Sabbatical Stories

Paul

Using sabbaticals to test out hypotheses for work and life

“Maybe some people need the sabbatical because everything is just perfect. At least for me, this has never been true. If there’s something that lingers as an open question or aspiration, I give myself theme and space to explore it fully.”

Paul started his work journey young—he founded a web hosting company in high school. Unsure whether to follow his curiosity or the traditional path, he chose to sell the company for a pittance and attend college. His (smaller) competitor who instead chose to drop out of college and sell years later became fabulously wealthy. Since then, Paul has thought about work as a way to answer questions about how to spend his life: what would happen if he took one path versus another?

Taking extended leave wasn’t a new idea for Paul, it was more of a family tradition: his parents credit their extended honeymoon as a defining moment in their lives. Paul took time off when he could, by studying abroad, or extending start dates to give him big blocks of stress-free time off.

But his first real experiment in using time off for hypothesis-testing was going to business school. At HBS he wanted to test whether he should work in international development and live abroad, or work in cleantech. After internships and club leadership, he decided to return to consulting, but on his own terms: he’d take six months off before starting, and every three to five years going forward.

Two years out of school, Paul set out on a full year off to answer four questions: what should he do next in life, what would it be like to pursue a passion project, what would happen if he pushed his comfort zone, and how would it feel to relax and invest in friends and family? He set off on a project he called “Beyond the Headlines,” during which he picked places on the State Department’s “do not travel” list to couch-surf and see if maybe the world wasn’t as bad as what you read online. While travelling across  Africa and the Middle East, he wrote a blog, which attracted thousands of followers. The experience also left him drained; he realized he’d been more burned out from work than he’d thought.

“I learned that the world is far less negative than what I read about every day on the news, social media, and even in conversations with friends. It sounds cliche, but experiencing it for myself reinforced my faith in humanity. This new worldview positively impacts my relationships with colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers. To this today I am more inclined to assume positive versus negative intent than I was beforehand.”

Next, he explored what it would be like to return and live in his family’s homeland—Estonia. There, he spent time with cousins, brushed up on the language, and generally yearned for home. His final stop was Hawaii, where he wanted to see what it would be like to own an ecolodge. He spent months as a chef, learning the insides of the business, while experiencing firsthand the realities of working in the tourism industry far from friends and family.

Paul credits this sabbatical—and his five others—as instrumental in career wayfinding. He’s learned not to expect epiphanies from these blocks of time. Instead, they give him “accelerated learning.” For example, spending time in the ecolodge showed him that there’s no such thing as utopia; he was surprised by things he missed—intellectual challenge and his community—back home. His time in Estonia proved to be just as valuable. He’s no longer pinning his hopes for happiness on retiring in a faraway homeland or exotic paradise.

But it did help him to find passion in his job. After this sabbatical, Paul left consulting and joined a company which shared his passion for travel and exploration: Airbnb. He credits his adventures and time off for helping him to stand out from other applicants—especially consultants—and to show that he’s willing to take risks to find out what he believes in.

Paul recently completed his sixth sabbatical which looked quite different given the inability to travel due to Covid-19. The restriction forced him to stay closer to home both physically and mentally. He used the time to transition from city life in San Francisco to country life in Sonoma County. He proposed to his girlfriend, helped plan a wedding, and plotted a career transition from hospitality to healthcare.

As for his next sabbatical? It will involve at least one additional stakeholder—but there’s a few years of life and many questions to accumulate before deciding.

“Before my first sabbatical I was terrified that time off would lead me to fall behind in my career. After six sabbaticals I am confident that time off is what I need to be not only successful in my career, but also in my personal life.”

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