Writing by Peter Hilton

My 2004 three-month sabbatical

Things to do with more than a few weeks off work 2023-07-18 #career

Dallas Reedy

  1. 2004 sabbatical ←
  2. 2014 sabbatical
  3. 2023 sabbatical
  4. Sabbatical consultant interview

Among several things I’ve done in life that most people don’t do, I’ve taken a sabbatical from work. Back in 2004, I’d just finished a software development project at the large IT consultancy where I worked, and wanted a longer summer holiday to visit a friends in the UK and Luxembourg.

My employer’s staff handbook revealed that I could take up to three months’ unpaid leave if I got written approval from my boss and his boss, and I figured that I wanted more time off more than more savings. I booked three months off work, and then started wondering what to do with it.

Learn something new

My friend Mukund suggested signing up for a language course somewhere interesting, so the middle of my sabbatical, I took a month-long Spanish course in central Madrid. The language school was great, and provided a studio apartment, which made the whole thing affordable. We had lessons every morning, explored the city in the afternoons, and partied in the evenings. The course and my fellow students were fun, we studied hard, and became conversational in Spanish by the end of the month.

I found learning a new skill extremely satisfying, especially learning a foreign language somewhere I could practice every day, with time to focus on it, and good instruction. Without dedicating a whole month to this, I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced basic proficiency in Spanish. I lost it quickly afterwards, of course, but that doesn’t matter, and didn’t lose it all.

Take time for a project

I ended up with a parallel project during my month in Madrid. I already had something of an obsession with cafes, and free afternoons in a big unexplored city escalated into visiting as many cafes as possible and writing reviews. This grew in scope beyond my previous writing projects; in the end I published reviews of 65 cafes, bars and restaurants in 30 days.

I used to write cafe reviews as a hobby, but writing became a significant part of my next job. By taking the time to complete a larger project than a single blog post, I started to think about more substantial kinds of technical writing, which later escalated into writing a book.

Get some perspective

During my sabbatical, I got the most out of learning something new, and completing a project. In my third month off work, it occurred to me that I no longer regularly got these experiences from my job as a programmer at a large IT consultancy. As soon as I returned to work, I started looking for a new job, and resigned a few weeks later.

Not for the last time, I found it hard to fully understand my situation while I was in it. The biggest benefit from my 2004 sabbatical ultimately came from getting enough distance from my situation to fully appreciate that I needed a change, and the headspace to make that change. After all, a period of separation tests any relationship, including the one with your employer.

Do it again

After my sabbatical, I moved on to a new job, and was much happier with my situation. But I didn’t forget how much I enjoyed taking a sabbatical. And a decade later, I did it again.

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