An unmarried friend of mine, laid off in the Great Journalism Meltdown of the mid-00s, startled our group of friends by announcing that she was taking a year off to travel the world and consider the options for her second act.
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What options? I recall thinking. We're journalists, end of story. So I asked her: What other kind of job was there for us that didn't require poking keys and creating sequential sentences that told stories? She admitted that she had no idea but was willing to find out. And in order to do that, she needed to "let her brain breathe" while losing herself in a foreign land, and learn some stories to tell.
I, not being nearly as clever with money, could not afford to ponder my own options while bouncing along with her on a bus from Guatemala City to Chichicastenango, so I could only enviously read her occasional dispatches from exotic locales. Boy, does she sound happy, I thought.
I also thought that what she was doing might be folly and wondered if she really should be using that money to pay bills while grinding out freelance stories to get by. But in the years since, I've learned that such sojourns not only have a name -- life sabbaticals -- but also are becoming more common all the time. And they're being touted as an incredibly useful tool for those who wish to revive themselves, reset their goals, and embrace middle age in a rich and joyful manner.
The Gap Year Explained
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Marc Freedman, the author and social entrepreneur behind Civic Ventures, writes in new book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife: "A gap year for grown-ups would offer the chance for reflection, renewal and redirection. It would provide an opportunity to disrupt familiar patterns (and inertia), to grow personally, to be exposed to new experiences, and to try on potential future roles. The gap year could provide the kind of pause, or foundation, people need to start a new stage of life."
Businesses are also becoming more sabbatical-friendly, according to travel writer Bob Riel, author of Two Laps Around the World: Tales and Insights from a Life Sabbatical. "Although most people associate sabbaticals with the academic world, in fact it has become a more common activity among the population in general, with individuals taking anywhere from a month to a year away from work," he writes. "More than 20% of companies today offer a sabbatical policy for employees, and many younger workers see extended time off as a valuable component of their work-life balance."
Clearly, my friend was ahead of her time. But who takes these life sabbaticals? And what do they hope to accomplish with them?
"A life sabbatical is different for each person," says Tara Russell, a San Francisco-based Life Sabbatical & Long-term Travel Coach. "It's any significant period of time taken out from your daily routine -- a break from the norm. Some clients find that three months is long enough to take a serious breather; others want to keep on going. When I'm asked how long is long enough, I tell them if you're still planning and micromanaging every day, that's not a sabbatical. If you haven't been gone long enough to forget what day of the week it is, you haven't been gone long enough."
Russell says sabbaticals are not just for people in crisis, after a bad divorce or a layoff -- though those are excellent reasons to consider getting away for a while.
"Really, it's just a break from whatever you need it to be," she says. "The most important question to ask yourself is why you want to go. Some just want to sit in a hammock and read. Others are just burned out and want to reconnect with a love of life -- to go river rafting or bungee jumping."
Others still want to take it a step further and learn new skills. Some take cooking classes in Italy or do a three-month stint on the Mercy hospital ship. "These are things that don't hurt a person's resume; they help it," says Russell.
A Learning Opportunity
Freedman, in his previous book, Encore, extols the virtues of learning new skills at every age. "It's time for a national sabbatical for individuals completing the first half of midlife work and beginning to contemplate their encore phase," he writes, noting that people "need a chance to think about what's next and to try on various possibilities, ideally through an internshiplike experience akin to the way medical students rotate through various specialties."
And, he notes, we should not underestimate the skills we currently possess that can be put to good use in the world at large. Civic Ventures' tagline is "helping society achieve the greatest return on experience." And taking a life sabbatical, he says, is one way of spreading the intellectual wealth.
People looking for inspiration would do well to try it, says blogger Corbett Barr of San Francisco. "Some studies show that breakthrough 'aha!' moments are made by your insightful mind, not your analytical mind," he writes. "A sabbatical is a great way to break the routine of daily life and let your mind wander where it will."
The Singles Sabbatical
Might there be an unexpected dividend for single folks on a sabbatical? Nothing like traveling solo to meet other interesting singles.
"A lot of my clients are single -- probably 85% of them," says Russell. "If they are anxious about it, I tell them, you might be a solo traveler, but you're never alone. If you do get lonely, you can find a new friend to travel with for a few days, and take the edge off a bit. Some of my clients even find love on the road -- one of them met a man in Spain and is married now!"
Russell offers re-entry coaching when her clients return, knowing it might take some adjustments, depending on how long they've been away. "Some are happy to return to their jobs refreshed and with renewed enthusiasm," she says. "And there are others who go to India, and return and say they want to open a yoga studio and quit their job as an investment banker!"
Such was the case with my friend, who returned to the U.S. and decided to go back to school and become a teacher -- a journalism teacher. She swore her sabbatical was the best experience of her life, and how could I doubt her? Her smile said it all.
SecondAct columnist Jane Ganahl is a San Francisco journalist, the author of Naked on the Page and the editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age.
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