to a lovely beach. The drive was nice with the feeling you get of piloting your dear ones to an awaited destination. It was great: our room, the food, the beach, the sea and the seats with the umbrellas. Yet I was not fully there, periodically crossing some t’s and dotting some i’s about work, in my mind. Besides, everybody knows that you have a smartphone. Maybe they also know you are on vacation, so they don’t really expect anything. Other than you being informed. Just so you get a running start when you return. What is really interesting about a smartphone, is that while you have to physically commute to work, on your smartphone if you touch a centimeter to the left, you are at work.

Then, the idea of a sabbatical occurred to me. At first it felt radical. And scary. But it took hold. I decided to give the idea its due consideration. There were several questions of course, including the piercing but not very usefully worded “What am I doing it for?” Rather than tackle that question head on, I thought if I could evaluate the risks of taking a sabbatical and define a reasonable list of things I would like to do without the encumbrance of a rigid schedule, then maybe I might have a case. And again, the risks were too daunting to consider without enumerating any potential rewards. So I started day-dreaming about what I might like to do given ample free time.

A year and half ago, I had started running regularly. The post-lunch walks and the occasional stair climbing were not doing enough. So I took out an extra hour every other day to run — on the treadmill or around the apartment complex. It has had a tremendous effect both physically and mentally. You feel energetic, agile and loose-limbed which contributes to a positive body language. Equally, the process has been mentally rewarding, that of setting personal goals (however modest they may be in any athletic sense) and attaining them while inevitably failing at some. So I thought at least I had a well defined activity I could anchor my sabbatical schedule around.

During my last semester at college, I had learned to play the drums. There was a music room on campus, and it had a serviceable drum kit, certainly good enough for someone who was pounding it more than playing it. There were no smartphones then. So I would get printouts of lessons downloaded from the Internet. Or while at my computer desk, I would mime and memorize the hand and feet movements from the lessons. Then I would try to play them on the actual kit. It was an amazing amount of fun, and it certainly made me a more aware listener of music. For a variety of reasons, including not enough space, not enough time to make space, and not enough time to make time, currently my drum set is packed and stowed away. So I thought perhaps a sabbatical might permit me the time to unpack it, set it up and ahem, pound.

Then there was writing. I have written research papers, technical drafts for patent applications, protocol specifications, software documentation but only the occasional literary trifle. So maybe it was time to find more occasions for the trifle — reflect on things I wanted to say, and then actually write them up. Then there were all the new advances in technology and their applications that I kept hearing but didn’t know anything about. Last but not the least, while I felt a sabbatical was a personal undertaking, there was plenty of ground to make up with my family too. In hindsight, it wasn’t hard at all to think of things I could do.

Running, drumming, writing and learning may be my choices, but I would also aver that people in general, have no dearth of things they really want to pursue. I have come to know through personal conversations, normal people with no aura or halo, who want to do cooking, gardening, carpentry, scaling mountains instead of products, traveling, cycling, philosophy, building a toy, modifying their car, developing a computer game, motorcycling cross-country, volunteering, teaching, or other pursuits which in conversation have sounded so much more compelling to me than mine. I cannot help feeling that perhaps people only evaluate the cost of the pursuit, and not so much the reward of the journey. Yet, the cost is real.

So I turned to the cost. I put it out of my head very quickly the notion that there was any stigma in taking a sabbatical. I was doing well at work, and I was quitting while I was on top. As far as staying relevant is concerned that is a constant and on-going journey for every professional. So the sabbatical ultimately boiled down to being a financial goal. My wife was very generous and supportive. We ran some numbers to make sure our short-term financial commitments could be met, and that our long-term goals were reasonable in perspective. We fixed some bounds for when I could start the sabbatical, keeping in mind some personal events and short-term constraints. Then, with much trepidation, I stepped back to take it all in. I had a case. I wasn’t going to miss out.

Now I went back to the question I had ducked in the beginning — what am I doing it for? Interestingly, most things I had read were not so much answers as much as different perspectives on sabbaticals. For example, a year long break for every seven years of work — a mere 14% of your time — is such a simple thumb rule to describe and visualize a sabbatical. Another example from the field of music, is that of Indian classical musicians who willingly confine themselves to house arrest to perform what is referred to as “Chilla”. In modern parlance, it is a form of deliberate practice of their craft without day-to-day distractions that often sees them return invigorated and at a new level. Another perspective is how a sabbatical breaks our inertial attachment to our regular work and routines. Like a character in a television program I saw, was once confined to house arrest since her death had to be faked. Being quite the spunky spirit, she felt deflated to find that during her exile, the world at large carried on just fine, despite her self-important attachment to her work.

So then, why am I taking a sabbatical? Really, the most honest and simple answer is, I want to and I can. What do I expect to accomplish, specifically? I don’t know yet, but I definitely intend to come back and write about it. I told some of my colleagues on my last day at work that I believe life is a journey more than a destination. Right now, I want to focus on the journey.