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


Too busy to read Escape 101 in print? It’s also available in audiobook!

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Moving to Paris Without Quitting Your Day Job: One Guy’s Sabbatical Secret

September 3, 2009

I’ve often thought that the real trick to life is simply to know when to stop and when to start.

Sometimes, for example, you need to quit a terrible job (Stop) in order to create the motivation and head space to move forward. Other times, you need to try a new business or hobby on the side (Start) to realize the possibilities that a career change might provide without the pressure of quitting. When I talk with people about sabbaticals and lifestyle design, their decision often ends up boiling down to just that: starting or stopping. Eventually both happen, but there’s a critical first step that provides the catalyst for everything, and that step is either forward or backward – a step back from an old life, or a step forward to a new one.

Over at the Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau posts an article by Allan Bacon about how he moved his family to Paris for a short sabbatical without quitting his day job. It’s a great example of the start versus stop philosophy from someone who’s done both to create a new life.

I love the opening, when Allan wakes up in Paris:

“When I wake up I can look through the opening in the heavy drapes and see that I am still here. Cool, it wasn’t a dream.”

That’s exactly how I’ve felt on waking up the first day for every sabbatical we’ve ever taken. A strange, slightly scary awareness of, “Whoa. We’re really here. We really did it.”

Allan, who runs a blog called The Avocationist, managed to wrangle a short sabbatical in Paris through a combination of finding the benefit for his company, and using some creative financial tricks like a home swap.

“…instead of taking my kids on a crazy, bleary-eyed tour across Europe, I decided that we should find a way to actually live there long enough to get a taste for what the experience would be like. (Would we kill each other in a city apartment? Would we get bored? Would we go crazy from having to learn how to navigate in a place where we didn’t speak the language?) Of course, none of those things happened.”

This is well worth a read. It’s a great explanation of how to make change in your life, set against one guy’s experience.

Moving to Paris without Quitting My Day Job

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Inside the Mind of A Sabbatical Family

June 26, 2008

Dani, Craig, Caroline & Conor are preparing to take a year long trip around the world departing in late July 2008. They’ve been running a very thoughtful and insightful blog, The Wide Wide World.

Craig’s got a great FAQ at the blog that answers a lot of common questions, regarding work, money, school and safety, so for our interview, Craig and I delved into the mental game of sabbaticals and family travel. If you’re planning your own escape, this is required reading…

Q: It’s pretty close to departure time. What’s been the hardest thing so far?

I think both Dani (my wife) and I had a hard time telling our parents. Taking a year off to travel the world is just so alien to their experience; they have no way to process the information. Even worse, we’re taking the grandchildren.

We’ve really tried to demonstrate to them that we’ll be able to stay in touch. That was part of the reason for getting the blog up and running so early. And we’ve been practicing with them using Skype.

On the work front, there have been challenges too. I’m an an independent consultant, so in telling my clients, I was quitting my job. I’ve been fortunate to have had several long-term clients. In more than one case, I was telling a friend that I wouldn’t be working with them for at least a year.

I suppose the common thread is that disengaging from daily relationships – family and co-workers – has been the most difficult thing for me.

Q: Is everyone on board? Did it start out that way, or was this your vision at first?

Everyone is on board. I think my daughter Caroline (age 13) summed it up very well when I told her I had bought our airline tickets. Her response: “Dad, that makes me feel excited – and queasy.”

But getting to where we are today has been a process.

This trip grew out of an on-going conversation that Dani and I had been having. We knew that in June 2008 both of our kids would be changing schools. Caroline was going to be entering high school; Conor (age 11) would be heading off to middle school. We knew that if we were ever going to do something out of the ordinary, this was the year to do it.

In February 2007 Dani and I began a running conversation, brainstorming ideas about what we might do. I wasn’t thinking explicitly in terms of a sabbatical, but as it turns out, that’s what I was moving towards.

The first idea I suggested was to live a year in Australia. I have friends there, and I found that we could enroll our kids in Australian public school for a modest amount of money. Dani didn’t say no, but she wasn’t excited about the idea. She thought living in Australia would be too similar to living in the U.S. So we tried to expand our thinking.

One day, we found a Canadian family, the Carlsons, who took a round the world trip in 2001. We read their web site, then emailed them. Five years after the Carlsons returned home, they were all doing well and considered their trip around the world to be a life-changing experience.

Then I started looking for other families who had taken round the world trips and was surprised by the how many I found. (We list of about two dozen on our web site).

One day Dani came running in my office (I work at home) and told me to turn on Oprah. Dani rarely watches daytime TV, but happened to have it on that day. When I tuned in I saw why Dani was so excited. Oprah was doing a satellite interview with the Andrus Family of Atlanta, Georgia, from the top of Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa. They were about two-thirds of the way through a round the world trip.

I immediately went to their blog, Six in the World, and read every word. I think that’s the moment I knew our family could do a round the world trip too.

As a family, we spent the next several months discussing the pros and cons of taking such a trip. At first my daughter was skeptical. My wife was probably just humoring me. Conor, bless his heart, was ready to leave right away.

We spent a lot of time talking about where we would go, what we would do, what life on the road would be like. We had a very open discussion about our expectations – and our concerns. The more we talked about it, the more we wanted to do it, and the more we believed we could do it. We knew it would a challenge, that there would be good days and not-so-good days. Still, we all knew it was the chance of a lifetime.

One night, Caroline said to me: “Dad, I want you to know that I’m scared to go on this trip. But I also want you to know that I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t go.”

By Christmas 2007 we were all on board.

Q: Have you encountered much in the way of skepticism, or negative response from friends or other family? If so, how have you dealt with “disapproval”?

Just yesterday a “friend” told me he’d been reading our blog recently and it was obvious to him that I was a “very tortured person.” Uh huh.

One of the things that has surprised me most – something I never predicted and didn’t expect – is the wide range of reactions we’ve gotten to news of our trip.

We have casual friends who have adopted our trip as their “cause,” sending us information about every stop on our itinerary. And we have good friends who do everything they can to avoid even acknowledging that we are going to be away for a year.

One family in our neighborhood has studiously avoided mentioning our trip to either Dani or me. But they’ve pumped our kids for information at every turn. Where are you going? Is your father going to work? How’s he paying for this? I find their reaction to be rather odd, and I have no explanation for it.

I’ve also had a lot of colleagues tell me they wish they could do something like this, but they can’t because of X, Y, or Z. I’ve had others tell me all the reasons they would never want to do something like this, and then tell me a vacation to a five-star resort is the only way to travel.

It reminds me of something John W. Gardner once said: “At a certain point in your life you learn that people are neither for you or against you – they’re thinking about themselves.”

On the other hand, I’ve also been surprised by the number of people who have reached out to me, offering encouragement and advice. Several other travelers found me on the web and sent notes of encouragement. You sent me an email and a copy of Escape 101 at a time when I really needed the wisdom you had to offer.

There really does seem to be a different spirit among travelers. It’s refreshing to talk to people who share information rather than hoard it.

Q: What advice would you offer to someone who would love to do what you’re doing, but is convinced that it’s impossible to leave work for that long?

I recently read a great quote from Joseph Campbell, the author and mythology professor. He said “A mid-life crisis is when you reach the top of the ladder, only to find it’s been place against the wrong wall.”

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of top performers and hard chargers. Almost every one of them has talked about how important their family is to them – but very few have walked the walk. In a showdown between work and family, work seems to win more often than not. So I am immediately skeptical when someone tells me they want to take time off. They probably need to… but want to? I’m not always so sure that’s the case.

If a person said to me, “I wish I could do what you are doing,” I’d say, “What’s stopping you? What’s really stopping you?”

Certainly there are circumstances that can prevent a person from taking a sabbatical. But often the the obstacles in our way are of our own making: The need to feed the beast. To climb the ladder. To maintain your place in your tribe.

If a person or family really wants to take time off to travel the world, they can figure our a way to do it. It may take some creativity. It may take some compromise. But it can be done. But the first step is really wanting to do it.

In my search for other families traveling the world, I discovered a Kiwi family of eight (eight!) who are about to take off on an multi-year travel adventure. They’ve been saving for this trip, pinching pennies, for years. But family travel was their dream – and they worked together to achieve it. You have to respect and admire that. I know I’m going to be following their adventure, and I hope to meet them one day.

Q: Even though you haven’t left, have the decisions and planning so far changed you at all? If you had to cancel your sabbatical before it even started, what would you take away from the experience to date?

Every day I am acutely aware of how fragile it all is.

I know there are things that could derail us before we leave or once we are on the road. But there are two thoughts I keep coming back to.

First, I have a new appreciation for what’s possible, for what a family can do together. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the many families who are out there living their lives on their own terms. That’s what I aspire to.

Second, I am deeply grateful for my wife and my children, for their spirit of adventure, for their willingness to take a leap of faith into the world. I hope they never lose their sense of wonder, their willingness to break from the pack, and their ability to confront their fears, take a risk and move forward.

This is already the best thing we’ve ever done. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

I’d like to thank Craig for his time and his thoughtfulness. Visit The Wide Wide World and subscribe to follow their trip. If you’re planning a sabbatical of your own, you won’t be disappointed by their updates.

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Commit To Your Sabbatical With StickK

March 31, 2008

StickK LogoSabbaticals can be challenging. Like saving for retirement, quitting smoking, losing weight and a host of other goals that never seem to come to fruition, taking a career break requires a commitment. The challenges is that it’s tough to get committed to your…err…commitment.

What’s really going on here? Why is it so hard to accomplish the things we want so much? The challenge is that desirable outcomes in the long-term (like good health or wealth) tend to require not-so-desirable actions (like exercising or saving money) in the here and now. The result? We avoid the less-desirable options, and put off for yet another day what we should do right now.

Enter StickK. It tries to leverage your psychological wiring by penalizing your lack of action. At StickK, you create a “Commitment Contract” for your desired goal – quitting smoking, or running a marathon, for example. Fail to butt out or stick to your training, and you’re subject to your chosen penalty, ranging from public shaming on the StickK site, to actual financial costs, which are donated to the charity you choose. To ramp up your motivation further, you can even have your money donated to a charity you hate if you fail to perform.

Using StickK to Lock In Your Sabbatical Plans

You can use StickK to get some leverage on yourself and accomplish a few of the steps that can help make your sabbatical a reality.

Some goals you might choose:

  • Pitching your boss, announcing your plans or otherwise going public at work with your sabbatical goals
  • Opening a savings account and setting up an automatic paycheck deduction
  • Buying plane tickets, or other financial commitments

A word of caution: make sure you set your penalty high enough that it represents enough pain for you to be sure you’ll follow through.


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