Sabbatical Stories

Elle Finds Freedom to Explore

Permission to Explore

I healed from burnout, gave myself permission to travel and explore, and reconnected to myself.

elle's sabbatical freedom travel

I was burning out at work, getting frustrated, taking work too personally, and at the same time, questioning the path that I was on. I was about to turn 35, and felt like life only had two available options: 1) fully focus on growing my career or 2) get married and focus on creating a family. Neither really felt like me. I knew that just leaving my position and finding another job in the same field wasn’t the answer. I knew there had to be more out there, and I knew I had to push myself out of my own nest in order to find it.

I had to give myself permission to do all the things I had previously told myself I couldn’t or shouldn’t.

Most of my worries about both quitting and traveling were around the optics. What would people think of me? Would anyone hire me again in the future? Had I failed at life? I reassured myself that if nothing else I was qualified to get a future job at Starbucks.

I ended my job on a Friday, and on Sunday showed up at a residential month-long yoga teacher training. I had been practicing yoga for 15 years, but had never given myself permission to go deeper into it. I needed a landing pad, a structure to fall into immediately after I left my day-to-day routine. I put my cell phone in a safe and gave myself the intention to focus solely on the now, because I really didn’t have much of a plan after that first month.

This became the theme for the rest of my sabbatical. I kept reminding myself to focus on being in the now, instead of having everything planned out or worrying about what came next.

I spent the rest of the summer traveling, visiting friends out West, and then in the fall went back to DC and sold my condo. I had moved to DC after grad school because that’s where I got a job, and had never seen myself living that life, but I ended up being there six years.

With my condo sold, I had financial and location freedom, but I was lost. What I still needed was permission to do what I had always really wanted to do. I had always loved traveling, and in my 20s I had thought about doing the Peace Corps, or living overseas, but it hadn’t happened. I thought I would travel as part of graduate school, but I ended up adding a second degree and staying on campus both years. I thought I would get a job overseas after graduation, but then my dad died, and it felt right to turn down that offer.

In the end, after I was still sitting around my mom’s kitchen table after Thanksgiving, trying to figure out what to do with myself, my brother gave me the external permission I didn’t know I needed. I booked a ticket to Myanmar the next day.

I set out for Southeast Asia, originally giving myself two months. Fully on my own, and without much structure, what turned into six months of backpacking took me through the full range of emotions – from very lonely to enjoying new friends and connection, from paralyzed by the overwhelm of options to brimming with exciting new ideas, from existential crisis to joy.

It was a time for exploring and trying new things, being an adventurer, and finding the balance between structure and freedom.

I did various courses and retreats, both to give myself some structure, and to try new things my full-time work life hadn’t allowed for. I experimented with both surrendering to the moment of what was happening, and also consciously creating or manifesting the experiences I wanted. I connected to the inner resilience, creativity and curiosity I had felt when I was younger, and which have since served me well in the years since.

Activities you engaged in during your sabbatical:

– 200hr yoga teacher training
– Sold my condo and nearly all my belongings
– Traveled for 6 months through Myanmar, Thailand, Bali, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam
– Taught yoga in Laos
– Vipassana meditation retreat
– Massage course
– Spent extended time with my family and visited with friends

How long was your sabbatical (in weeks)?

What were you most concerned about when contemplating a sabbatical?
Optics – what will colleagues, friends and family think of me?!

Did HOW you work change at all, post-sabbatical?
Went from company employed to self-employed

Describe any changes you made in your life post-sabbatical:
I started my own remote company, started traveling full-time, and became a life coach

How did your sabbatical experience change the way you thought about your employer?
I had more empathy and forgiveness for the challenging situation I had left.

Why do you think others should (or shouldn’t) take sabbaticals? Are there occasions in life where it’s particularly helpful?

A sabbatical is an opportunity to step back and get some perspective on life and what you want to create with it.

It can be particularly helpful when life delivers you a cosmic 2×4, in the form of a death of a loved one, a job loss, break up, or a health scare, or when there is a need for some perspective and reflection on what truly matters. Sometimes, as in my case, there’s the creeping existential question of what am I really doing with this one wild and precious life?

Taking time away from work, to just focus on yourself, can reclaim energy from burn-out, and reconnect you to your spirit. Life and work can wear you out, and you can forget what originally excited you (especially as a founder or solopreneur). New ideas can start to feel like burdens.

Taking a sabbatical reactivated my creativity and old interests and passions, enabled me to think entrepreneurially again, to remember the bigger picture, and eventually to make some big shifts in how I lived my life.

You can connect with Elle McPherson here.

Interested in more travel sabbaticals? You might like Oliver’s story.

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