Escape the Daily Grind: Take a Radical Sabbatical

Posted by | April 9, 2015 | Find your mission, How to change jobs, Volunteering

Are you ready to run screaming from a party the next time someone asks you what you do?  Would you prefer to stab yourself in the eye with a fork than sit in your cubicle for one more minute? Do you ever feel like Free Willy before he escaped to freedom?

You’ve come to the right place! It’s time to take a seat in our Do Good Jobs canoe as we escape the daily grind and paddle the distant horizons of ‘radical sabbaticals’.


So, what is a radical sabbatical exactly?

Your regular vanilla “sabbatical” can be defined as ‘a period of time during which someone does not work at his or her regular job and is able to rest, travel, do research’. A “radical sabbatical” is an extreme and unconventional version of this,  a double-chocolate-flake-shake-with-extra-sprinkles version, if you will. It’s a specific period of time in which you do utterly different things from your ordinary life with the intention of exploring new ways of living and working. It is, roughly put, an epic experiment of life and work.


How can a radical sabbatical help you in your career? 

When we’re unhappy in our work, it can be all too easy to spend your time imagining what we would like to be doing. But how do we know what kind of work we’d enjoy if we have never experienced it? A radical sabbatical allows you to experiment with different ways of working and actually experience possibilities in action. It can stop you from being caught in a ‘what if’ mindset, and can give you the information you need to make an informed decision about which career(s) will work best for you.

If you’re bored, unhappy or vaguely restless, the decision to take a radical sabbatical can result in an overhaul of your perspective and create life-changing results.


But what do you DO on a radical sabbatical? Give me some actual examples.

You could do almost anything on a radical sabbatical, as long as it helps you explore new career possibilities. Online, you can find dozens of tales describing Microsoft veterans and management consultants who traveled, volunteered and wrote books while on their radical sabbaticals. This Guardian article features a woman who tried out 30 different jobs in one year by shadowing and volunteering each position.

A radical sabbatical is an experiment, and ideally should be linked to a hypothesis. For example, if your hypothesis is  “I want to be a Doctor” your radical sabbatical may include one or more of the following:

  • volunteering at a community health facility;
  • shadowing a GP for a week; and/or
  • arranging to sit in on medical school lectures.

Most radical sabbaticals involve one or more of the following: volunteering, travel, pursuing creative dreams (like writing a novel), shadowing a professional, interning or short-term roles that are radically different from your current employment. Some people save up and don’t earn while they’re taking their radical sabbatical, others need to work while they go.

A radical sabbatical can take five weeks or a year, it can take place in the ocean around Costa Rica, or in your Grandmother’s attic. It’s all up to you.

A case study: My own radical sabbatical

In late 2013 I felt restless and burnt-out. I had worked at seven ‘do good’ jobs over three years, mostly two or three at the same time. What did I really want to do? I wanted to see if I could write more. I imagined that working in a routine and hands-on job, such as gardening or waitressing, would allow me time and head space to focus on writing.

In early 2014 I took a six-month trip. I traveled in Vietnam and Thailand, worked at a tearoom in Glasgow for three months, wwoofed in northern England and spent a month walking as a pilgrim in the South of France. I learnt a lot. I learnt that working in a tearoom is really stressful, that I didn’t enjoy gardening as a job, that I am happiest spending a lot of time alone. But most importantly, I realised that (a) I missed doing ‘good’ work, and (b) spending time with loved ones was the most important thing.

When I returned to New Zealand I knew I wanted to apply for part-time low-stress roles and concentrate on writing in my free-time. So although the results were unexpected, if I hadn’t experimented with writing while working in a coffee shop, I might still be wondering ‘what if’.

Words of caution

While a radical sabbatical can help you figure out a new perspective, less radical methods of exploration may work better for you, depending on your lifestyle, loved ones and finances. As author Roman Krznaric suggests, another technique is to keep your regular job while experimenting with new projects and passions on the side:

You don’t need to dramatically resign from your job on Monday morning and step out into the unknown. Instead you can pursue what are called branching projects or temporary assignments on the side of your existing job.

A radical sabbatical can be stressful, time-consuming and costly. It can also be a breath of fresh air that may change your life forever.

By Liz Willoughby-Martin

Like this post? You might also like Summer reading: The Escape Manifesto and Type that personality: how Myers-Briggs can help you work better

2 Responses to “Escape the Daily Grind: Take a Radical Sabbatical”

  1. Comment made by jryan12 on Apr 18th 2015 at 9:17 am:

    Hi Liz, enjoyed your post.

    I actually think that “walking out on Monday morning” is a good idea, provided you’ve done your homework beforehand, and are ready to take the plunge, so to speak.

    As a freelance journalist, I have interviewed a bunch of people who have done a radical 180 in terms of their career. One guy I know and still keep tabs on went from computer programmer to photojournalist by doing a course in photography and paying his way to Africa. Having investigated the course he wanted to do, he just packed up his desk and left his job — despite being offered a hefty raise to stay — never to look back. It wasn’t that straightforward: he worked his butt off for a couple of years doing jobs all over the place before he became ‘known’ enough to get signed on with a news organisation, but he always said the biggest thing was not talent, but persistence. He now works for the Associated Press out of Uganda, and has covered stories from Tanzania to Libya.

    I guess walking out and starting fresh is a good way of giving yourself a reason to ‘commit’ to your decision without stewing over the possible (negative) outcomes. Because, at the end of the day, the worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work out and you have to come home and get a job again; but in my experience, doors sopen when you do things that are hard, because people (especially when you travel) are amused or interested or inspired by your story or want to know about where you come from, and are willing to help you out, if you are respectful towards them.

    As for myself, having missed out on doing an OE in my early twenties — my OE, I suppose, was joining the army and going to East Timor — I packed up my stuff and headed to East Africa in 2010, hoping to ‘jump start’ my prospects as a freelance journalist by covering stories that nobody else (in NZ, anyway) was covering.

    Did I plan it? Yes. I even contacted some kiwis in the places I was going, who were happy to show me around and put me up for a few night. But did I have a backup plan, or an ‘out’? No I didn’t. For me, it was better that way. Because when I got there, and sat in my hotel room in Nairobi with my camera, not wanting to go out the door after being hit by the culture shock, I really had no choice. And within a week, having forced myself out the door on that first day, I learned enough to get ‘street wise’ and started connecting with the community in a way that I never would have if I’d gone on a package tour with a guide who did all the interaction with the local people for me.

    Of course I had the advantage of having been to the third world before, and knowing to some extent what to expect, but for anyone who wants to travel anywhere and teach English or volunteer or whatever they want to do, there’s always someone living here in New Zealand from that country (and usually some sort of association from that country / region), who’s willing to spend some time with you and give you an understanding of the local situation, the dangers and opportunities, and most probably give you an introduction to a friend or family member who can help you through the first few days while you get your bearings.

    It also helps enormously to get a realistic understanding of the situation in various regions of that country — economic, political, social, security, etc etc — from someone who keeps up to date with friends and family in that country, rather than relying too much on preconceived notions and the news media, which often puts you off an entire country, where in fact it may only be a particular region that is a potential risk. That’s not to say that you should take anything lightly, but just as there are certain places you wouldn’t want to be in South Auckland after dark, there are certain places in Mexico City or Nairobi, or Edinburgh or London or Dublin or wherever that are fine 24/7, and places that aren’t.

    And often, when you do connect with the local community — either by getting to know people in New Zealand beforehand or getting to know locals when you g0 — you find opportunities that are ‘outside the system’ so to speak, which you can take advantage of without having to fill in copious application forms or pay a fee for placement (e.g. English teaching).

    For example, I wanted to see what school was really like for kids in East Africa, beyond the movies and docos, and I spent a day in a school taking photos and talking to the teachers and kids by simply asking around, and someone who knew someone who knew someone knew a school principal who invited me to her school.

    Best of luck of anyone who takes the plunge.

    Regards, James

  2. Comment made by Liz Willoughby-Martin on Apr 19th 2015 at 12:27 pm:

    Hi James,

    Thanks for sharing your story and your advice to those considering taking a radical sabbatical. I particularly liked “doors open when you do things that are hard”.

    Your journey sounds particularly adventurous. I too tend to start afresh without over-thinking them. I guess this is why I stressed thinking through decisions in my post – because this is something I’m working on!

    Thanks again, Liz

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