In the spring of 2005, I found myself holed up in a guesthouse apartment deep in the Hollywood Hills, contemplating what to do next after all my dreams for happiness came crashing down.
Although my new digs were a writer’s paradise with an ocean view in one of L.A.’s most exclusive areas, it felt as if I was living in exile. And unless I made a concerted effort to break from my routine, standing still would cause irreparable harm to me both personally and professionally.
We’ve all felt burned out at one time or another. It’s an inescapable fact of life, even for those who cherish their work or personal life, and there’s really no shame in feeling this way. The trick is doing something about it.
A sabbatical may be the perfect remedy, but it’s a luxury few of us can afford. Only superstars have a snowball’s chance in hell of landing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, though there are several other opportunities that are well within the reach of most mere mortals and routinely advertised in the back pages of Quill.
Few media outlets have the resources to allow their scribes a substantive leave of absence to enrich their career, recharge batteries or do both. Time is money, and if an editor or writer is off the clock but still on the payroll, it could appear to be a real problem at a time of thinning profit margins across the industry and a culture incapable of shaking its puritanical work ethic.
We’re pummeled into feeling guilty for taking vacations or not working overtime. But this sort of thinking is incredibly destructive to morale, as well as an individual’s spirit and ability to make a substantial contribution to society over the long haul.
There’s no denying that journalism can be as tethered to the bottom line as any type of business. Allowing newspaper, magazine or broadcast staffers to take a sabbatical may appear contrary to the goal of making money. What’s needed, however, is a rethinking of this arrangement as a prudent investment in human capital for those who’ve earned the right within their organizations to take time off.
For freelance writers like myself, the only thing standing in our way of bolting for the door is a steady workflow from appreciative clients or an inability to work far enough in advance to plan for a sabbatical. I was fortunate enough to take off the entire month of November 2005 in the busiest (and most lucrative) year of my life thanks to careful planning that began roughly six months before my targeted travel.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the word sabbatical as “a break or change from a normal routine (as of employment).” It may involve intensive study of an individual’s chosen field, which in the case of a journalist would more than likely result in a published or aired account of those experiences. But it also could involve a complete escape from work.
My decision to go on sabbatical was borne of personal trauma, namely the end of my marriage.
Rather than plummet into prolonged depression and wall myself off from the world during our separation, I picked myself off the ground and vowed to enjoy life again. The strategy included a carefully choreographed dance with numerous old friends and relatives who I hadn’t seen in ages. After being inundated with offers to visit people within my inner circle of emotional support on the East Coast, I gradually decided to take up folks on their kind offers.
What was initially envisioned as a one- or two-week vacation turned into a monthlong sabbatical when I hit critical mass with so many dear souls from my immediate and distant past. The trip began in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 1 and ended in Boston on Nov. 30. I worked the equivalent of just one day spread across the month answering e-mail or putting out professional fires from the road. The lion’s share of time was spent reconnecting with dozens of supportive friends and family members who helped me regain my footing during a difficult time. I also read and meditated whenever possible, and used the time for both personal and spiritual growth.
I’m now more energized at work and play than ever before. The time off reminded me of the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, as well as the importance of pushing ourselves to always do better. It’s in this vein that I’ve approached every assignment with a greater determination to please editors, improve my storytelling and some day soon write that Great American Novel. I certainly have more than enough material.
Our time in this world is short, and you never know when a bend in the road may take you somewhere less traveled.
Not taking this sabbatical would have been a luxury I simply could not afford.
Bruce Shutan is an L.A.-based freelance writer who has been covering the American workplace for 21 of his 23 years in journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.