Sabbatical Stories

Carol learns to balance life and work

carol goes on sabbatical and learns to balance work and life

After seven years in a career stand-still, Carol wanted to live her mountaineering dreams. What she learned about balance along the way would prove invaluable.

Wrestling the Imbalance

Growing up, Carol always had a strong work ethic. She only missed one day of school in her life: for the flu. Seeing her father work himself to the bone as a machinist, the desire to travel ached in her. She wound up quitting her first few jobs to travel. Every break in her early career represented a new opportunity to explore. They were entry-level jobs, anyhow — there’d always be one waiting for her when she came back home. 

Then, Carol landed what she thought was a dream job: working on international affairs at the US treasury. The job promised the travel and immersion in cosmopolitanism she’d longed for as a kid. 

Seven years later, Carol felt like she was at a standstill. An all-consuming obsession with her position at the treasury had led her to sacrifice her personal life. She envied the couples who took paternity leave. When annual reviews came around, she dreaded asking for time off, but much to her surprise, she asked for six months, and got it.

You’re going to check your email five times a day for the first week

A life-changing sabbatical

As she got closer and closer to the sabbatical, Carol’s attention shifted to the fantasy she’d nursed through a voracious reading habit: climbing every mountain in sight. She made last-minute trips to REI to load up on the gear she’d always wanted to need; when she got to the airport, there were still tags on her backpack.

On the way out of the office, Carol met a woman who had also taken time off, who advised her: “You’re going to check your email five times a day for the first week, and twice a day for the second. But then—you’re going to put your phone down and forget that it exists until you come back.”

For the next three weeks, the mountain would be her raison d’etre. Success at any cost. This could’ve been the only time she’d ever do it, after all. 

The woman’s advice was true. Three weeks after her sabbatical started, she stopped checking her email. Instead, Carol had left with a blog and a pull to live by the seat of her pants. In Patagonia, she’d walk into sports stores and ask what the best routes were. 

By the time she’d reached Chile, Carol had been on a high for three months. The world of the treasury — the government shutdown, Trump — didn’t matter to her at all. Heck, she didn’t have Wifi or a cell signal most of the time. 

One day, she got a call. Her brother was dead. 

Carol got on a plane to visit a place she’d flown from 15 years ago. She found herself immersed in a world of receipts, remnants of where this person she’d barely seen since had been every day for a year. Carol wasn’t looking a year ahead anymore — she could barely plan what was going to happen tomorrow. She ruminated on the choices she’d made, the personal life that’d been consumed by her job. 

She realized that each one of her life choices had closed off an endless number of others. That the lack of balance in her work life had been, in part, a choice. 

Putting balance first

When she got back to the Treasury, Carol put balance first. She began to appreciate the total autonomy she had in her job, and wasn’t afraid to ask for time off to pursue ski and other adventures. She’d come back feeling more competent and productive, and more in power than she ever had before.  Seven years later, she took another mini sabbatical to pursue her other dreams of being a ski bum and completing a through hike. She says the time is now, that her body isn’t getting younger or fitter. 

Interested in more examples of solo travel sabbaticals? Read about Renee’s sabbatical here.

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