Take some time ON: re-charge with a sabbatical (my personal story)

If you’re coming here from the Women in Product Conference, I hope this article will serve as a complementary guide to my talk. If you’ve discovered this post on your own, kudos to you! I hope this will give you some helpful perspective to reflect on and I’m also including the video version of my talk from the [virtual] conference below. If you’d like to skip to the F.A.Q., scroll all the way to the end 😉.

First and foremost, thank you for tuning in. I really appreciate it. It warms my heart. It’s crazy times right now, and more than ever we’re torn in many different directions and with an overwhelming amount of information coming at us constantly. It took work and prioritization for you to show up here today. By showing up here, you are investing in yourself. Give yourself credit for that. Tick all the to do boxes. Allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment. Today, you did a good job.

If you’re an individual thinking about taking time off, I hope my story will help you feel more confident in doing so.

If you’re an employer, I hope you’ll consider creating some flexible extended time off options for your employees. Also, you’re a person too and I hope you’ll think about taking time off yourself!

I could tell you about all the compelling stats such as that 73% of tech workers report being burned out in an anonymous April poll by Blind and that according to studies over 70% of people report improved work/life balance, relationships, health and wellbeing after a sabbatical BUT I really think in this case, a personal story will be more effective.

We’ll start with storytime and then I’ll tell you all about my sabbatical and why I think you should allow yourself to think about taking one as well.

Prologue

A little over a year ago, it was May 2019, I was a Product Lead at Spotify and my world was falling apart. Let me not be overly dramatic, in the grand scheme of things, everything was okay.

I couldn’t see that at the time though.

In no particular order:

  • There was a flood in my apartment resulting in a surprisingly long amount of time for repairs (I ended up being somewhat homeless, moving from place to place in anticipation that the repairs would finish any week now)
  • I was re-kindling a long-distance, international relationship that had crashed and burned previously (spoiler alert, it crashed and burned yet again… third time’s the charm?)
  • I had just found out the product my team had fought tooth and nail to build over the past two years was going to be killed and I had just taken over as the interim product lead after my manager’s departure. We had only just launched the beta 8 months ago to rave user reviews. #politics (this could certainly be an entire talk in it’s own right)

I was burnt out. I had a stress rash. I just wanted it all to stop. I wanted to breathe, reorient, figure out what’s next.

I had fantasized about taking some time off in between jobs for years. I was too risk averse, too scared to actually do it. Instead I went full steam from one position to the next. They were all invaluable opportunities. I would have never dreamed how fortunate I would be to have the privilege of leading initiatives at the likes of Minecraft/Microsoft and Spotify. I came from a have-not background, so my instinct was to of course grab every opportunity I could get my hands on and work like my life depended on it. I didn’t know that there would be life and a secure job on the other side of a “sabbatical”, of taking some time off.

So back to May 2019, I was attending an internal product conference Spotify organized for all of the product managers at the company in London. Ironically, I’m giving this talk from London a little over a year later. Talk about coming full circle. All of this was persistently swirling around in my mind, I was thinking about pulling the trigger and taking some time off but I was still afraid. I was going back and forth every day. Promotion or sabbatical? For my usual self, this would be a no brainer. However, this burnt out, homeless and rash ridden me, was having a hard time. Then we had a speaker, Eugene Wei, do a session on product strategy. He was clearly not talking about sabbaticals like I am here today. However during his talk, he let it slip that he’s taken time off a few times in between positions. In fact, I came to find out he was, at that moment, in the midst of taking a few years off. Now yes, he had been a senior executive by that time but it opened the door for me. I took it as a sign. A sign of confidence. This is a thing that people do after all? I still recall him telling me that he in fact thinks it’s important for product managers to take some time off, to explore. Our jobs require inspiration, to be in touch with what’s going on in the world and trends, to be connected with people. His taking time off allowed him to invest in those things in a way he wouldn’t be able to if he was working full time. He traveled, met with companies and entrepreneurs. I’m sure he took some time for himself as well, I don’t know that for a fact but I know that I sure did.

What I also know is that, after this encounter I decided to go for it. I decided that the stars had aligned and as unprepared as I was, with no plan in hand for how I was going to actually use the time, I decided to take time off.

What came next was fascinating to me, and the reason I’m here talking to you about this today. Once I started talking out loud about taking time off, planning a smooth transition out with minimal disruptions to my teams and the wider organization, I started to discover that lots of people that I was previously unaware of had taken time off or were thinking about it, dreaming about it. It really was a thing! A thing that didn’t require executive status or decades working at the same company. Of course there were also people that thought I was out of my mind, especially because I was quitting Spotify to take this time off. I was walking out on a ledge with no promise of return.

I’m actually grateful that I did it that way now, hindsight. It gave me the freedom to make the rules up as I went along, to become proficient with embracing the unknown and be comfortable being uncomfortable. There is no time limit hanging over my head. There is no sense of obligation to go back. The only pressure is my own.

And so, I started this sabbatical.

An aside

Now I wouldn’t be me, if I didn’t include a few *notes* that are important to me to mention.

A sabbatical is not the answer to life, the universe, and everything (extra credit for those that will get my inside references here). It will not solve all your problems and magically make everything better. Arguably, it’s a frame of mind. A chance for you to trust yourself. To chart your own adventure. To get to know yourself better. To invest in yourself. We, especially as women, invest plenty in everyone and everything else, often only to neglect ourselves. This is the time to put yourself first.

The other point I really want to make sure to mention is that I am privileged to be able to take this time off. I have the career, the family, and the financial situation to be able to make this happen responsibly. Not all of us have this privilege and that is something I want to make sure I appreciate and acknowledge.

If taking time off has been on your mind however, I first and foremost want you to know that it’s okay to do that. It may be a path less traveled, but it has certainly been traveled before and you’ll be okay if you go for it!

[My] sabbatical definition: an extended meaningful period of time away from work

This time can be used for many different purposes, depending on what you need and want to get out of it. While we tend to think of it as a time for travel, a time that will require significant financial resources, or one that is meant for executives at long-serving companies… all of this need not necessarily be the case.

It can be a time to:

  • Rest and relax, recover from a stressful work period
  • Try out new projects you’re interested in or have been always wanting to do
  • Do some personal reflecting and personal growth work
  • Spend more time with family
  • Focus in on your health
  • Learn something new, up-skill, explore career options and look for a new opportunity
  • Go on an adventure

What is time?

I did some typical things: travel, shave my head, watch Netflix.

I also did some atypical things: I slowed down, I did nothing, I learned the difference between should and want, I followed my heart.

I didn’t have much planned out when I started. I kept delaying making a plan for it for so long that I finally got to the place where I realized I need time off, to even have enough energy to make the plan. I didn’t even know the exact amount of time I wanted to take, initially I was thinking 3 months — 1 year. My high level goals/hope for my time off were to rest, work on my personal well-being, and try out some projects in the hopes of identifying what I wanted to do next. I told myself that even if in the end, all I got out of the time off was that I felt rested, refreshed and ready to work again, I would consider it a job well done and well worth it.

While I did not have anything planned out before actually taking my sabbatical, I do recommend having some loose plans or goals in mind. Having some seeds for how you’d like to spend your time and what you’d like to get out of it. On the flip side, I also think it would be great not to make plans for time off too regimented, to the point where you’ll stress yourself out or won’t be able to react to what you’ll learn during the time.

That said, if you’re between needing to plan for your time off and not taking it at all, definitely just go for it! Remember to trust yourself, you’ll figure it out.

ACT I

I did nothing.

I dub this recovery time. I imagine how long this period will last completely depends on the person and the situation. For me, It lasted upwards of 3 months, with some travel and logistics sprinkled in. I had made some attempts to be productive during this time however I either failed miserably (read: didn’t get past 1 or 2 chapters in a book) or truly felt like pulling teeth. I wasn’t enjoying doing things yet. I just needed time to be. Time to stand still.

ACT II

At a point, I finally started feeling the pull to do… things. This stage found me in Paris, and first manifested by finally starting to take French classes after months of already being there and not even trying. At the height, I was almost obsessive with trying to retain as much as I could. This time also manifested in me meticulously cataloging and listing all of my boyfriend’s house items for sale (we were preparing to travel and move out long term). Mind you, he never asked for that. Hindsight, this period of yearning for projects to immerse myself in was also me deflecting the focus on myself, the personal growth that I had long talked about doing and yet kept forever delaying.

ACT III

I shifted into meaningful action.

I’ll be honest with you, I hit a low which pushed me into action. It was my survival instincts that pushed me into meaningful action. Arguably, the same instincts that drove me to take the time off in the first place.

I began working on myself. I didn’t know how or where to start but instead of continuing to delay, I started somewhere, anywhere. I stopped waiting. I started with meditation, taking a solo trip, and writing. Suddenly, like minded people emerged in my life. It felt like little illuminated steps were being revealed in front of me almost each step of the way. I don’t want to sugar coat it, it was still a difficult and turbulent time but I felt different. The experiences and my actions, the highs as well as the lows, felt additive. As if they were building to something that would be revealed to me later.

I also started saying yes. I took on a few projects, some which were exactly what I had dreamed of, others that I never even imagined. I worked with a start-up in Colombia, I taught a product management course for professionals, I coached people on their careers, I gardened, I power washed sidewalks, I sanded and stained wood floors, I camped, I painted.

Some of this even during the current pandemic, yes.

ACT IV

Cementing.

Especially as the pandemic ramped up, I tried to remind myself to be kind to myself. Considering that I had found myself not working, with no home, and in the midst of a fragile emotional journey… the pandemic surely made things more challenging. It was a rollercoaster but I chose to strap on for the rest of the ride. I decided to continue on this path instead of reacting from a place of fear and looking for a full time job when I knew I wasn’t ready yet.

I was also honest and held myself accountable however. At a point where I felt like I was plateauing on some of the personal growth aspects, particularly the part where I try to define my values, what I’m trying to optimize for in life, which in turn would help me to identify my next steps… I decided to get a coach.

Meditation, life coach, spirituality books, putting myself out there publicly, were all things I never thought I’d do. Things I didn’t even envision for my time. Yet, they were exactly what I needed and I chose to be open to trying things a different way. Turns out there is even a coach that specialized in sabbaticals! (disclosure: this is the coach I ended up working with). And it was the CEO of the start-up I worked with in Colombia that connected me with her. Talking about willing things into being.

Epilogue

I’m looking forward to the sequel.

What did I gain? A sense of self, grounding. A renewed interest and hope for life and all the things it entails. I have finally articulated my values and some north stars to guide me in my continued journey. Wherever I go from here, I now know that it will take constant recalibration and continued investment in myself. This was not a ‘once and done’ endeavor. I look forward to setting aside time for myself in the future… to reassess my values and direction, to take an immersive blacksmithing class (please let me know if you know of one), to spend time with loved ones, and whatever else I’ll dream up. No time or term limits :).

As for my current stage, I decided to find a blended way to transition from my sabbatical. I wanted to continue the adventure but get down to some immersive work again so I decided to take part in a talent incubator startup program, Entrepreneur First, and will be working to find a cofounder and get a startup idea going over the next few months. I anticipate a rollercoaster of ups and downs, being challenged in an uncomfortable but healthy way. Based on my sabbatical learnings however, what will be more important than anything else this time around, is maintaining a sense of balance and enjoying the ride. An external or self imposed sense of success is not worth my sanity.

Besides, I’m already successful. We’re already successful.

Let’s remind ourselves of that more often.

F.A.Q.

I left out answers to the more practical questions you may have if you are seriously considering taking some extended time off work. Questions such as

  • Is it expensive? How much will it set me back?
  • How much time are we talking?
  • When is really the right time?
  • Do I really need to quit?
  • Isn’t it harder to find a job afterwards?
  • Are there any stats on the benefits?

The answer to all of these is, it really depends. I’d be happy to share my particular answers to these questions for my sabbatical, reach out. Here’s a little preview:

  • I had to quit my full-time job to take this extended time off, I dubbed it a “personal sabbatical”
  • I lean towards the frugal side (some would say that’s an understatement) and orchestrated ways to have the experiences that I wanted yet minimize costs such as doing some side hustles that also gave me the chance to learn (working with start-ups, teaching product management, advising, consulting, volunteering) as well as leveraging the kindness of countless amazing friends
  • I initially thought that I would maybe take three months off and run back to my full-time job, however I ended up doubling down on my decision to take the time I need even in the middle of the pandemic and it is now well into a year
  • There is no such thing as the right time, but please don’t wait until stress rashes and floods hit you on your way out
  • I’ve never felt more confident, valuable, and able to contribute

What I want to underscore however is that it could be as little or as much as you’d like depending on the experience you’d like to have and the constraints you’re solving for. You could even turn a layoff into a sabbatical. It’s all about your frame of mind!

Where there is a will, there is a way. If you don’t know how, do it anyway. Trust yourself that you’re amazing and resourceful and that you’ll figure it out.

For further reading or more practical steps on how to get started, check out my sabbatical coach’s blog post and this one too (totally unsolicited, but I would have loved to know some of the things she mentions before starting mine).

personal: curious, exploring outside & in — professional: tech, product.