Jul 01 The End is the Beginning
This is the close of the most surreal year of my life – no job except to live and look for joy and fulfillment.
It is not lost on me that this was an opportunity that few people get – but I have come to believe that fact is not solely because of circumstance but also choice…
To stop, to change course, to pause and pivot, are not easy tasks. Unknowingly, I planned for this next phase, although I thought I was planning for something else. The money I had saved that inevitably funded the sabbatical was intended for more traditional financial investments. Maybe a rental property or a condo at the beach. Perhaps an early pay-off of our mortgage. Ultimately, it was an investment in myself and a time to be in close proximity with my family, friends, and community. It was not a path to leaving work behind forever but a true sabbatical to find clarity in the next phase.
For so many of us, this is an elusive dream, one we will never give ourselves permission to wake up and pursue. Sabbaticals are for academics and rich folks but I would now argue against that misconception. Sure, this is likely the only time I will indulge such rest and wandering in my life but its benefits and solidarity in spirit are reward enough to sustain me until my later years.
So, if you’ve ever considered a sabbatical of your own, particularly if you are considering a life shift after your time of rest, I’ll share some insight from my own time of sabbath.
A life purpose is a bunch of B.S.
For the few that have such unique gifts and talents that your direction in life is visible for all to see, I congratulate you. For the other 99% of us, I say we eliminate the need to define our purpose. It’s a bar so high, we can’t reach it. It’s a statement so singular, it doesn’t leave room for reality. Its absence is so disappointing, that it can distract us from living.
If you don’t know your purpose in life, don’t sweat it. If you don’t know your direction, I’d say you have some work to do.
One year ago, I didn’t know which direction to go because I was caught in the current of an out of control life. I wasn’t steering my own ship. I wasn’t the captain, I was merely a passenger on my way to an unknown destination.
And even though I recognized my status, I wasn’t reaching for the wheel. Without any idea where to go or how to change course, I settled for the familiar comfort of the status quo. My indecision was the decision.
My first -and probably most important – lesson of the sabbatical was to steer my own ship, even if I wasn’t 100% sure of the right direction. My instincts definitely told me when I was headed the wrong way and like the childhood game of ‘cold, colder, you’re getting warmer, warmer, HOT’, by actively seeking direction, I found it.
But there is a big caveat to charting my own course. My navigational plan is defined by the conditions of today. I cannot foresee or control the headwinds of tomorrow. As my own captain, I must write with pencil and be prepared to recognize the opportunities and the dangers ahead and chart and re-chart my best path.
If I am forced to define a purpose for my life, I would say that it is to simply know where I am going and why. To be my own captain.
Practice being who you wish to become
For years, I said I wanted to give more – more time to others, more to my family, more to friends. I could see in others the person I wanted to become. So I started to ask myself, ‘if I was that person, what would I do’? Would I volunteer, would I get up earlier, would I start a supper club or go on a big adventure? What would I do if I was already the person I wanted to be?
It sounds easy for me to tell you to define those things and then just go do them. But there is a reason you aren’t already doing them and whatever excuse has kept you separated from this ‘new’ you has not been erased by a list of characteristics and activities. Making the list is simple. Execution is the tricky part…
As I prepared to walk into an unfamiliar building, in an unfamiliar part of town, to sit across from a recently released inmate to participate in their path to job reentry, I paused. I was scared, I felt like a fraud – I am not this person.
A voice inside whispered, “practice being who you wish to become.”
The list is the easy part. The practicing and becoming, well that’s the hard part. It’s uncomfortable and it’s sometimes scary, but if that little voice inside is telling you, “you’re getting warmer,” then keep going.
Get familiar with your fundamentals
In the first month of the sabbatical I met with Liz Allen Fey, a strategic wizard who helps individuals and organizations find clarity and direction. By asking a few tough questions, Liz gave me the focus to really peel away the layers of distraction and see myself more clearly.
As I started to think about what I loved and where my strengths lie, I continually returned to the responsibilities of coaching and teaching, the discipline of research and messaging, and the desire to be around passionate people.
When I thought of moments when I felt puffed with pride, I thought about the people at Canine Assistants and the work our team had done to advance their mission to change lives through the placement of their skilled service dogs. I thought about the connections I had made and the people who taught me so much about leadership and service to others – the ones that got up every day because of their love for people and team.
Eventually, I started to not only think about my past experiences, but I allowed myself to think about a future – one that was not based on knowns but merely the construct of my imagination. A sort of wish list if you will…
One of the first fundamental truths about myself that I uncovered is that I want to work. For some, life is play then work. I am unfortunately wired in the opposite direction. I can’t play until the work is done. I am a person that enjoys work. I am also a person that will likely drive others crazy in retirement.
With this new lens, I began to ask myself, “what could I see myself doing into my 70’s and beyond?”
I added TEACH to the wish list.
As I practiced being the person I wanted to become, I realized that service to others must be a part of my regular life. I didn’t feel like a fraud for long – I felt at home and quietly fulfilled in a way that has nothing to do with the ego and everything to do with the heart.
I added SERVE to the wish list.
The hardest fundamental to accept – not because I don’t believe it to be true but because I didn’t believe it possible – was the need for a more diverse and well-rounded work life. How could I really ask for service, learning and flexibility to connect with diverse people and issues? I was already on an amazing sabbatical journey, I figured there was only so much good fortune I could expect from the universe…
Reluctantly and feeling a bit selfish, I added DYNAMIC days and work to the wish list.
The list was built in the first few months of the sabbatical. I had a list and less than a year to make it come true. Tucked safely in my journal, I got back to traveling, (attempting) meditation and crossing my fingers that things would work out.
One year later – was it worth it?
An intermission is the perfect time to stretch your legs, chat about the plot from the first act, grab a snack and settle back in the for the second act.
My initial vision for this intermission turned out to be nothing like the reality. I didn’t learn to cook amazing meals, my kitchen still needs cabinets because open shelves would be an eye sore, my figure still reveals that I am a woman in my forties and my thumb is still black.
What I gained instead was connection and clarity. My list and its three fundamentals ruminated throughout those months of travel and reading and yoga and more hugs for the kids than they wanted. I had moments when I questioned my sanity and doubted the list – the midpoint in the winter months was especially filled with doubt.
But I wouldn’t do one thing differently.
My plot line now includes studying for a doctoral degree in leadership and the vision of one day teaching others how to lead themselves and teams with transparency and authenticity. There is a new twist that involves a dream job of serving and changing lives. As the new executive director for Retrieving Independence, a nonprofit that incorporates the training principles of Canine Assistants and also adds the element of dignity given to inmates by involving them in the training process, I am on a course that fills my ship’s treasure chest with direction and connection. And because both of these roles allow me to investigate, build, get into closer proximity and stretch myself, I am writing new scenes that are vibrant and dynamic.
This captain has a long voyage ahead, but the conditions are looking favorable and the seas are definitely getting warmer, warmer, warmer…