When people ask me how my sabbatical is going, this comic strip immediately comes to mind.
Frogs! I’m looking for frogs!
I’ve not always been looking for frogs, though; and following the “inscrutable exhortations of my soul” is taking me to places that don’t always have weird bugs for me to look at—although my home in Indonesia seems to surprise me with new ones every day.
Before I left on sabbatical, I’d spent 11 years working in strategy and transformation roles in consulting and big business, mostly in the energy sector. I was on the traditional corporate path. Doing well. Working intensely on things that felt really meaningful to me and with good people.
As I progressed up the corporate ladder, my work felt more and more meaningful and it started taking over my life - even more so when covid hit and we all started to work from home. Any boundaries I had before covid around work suddenly vanished. I was working evenings and weekends because it was the only time that I could get any deep work done without being disturbed by meetings or emergencies.
I functioned on adrenaline. Of course, my levels of tiredness and cortisol were increasing at the same time, slowly and surreptitiously - and luckily some part inside of me (not sure which one) caught all of that in time. It started yelling at me things like “this is not sustainable, you’re going to burn out!” and “do you realise how much you’re missing out on life outside of work?”
So I decided to leave on a twelve-month sabbatical. I had two intentions. First, to rest. Then, to make space for my own curiosity and interests to emerge - and see what would come out of it.
Of course, the latter felt scary: I had always been curious, ambitious and productive within the scope of my job and within the companies I had worked for but I had no idea whether I would end up being as curious, ambitious and productive once I had stepped outside of those worlds. I was terrified at the idea of letting go of my identity as a successful leader - and terrified of being boring.
On 28 January 2022, I took a leap of faith and closed my company laptop for the last time.
Boy am I glad I took that leap.
After a few months of keeping myself way too busy by exploring pre-hispanic sites and cenotes in Mexico, I ended up going through a few chunky, personal and sometimes painful explorations.
My body started taking over some of the work that my mind had been doing for years.
Exercise had always felt to me like something I ‘should’ do most of my adult life. To look and feel good. The last time I remember enjoying exercise for its own sake was when I was rowing at university - the thrill of the races, the camaraderie within my team and being outdoors for extended periods of time made it a wonderful experience. As I joined the business world, I also joined the world of gyms - and that felt a lot less exciting. I exercised at the gym because I felt I ‘should’, not because I wanted to - and I never stretched because it felt like a waste of the precious few hours I had outside of work.
5 months into my sabbatical, as I was settling in in Indonesia, I started feeling the urge to exercise and stretch every day. This ‘urge’ wasn’t coming from the rational part of my mind, though. I wasn’t ‘thinking’ that I should be exercising. It was clearly my body telling me that it felt like the right thing to do. So I started stretching. As I stretched the limbs that had been tightened so much by years of sitting in front of a laptop (and probably on a rowing boat too, ha) I started feeling like I could move more freely. Interestingly, I also started feeling like my mind could move more freely as well. At the same time, I felt a similar urge to start exercising, now that we had an easily-accessible outdoor space. This felt wonderful and gave me more energy than what I put into it in return..
As I practiced listening to what my body wanted more and more, I started hearing stronger signals from it to do or not do things. Eat less sugar. Drink no alcohol. Exercise in the morning. All of those things felt like embodied invitations rather than rational decisions and it has been feeling really good and relaxing to lead more of my life from my body rather than from my mind.
My voice has been getting stronger, and my character more colourful.
I also felt an urge to start being active online. This is coming from someone who had only ever been a consumer of online content rather than a creator. My only experience of posting anything online had been limited to a few posts on LinkedIn from the time when I was recruiting to fill some roles.
I started writing blog posts about my travels and my experience of being on sabbatical. I created a blog in February on which I proudly uploaded my writing. I then immediately proceeded to protect that blog with a password because I was terrified that someone would read what I had written. I didn’t want them to find my posts boring or badly written.
I also started being active on Twitter. A friend of mine had been telling me tales from a cosy corner of the Twittersphere that was full of solopreneurs and creators who were making awesome stuff and encouraging each other on their respective journeys. I decided I wanted in. I created an account in April and set myself the challenge to post 100 tweets or threads. For someone who’d hardly ever posted on Facebook or LinkedIn and who’d never left any online reviews anywhere, it felt like quite the challenge. It took me four months to reach 100 and I got 900+ wonderful followers in the process, some of whom I am thrilled to be able to call friends.
At some point in the process I had enough tweets and blog posts that I ended up scrolling through them on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. I hadn’t anticipated the deep identity shift that little exercise was about to trigger in me. You know how a physical mirror reflects your eyes, face and general silhouette back at you in a way that feels very different to how you can ‘feel’ your body from the inside? Well, scrolling through my tweets and blog posts gave me the sense that I was looking at a reflection of my own thoughts and character. A symphony of thoughts which, taken altogether, could only have come from me and my life experiences. A character that looked like the beginnings of a colourful identity mosaic that I was slowly uncovering. I could see my character for the first time—and it felt so good.
I’ve slowly been shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.
Just as I had started to write, I also got curious about design and web design - I spent more hours than I probably should have on learning how to use figma, squarespace and webflow well such that I could create a website that felt like me and illustrate my writing to make it more appealing. I got curious about neuroscience and spent hours distilling podcast teachings into visual summaries which I then shared on Twitter. I started reading classic books, old and new, and posting commentaries of the ones that resonated most - some short, some detailed like this one.
Thinking out loud about those things on Twitter attracted other people who were curious about the same things as I was curious about. That’s how I ended up being a guest on my first ever podcast to talk about my vision for how purpose-led businesses will help bring on a better future for humanity, how I ended up designing a few illustrations (like this one on Twitter) for an online course creator who teaches people how to master their nervous systems, and how I ended up working part-time to help shape a global online event on the future of work that’s happening at the end of November.
All this made me realise just how many opportunities for meaningful work would come up if I simply followed my curiosity, created things as I explored, and shared some of those with the world.
I used to be scared to lose my job. I was worried I would not find anything else. I am not worried anymore. This experience has helped me shift from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.
Embodiment. A stronger voice. An abundance mindset.
Those are the frogs and weird bugs I’ve been uncovering on my sabbatical.
Like the harmless maroon millipedes I encounter every day in my Indonesian home, I’ve been picking those frogs and weird bugs up gently. And unlike the millipedes which I carefully place outside in nature, I keep those newly-found friends close to my heart.
Not sure what Calvin—the boy in the comic strip— would do, though.