What I did (and who I became) on my winter sabbatical
Part I :: THE DOING
People take sabbaticals for different reasons. Some take time to work on personal projects (like writing a book), some take an extended vacation (and travel the globe) and some simply rest and recuperate.
The word sabbatical comes from the Hebrew root "Shabbat" which in its essence means "to stop". In religious teachings, the Torah mandates that Jewish farmers work for six years and then take the seventh year for rest, literally letting the fields rest and recuperate. The sabbath day according to the biblical creation story is the day where creation stopped and God rested. In our modern world, our secular weekend follows the tradition of resting on a Sabbath day.
Growing up in Israel, Saturday ("Shabbat") is a sacred day that is celebrated and honored. It was a day where the country pretty much shut down. There was no public transport, no retail stores open, no television broadcast. We had no choice and nothing to do but rest and have a day off to do nothing. As I child, I used to get frustrated that there weren't many options to do things like shopping or going to the movies or watching television but today I appreciate having those special days.
Around fifteen years ago I heard Stefan Seigmester give a talk at a design conference about taking a year sabbatical, or what he called "my year without clients". He traveled to Bali, he wrote a book, he made art. He even gave a TED talk about the experience. I remember sitting in the audience listening to him with envy and admiration. The thought of taking a year without clients, or any time to rest, sounded so far-fetched at that time. I was busy running my own design firm, and my business was not set up to run without me for more than a couple of weeks max.
But a seed was planted.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2012. By now, I'm four years past closing my design firm and leaving my designer identity behind. I went through a personal metamorphosis of changing career paths and I successfully created a coaching practice that has become fulfilling, sometimes challenging but overall exciting and rewarding. More so, I spent those four years growing in deep and profound ways. I hired some of the best coaches and mentors in the world and with their help and guidance I healed a few important areas in my life. I learned to love myself more than ever, I became financially free and got in touch with my true creative spirit. I became more present than ever and in turn, served my clients in the most powerful and transformative ways.
My business was in a good place. Money was flowing, clients were happy and I was doing some of my best work yet. For the first time in four years I felt like I was on solid ground again. I picked a theme for the year and declared it to be my "Year of Testing". I wanted to test new ideas, new products and new ways to live and work - including the decision to take a three-month sabbatical starting on the winter's solstice (December 21st) and ending on the spring equinox (March 21st).
Now, I don't want you to think that taking a sabbatical was an easy decision for me to take. I had to go past some beliefs and fears that were getting in the way of making this commitment to myself. Fears that my business will suffer, fear that my clients will go away, fear that I will have to start building everything from scratch and fear of no income coming in for months.
This fear is a valid one. Or so I thought at the time. My business model is not based on passive income. There's no "money while I sleep" coming in enough to cover the living expenses and then some (I do love my luxuries!). I earn most of my money only when I serve my clients in real time through coaching, speaking and consulting work. I didn't want to tap into my savings. So while I was still working I had to create about 30% more income than I would have normally to cover the three months of no income plus the time it would take me when I returned from sabbatical to prime the pump and get money flowing again through new clients and projects.
My fear emerged as a result of having no plan in place or knowledge on how I was going to make something so unknown happen. I caught myself in this fear mode. Fear was pretty much the only thing holding me back from doing something I really wanted after. I quickly reminded myself what I teach my clients: "Fear is a result of lack of information or knowledge". And sometimes it is a result of not trusting the unknown.
I knew that for this fear to go away I needed to do two things: (1) Trust that everything will be ok and that I have the power to create anything I want and (2) turn the sabbatical dream into a project and treat it as such with a plan and strategy in place.
I had about a year to make it all happen. A sabbatical was a healthy goal for me and since I am the kind of person who is motivated by goals I was all set to take this one on. I was excited, inspired and ready to make 2012 my best year yet knowing that there's a beautiful gift waiting for me at the end of the year: three months of rest and white space.
The year turned out to be creative, rewarding and busy. Very busy. I got a lot done, way more than I was set out to do. In 2012 I made the most money I’ve yet made in a year of speaking, teaching and coaching. In one very full year I launched a newsletter and published 9 issues; launched a weekly blog; taught workshops in LA, Boston and St. Louis; presented live webinars; taught a marketing class at ArtCenter School of Design; lead a ten-week mentoring group; hosted a roundtable business event for AIGA/LA; lead a "21 Days to Creative Flow" virtual group program for some of my coaching clients; delivered a talk and a half-day workshop at the HOW Design Conference; lead two 4-day group retreats in Palm Desert, CA; produced a 20 minute video keynote talk; all while coaching 30 individual clients for a total of 517 coaching hours.
Whew! That's a lot. And although I'm good about creating work/life balance and took regular days off and vacation during the year, I was definitely ready for a longer break.
Part II :: THE STOPPING
I had many ideas on how I wanted to spend my sabbatical. Three months can go by really fast and I wanted to get the most value out of the experience. The last time I had this much time off was high school summer break, when I didn’t have the commitments and responsibilities I do today. That was almost 30 years ago and I've put a lot of personal projects on hold to move my career forward.
I couldn't wait for this white space. I kept thinking about all the books I wanted to read, the writing I wanted to do, the art I wanted to make, the personal projects I wanted to work on and the travel abroad (my husband and I had a two week cruise planned in New Zealand and Australia).
The big day finally arrived. On December 21st, I celebrated the beginning of winter by I logging off Facebook and twitter, turning the phone off, and logging off email with the following auto-response return message:
I'm currently taking a three month sabbatical and not checking email. I'm spending much of my time writing, making art and traveling to New Zealand!
So that I don't return to a massive email overload in the spring I've asked my email server to delete all emails that come in, including yours.
Please don't take this personally. I'm giving myself a break from email and social media and would love to hear from you when I return.
So please… write me back again after March 21st, 2013
If this is an urgent or important matter please contact my lovely assistant Danielle at firstname.lastname@example.org who will be minding the business while I'm away. Danielle will make sure your message is delivered to me promptly.
See you in the spring!
Aside from being the first day of winter, December 21st also happens to be around the same time many people take their holiday vacations and take time off. Frankly, the first couple of weeks didn't really feel any different than the normal holiday break. And as the year was quickly coming to a close I was consumed with seeing friends and family and all the other holiday-related activities one might be engaged with.
And then the new year began. Everyone was going back to work and to their normal routine. The energy in the air shifted and the days started to feel different. And let me tell you, it was delicious. All the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. I didn't waste time. I had a list of projects to get to.
So I got busy.
First on the list was the thing that I do at the beginning of every year - meet a couple of my closest friends and together go through a process of reflection on the past and intention setting for the future. During the span of a week we meet and share our highs and lows from the past year and together set intentions for our year ahead. And from that process a theme for the new year emerges. This theme keeps me on track and aligned with my values. It helps me create the year ahead with that intention in mind.
My theme for the new year was “My Year of Organizing". I wanted to organize my space, my resources, my archives, my content, my books, my music, my art, my money and most of all, my thoughts.
Being the master multitasker that I am, in the next four weeks I managed to juggle as many personal projects as I could. I set up and organized a new art studio room at home, organized all my books, organized the garage, organized old file cabinets and drawers, organized my taxes, and started the two most monumental organization projects yet - the ones I've been waiting to start on for at least a decade - organizing my photos and my music.
In between all that busywork, I was already thinking and planning what the rest of the year will look like after I return from my sabbatical. So I flew to Atlanta for two days to work with a business and marketing coach to create my business plan for 2013 (yes, even a coach needs a coach!).
But all that busywork and all the doing finally caught up with me. I started getting sick. I woke up one morning on the sixth week with a sore throat and swollen glands. My body was sending me a clear message: "You are doing too much". I've learned to listen to my body and know that whenever these kind of symptoms show up, I need to press the pause button, look at what's going on in my life and make some adjustments.
Although I was enjoying all my wonderful projects I was still doing doing doing. Instead of resting I was still creating. I wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. I wasn’t on sabbatical. I wanted to feel renewed and rested, I wanted to recuperate and yet I wasn't giving myself the space to stop doing and just be. I was addicted to doing and it was time for an intervention.
The fixation to doing has always been a strong part of my personality style. I'm wired that way. I love doing, I love getting things done and I love getting results from the doing. It's easy to get lost in doing what you love and I truly love what I do. I love being busy so even when “resting” it's easy for me to get carried away and keep myself occupied with personal project. But in essence, I'm still doing.
I needed to stop the doing and truly rest. Halfway through my sabbatical I was feeling no more rested or recuperated than when I began. So I decided to stop all the "doing" cold turkey. I stopped working on the projects I had started, cancelled all the social engagements in my calendar and went into total hibernation mode.
It wasn't until I became mindful and intentional about resting that my body caught up with the idea and got the message. At that point, all I wanted to do was sleep. And I was OK with that. For the coming weeks I would sleep for almost twelve hours a night. I was giving my body what it truly wanted.
But as delicious as the restful nights were, the days were a bit more challenging. Like an addict with his drug taken away, I started feeling the withdrawal symptoms from not doing. Darkness and depression crept up and I found myself asking the most important questions I've ever asked: "Who am I when I am not doing?".
I've learned and mastered experiencing my "being" through "doing" (and my self-love through the achievements that come from my doing), so when the doing mode stopped and I wasn't achieving anything, simply being was an unfamiliar and scary territory. Clearly I was being put to a test.
I breathed in, gathered my spiritual courage, and I accepted the challenge. I embraced this space and realized that my fear and depression were an indication that there was some serious healing going on. Most of my life I've been driven by the need to succeed and be outstanding to the point of losing touch with who I really am. The need to look good, to be successful, to matter, has sometimes driven me to a point of losing touch with my being and my purpose. I know I can get carried away with creating way too much way too fast and for the wrong reasons, the wrong "why".
But now I had the opportunity to reconnect to myself and to change the way I inhabit the world. For the following weeks I simply relaxed, rested and experienced my being. Each activity that I engaged in (every "doing"), I approached with consciousness and mindfulness. I slowed down and got more present. I realized that being where and when I am is the most important place and time not some distant destination. And I began to feel how this approach to life could change everything for me.
I felt an inner sense of peace, calm, and trust. Eventually, I was truly happy with just being. I didn't need anything else. From here, the only way is forward.
Part III :: THE BEING
Twelve weeks is a long time to be disconnected. I missed my friends and clients. It was time to leave the cave and come back into the world. I didn't have much new work lined up for me to jump right back into. I knew there would be a re-entry period and that I would have to slowly gear things up. But frankly, I wasn't prepared for what happened next.
I started to reconnect with people and got excited about putting my business plan into action. I picked up where my business left off pre-sabbatical and like a race car, stepped on the gas and started driving fast.
And that's when I crashed.
After a week of getting back to work I woke up one morning with no energy, no desire and no interest to keep going. Once again my body and emotions were telling me something wasn’t working in my life. I looked at what I was doing and questioned to see if I’d created some mis-alignment between my actions and my core being.
I very quickly noticed that I had re-engaged with my old "doing" self. The business plan I created wasn't aligned with my heart anymore and I realized that I needed to pause, get present, pay attention to my what my intuition was telling me and proceed from there.
Pablo Picasso once said: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction" so for me to get into a new creative mode I needed to destroy a few things in my business. What I find most interesting is that the biggest changes that have taken place during this experience happened on the other side of the sabbatical. But had I not taken that time to stop my old patterns I would not have arrived as this moment of clarity.
First, I threw away the old business plan (Sorry, coach!). It had some good ideas that I will probably carry pick up again later but now it was time to create a new plan with deeper meaning and a core focus that is true to my heart. I took a look and compared the things I am good at vs. the things that are most true to who I am.
As I cleared the space and looked deeper into my core being a new purpose, a new theme emerged. A stronger "why" than ever before. A why that would make significant difference in the world, especially for creative entrepreneurs.
Next, I questioned every part of my business model: my private coaching programs, groups, workshops, retreats, speaking, writing, publishing and how I market and deliver my thinking to you. I needed to prune, edit and stay focused. I made some bold choices. Now I’m getting close to rolling out a new plan for my work/life. I’m almost there. And I can’t wait to share it with you.
Needless to say, I'm on fire. But I’m burning now with a desire for living fully into myself and into the world. Not to do to impress, or from the temporary satisfaction that comes from achieving, but to enjoy the marvelous place and time I’m actually in. Doing and creating are part of my core self. And I honor that. The world needs goals, and decisive action, and accomplishments. I’m proud of my role as a coach, mentor, teacher, guide. I love that I can inspire, create, produce and lead. But there’s a way to “do” that also honors my “be”.
Six days a week is plenty for the work the world needs. We need a rest, too. And if the work is the right work, done in the right way, then even the six days of work are an on-going expression of Shabbat.