copyright 2005 by Ron Sanders.
Lessons learned from 20 weeks of Sabbatical
My greatest fear, when
I began my sabbatical, was that I would waste the entire year and
have nothing to show for it. It took me years to save up enough
money to take a year off. I don't want
it to turn into a year long vacation. Oh sure it would be nice to
lie around the pool all summer, have a chance to relax, recharge and
re-gain perspective, but that isn't really my plan.
A sabbatical is
something different. A sabbatical is what you take when you want to
grow as a person. I've spent the last 6 weeks researching,
contemplating and exploring. I've read books, essays and interviews
from researchers, counselors and sages. During this time I have come
upon two hard incontrovertible facts that I thought I would share
anything we seek the experience of being alive.
comes from being fully there in the moment. Think back to every
great moment of your life.... During that moment you weren't worried
about laundry or dinner. You didn't sleep through the moment. You
were there: Fully engaged and living in that moment! At the end of
your life, you will value the moments that you really lived and wish
that there could have been more. i
(Check out my footnotes at the bottom of the essay)
If you want to
feel alive, you need to express yourself. ii
I have found that
people keep trying to feed the same three hungers. We have an urge to
create, to know and use our talents, and to know that our life
matters. Feeding these three hungers is what I call expressing
yourself. Until you express yourself fully, no matter what you
do, it will always seem to you that you should be doing something
A word about
means learning, growing, stretching, exploring, taking risks,
creating. All of which shapes your character. As it turns out, the
character that you manifest while expressing yourself is more
important than the product of your expression, or to put it another
way, who you become in the process is more important than the
destination. (Sounds like the perfect metaphor for life)
Time and time again
while reading entrepreneurial books, I came across the notion that a
successful business isn’t about an idea, it’s about character.
Businesses don’t succeed because they started with a great idea,
the perfect location or a truckload of capital. iii
(Although those things might help) They succeed or fail based on the
character of their owners. I argue that the same is true of living a
fulfilling and authentic life. If you think that living a fulfilling
life is like winning the lottery, something that you gamble on and
luck into, then lottery odds are about your odds. It’s all about
A word about
Success is often
measured in external ways. (Money, fame, respect) There is also an
internal measure of success and it is called fulfillment. I have
found that the external indications of success lag behind the
internal indications of success.v
Long before the world calls you successful, you need to find what
you call fulfilling. Don’t go out looking for success, instead go
looking for fulfillment and you may find success as well.
For the young who
want to vi
is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby
is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience
claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
is what they know you have after the third volume of remarkable
poems. Earlier they accuse you of withdrawing, ask why you don’t
have a baby, call you a bum.
reason people want M.F.A.’s, take workshops with fancy names when
all you can really learn is a few techniques, typing instructions and
somebody else’s mannerisms is that every artist lacks a license to
hang on the wall like your optician, your vet, proving you may be a
clumsy sadist whose fillings fall into the stew but you’re a
real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like
after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it
better than being loved.
– Marge Piercy
So let me get back to
my point. I knew at the start of my sabbatical that I would like to
be able to identify how it changed me as a person. Changing as a
person indicates living, growing, manifesting character. I somehow
knew that was important but I wasn’t really sure why. What I
didn’t realize at the time was that I was asking, “How do I feed
these hungers that we all feel?” The real question we need to
How do we
go about fully expressing ourselves?
This is the best answer
I have found: We need to find the intersection of three things.
1. Passion. 2.Talent
3.The Right Environment.
Passion is the energy
to get things done. Passion makes you come alive.viii
That should be a huge clue right there! If you really want to live,
passion has to be part of the formula. Besides, it’s what keeps you
in the game when things aren’t going well. It makes the risk and
consequences worth the cost. But there is a catch…. Very few people
are born with a burning passion. Passion starts off more as a
curiosity, an interest. It is up to you to play with it, nurture it,
and see if it flares up into something more. I can name a handful of
things I am passionate about but hundreds of things about which I am
Most people find
satisfaction in being good at something they enjoy. That
satisfaction can be very important in the initial stages of
exploration. If you try something that you have never tried before,
and you find that you are good at it, you will be more likely to keep
trying it and see if a passion develops. But try to think of talent
as more of a guideline than a law set in stone. It can take years
for talent to emerge. Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school
basketball team. Fred Astaire’s first screen test was a flop.
Don’t be too hasty in eliminating things based on your current
talent. Lots of people have been successful with questionable
Strengths and weaknesses develop best in the context of interest.
You can’t learn your talents by thinking about them any more than
you can learn how to swim by reading a book. It’s by doing that
You can be passionate
and talented, and still meet with frustration and a lack of
fulfillment if you aren’t in the right environment. You need an
environment that matches up with your values, temperament, style,
etc. You can’t be told what is the right environment for you. You
just know it when you finally find it. Like passion and talent, it
is something you discover while searching. Keep searching until you
So I have boiled my
sabbatical down to looking for a good combination of these three
factors. It doesn’t have to be the perfect situation that utilizes
my strongest passion, greatest talent and the perfect environment.
There isn’t only one winning combination. There are thousands of
combinations that will work.
Here is my plan for
exploration. It doesn’t require a year long sabbatical but it does
require a little discipline because that is what keeps things going
until they develop some inertia of their own. It also requires some
patience because time must be your ally and not your enemy.
Step 1. Pick a
project that seems interesting.
It can be to learn
something, or make something, or answer some question. It should be
hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. You
should also have the means to finish it.
Step 2. Set a
deadline: A month or less to start. Without a deadline there is no
sense of urgency.
Step 3. Make a
list of things you will need to complete your project.
Step 4. Organize
the list into a plan.
Step 5. Take
action today. Don’t wait. Do something now!
Step 6. Do
something that advances your plan everyday. Get up and do it first
thing in the morning. Don’t wait until the end of the day. Make
it a point to get something done on the project every day no matter
what. (This is where the self-discipline comes in).
Step 7. No
matter how the project turns out, make mental notes on what you
enjoyed, what your strengths and weaknesses were, and in what type of
environment could you see yourself doing more of the same.
Step 8. Repeat
with a new project until the process becomes self-sustaining; each
project generating a new project. This could take years. (This is
where you let time be your ally).
This process will
reveal your passions and talents and allow you to identify the right
environment when you find it. The plan is about searching for
fulfillment not success.
If you think you want
to be an artist then pick an art project and complete it. (Draw a
landscape, paint a portrait, whatever.) Use the steps 1-8. If you
can do that every day for 3 months then you are an artist. I don’t
care what anyone says. If you can’t sustain the daily regimen then
being an artist may not be for you. Re-evaluate your passion, talent
and environment and try again. If ultimately it’s not your
passion, that’s great! You can eliminate that from your list and
get on with finding your real passions.
This is what I have
learned from 20 weeks of sabbatical. I hope that it helps you as
much as it has helped me. Today is June 1st and I am
going to pick a project from my list and complete it before the end
of June. I’ll let you know how it goes at my next update. It is
my first step in a lifelong journey of figuring out how to express
myself in the world. Wish me luck!
Some Random moments in which I really felt alive:
First day of Track:
When I was in 7th grade I decided that
I should try out for track. I had never played an organized sport
and many of the kids in my class had been playing team sports for
years. The athletic click was already formed and my best friend
Patrick and I were outsiders. We were worried that we wouldn't make
the team so we decided to start training months before tryouts.
Almost everyday, we ran 2 miles out to Eisenhower road and back. It
was hot, hard and not much fun. On the first day of tryouts one of
the jocks that lived down the street from Patrick asked us if we
were there to be water boys. That was before the coach started
testing the group. In every event Patrick and I placed 1st
and 2nd. If I won one race, he would win the next and
the entire athletic click would come in behind us. After worrying
if we would make the team and being asked if we were going to be
water boys, we crushed them like bugs. It was a glorious feeling!
Walking home from practice we were smiling ear to ear. For weeks
after that, when I saw Patrick in the hall, I would ask him if he
ever thought about being a water boy.
Returning from American Samoa:
When I was 18 years old I spent 8
months working in American Samoa to pay for college. You might
think that is a pretty cool experience but it pales in comparison to
one particular moment coming home. I had just stepped off the plane
in Albuquerque and I was walking down the hall when I spotted my
parents in the distance. They had come to pick me up. My mother
was still far away when she finally spotted me. In a squeal of what
can only be described as pure delight she said, “There he is”.
In that moment, by the joy I felt in the tone of her voice alone, I
knew that I was loved. The sheer excitement in her voice connected
with my heart deeply. I’ll never forget that feeling.
Chile and the washrag:
My grandmother always said that God
gave the little ones all the energy because he knew that they
wouldn’t waste it on work. They would laugh and play and sing as
God intended. Our dog Chile evidently got God’s memo. Chile can
be very mischievous. One day she stole a washcloth and was racing
around the house with it in unbridled joy. When joy burns that
bright it’s infectious. Sarah and I were doubled over in tears
laughing. At that moment my thoughts weren’t anywhere else. I
was THERE! Laughing as hard as a man can laugh. Living that moment
for all that it was worth.
Catching falling leaves on my
Sarah and I had a honeymoon that could
only be described as magic. We explored New England in the fall and
it was beautiful. We stopped at a little state park and we had the
entire forest to ourselves. The air was cool, the light was lazy
and leaves rained down on us as we explored. That day we both lived
totally in the moment. In fact we did so for an entire week. It was
wonderful. I wouldn’t trade that week for all the gold in the
Not all of the moments I felt alive
were joyful. Some of them are marked by profound sorrow. I
wouldn’t trade those either. They have shaped my character and
made me who I am. I am grateful for them.
I’m not saying that the only path to feeling alive is through
self-expression. I’m just saying that if you want to take an
active part in feeling alive, you will need to do some expression.
Many of the moments in my life that I have felt alive were
How many times have you seen a successful business go under after
the ownership changes? It’s because the business is an extension
of the owner’s character. A book is the extension of the author’s
character, a painting an extension of the artist.
Financier J.P. Morgan was once asked what he thought the best bank
collateral was. “Character”, he replied.
Long before Lance Armstrong was the 6-time winner of the Tour de
France, he was a kid in Texas who loved to ride bikes. No one knew
his name. He rode because he loved it. It was fulfilling.
From the book “Fooling with Words” by Bill Moyers
Note from author: Phlogiston was a pre-nineteenth-century
explanation for why things burned: People said things burned because
they contained phlogiston. It always stuck me as the perfect example
of false explanation.
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what
makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world
needs are people who have come alive."
Harold Whitman (Thanks Priscilla for the quote!)
Look at Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert or Stephan Pastis the
creator of Pearls before Swine. Both are very good at creating
funny comic strips but they are questionable artists. Their
drawings aren’t much better than stick drawings. You would think
that being able to draw would be a necessary talent of a comic
artist. Instead their talent lies in timing, material and just
plain being funny. They found the right balance of passion, talent