Three years ago Jonathon Hale, now 30, was working in a tiny cubicle in Sorrento Valley. He was miserable. His girlfriend had left him months earlier to work on a cruise ship, and his college friends all seemed to be working and living abroad. He knew he needed to make his escape – and soon. One night after drinking all night with friends, he purchased a non-refundable plane ticket to Australia. The next morning, when his hangover lifted, he saw what he had done. He didn’t panic, instead, he quit his job and started packing.
For the next year, Hale lived on his savings of $7,000 and toured through Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia living on $10 a day. He discovered the site couchsurfing.com and slept in the homes of welcoming strangers all over the world.
“I figured out pretty quick that the corporate world wasn’t for me,” he said. “But through traveling, I discovered so many other things I could do to earn a living.”
This year Hale married an Australian woman and they own and operate a dive shop near the Great Barrier Reef.
For most people with gainful employment, the prospect of taking just a week off in this economy can throw them into a calendar-clearing frenzy. Quitting a job, or taking a paid or unpaid leave, can seem downright insane. But a sabbatical (a word derived from the word “sabbath,” meaning rest) can have enormous long-term benefits if you have the determination to do it.
Many people believe that a down economy is the worst time to take a sabbatical, but the opposite is true, especially for people who have a great track record. When the economy goes down, you can make a great case for taking an unpaid leave and then returning back to work in a few months. Taking a sabbatical doesn’t have to mean depleting your life savings or derailing your career. And one of the great secrets about it is that taking more time off is often easier than a one- or two-week break.
After you’ve mentally committed to taking time off, think about what you really want to do, and why. Do you want to volunteer in Haiti? Learn to cook in France? Hike through the Everglades? Find a new way of making a living? The first thing you need to figure out, the most fundamental question, is why do you need the break? Some people just want a longer vacation. They love their jobs and want to go back to them. Other people aren’t happy with their work and want a break, maybe a permanent break. Without thinking through your “why,” you can easily take six months off and end up back in the same unsatisfying place.
Once you know why you want to take time off – and have mentally committed to doing so – put your plan into action. If, unlike Hale, you have some time to plan, start an automatic savings plan, and sock away sabbatical money every month. Choose a departure date and a length of time, and write it on all of your calendars. Then tell a handful of people about your sabbatical plans, so that they can both help you plan and make sure you follow through with your decision. If you don’t carve that time away, it tends to be taken from you. A sabbatical is one of the easiest things in the world to not do.
Next, figure out your employment situation. If you want to return to your current job after you leave, make sure your company actually wants you to return. Don’t complain about being burnt out; instead, spell out the reasons why a sabbatical will benefit both you and your employer. Give your boss plenty of notice and keep in contact with your company through e-mail while you’re on the road.
Start saving as soon as possible, because money is the first big hurdle for most people. In reality, the cost of taking a really great sabbatical can be a fraction of that of your regular life. People on sabbatical tend to go to places where the cost of living is lower. Gone are cable bills, manicures, expensive dinners, and cocktails with friends. Develop a plan for covering your responsibilities when you’re gone. Give someone at home access to your bank account so they can help you transfer funds if necessary. Pay your bills online, and use Skype or prepaid calling cards to call home.
Don’t let the uncertainty of a sabbatical stop you from taking one. Exploring yourself and the world may help you understand that the truly important things in life exist outside of work – and you might begin to wonder how you ignored them for so long.
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