Singing the praises of the sabbatical
At some point, many of us find ourselves in a job that isn’t the right fit, either in terms of career path, job satisfaction, or financial rewards. What should you do then? Here is my advice: Just get out.
I don’t mean start updating your resume. I mean travel. Move to a new country. Give yourself the time and perspective to open up to new possibilities. I’m not suggesting you quit your job at the first hint of job dissatisfaction. Even great jobs have periods of unhappiness. But when you spend months thinking “this isn’t the place for me,” maybe it’s time for a career change. In those times, I have found that a sabbatical, particularly when combined with travel or a move to a new country, is a great way to reset my mind and discover a new career direction.
When I graduated from college, I spent two years working at a large systems engineering firm. The job paid well, the hours were reasonable, the work was low stress. I was bored out of my mind. So I saved my money for two years then quit the job, sold most of my possessions, and backpacked around the world for eighteen months.
I spent much of that time in Asia, including four months in mainland China. I became fascinated with the large-scale, rapid transformation taking place there and decided I needed to return.
Back in the U.S., I studied Chinese and enrolled in the Haas MBA/Asian Studies joint degree program. After I graduated, I spent much of the next decade in Asia. I worked for a democratic activist in Taiwan. I lived in a Chinese city of 800,000 as one of only three Americans. I watched my neighborhood in Beijing transform from horse carts to modern high-rise buildings. I traveled across China helping U.S. telecom companies enter the market. None of it would have happened had I not left my first engineering job and taken the time to travel.
Some argue that a sabbatical will derail your career progression. And if your career trajectory is skyrocketing, maybe it will. But if your career isn’t satisfying, maybe derailing your career path is just what you need.
One of the objections I often hear about taking a sabbatical is cost. And of course medical bills, children’s education, and mortgages can prevent taking any time off.
But sometimes objections over affordability are really a mask for different priorities. When I quit my first job, a friend asked how I could afford to travel for so long. I pointed out that the new car he’d just purchased would more than pay for my 18-month trip. There are creative ways to finance a sabbatical. Sell your possessions. Work freelance. Rent your house or arrange a housing swap. Move to a cheaper country.
Ten years after I started my Asian career path, my China consulting business was struggling. I was living in San Francisco but spending long stretches in China. It was time for a change. My wife and I booked a monthlong trip to Africa where we decided we were ready to have children and that I would thus need to travel less.
So I shut down my consulting business and took a middle-manager position at a mobile phone startup in San Francisco. The next 14 years were a fascinating and rewarding stint in the high-tech industry. I presided over the rapid growth and large-scale layoffs of the dot-com boom, raised venture money, and helped build and sell a successful company. My wife and I raised two kids to teenagers.
Several years ago, it was clear that my latest startup wasn’t going to succeed. I told my wife it was time to look for a new job.
“No,” she said, “it’s time for us to move overseas.”
Within a year we’d stored our possessions, sold the car, rented the house, and found an international school. We used our savings and San Francisco’s hot rental market to finance a move to Spain.
Once in Barcelona, I finally had time to pursue two of my passions: photography (tomstahlphoto.com) and serving on nonprofit boards. More importantly, as a family we’ve studied Spanish, traveled to more than a dozen countries, hiked the Pyrenees, ridden camels across the Sahara, and made new lifelong friends. My daughter recently said that these have been the best two years of her life. I agree.
In the end, our time on earth is defined by more than our jobs. So, by all means, land your dream job, work with passion, and have a great career. But during your life’s journey, don’t forget to also take time to just get out.
Tom Stahl, MBA/MA (Asian Studies) 93, recently returned to San Francisco after two years in Barcelona. Prior to living in Spain, he was COO and CFO of two venture-funded mobile companies. He has also worked as a telecom consultant in China, a political consultant in Taiwan, an engineer, a short-order cook, and a paperboy. Tom is an award-winning photographer and is married to Julie Kim, MBA 93.