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The sabbatical as a transition towards a more authentic life

Insights 16 ago 2018

The sabbatical as a transition towards a more authentic life

By Rafael D’Andrea, EMCCC – INSEAD

Among the differing motives that lead people to consider taking a sabbatical term or year, this article explores two very common situations. My aim is not to present the “ten steps to a successful sabbatical”, nor to defend that unpaid time off work is the path to happiness, but rather to provoke some reflection on the matter before it is too late for the majority of us executives or business people.

Consider the following scenarios:


a) Taking a sabbatical out of choice

In the latest streamlining or restructuring of the company where you work, your position simply ceased to exist and you ended up being made redundant along with many others. Well, the economic crisis in the country is not showing much sign of improvement, time is going by and you haven’t yet found anything worthwhile. Now think about the possibility of taking a sabbatical year.


b) Post-Holiday depression; the sabbatical, a “soul” necessity

During the vacations, you had the chance of reflecting on what you really wanted to do in life. And it is not what you are doing today! The vacations were good; you took some good gastronomical photos for your Instagram, posted selfies in your WhatsApp and made various check-ins in Facebook. Nevertheless, you secretly feel dissatisfied. Since you came back, you have been suffering from the “post-holiday blues”. Now, you feel the need to take a sabbatical to conclude upon what you started reflecting on in your period of rest and relaxation.

Did you fit into one of these scenarios? Do you actually know someone who is going through this right now? If the answer is yes, you certainly want to change; so continue reading this article.


c) The middle-age crisis is coming earlier

Due to the pressure we come under in our day to day and further the speed of changes in the work environment, we are increasingly hitting what is known as the “mid-life crisis” earlier and earlier.

Academics from INSEAD, in France, and also from the School of Economics, Administration and Accounting of the University of São Paulo (FEA-USP) indicate an anticipation of at least 5 years in the mid-life crisis. Today it has started even before 35 and is characterized by the conflict of values held by professional and company, or by the ambivalence in professional decisions for which the previous investment of time and effort make change difficult. In other words, the crisis arises out of doubt. It is clear that many high executives prefer action to reflection, as professor Manfred Kets de Vries from INSEAD points out in his book “Sex, Money, Happiness and Death. The Quest for Authenticity”. These professional end up confronting their internal conflicts much later in life, when it is too difficult to change.

Returning to our scenarios, I can say that there is no reason for panic. If you found a fit, congratulations! This means that you had the chance of meditating about what makes you happy and held on to it! Now all you have to do is pay attention and go the whole way with your thoughts, without letting yourself be carried away again by your “external challenges”, and thereby forgetting that your happiness is the most important thing.If you are really thinking of taking off some sabbatical time to review life, then there are four things that you should take into consideration.


These are:

1) It is stressful to disassociate yourself from your old professional/personal identity (you are not going to be able to “relax” at the outset). The most important thing is to try out new activities and test the possibilities.

2) You don’t need a whole lot of planning, just the resources to get through this period. This is important so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you need to rush back to work after two months of nothing.

3) You don’t need such a long sabbatical. But these periods do need to be greater than vacations. So take between 50 days to 1 year for your “experiments”.

4) We love our identity, idealized by what we could become. Normally we don’t wish to abandon this, because it is a kind of utopia: a dream we have had for a long time. The transition that comes out of our reflection, with or without the help of a sabbatical, leads us down a new and unknown path. This transition can be disorienting for most people. However, it is natural for us to feel lost because we are so used to our old “self” and haven’t yet turned into our new “selves”. Therefore, a sabbatical could work as a kind of neutral zone, a transitional space that precedes the rebirth of a new identity.


Experimenting is the key

When we have time, we can experiment with new professional activities. It is common to make some hobby, or voluntary work, our main activity. This helps us to test new roles. For example, if you always wanted to do some cooking course and never had time, then do it during your sabbatical. Take advantage of the opportunity and try working in a restaurant. It could be in Milan or São Paulo – wherever you like, but learn from the experience. It doesn’t matter if you were the director of some large bank in your “past life”, take courage! You are not your job. It might seem ridiculously obvious, but you are you, that is to say, a set of experiences and conclusions and not simply what you do!

By trying new possibilities, you will become someone greater than who you were before, a new person. And even if you go back to what you were doing before, this experience will change you forever. What is more, it could even be useful in the future, when you retire (or do you really think you can manage to stay “still” –“doing nothing” from the age of 55 to 75?).


Don’t “go over the top”

Don’t waste time making a list of what you can and cannot do. Just start with what you have got! Study new fields of knowledge, make new contacts, travel. But a word of caution: travelling just to escape the anguish doesn’t help the process. And it is expensive! You can use your holidays to go on the Santiago’s Way, but don’t waste time and money just travelling on your sabbatical, if your objective is to change your life. Otherwise – great! Take advantage of the sabbatical to go to all the places you always wanted to.

If you have taken a sabbatical and feel that you need time to forget your last job, or distance yourself from the past, that’s really good! Consider the journey as the start of a process of change, as a well-deserved vacation. But above all, don’t forget that the trip is just a part of the journey. A well-lived sabbatical creates a short circuit of identity, and that is because is pulls you out of the role you are so used to living. It is common to see a CFO become much more playful and youthful during a period of study spent abroad. This process makes him/her more creative, unattached and flexible for facing the world on their return.


Avoid ready-made solutions

Start changing as soon as possible. Use your short breaks to try out new things. It is worth really exploring “short Fridays”, bank holidays, vacations and leave as test periods, before taking a much longer sabbatical. Don’t be lazy, or afraid of exposing yourself. The change towards a more authentic life, full of significance, demands courage and effort. A good coach may help you to rethink the paths, but beware of personality tests and overly standardized “instruments”. There are many to be found on the Internet and even some really famous “canned” solutions being sold to the corporative world as if they were the very quintessence of Coaching. They are instrument of self-awareness, without any doubt, but don’t rely just on these, because while they are very good at provoking change and making you more productive at what you do, they are not the most adequate solution for those who have reached the crisis of maturity and who desires change. You know that, at the end of the day, only you can set your direction.

The best moment to start is right now. Have a great one !!!


Rafael D’Andrea is an entrepreneur, consultant and has a master’s degree in Coaching from INSEAD.

For more info visit: http://rafaeldandrea.com.br/rafael-dandrea-overview/


This article was inspired by

Ashforth, B. E. (2001). Role transitions in organizational life: An identity based perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bridges, W., & Mitchell, S. (2000). Leading Transition: A new model for change. Leader to Leader2, 16(3), 30–36. Retrieved from http://world.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/WilliamBridgesTransitionandChangeModel_000.pdf.

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Briscoe, J. P., & Hall, D. T. (2005). The interplay of boundaryless and protean careers : Combinations and implications, 1–15. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2005.09.002

Cálcena, E. (2012). [A change in professional identity in career transition] (Unpublished master´s thesis). University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.(In Portuguese).

Ibarra, H. (2003). Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Ibarra, H. (2004a). Career Transition and Change: Working Paper Series. Insead, Singapore, 97/OB


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