Top 10 Lessons From Taking a Sabbatical

happiness Apr 14, 2017

In this post, I write about my top 10 lessons from taking the year-long sabbatical. I first published this post three years after returning from the sabbatical in 2005. I had planned on writing it earlier but never quite got around to it.

I actually think that’s a good thing I didn’t, after the three years passed, I had a better perspective on what the year out taught me. Some of these lessons were only revealed to me long after the year finished.

Where the story begins

Once in a while, you have to take a break and visit yourself.
~Audrey Giorgi

In August 2004 aged forty-one I stepped away from the hustle and bustle of corporate life to take a year out with my wife Tor, and my two boys Sonnie (who was aged 6) and Herbie (who was aged 4).

We started planning our escape from the mad whirl of stress to live on a large piece of barren volcanic rock called Fuerteventura in 2003. We decided the La Isla Tranquila, or Peaceful Island, as it’s affectionately known by the locals, would be the perfect environment to change the pace of life.

Taking our family sabbatical provided a significant turning point in our lives. All our lives! It allowed me precious time to reflect on the past, to slide more fully in to each moment, and to make distinctions I may not otherwise have made.

Taking a sabbatical allowed us the freedom to step out of life’s daily grind and realign our goals and life ambitions, and, as an added bonus, it provided many benefits for mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Most people I talk to can relate to feeling they need to take a break. Our personal diaries boast both family and work-related meetings and events. We rush to get through each task, wondering where our time went and why the things we really wanted to accomplish–our souls’ desires–are not at the top of that list, and thus are left unattended.

You may relate?

Here Are My Top 10 Lessons in no Particular Order

(NB. In some of the lessons I’ll be using the language we use as a family to compare life before and after the year out: Little Island = Fuerteventura. Big Island = UK)

1. Going Cold Turkey!

I was definitely a weirdo those first few weeks! I know this worried Tor.

After the first few weeks of nonstop novelty, which included getting the boys into their new school, the most critical problem I encountered was my profound inability to completely switch off and relax!

After coming from such stressful and high-achieving life back in on Big Island, I was completely unprepared to live in a world where my main goal in life wasn’t making money and achieving results.

Living with a constant sense of urgency is like a drug. But I didn’t know I had the ‘urgency addiction’ habit until I realised I couldn’t slow down with no reason to hurry!

It was really hard to figure out what to do when I suddenly had all this time at my disposal and nothing productive to fill it with. My work life had filled a large chuck of my time.

Now there was no travelling, no emails, no designing, no meetings, no speaking to clients, no delivering programmes, no pitching, no winning new business and no getting organised and packing for the next day!!! Nothing to fuel my urgency addiction.

I found this a difficult transition emotionally. Although I understood that confronting this inner urge was a large part of the idea of the sabbatical, I had to get used to having a to-do-list that was minimal.

Slowly, as we ebbed our way into our ‘new normal’ way of life I started to relax and unburden myself from the mundane go, go, go existence of Big Island living and find alternative and healthier ways of energising myself.

Big lesson: The adrenalin of rushing around, being busy, is not the same as having energy. In fact adrenaline energy is often masking exhaustion.

2. Have More First Time Experiences

Living on Little Island for a year gave us the chance to have many first time experiences.
Experiences like…

  • Living in a different country
  • Speaking a new language
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road
  • Eating a new diet
  • Living 70% of the time outside
  • Navigating Spanish bureaucracy
  • Life with no TV, radio, Internet, or newspapers
  • Surfing
  • Riding quad bikes
  • Taking the boys to school and picking them up everyday
  • Dropping down into a 80 million year extinct volcano
  • Driving an open top jeep
  • Living in boardies, and flip-flops
  • Not working
  • Tor and I being together 24/7

And, although some of these were very challenging, we loved it!

On Big Island we rarely did anything for the first time preferring to stick with the well-trodden path. In the main this is ok but, if not careful, it can lead to a life with the juice sucked out!

We are all creatures of habit. We like to do things that give us a degree of certainty in the results, even when they may not serve us best. Yet, paradoxically we want better results but resist anything new, so we recoil back into what is safe and comfortable.

We all prefer being comfortable to the discomfort of doing something for the first time, but where is the fun in that? It’s healthy to explore new things and get out of our comfort zones. It stops us being a comfort zone clones!

One of my goals was to learn to surf and it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever attempted! To begin with humiliation was the new norm for me. I soon found out there is nothing we do on land that can simulate the experience of learning to surf.

It was a long, steep, frustrating, exhausting, and often-painful learning curve! I can remember looking back into the beach to see who might be quietly chuckling at my humiliation. But I loved it! It was great being a beginner with others in the same boat as me.

After wipe out after wipe out, scraped knees, arms that felt like lead weights through exhaustion, a very bruised ego I managed to stand up and ride a wave for 5 seconds. It was an air punching moment. Yes, I did it. I was hooked.

As a metaphor, surfing is a bit like taking a year in a new country one minute you have everything under control and the next minute you are struggling to keep your head above water and it all seems overwhelming!

That is the beauty of doing something for the first time; sometimes it’s fun to not be in your comfort zone.

Getting used to being unsure of where you are and where you are going is half the fun and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is the path to success, fulfilment and the life we want to live.

Big Lesson: To grow and evolve, we must constantly stretch beyond our comfort zone. Growth comes from being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

3. The Sacredness Of Nature

Up to taking the year out my life consisted mainly of a four walls and roof existence. After spending the last eleven years working in office buildings, hotel rooms and training venues, I had forgotten the power a natural environment has to offer.

A world that was here before me, and will still be here long after I’ve gone. Living on a small island allowed me to re-establish my relationship with Mother earth and Father sky.

Thomas Merton said the easiest way to rid yourself of your neurosis is to surround yourself with nature, or more specifically; trees. He said you couldn’t be neurotic standing in front of a bunch of trees. Nature touches us on every level: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual.

I think a lot of us are drawn to nature to get away from the man made civilised construct we live most of our life in. A world that’s been twisted, bent, manipulated, fenced, concreted, bricked, boxed and shaped to suit man’s needs and wants.

Over the year we spent a good 80% of our waking day outside. We ate outside, sat outside, played outside and relaxed outside. The beautiful beaches were our back garden and the ocean our playground.

Once we had lived an outside life, especially with two crazy highly energetic boys, we couldn’t imagine having to spend so much time indoors again. This was a big deciding factor of why we decided to continue living in Spain, albeit mainland Spain.

Now if I spend too much time in the concrete jungle I hear Earth’s voice calling me back to the sacred. If I’ve been away travelling I love to get off the plane and drive down to the beach, slip off my shoes and feel the moist sand on my feet. Then, sit on one of my favorite rock as if to claim my sacred territory.

Big Lesson: Spending time in nature is a natural source of solace, healing, insight and regeneration.

4. Gaining Physiological Air

Living for an entire year free from all work concerns gave me physiological space to find answers to some of life big questions and start the process of closing the gap between what was important to me and the way I was spending my time.

The year away gave me a chance to do some serious inner investigating. I perceived I was standing at an emotional and spiritual crossroads in my life and aware that the time was right to make some internal and external changes.

Everything I’d clung to and thought important in the first half of my life came into question. Many assumptions I had built during the first half of my lifetime were no longer working for me.

At the midway mark I had created a life based on what I grew up believing would bring me happiness and success. I kept thinking about a line in Carl Jung’s quote – “we take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before.”

Who am I? What’s really important to me? Why am I here? What do I want? What’s my purpose? As I pondered these questions, I began to realise just how much proving myself and gaining approval, both business and personal, had motivated the first half of my life.

The year out was a catalyst to a new way of being, one that is more closely aligned with my inner truth.

Big lesson: Taking time outs are an important part of a life lived well.

5. The Boys!

Our boys were 6 and 4 when we arrived on Small Island and within two weeks they started at the local Spanish school. Watching them walk in line into their new school, not being able to speak the language, was one of the hardest things we have had to do as parents. In tears we both hugged each other as they disappeared behind closed doors.

We could barely imagine what it must be like to sit there so young, in a new school, not knowing anyone and not being able to understand a single word being said. At the time we drew a lot of comfort from other experienced non-Spanish parents who said the boys would soon pick up the language – and they were right – thankfully! Having two crying and upset boys every weekday bedtime was heart wrenching. At times we were ready to go back home to the UK.

It took the boys just three months to reach the most basic comfort level of Spanish and they were fluent by the time we left the Island. However, it took us slow learning adults the full 12 months to reach something close to acceptable conversational skills. I found it much harder than I thought but it defiantly helps being around native speakers who don’t speak English.

Although, it has to be said, having two boys who could speak the language didn’t help us as we tended to rely on them to get us out of trouble! For instance, Sonnie sold my jeep for me. He took the calls on the mobile, made the appointments to see the jeep then translated for me as we answered the questions the prospective buyers had. I’d have been lost without him!

Because the boys were quite young they seemed to miss very little from the life they had lived on Big Island. We thought they might miss family and friends more but, the reality was, many of them came down to visit and playing with their Big Island friends on the beach and in the sea was much better than playing with them in the back garden or bedroom.

Big Lesson: Children have an amazing ability to embrace culture, language, make friends, and have fun! They show the way.

6. Simplifying Life

Taking the year out gave us a chance to really understand what it means to simplify life. I learned you don’t have to give up all of your worldly possessions, live a frugal life and move into a cowshed! Simplifying is all about having enough without having too much. We cut back on unnecessary spending, slowed down, and focusing on our true priorities.

Big Island is a frenetic, consumeristic world inundated with advertising that can leave us feeling overwhelmed at times. All too often we find ourselves having or wanting too much stuff, often resulting in more clutter and less time (due to working harder and longer to acquire or maintain those things) and either in debt or having less money to do things we truly would rather being doing.

Giving ourselves the breathing space allowed us to ask some important questions. How much of what we own really improves the quality of our life? Are we buying new things out of necessity or compulsion? Do the things we own enable us to live with more ease, or do they merely clutter up our life?

By simplifying things we were able to live on Small Island on a third of what it was costing us to live on Big Island. In fact most of our monthly budget was being used to cover our Big Island expenses. And when I say ‘lived’ I mean lived! We lived like royality.

Once we arrived back on Big Island we began to make conscious decisions about how much of Big Island media and culture we would allow back into our lives. We continue to resist the “warp speed” many of us fall victim to and try to pursue a more family-centric lifestyle, but if I’m honest, it isn’t easy!!! It means working less, wanting less, and actively resisting the most potent and seductive aspects of Big Island culture.

On La Isla Tranquila we created a bumper sticker motto, “Outwardly simple, inwardly fulfilled.” It’s what we benchmark any of our decisions against: is it simplifying our life and is it fulfilling?

Big lesson: It doesn’t take a lot of money to live the good life but it does mean getting clear on what’s really important and building a life around that.

7. Finding Silence

Rising upwards to the sky behind our house, on the Island was an extremely well preserved extinct volcano. We found it quite by accident but when we did, we knew we had found a sacred place.

Dropping down into its heart was quite eerie, not a sound could be heard. The air was heavy with complete silence. The time I spent up there provided me with an invaluable experience, I came to know myself in a new way, a deeper way.

This strong, silent place interrupted my agitated mind, bringing me into a state of simply being. I would just sit there and breath, breathing deeply the dry clean air, opening myself up for the answers that came from within.

Finding this symbolic place gave me the realisation that on ‘Big Island’ I had very little silence in my life. In fact many of us have become accustomed to a life without silence. The noise of modern life accompanies us everywhere we go.

I was drawn back to the volcano time and time again. I found it had a dissolving effect on the socialised part of my personality. The part of myself that’s full of the voices of people telling me what to do, who I am, and what I should do.

The solitude of nature silences these booming voices and allowed me to hear the quieter voice of my real self and start to communicate with it.

Big lesson: In silence there is stillness and a quiet mind is the best place to discover the answers to my deepest questions.

8. The Importance Of Tables

I hadn’t fully appreciated the importance a table plays in strengthening family bonds until our sabbatical. We had two tables in Fuerte, one inside and one outside. We did everything as a family sitting around our tables (usually outside) – eating, playing, talking, drinking, planning and socialising.

The table brings the family unit together – a chance to look at each other face to face, to talk about challenges, likes, dislikes, and day-to-day living on the Small Island.

As a young boy I remember going to my nan’s flat in London. She used to have a very ornate mahogany table in the middle of the living room, which took up most of the living room space. I used to enjoy playing under it. It was a great camp!

The table was the most expensive piece of furniture in the house so it was covered up most of the time. It was central to the room’s decoration. Everything fitted around it. When friends and family came around it was the focal point in the front room.

It’s where everyone would sit and chat or play cards or other games. And, in true south London fashion there would always be a hot pot of tea on the go.

In our modern world we tend to put more value on a TV than a table. We certainly can end up spending more money on a TV than a table! Yet the humble table does more to bring a family unit closer than any other piece of furniture in the house.

It enhances the production of family vitamin C – vitamin Connection.

Big lesson: Sitting around a table keeps the door open to communication, which facilitates stronger bonds in our family.

9. Media Detoxing

On Little Island we had no TV, radio, newspapers, phones or internet. We deliberately and completely unplugged from the matrix and it was amazingly liberating and really put things into perspective.

Nowadays it’s even worse, we don’t just have the media, now we have social media – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Digg, StumbleUpon, Flickr, LinkedIn, and any other site that requires a password.

Think about it? How long could you go without checking your emails? A day? Two days? What about leaving home without your mobile phone? Could you give up checking your Facebook page or Twittering for a few days? How often do you need to read or hear the news?

The fear of unplugging (even for a day!) seems to stem from our inability to handle the, “I’m missing something” feeling. It’s what keeps us all so plugged in to what’s going on in our social world and the world at large?

The biggest unexpected effect of media detoxing was the effect it had on our boys. Because their little minds hadn’t been bombarded with hundreds of adverts on the latest and greatest ‘must have’ toys when Christmas came around they had no idea what they wanted Father Christmas to bring them! We had to make lots of suggestions to help them with their Santa lists. The year previous had been very different!

On Big Island we swam night and day in the ocean of consumerism. We were bathed in television, satellite and radio signals 24 hours a day 7 days a week non-stop.

Very little has been more pervasive than consumerism and the flip side of the coin – media advertising. Television adverts alone are cleverly designed to put us in a mild hypnotic state whilst implanting messages and images at the unconscious level that, when “triggered” with the appropriate stimulus compels us to buy something.

Experts tell us we are bombarded with more than 1,600 commercials each day. These clever messages come from billboards, radio, television, lifestyle magazines and the web. It has been estimated that by the age of 20 we will have exposed to nearly one million advertising messages. We will have spent a total of one year of our lives watching television advertising alone.

Look in any male or female glossy magazine and two thirds of it is taken up for advertising space. Up to forty percent of all the mail we receive is unsolicited advertising. All these messages are cleverly designed for one purpose only, to get us to buy something or buy into a different reality. We are surrounded with designer everything, perfume, cars, houses, furniture, clothing, electronic gadgets, an endless list to crave and strive for.

And the underlying assumption of all these messages is success and happiness will be found with your next purchase. This was an assumption we had bought hook line and sinker.

Big lesson: Two lessons here:
1. It’s very easy to get seduced into the medias definition of success. The truth is we need very little of what the media declares as “must haves” to be happy.
2. Make time to “unplug” from the high tech urban world and give the brain a rest! Use the “unplugged” time on the stuff that really matters – health, family, friends and just doing nothing! What a concept!

10. Slowing Down

The difference in the pace of life of those living on the Island was the first major comparison I encountered. I hadn’t considered time in its broader context until I come in contact with a culture, which ticks at a different speed and operates from a different belief system.

The Island’s tempo is slow and stubbornly resists any attempt to be rushed or hurried. Fuerteventura is affection ally known as “The Island of Tomorrow”. Something we heard a lot is, “Maybe tomorrow!!!”

I soon found out stomping around with the, “I want it yesterday” mentality only gets the rising of an eyebrow and a knowing look of, “He must be new here, he’ll learn!!!” In Fuerte wherever we went, whatever we were doing and however we were being, we were forced to slow down.

Leaving one society that promotes a hurried, frenetic lifestyle for a slower one was not easy to do. We all know the saying “Old habits die hard.” Learning to slow down was tough when my internal engine had been used to revving at such a high speed.

I’d have like to have been able to click my fingers and say, “Now I’m slow” but it took some time for the internal engine to adjust its revving speed to a slower one.

The year away served as a catalyst for considering the speed at which we live our lives and how ingrained our big island culture is. I realised that the beliefs we hold about time are some of the most basic we have in life, yet we think very little about them and their impact. Most of our beliefs sit in a darkened room outside of our awareness.

Quietly they create the realities in which we live and operate individually and culturally. They direct the way we feel, behave and act and generally go unquestioned.

With very little awareness I had been ingrained by a “go faster” culture. Swept along in a kind of psychic slipstream. Life on Big Island was really “life in the fast lane.” It was one big race and it’s a race against a forever-ticking clock. To keep up I used every diary, day/week planner and trick to win the race. I continued to pack more and more into every hour.

Big Island culture tends to operate from a deep-seated and long held belief, “fast is best.” This assumption pervades into everything we do. Whether its eating, working, playing, sex or relationships, it’s all done at 100mph.

To survive and get ahead you’ve got to be the fastest not necessary the fittest. A “faster is better” mind set places a higher value on quantity not quality.

Life is not a question of quantity; of how much you can cram into it. Life is for tasting, for enjoying every single moment. It is very much like food. You can have the most gastronomic delight on the table in front of you, but, if you rush through the meal, simply gulping down mouthfuls of food you might just as well be eating a hamburger and chips!

Big Lesson: A life full of quantity is different from a life of quality. Quality is what makes the difference.

11. Bonus Lesson – Facing Re-entry

In May 2005, four months before we were due to finish our year out; we flew, as a family, to mainland Spain to check out an international school. We arranged to meet with Paul, its founder, to talk about the possibility of the boys starting there at the start of the school year – September.

At the point of flying out we had spent nearly nine months on the Small Island. Landing in Madrid to catch our connecting flight we had some time to spare. In a mere two and a half hours, we had left the peace and tranquillity we’d become so accustomed to for the hustle and bustle of a busy, noisy airport. From the vast expansiveness and timelessness of the Island, to the constricted “small box” reality of civilisation.

People brushed past us in a furious hurry and rush. Women were decked out in the latest fashion and designer brands. Men dressed in suits and ties, clutching mobiles, laptops and palm pilots, eagerly checked their watches. Everybody’s life seemed reduced to the clock. It felt claustrophobic. Too much, too fast!

We retreated to the far end of the terminal where there was less noise and busyness. That gave us breathing space before we got something to eat before boarding our next flight. We hadn’t expected this.

I’d been given an important “ha, ha” moment! I suddenly appreciated the rejuvenating effect the year was having on my mind, body and spirit, but understood, at the same moment, the paradox of a good break – if re-entry isn’t hard, then I haven’t really been away mentally and emotionally.

Big Lesson: Re-entry into works orbit after a break should be hard, whether that’s 3 days or 365 days. If re-entry is too easy we haven’t really had a break.

So there we go, ten (plus a bonus) of my biggest lessons from taking the year out. My ultimate reward are the wonderful memories with my family and the adventure we had living on Little Island.

Find Your Inspiration

Each of us has our reasons for taking a sabbatical. What inspires you? Where have you always wanted to go? What have you been putting off doing? Perhaps it involves studying in a far-off land, walking a medieval pilgrimage, sailing around the world, volunteering, or like me, having quality time with the family!

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