Introducing The Adult Sandbox: Navigating Transitions 1/3
Flora or fauna, we are all shapeshifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.” Poet Diane Ackerman
Sabbatical — an extended break away from full time work, to rest, rejuvenate, rediscover
I am on my second sabbatical at 32.
The first one was spurred by a conversation with my wife. We were high-flying professionals, based in cities with a 9-hour time difference, and 3 months away from getting married. It was time to decide which city we’d live in after 2 years of dating long-distance. “I’ll move to Mauritius from California, although I don’t know if I’ll find a job or community there. I see how much your work means to you,” she said. I was moved by her decisiveness to leave behind a recent promotion, her community and her financial independence without the guarantee of work in my city. Her sacrifice challenged me to reflect on and identify the root cause of why I did not consistently prioritize my relationships, the way I did my career. Through reflection and with the help of counsellors, I realized that I had tied my achievement at work so deeply to my self-worth, and it was unhealthy.
I took my first sabbatical 7 months after we got married. We traveled the world together to find a new city that worked for both of us. I dedicated that time to recover from burnout, and do the internal work needed to unyoke my self-worth from my achievements. I am grateful that this journey helped me to redefine success in life and work, and freed me to discover new interests and experiment with new identities. Importantly, it prepared me to joyfully slow down my career and move to Boston 2 years later, as she transitions into a more fulfilling career path through her dream MBA program. While I’ve made progress in my personal transformation, it remains an ongoing journey that requires radical honesty, vulnerability, and self-reflection.
In Boston, I started my second sabbatical. I’m structuring this one with a series of learning goals each quarter. One of my goals is to investigate how mid-career professionals navigate transitions, and how to help more do it to live more fulfilling lives.
In 2019, I wanted to get advice from people who had taking sabbaticals before. I searched “sabbatical” on Linkedin and found no one with that anywhere on their profile. The same search in Aug 2021 brought up at least 120+ in my immediate network who have “sabbatical” or “career break” on their LinkedIn profiles. Stats from the Great Resignation have certainly brought this mainstream — with an unprecedented 4M are quitting their jobs each month, 30% of whom have no immediate plan. It’s a major cultural shift, not just in numbers of people taking career breaks, but also the shift in the social norm of people owning their narrative as being on sabbatical. However, I’ve been disappointed by the mainstream conversation of the Great Resignation in this regard.
In the investor and HR worlds, the narrative has been narrowly focused on people not liking their jobs, the employer-employee dynamic, and how to retain people in jobs. However, I don’t think the Great Resignation is about jobs; I think people quitting in droves is the manifestation of mid careers waking up to the agency we have to design a better quality and better fitting lives; it represents a commitment to figure that out even when we don’t know exactly what that looks like. It’s a commitment to explore possibility.
I believe that more people could switch into fulfilling lives sooner if they had support to navigate life transitions. I believe that neither school nor work prepares us to effectively navigate life transitions, to continuously learn about our evolving selves, the world, and our place in it. We are expected to transition careers at least 6 times in our generation — a trend spurred by the explosion of new career paths as technology advances, as there are increasingly lower barriers to starting companies and gigs, and as there is a globally accelerating focus on holistic human flourishing. I’ve interviewed 50+ mid career professionals from around the world, read research from all the experts on this topic I could find, and interviewed program designers who’ve worked with this profile of leader through transitions.
Sabbaticals and career breaks are one emerging way of creating space to navigate these transitions; how else do folks navigate them?
I’ll be publishing a series of insights on what we’ve learned which we hope will spur more curiosity, research, investment and building in this emerging white space opportunity. You’re welcomed to come along on this journey by:
1/ Subscribing to follow subsequent insights
2/ Sharing this post with someone who is navigating or researching about people in transition
3/ Contributing to our growing resource list for others in this season
I’m grateful to have found fellows searchers in this journey — my chief thought partner, Achani Samon Biaou; collaborators on experimental products for this at Experience Institute; investors like Owl who are opening doors for entrepreneurs tackling this; inventive founders like Mission Collaborative; academic researchers like Herminia who authored Working Identities, Todd Rose who co-authored Dark Horse and dj didonna who found this rabbit hole before I did; as well the many brave peers on sabbatical around the world who’ll be sharing their story with you in this series.
Personal Context: I’m from Ghana and currently on sabbatical as I incubate plans for the next decade. I spent the first decade of my career building lifelong learning institutions to unlock the leadership potential of Africa’s youth and executives. I’m currently advising builders and leaders with turnarounds and scaling their efforts, supporting global VCs like Owl Ventures invest more in Africa, and tinkering with versions of my future self.
“Life is so rich” Scott Galloway