Create Your Own Sabbatical

This month I celebrate the four-year anniversary of fulfilling a life-long dream that I’ve come to think of as my sabbatical: I lived in Paris during the month of August 2010.

As the daughter of a university professor, I understood early that the word “sabbatical” means time off granted to tenured professors in order for them to rest, recharge and do research in their area of study. My own sabbatical was inspired by the death of my mother the previous year. There’s something about sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is dying that inspires us to look at our own lives and think about the things we’ve left undone. One of those things, for me, was living in Paris.

In college I studied French, fell in love with the language and the culture and was determined to someday study in  Paris. I also fell in love with my husband-to-be and instead of taking my junior year abroad, I got married. No regrets… I just told myself, “Oh, I’ll get to Paris someday,” never imagining that “someday” would be more than thirty years later.

During those last few weeks of my mother’s life, I was visited by an urgency to accomplish my dream of living in Paris because I was painfully aware of how short and precious our lives are. In the absence of a university committee, I granted myself a sabbatical–and you can, too. Here’s how:

  • Make a declaration. Even university professors have to lobby for time off–and so will you. But it won’t happen unless you give yourself permission and the power to declare your sabbatical to the world. Like any big goal worth achieving, your commitment comes first–then you can figure out how to make it happen. I began my sabbatical by declaring, first to myself and then to anyone who would listen, “I’m going to Paris!”
  • Talk it up. When I first began talking up my Paris sabbatical, I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. I had some money saved: check. I had some frequent flier miles to cash in: check. I had the blessing of my husband (once I invited him to come visit for a week): check. And I had an idea of the time frame: I wanted to stay a full month, and I wanted it to happen within the year. That was about as far as my planning had gotten. However, by sharing with everyone I knew, I began generating resources. My business coach Jackie Sloane connected me with a friend who owns an apartment in Paris. (Please contact me if you, too, are looking for an apartment in Paris and I’ll hook you up.) The dates of the apartment’s availability aligned with my calendar. Things began falling into place.
  • Determine your goal. Why do you want or need a sabbatical? For some, it’s to fulfill a lifelong dream as it was for me. My goal was simple: I wanted to live in Paris and experience daily life and all that implies: shop for groceries, visit the laundromat, practice my French and just be. Others might look to a sabbatical to volunteer, learn a new skill or pursue a creative endeavor like writing, painting or photography. Figure out how you want to spend your time and how that will enrich your life going forward.
  • Cover your bases. There are, of course, practical concerns to consider when you’re taking a sabbatical. There are companies that now understand the value of sabbaticals–click here for a list of companies that provide sabbaticals (some paid, some unpaid) to their employees. I have a dear friend who worked for Intel and she received a sabbatical while working there. If you are employed you may have to cook up your own sabbatical policy, demonstrating a clear plan to your employer about why they should grant you the time off and how it will benefit the firm. If you are self-employed, you’ll need to shore up your business, communicate with clients and arrange your schedule to accommodate the time away. And if you choose, you can keep a tether to your business from afar, thanks to technology. Just make sure it doesn’t interfere with your goal.
  • Pull the trigger–then enjoy the ride. Taking a sabbatical is scary. You’re disrupting your life and the status quo, suspending time in search of something bigger than yourself, and there are no guarantees. In a Forbes article called “How to Take a Sabbatical from Work,” writer Helen Coster quotes author Dan Clements as saying “The best sabbaticals are taken with a dose of faith.” Mr. Clements, who wrote the book Escape 101: Sabbaticals Made Easy, added “Learn to trust that things will work out.” Once you’ve declared the commitment, determined your goal and covered your bases, all there is to do is pull the trigger and actually do it. Then, be prepared for surprises.

Moi aussiLiving in Paris was nothing like I imagined–yet it was everything I dreamed of. My rusty French came back–at least enough to stimulate my brain and amuse the natives. I learned about the history of Paris in spite of my own appalling lack of study or preparation. And best of all, I immersed myself in art and culture in a way that has sustained me these last four years. That month in Paris reminded me that I live in a world-class city that, just like Paris, is steeped in history and culture. So I’ve made a concerted effort to enjoy the arts here in Chicago in a way I never would have without having taken that sabbatical.

What’s your dream? And when will you be taking your sabbatical in order to fulfill it? I can’t wait to hear from you.  

Postscript: During my month in Paris I revived my first blog, Quotidian Adventureswhich documented my first trip to Paris and then my August 2010 sabbatical. The blog is like a diary in reverse chronological order… please feel free to read and enjoy.]

[Photo credits: Masthead–my photo, Le Jardin de Luxembourg; Inset–livin’ the dream, across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral, compliments of friend Leanne Wallisch.]