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“He walked out on the whole crowd”
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like, Then she undid her dress,
Or, Take that, you bastard
--Philip Larkin, Poetry of Departures



This time a year ago, right around this part of May, after my old boss left screaming, I drew a bad—indeed, a wicked—new boss. One that had had well-known and considerable problems in her ten-year history with the company. One who the fourth week I knew her had my email shut down by systems administration. One who had my after-hours access to the building revoked, after five years of continuous access. One who had an acrylic trophy displayed in her office, proclaiming her to be top sales person of auto loans in the San Fernando Valley in 1992, as though that were some kind of adequate preparation to be the head of commercial marketing for the nation's 35th or 36th largest bank. I met with her a few times. Then I met with her every day, at her insistence. Then I met with her a few times and with a shill from personnel, who told me that counseling was available to me if I was having a hard time adjusting to my new boss. (“I should go to counseling to learn how to put up with abuse?” I sensibly questioned). Then I met a few times with an attorney. Seven weeks after being assigned to her—two of which were used as vacation, one of which was taken as sick time, one of which was spent mostly in the personnel office—I quit my job.

No, I cannot say I suffered, nor can I say I was a victim, because I got out way before either description were possible.

It wasn't especially hurtful to leave at that time. There was something I was interested to do anyway. For the preceding five months I had been looking to establish a business of my own—indeed, I very nearly bought one. I left the bank July 7 and applied for the Fictitious Name July 12. I thought that this would be a swift transition.

But it was summer, and I also took the opportunity to—Linger. Dally. Read. Write. Drink. And Garden, too. All the things I typically did on weekends.

~~~

It is a beautiful thing to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.
--Spanish Proverb

You are familiar with the origins of the concept of “sabbatical”, that term which only academics dare to use in reference to their own careers. Once upon a time in the land o' Goshen, unimaginably in a time before Sharon and Arafat, farmers (and in 1000 BC or Goshen Year 969 who wasn't a farmer?) let the crops lay fallow one year in seven. No growth, no crops, and lots of forgiveness of debts. Lots of sitting around—an activity academics took to heart, and for which they are justifiably famous. It was found that there was some value in this. For one, it gave everyone time to get the complex rules of the Land o' Goshen's religion correct. For another, it gave the soil a chance to replenish itself. And for a third, it gave people a chance to enjoy repose, right in the middle of their difficult lives.

Whether you begin a sabbatical or a mere leave of absence, or even a time "between things", you begin as a hyperstructured person, with hyperstructured ideas, looking intently at the first blissful prospect of unstructured time. After a big helping of corporate life, your first preparation for it may be, simply, to abandon the idea of preparation. At a more evolved level, it may also be to abandon the idea of being an expert, a professional, even a problem solver.

If you take a sabbatical at “home”, rather than away, it initially appears to offer a chance to catch up on things. A few months into it, however, you discover that all the things that need catching up on are in need of catching up on for good reason. If you had really cared about all the things that need catching up on in the first place, you would have already done them, and they wouldn't require catching up on at all. So now, after your sabbatical has started, but well before it ends, you realize that you never really wanted to catch up with those things after all. Not only is the sabbatical unstructured, it is also empty of direction. And, peculiarly—that feels right. Repose for repose's sake. You are, indeed, free. What you are doing, de facto, is what you indeed choose to do.

Still, ego abhors a vacuum, and craves some magnetic north, no matter how arcane the pole. Typically, some time during a year of laying fallow, mediating, contemplating, you start thinking about things like, say, the difference between “meditation” and “contemplation”. You are thinking in stripes of thinking that are more pastel than primary to others. Even if at this point of your life they are primary to yourself, and at this point in your life everything that is not primary to you is part of a general greyscale humanity to which you no longer completely belong. You are in repose, and it feels right, but that isn't enough: not only is repose right, but the world as it spins too fast is wrong. Maybe you'll change the world? Of course you will—later. For now, you are now a meditative and contemplative being. You spend a day meditating and contemplating on the difference between meditation and contemplation, meditating on mediation for two hours, meditating on contemplation for two, contemplating meditation for two more, and contemplating contemplation for two more still, with the right meal and drink for every change, then after such a rigorous and interesting day your spouse who has been working for twelve hours comes home and yells at you, “You had twelve hours, why didn't you at least fold your clothes!” and you shrug, knowingly. Ah. She too. She's one of them. Those worker-people.

But you can see in an instant that she is right, too. A question is posed – "Can you really afford to live in the world like that, like a monk, day in and day out?"

It seems impossible. It seems necessary. You don't have a simple answer.

~~~

In today's topsy turvy world, the old rules no longer apply. You've got to shock their socks off, crash their comfort zones, zig when they expect you to zag." – Tom Peters

Uh huh. In the event of a sudden resignation over irreconcilable differences, big corporations want to show at any cost to their remaining employees that they are the ones who are benevolent and in control, and if you don't clear the building before you resign, they will bring security to your desk to make it look like it is you, and not the Orwellian corporation, who is not to be trusted. Knowing what kind of things corporations were capable of after receiving such a resignation, I already had my belongings outside of the building, and for that matter, had my car out of the structure too. Indeed, I sent my resignation email from a Kinko's a block away, at a time when I knew it would cause an optimum amount of panic and distress.

No severance, no package, no hush money, no disclosure waiver, no lawsuit, no notice, just a quick email from safely outside the premises at one minute before one p.m. on a summer afternoon—that was the way I resigned. (It was, calculatedly, one minute before an ad status meeting with the ad agency, which had been rescheduled to start at 1 p.m. instead of the usual 3 p.m., because the new Reign of Terror wished to assure itself that inappropriate [but also indispensible] alcohol-assisted lunch hours might be completely excoriated from the newly remorseful workday).

I had been, for six years up to that moment, an officer at a Fortune 400 company, entitled to a few perks or grab-bags or even land-rushes in the event of a graceful exit. I chose not only to burn the bridge but to blow it sky high.

Management gurus tell you to zig when corporations expect you to zag. But corporations, in truth, only tell you: zig. Don't burn your bridges. Manage your career. Keep zigging. Please keep zigging. And if you need to leave, leave in a way that zigs, so you may be able to come back and zig some more. More than anything, they hate rejection.

Why would you want to keep zigging, even as you leave? Because it helps you return to a dreary, unimaginative lifestyle with which you've now become comfortable because of the steady paycheck? (For younger readers: regardless of assets, to get to the magic equilibrium number, the number at which the latest appraisal of the house equals 2x the balance of the mortgage, changes one's relationship to the proverbial "steady paycheck" considerably). Because it shows “character” to keep zigging when someone tells you to? Because it shows that you are, as your next prospective employer certainly also must be, “In Search of Excellence”?

~~~

"I confess: We faked the data.”

—Tom Peters, on In Search of Excellence, quoted in Fast Company, December 2001

Aside from the happy fact during a sabbatical that the act of going to a great restaurant becomes more of a sincere treat rather than a de facto week-ending consolation prize, the most fulfilling aspect of being away from the corporate world has been in the daily realization of how hollow the attempts of the corporate world to define your own self ring within. Titles like Market Research Manager or Vice President, Commercial Marketing are vacuous enough to snicker at, even while one is stalking them, living them, owning up to their fakery. This is the card you present to the world, your introduction to everyone, and it states who you are in the most inane, nondescriptive, fake, words you can possibly imagine. But then, after successfully decontaminating yourself, to talk to someone who's still plugged into it! “Guess who they've promoted to Senior Vice President, you are going to just die when you find out,” they say. You imagine them just seething to tell you the second the email hit their desktop. You are ashamed not only to be identified as a person who might care, but also to have ever, even in the past, been identified as such. You have lunch with some former colleagues, and they are trying to explain political things that could not even be explained with an org chart and a fourteen-page MicroSoft Project Manager milestones graph in hand, a program that you already have judged anyway to be, rather than a tool for constructing some brilliant plan for the future, completely irrefutable evidence that there is a lack of adequate knowledge on how to perform even the most fundamental task in the corporation, such as locking one's desk. (“Milestone 4243: Desk-locking seminar kickoff meeting [sub-bullet: keeping a spare key]”). As they throw at you all their useless expertise and barely blink in the light, their despair sounds all the more enormous—for, to you, after you have said goodbye to all that, your former colleagues do not seem to be aware of the extent to which they are in despair. You keep silent, as you might with any delusional and hopeless human. And inside you are sighing like a forest fire, as they attempt to transfer all their current anxiety to you for the moment, and you shudder to see what you once may have been, yourself.

~~~

He [one Lawrence Kilham, a microbiologist] became interested in bird behavior during a sabbatical year in Uganda; his bibliography contains more than 90 titles on bird and mammal behavior, including life histories of woodpeckers of eastern North America and two books, Never Enough of Nature and On Watching Birds, which won the John Burroughs Medal for best nature writing…

http://www.harvardmagazine.com/archive/01ja/ja01_notes_obits.html
[search: “Uganda” to find]

This is, I suppose, something like what a sabbatical is supposed to do for those who hope to maintain a brilliant career arc. You will go find something else to be brilliant in, and apply the techniques you learned in your career to your hobby, and ultimately you may even be known more for your hobby than for your career.

Do not get me wrong, I would love to write an award-winning book, and/or discover that a bird swipes a tree branch with a certain kind of unfragrant beetle to keep squirrels away. But whatever I do, it won't be for the purpose of maintaining a brilliant career arc. In fact, I don't want a career arc. None whatsoever. Never have. Maybe I will someday. Do I want one? I do have, in its stead, various callings (“vocations”): all my adult life I've been doing things that support my better and brighter purposes, which remain constant, on weekends, on vacations, for years, decades, though my own private epochs: Reading, Writing, Drinking, Gardening. But this has been no period of renewal, no hidden side fulfilled, no sudden discovered interest that feels like a lifetime curiosity. No, on my accidental sabbatical, I have only vaguely reinforced what I have been since 1975: a reader, a writer, a gardener, a drinker. These crops still lay mostly fallow, and beg more questions than provide answers. In one of these categories, in fact, there has been regression rather than surfeit: I can count the books I have read in this time on one hand, and as the first one was Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, you can guess that these afforded me no key preparation for a future corporate or even structured life, and especially not a return to anything resembling anything I did while “professional”.

Still, there is something to be gleaned from Kilham and all such. They have these other skills and disciplines, acquired from the love/tedium of professionalism. But on sabbatical, they get to forget that they are professional, and do something as a true amateur—that is, for the love, the “amore”, of it.

Finding things that you love, confirming that you love them, snuggling up to them, and ultimately puzzling over them—that is the best, most fully realized part of a sabbatical. Professionalism is all about having answers. Loving things is all about pursuing questions.

~~~

When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.
—Zen proverb, quoted by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums


I don't think often of my last boss of ten months ago these days, only that, despite her being a hideous human being, I'm grateful—mirabile dictu—that she came along when she did. I think of the things I thought previously of only on weekends, on time away, on vacations: the difference between meditation and contemplation, the pure fun of restaurants, what to drink next, where to drink it, whether or not my Serrano chili seeds are adequately dry to plant, when I might get around to plugging in edits to the second draft of my most recent glacially-progressing work, when the permits for the glacially forming new business are going to come in, whether the venture is going to lead me to Argentina, France, Spain, Paso Robles, or Pasadena. Do these things constitue work? Direction? Not sure. And the fact that I'm not sure, that indicates to me--yes, indeed, you are on sabbatical.

That is but one approach, to make your sabbatical time your leisure time—to allow it to pose rather than to solve—but it has been my approach of choice. I detect, just intuitively, that it is ending soon, now that it has been found, after nearly a year's time, to have indeed been a sabbatical.

On the slimmest amount of reflection, I suppose corporate life has served its purpose. It got me to here, anyway. Here where I can feel like I'm on sabbatical—here where I ask, for starters, after the long and generous space created by the many afternoons of reading, writing, drinking, and gardening, "Why did I have to come via this particular way to get here?"

Which I intend to ask myself eventually. Not now, though. I don't want to set myself up to stumble upon any answers while I'm finishing up my sabbatical. When everything lay fallow is a time for forming questions, not for forcing answers.

jeanpaulsartre
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