By: Noha Amer, Unsettled Bali alumni 2017
In the spring of 2017, I decided to take a four-month sabbatical away from a very demanding job at a major tech company. Like many, I was mentally exhausted, unmotivated, and depressed. The lack of interest in my work created a cycle of not delivering my full potential and in turn, it had me feeling insecure and paranoid.
In between projects and business trips, I decided to jump ship from work and swim in my pool of “what ifs”.
What if I took a break? What if my career was no longer part of my identity? What if I find out I’m nothing but... my job? What if I’m made redundant? What if I’m committing career suicide?
But what if it were really good for me?
My last day at work was on April 16, 2017. And a month later I decided to join Unsettled in Bali. With a head full of doubts, I decided to embrace this sabbatical, and head into the unknown.
After a buzzing first day in Ubud, exhausted from the jet lag, and jittery from caffeine, I sat up in my new bed and did what I always did as part of my bedtime ritual… I checked my work emails on my phone. I scrolled through pages upon pages of emails I would have had to respond to, and by the last unread email, I was manic, grinning and giggling at myself alone in my villa. I had spent the better part of two years glued to my inbox, which had found its way to become a person in my life -- a computer on my lap, and a phone in hand. I thought about the literal and figurative weight I was constantly carrying that I could now release in Bali. The expectations were clear. I was not going to be available for four months. And I didn’t have to respond.
So I signed out of my work email and chats; deleted all my work-related apps and in a matter of seconds, I felt light. And I felt good.
Just like most of you, I had spent a significant amount of my work life dreaming of lazy days by the pool. So when I woke up the next morning with the energy to genuinely be able to do exactly that -- I was trying to make up for lost time. I had strayed so far from who I was, I didn’t want to waste any time getting back on track. I set up a 30-day personal challenge filled with to-dos, goals to accomplish, books to read, articles to write, projects to complete -- the list was never ending. I wanted so badly to prove to myself, and the world, that I was more than my job...
Soon enough, though, I had tired myself out. Days would pass with not a single check off my to-do list. I realized I was putting the same pressure on leisure myself that my job had put on my work self. I was so distracted by these so-called accomplishments, I wasn’t taking the time to breathe. I needed to slow down and be present. Soon after, starting with a tip toe, I eventually started digging my feet into the here and now, which gave me so much more than chasing a check mark against a bullet point.
After Unsettled, I spent the remaining three months of my sabbatical traveling some more; spending time with family, friends; and most importantly, myself. In the final month, the anxiety began swirling once more on what was going to happen next. Did I need to start looking for a new job? Was I going to go back to my old one? In either case, could I really integrate my work and life, considering I had redefined what a job vs owning things meant to me? Sabbaticals are very powerful. They make you question everything you thought was a priority in your life, to how would you shift things when you’re back on that desk.
Just two weeks before the end of my sabbatical, I got a call from my old manager and received an offer to join the company once more in a different role. While friends and family warned me that I could just be jumping back into the lion’s den, I oddly felt excited by the challenge. Was I being naive? Perhaps. But I felt like no matter how this opportunity turned out, there was nothing that was out of my hands. If I was unhappy, I could walk away-- I already made that difficult decision once and survived. If I was happy? Fantastic.
I returned to work that fall, feeling fresh and ready. Oxymoron, indeed. Truth be told, the work hadn’t changed, the people hadn’t changed, but I had. I had my performance review by the end of the year, and my manager and I discussed at length the changes he had witnessed in me during the few short months since I returned. I smiled in agreement, recognizing my growth and accomplishments. He ended the call by congratulating me on a promotion.
I was beaming. After the call, I reflected and realized how much my time off had impacted me in ways I didn’t think was possible. More importantly, I didn’t think it would impact me at my workplace.
What had changed?
I realized the things that truly matter to me most. By eliminating work, I was able to assess the other dimensions of my life and give weight to what mattered. My family is important. My friendships are important. Having creative outlets is important. And while, yes, my career is important, if it cannibalized any other dimension of my happiness, the consequences would be dire. I needed balance.
Leaving my job for a few months and watching my team continue to thrive without me was humbling, to say the least. The truth is, we are all expendable and the realization that I was replaceable at a moment’s notice ensured that I manage my career in a less emotional manner. This translated to more rational discussions and negotiations, where my personal feelings could no longer be hurt. Business is business.
Time without prescribed work allowed my creative juices to flow once again. I was reminded of all the things I enjoy doing and discovered new things I not only enjoyed, but was quite good at as well. This increased my sense of value and the unique contributions I can make to my team beyond a list of prescribed hard skills.
I took up journaling during my time away. By the end of my sabbatical, I had a snapshot of who I was at the start and the progressive changes that were happening to me over time. Reading my final entries felt like I was reading diary entries of a stranger. They were the words of someone terrified of events that hadn’t even taken place yet... that never even came to fruition! How could I have given so much of my mental energy to the unknown?
This sabbatical made me realize the trust we need to have in ourselves that we can endure whatever lays ahead. And that was my biggest learning -- that not all questions we have can be answered today. And I’ll tell you a secret, that is completely okay.
Read Noha's other work here.