Sabbatical. I even love the sound of the word. It’s heavy. It requires commitment. But it holds so much promise.
When I first started hearing of adult gap years, it made me do a mental double take. The idea of several months away from work or school sounded blissful. I thought of all the things I could do: live abroad, go for walks in the middle of the day, give more time to relationships and personal goals that matter to me. But that kind of freedom, I was sure, comes only twice, just after graduation or when you reach retirement, like bookends to your adult life.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, explains Kim Goff. She’s been in nonprofit management for 20 years but taking an intentional, thoughtful break from her career since May.
“Why do I want to wait until I’m 65?” she says. “You don’t know what tomorrow might bring. You don’t know what next year will bring. Life is short.”
It’s not that she’s independently wealthy or that she advocates a reckless disregard for finances. After all, jobs bring money and stability. But the death of her mom last year got her thinking that an extended pause from her day-to-day might be the right choice. For her, it’s a chance to reflect, reconnect with loved ones and let time weigh heavy on her hands.
“I’ve loved every job that I’ve had and hope to have one more that I’ll love,” Goff says. “But I don’t have to think about that now. I want to be able to clear my head and recharge and even have the opportunity to get bored.”
The idea of sabbaticals — of this complete stepping away from routine — is nothing new. From early Jewish history, it was a time every seven years when the fields lie fallow and debts were forgiven. Shmita, after all, means “release.”
Today people think of sabbaticals as a break from work, traditionally for those in academia or theology. It’s as though workers in weightier matters of the mind and soul need that period of renewal more than the rest of us. Rice University explains the goal: “The object of these leaves is to enable faculty to increase their effectiveness … and their usefulness to the University.”
The advantages, though, are individual even more so than organizational. Project: Time Off has gathered an impressive body of research that points to benefits you can enjoy just from taking a vacation. The time away can help you be more creative and advance in your career. It lets you focus on relationships and passion projects. And it’s good for you. They cite studies showing how people who take regular vacations are less likely to die of heart disease, have heart attacks and become depressed. Time off reduces stress, leading to better emotional and physical health.
Sponsored sabbaticals, though, are still far from the norm. This year, only 5% of companies offer a paid sabbatical program, and 10% an unpaid one.
So how do most people do it? Like Goff, they plan, they save, and then they take the leap. I was captivated by the idea but cautious. I wanted to hear from someone who had leapt — and landed. That’s when I found Glen Zehr.
Zehr doesn’t fit your gap year stereotype. He’s not a millennial sharing his adventures on Instagram, tagging #wanderlust for every sunset and selfie. He doesn’t seem like a carefree adventurer. He’s married, has three grown children. He’s built a stable career for himself in business, mostly financial services for the past 23 years.
Then he decided to take a year off and move to Spain. For one of those months, he and his wife, Julie, walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, crossing the Pyrenees and ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela. It’s an ancient pilgrimage that some do for spiritual or cultural reasons and others just for the challenge, Zehr says. For them, it was a chance to turn off their phones and just be.
“We go through so much of our day getting marketed to, communicating with others, buying things, going to our jobs, and so on,” he says. “The act of stepping away from all of that and being alone in your thoughts, being in nature, that does something to you. Something physical. Something psychological. Something spiritual. My experience was mine. Julie’s was Julie’s. Yours will be yours.”
Zehr says it reminded him of the expression of moving from a “human doing” to a “human being.” He could wander slowly through a museum, have philosophical conversations late into the night, share a meal with someone without checking work emails or texts.
Now back in the U.S., Zehr has successfully reintegrated into society. He returned to his previous employer, though he’s still adjusting to what he calls “normal work life.”
So the final question I had to ask: Was it worth it?
“I don’t want to suggest that everything always went along swimmingly or that we never ran into any problems,” he told me. “This is just life. But what the sabbatical did was remove speed, deadlines and self-imposed rushing. My company doesn’t offer a sabbatical benefit. That means that I actually quit my job with no guarantee of employment when I returned. It was a risk, but not a life-threatening risk. My wife and I believed that taking this risk was worth more to us than staying and not getting the opportunity to live in Spain for a year. I am so glad we took that risk. The emotional and mental renewal that comes from that gift of time is truly wonderful.”
Hearing Zehr talk about the year away, I know he’s learned valuable life lessons and lived through incredible experiences that couldn’t have happened any other way. I know that if I followed his example, I would come away changed. I envision a rich harvest — of personal growth, extraordinary memories and strengthened relationships — and maybe, as I break with convention and routine, something of release.
Will I take a sabbatical? I’m still not certain. I’ll borrow the words of Zehr, when I asked him if anything was different now that he’s back:
“I would say, ‘more to come.’ I’m still on the journey.”
Cheryl Rodewig is a storyteller. She tells stories both as a digital marketer and an award-winning journalist. Focusing on travel and intentional living, she’s written for publications ranging from USA Today magazines to U.S. Army News. Her Venn diagram includes minimalism, nature, French, and the em dash.