The Adult Gap Year: Sabbatical

A while back, I discussed the virtues of a gap year — a common practice in Europe in which students take a year off between high school and university to travel. While I think the benefits of travel (personal growth, confidence, learning about the world, etc) are especially important in the formative young adult years, travel is valuable at all ages.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

I’ve always held onto the hope that we’d live abroad again at some point — not forever, but for an extended stay. Luckily, my husband agrees, and we’ve discussed this more and more as a real plan. The adult version of the gap year? The Sabbatical. 

Sabbaticals are not just for university professors. Recently, Mike stumbled upon an excellent TED talk by New York graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who shuts down his studio for 1 year, every 7 years. Sagmeister determined that instead of following the traditional learn-work-retire life model, he could take 5 years from his retirement and intersperse those years into the working period of his lifespan. What a clever way to visualize this!

Screenshots from Sagmeister's TED talk

Screenshots from Sagmeister’s TED talk

The benefits of sabbatical:

  • Renewed sense of purpose in life and work. It’s an excellent tool against burnout, and a way to renew a passion for your career.
  • Finding inspiration in new places, cultures, forms of art, etc. One of the coolest aspects of Sagmeister’s talk is how he shares the results of his sabbaticals — projects that came directly from thinking done during the course of the preceding sabbatical.
Casa de Musica, Portugal, Identity. ART DIRECTION: Stefan SagmeisterDESIGN: Matthias Ernstberger, Ralph Ammer, Quentin WaleschCREATED : 2007. See more here.

Casa de Musica, Portugal, Identity. ART DIRECTION: Stefan Sagmeister DESIGN: Matthias Ernstberger, Ralph Ammer, Quentin Walesch CREATED : 2007. See more here.

  • Financial gain. Sagmeister determines that because so many ideas for his work come from his time away, and because the quality of his work improves after sabbatical, he ultimately makes more money.
  • Resume-building. In today’s highly-competitive job market, a well-spent sabbatical is exactly the sort of thing that will set you apart.
  • Learning. Aside from the experiential learning, you can complete a course or study a language.
  • Networking opportunities. If you go with an aim to do work that relates to your career, you can make interesting connections you would not have been able to make in the course of your “normal” job.
  • Valuable experience for your children. If you have children, living abroad is an incredible experience to give them.

Despite the potential benefits, I realize taking a year off sounds impractical for all of us “regular folk” who aren’t working for ourselves in a successful design firm in NYC. How does a normal person accomplish this?

How to make it happen:

  • Prioritize. Maybe you need to put other dreams on layaway, if taking a sabbatical is a priority. We live in a very high cost of living city. It is likely that we will take a sabbatical before we are able to buy a house here. And that’s ok — we think it’s worth it!
  • Plan and save. A sabbatical can’t happen overnight, and in order to have value, it shouldn’t just be an extended vacation. It might take years of saving and planning to make it happen. But with determination and strict budgeting, you can very possibly take a portion of your income and put it aside for your sabbatical year.
  • Go somewhere cheap. There are some very affordable countries around the world. In a place where you can get a full (and delicious) meal for less than the cost of a timbit here in North America, you can live on a lot less than you can in your home country.
Any of these Thai dishes probably cost from $.25- $.75! "Street Food Joy" by nist6dh on Flickr.

Any of these Thai dishes probably cost from $.25- $.75! “Street Food Joy” by nist6dh on Flickr.

  • Work while abroad. Make an income during your time off. When I lived in Thailand, my salary as an English teacher gave me a very comfortable lifestyle there.
  • Recognize the value of the experience. It will be difficult to pack up and leave normal life for an extended period of time. I get nervous just thinking about it — what could go wrong, how my child(ren) will respond, etc. But I believe the value of the experience will outweigh the difficulties and possible issues. To teach my children about other cultures and let them experience the world, to have adventures that inform my writing, to work toward a long-term goal of a happy, successful life — to me the value of these things is immeasurable.
  • For more thoughts on the logistics of taking sabbatical from your work, check out this article on Forbes.

Of course, not everyone will feel that the possible sacrifices are worth it, and that’s fine. But I feel that many people who would dismiss this idea as impossible could probably make it work. And for people who tend to feel restless, I think this is an artful middle ground between living entirely outside of the box and working within the traditional career system — a true self-styled life solution.

Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk is about 17 minutes long and I urge you to watch — it’s fantastic!

How about you? Have you or would you take a sabbatical? Where would you go and what would you do?

20 responses to “The Adult Gap Year: Sabbatical

  1. I appreciate this post. My family and I are finishing a year’s sabbatical in Berlin now, and I’d highly recommend it as an affordable and exciting place to spend a year. I’ve been blogging about the language barriers, the homesickness, and how we’re adapting at if you’re interested.

  2. once again, well-written and brilliant. i certainly agree.
    a language question, do Canadians say “timbit”, or was that just a typo?

  3. Great post.

    I share your passion for new experiences, esp. immersive ones. My year in Paris (and travel through Europe) on a fellowship wasn’t strictly a sabbatical but it completely changed my sense of what was possible for me, which was a great gift at 25. One of the greatest challenges for Americans is making sure you have health insurance while away and the larger issue of people you might wish to hire you later having a real problem with someone so adventurous. Sad, but true. When so few people do live like this, others can be really envious and undermining.

    Please check out Heather Greenwood-Davis’ blog; she is a friend of mine and colleague from Toronto who recently took a year off with her two young sons and husband and traveled the world. I think you’ll find her inspiring…

    • Thanks so much for the recommendation–what an interesting and inspiring story. I am now following and reading through her family’s year of travel!

      Yes, I am so grateful for my semester abroad and post-uni year abroad. I believe this was a great leap into adulthood and gave me a real appreciation for how big the world is. We also travelled a lot as a family when I was growing up–most of our vacations were long-distance camping trips through America and Canada. I am so appreciative that my parents gave us those experiences early on.

      It’s sad to think that the sort of jealousy you mention exists, but I see your point. I’m hopeful that the “life experience” aspect of job competition can win out more frequently than the pettiness. I do think that many of the types of people who will seriously consider a sabbatical probably tend toward less common types of employment and self-employment anyway. But, it’s definitely an idea to consider!

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Travel is the best investment anyone can make, beyond formal education — and often better than that. It has changed my life for the better every time; I also grew up traveling far and often, thank heaven!

  4. Taking full advantage of work related breaks for teachers and seasonal workers is another possibility to allow yourself a totally new experience of life. I’ll always cherish the 3 months “on the road” we took when Kirby was 2… We sublet our house to a few students, and took off camping across the country. It was awesome and the cost was basically the gas and camp sites since all our home expenses were covered by the sublet.

  5. My family SO needs a year away after the hell of Chri’s PHD program!!! Unfortunately, he needs to get a “permanent” position at work before doing something like a sabbatical. The cool thing is that he works of the government, so we might be able to “run away” to another SEC branch somewhere…there is one in SanFransisco!!! We could all use a dose of west coast culture! Thanks for your wisdom Jean!!!

    • You’re welcome for the inspiration!

      Yes, a break after a long haul at school is a great thing, I think. He should check his benefits–public service tends to be great at allowing employees to take leave. They might have some sort of deferred salary system (putting 20% of salary aside, for example, to be paid out during a year of leave.) Of course, the greatest benefit of this would be the security of having the job when you returned. Just a thought!

      And then yeah, moving with a job is also a great way to get that change of scenery! Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. What a fabulous post and idea. We took the girls to Mexico and Europe when they were younger during the summer. Rick came along because he had the proverbial two week vacation, but I stayed longer with them. Loved the longer time than a vacation week or two. They remember.

    • Thanks, Georgette! That’s awesome that you were able to take long breaks during the summers–one of the great perks of teaching. Extended vacations and living abroad are such a great way to really experience a place–it’s so hard when you’re pressed for time and you’re just able to hit the main attractions of a place. I know I experienced Thailand in such a different way living there than if I had just been on a vacation.

  7. After reading this, I immediately shared this to my husband who has been juggling 3 jobs to save for his early retirement. I told him, instead of an early retirement, why don’t we do a sabbatical? Then again, living in a third world country, it would be pretty hard for us to look for a “cheaper place”.

    I’ll try to come up with a sabbatical that will fit our resources and will write about it (hopefully soon). Thank you for providing this inspiration! This sure is a good breather for a restless rat like me. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you found this inspiring! Yup, I totally get the itch after a few years to move around, but constantly moving like that isn’t practical if you want to build a life somewhere, too. A sabbatical really seems like the perfect way to marry those two desires.

      I hope you guys are able to come up with something that works for you, and I will love to hear about it!

      • I am located in Asia… Here in the Philippines. Though I have a very good friend who lived in Thailand for 2 years and she agreed with you that the place is indeed nice. It’s really a different experience living there for an extended time than to stay there for a few days worth of vacation. I might also add, she also taught English there. 🙂

        • Ah cool–I haven’t made it to the Phillipines (yet!). There were a number of Phillipino teachers at the school where I taught in Bangkok, though.

          Yeah, it’s funny–many travellers I’d meet would feel sorry for me that I lived in Bangkok, noting how much they hated it it in the three days they were there at the beginning of their trip. I could see how that would happen if you only spent time in the very touristy areas. I really love Bangkok, though–so many different areas to check out, but certainly ones I wouldn’t have seen had I just been passing through. I’m sure this is true of many places in the world!

          • Sorry for the late reply. Had a bad case of allergy because of the change in season here in the country.

            I agree that you get to appreciate (more) a country or culture if you expose yourself to its different faces. I think it is mostly true for countries in Asia where it is usually a melting pot of different culture.

            I hope you get to visit Philippines in one of your visits too! 🙂

  8. I think Tom and I will seriously consider this idea. Sharing it with the kids will provide them with an opportunity to approach life very differently than most people. It will be interesting to see what they think of it. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Oh, I’m so happy you found this inspiring! Yes, it’d be really interesting to see what the kids think of the idea. I have a few friends whose families had taken sabbatical-type years when we were in school. They were home-schooled during those times. How cool to learn about the Roman Empire while actually standing IN the Colosseum, for example. Super cool stuff!

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