Sabbatical Allies and the Herd Mentality

September 15, 2010

Zebra herd. Image:

Zebra herd. Image:

Sabbaticals are, by nature, anti-herd. After all, we’re trying to stop doing what we (and most people) do and try something different. Just for a little while.

The challenge of anti-herd behavior, though, is that the herd sometimes pushes back.

For many people, taking a sabbatical or career break is very un-herdly. It just isn’t something you do. And so when they hear your plans, their natural response is often any number of sabbatical killing lines, like, “What about your <job, career, pension, house, schooling, etc.>.”

Those pushbacks from the herd are an attempt to get you to conform. It’s part of evolution – if we all stick together in the herd, we have a better chance of survival. When we start running off on the savanna on our own, we screw things up. What’s important in terms of your sabbatical planning, though, is that conformity is a powerful force, and if you’re not careful, it can derail your career break plans. Here’s why.

Back in the ’50’s, Solomon Asch asked groups of people to identify which of three black lines on a card was the same length as a single line on another card. The task wasn’t that hard, but what was tricky was that everyone except one person in the group was a confederate of the experimenter. Those confederates would all insist that a certain line was a match, even when it wasn’t. You can guess what would happen: faced with a large enough herd, the lone subject would change his mind – at least outwardly.

You’re facing the same thing in your sabbatical quest: most people disagree. They think you’re nuts. You know you aren’t, but over time, the herd has a way of getting you to change your mind, at least enough to scuttle your plans.

But there’s a second lesson in the Asch conformity experiments. When the lone subject in the experiment had an ally – someone who agreed with him – they had far less tendency to conform.

Enter your ally. You need someone – outside of your family – who doesn’t think you’re nuts. Who supports your sabbatical unconditionally. More is better, but often one is enough. They’re going to reassure you that you’re not crazy, and that it’s okay to swim upstream for a few months in a long life.

Who’s your sabbatical ally? Find them – they’re out there – and use them like a lifeline when the herd closes in.   -Dan


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One Response to “Sabbatical Allies and the Herd Mentality”

  1. Karin on September 15th, 2010 3:16 pm

    Loved this post, so true. When I left my job and sold most of my possessions to go traveling for a year, most of my friends and family thought I was mad to do so. Rather than ask about where I planned to travel, they were more interested in what I was going to do when I got back, what job I would go for! But thats the last thing on my mind. For them this lifestyle doesn’t seem an option, but anybody is able to save money and do this if they really REALLY want to. Hopefully one day I’ll inspire some of my friends who are unsatisfied with their current lifestyle to break free 🙂

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