10 Things I learned while on Sabbatical

Bagan Temples

Well we’ve been back from our 8-month long sabbatical for a bit more than a month now and a considerable amount of time after returning has been spent reminiscing. A number of people have asked about lessons we learned, what we would do again, or what we would do differently. After reflecting for some time, I decided to list out some of the points. Each of them are things that we learned along the way, but there were key takeaways that I’m hoping to be able to carry forward as I return to life in San Francisco and working with my teams. I hope you find them useful as well. (NOTE: This post also appears on LinkedIn)

1. People are all the same.

People are generally good and if you treat them well, they’ll treat you well in return. It is amazing how far a little bit of humor and charm and can take you. Even the seemingly harshest people (don’t judge me, but that would usually be service employees in Europe….) will eventually break down with a bit of humor. And if they don’t, it’s best to just walk away. Their miserable day doesn’t need to become your miserable day. But if you show others respect, they’ll open up their world to you.

Take Away: Always give the benefit of the doubt and assume that people are well intentioned.

2. Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

Sure, that’s an obviously borrowed line, but it applies well to long trips. The act of planning allows you to focus on the bigger picture – what are the overall goals, what are some of the must do items, must avoid, etc. But in the moment flights are delayed, someone gets sick – days rarely stick to the details of a well laid out plan. We planned out the major stops and listed the ‘must-see’ places like the Taj Mahal and Tiananmen Square, but we embraced serendipity. An unexpected extension of our time in Tunis, forcing us to skip an excursion to see yet another museum, resulted in an invite to watch the Tunisia-Egypt Africa Cup match in the local square. Had we not been open to the change of plans, we would never have met the group of Tunisians that befriended me and extended the invitation.

TAKE AWAY: Planning helps to get everyone on the same page. Agree on goals and success factors, but be open to changes.

3. Chase experiences not sights.

Checkbox tourism sucks. Eventually the countless temples and palaces all just merge together indistinguishable from the next, and you start to long for a deeper understanding of the places you are visiting. The theme for our trip was ‘Art’: to open ourselves to new creative ideas that we haven’t had much exposure to previously. The highlight of our trip to Jaipur wasn’t the Amber Fort or the Pink Palace – it was the miniature painting lessons in the backstreets of the old city. More specifically it was wandering through artisan factories and chatting with local artists and understanding their craft. Having a deeper understanding of the creative history of a city or country, helped to appreciate the sights so much more. We found that art connected us in a way that the typical city tour couldn’t do.

Take Away: Nurture creativity in and out the workplace

4. Closeness brings Closer-ness…

For the couples: You will eventually come to hate each other. The long days with only each other to hold a conversation with, which eventually turn into longer days of extended arguments. In some countries the local environment adds to the pressure. In Kerala, our bathroom alternated between hosting bats on some days and beetles on other days. In some cities, we were entertained with spider and gecko showdowns which eat into your sleep and which test the limits of irrational fears. Eventually though, you get to the point where you realize when the other needs space. The cues are different than from when you’re at home. You learn to adventure out and take in experiences independently. You learn to identify the experiences that the other loves – for me it was to sit at a new street food vendor and enjoy the food and company – and you learn to make time for each other to indulge. In the end, while you go through a period of angst and difficulty, you come out of it only to love each other even more.

TakeAway : A team needs to have healthy disagreements to build up stronger bonds and trust.

5. Write it down.

It is amazing how the mind works. There are moments that I thought I had remembered to a tee. 2 months later when looking at a video of the same moment, it was completely different. Even the colors were different! It was even more fun to have videos, and immediate journals, and then writing a recollection of the time a month later… it is amazing at how different they all are. While you don’t need to capture every single moment, and I understand the reluctance of some to record everything, I found that taking 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the day to write down a couple thoughts about a particular place, activity, or experience added to the richness and quality.

Take Away: When working with teams, anything worthwhile to remember, is worthwhile to record.

6. Give it Time

It takes 2 months just to get into the groove. After that, you lose the need to ‘have’ to go do anything in particular on a day and instead start to just live life – but on the road. Reading a book for a day at a café, or down time spending an entire day just people watching in a park. As you go from chaotic city to city, you start to slowly peel away the layers and walls built up over years of living your own chaotic life. You start to forget about all the things keeping you preoccupied in your life ‘back home’ and start to get in touch with the things that truly make you happy. You can’t force it – ‘relaxation’, ‘ah-ha moments’ – they aren’t on-demand experiences. They all come with time and at their own pace for everyone.

Take Away: Give team members the space to get their groove. Don’t try to force them in a particular direction.

7. The World is changing.

In 20 years the world is going to be unrecognizable compared to today. My first trip to India was 10 years ago – it is completely different now. The primary difference in my view is because of increased Internet access and a more connected world. People in remote areas are fully aware of how the rest of the world lives now.  For good or bad, that is changing how we perceive each other, how tourists are treated, and what we all aspire for, for ourselves and families. Many traditions and ‘norms’ are disappearing. There were many interactions we had with people, which I am sure will not be possible in 10 years. Many of the countries we went to are opening up in such incredible ways and the old is giving way to the new.

TakeAway: Don’t expect what worked previously to work going forward. Keep an open mind when approaching situations.

8. Work to live or live to workWhich is it?

It’s a bit of a false choice – the ideal is to feel like you’re never working. I’ve been fortunate, that I think I have only had a ‘job’ once – all the other times, I was getting paid for what I enjoyed. While traveling we met many people who were ‘escaping’ the daily grind for a quick fix refresher, or who were constantly still working despite sitting on a beach. The vast majority of them seemed to dread their work. I couldn’t understand either group. If you have to keep working on a job that you dislike while you are on vacation, that’s a bad sign, and if you need to ‘escape’ for your job every few months, then that isn’t much better. There are of many articles that talk about finding your ‘passion’ which I think is often misplaced in that it implies you need to look elsewhere. Rather than ‘find your passion’, instead learn to find meaning in everything you spend time on and nurture your passion with those activities. Slowly your passion will just take over.

Take Away: Confucius quote: Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life

9. Laughter Should be a Goal

Apparently, children laugh about 400 times a day, while adults laugh on average only 15 times a day. On this trip, we found that perhaps the only days better than the ‘experiences’ are the days of gut busting laughter. Often we relegate laughter to being a tool rather than just a goal in of itself. Rather than using laughter to help lighten a situation, I learned that laughing should be more of an outcome unto itself. I recall a mentor in my younger days telling me that ‘the point of life is not to be rich, it is not be accomplished, and it is not to be ‘successful’. It is to be happy and to make others happy as well.‘ If those around me and I are laughing a lot more, I think I might actually achieve that.

Take Away: Create more opportunities to laugh.

10. Sit alone with just your thoughts

We live in a world of get healthy quick mantras. On a daily basis, there are dozens of articles from BuzzFeed and the like, that are shared on social networks with trivial anecdotes on how to achieve balance in life with just one change. Irrespective of if you live in the heart of a cosmopolitan city, or in the outskirts of a bedroom community, its easy to get caught up in the race of life – rushing from work to family obligations to meetups and it is easy to think that a quick getaway or activity can alleviate the pressure. It is rare to have time to actually sit down alone with your thoughts. Even the so called ‘mindlessness’ activities are hidden within a distraction – yoga, spin class, music concerts – still allow you to avoid being alone with yourself. While traveling, we found that we finally started to really recharge, when we could hear our thoughts, reflect on them, and recognize them. We both picked up quiet contemplation time each day – either in the morning at home, or sometimes in the afternoon on a beach. Rather than avoiding contemplating the thoughts and concerns that create stress, anxiety, and exhaustion, tackling them directly and learning to understand them helped to bring a sense of relaxation I haven’t had for a long time not just physically but mentally as well.

Take Away: Work Hard, Party Hard…. Recover slow. Life is more a series of sprints rather than a single marathon.

Bonus: The most important. Take your own path. Make your own rules. 

Take Away: Don’t listen to me. Learn your own lessons.

Did any of these resonate with you? Which ones?

(NOTE: This post also appears on LinkedIn)

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