All the warning signs of burnout were there. It took time to process, but last year I realized my life needed shaking up. I needed a break from work.
I noticed that since starting our company almost 20 years ago, my energy was starting to wane. What used to excite me was beginning to feel like a rut. The pressures of changing business models, competition from startups with seemingly unlimited venture capital, and a daunting energy efficiency regulatory climate were starting to feel overwhelming.
Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman who also happens to be a psychoanalyst. She’s treated numerous patients suffering from burnout and saw the signs long before I did. I heard, “you need a break”, more than once before it sunk in.
When I started contemplating taking some time off, it sparked something deep inside. Once it occurred to me that I could use that time to fulfill a lifetime dream, cycling across the US from coast to coast, the idea grabbed ahold of my psyche. Suddenly I couldn’t not do it. It was like hearing a siren’s call. Only this time, the siren saved me from the rocks. Not listening might have been the fatal mistake.
So I started making plans, and as I did so, I noticed that my energy level increased. Not just because I was headed towards a vacation, but because it gave me a deadline to “
get my affairs in order” before I left work for five months.
Leaving meant having to look at everything that I do, define it, name it, and find someone else to cover it. That exercise was immensely valuable. Like many high achievers, I have a hard time turning loose of things that I do well. So forcing myself to let go was a great way to examine each of my responsibilities and ask myself – should this really be my job? Would others benefit from the experience and responsibility? Could I help the company better if I let someone else do it?
Suddenly this trip was starting to sound useful, and not just an indulgence. The shake-up would provide opportunities for others to lead, and allow me to focus on new, exciting areas that are strategically important for our company.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have a rock-star team of colleagues who “get it.” They could see the value of a sabbatical, its importance to me, and I knew they could take on additional responsibility. Months off wouldn’t do me much good if I was lying awake in bed at night worrying if my company was headed for the dumpster.
To minimize potential fretting while I was out, we defined operational boundaries. If things got out of whack, they would contact me, but within bounds they wouldn’t. With those guidelines in place, and a whole matrix of responsibilities handed off, I left the office. With my email autoresponder set to “see you in 6 months” I went off the grid. I didn’t read my work email, call into the office, or contact co-workers (at least about work) for 5 months.
And what a wonderful adventure I had. It’s hard to sum up. It was just too big, and too much of a personal opening to share in a brief article. When I recount the ways that it cleared my mind, increased my enthusiasm, restored my faith in America, it can sound like empty platitudes, too pithy. Like most real learning experiences, it’s the journey that’s the reward – the conclusions can sound empty without the background.
How My Sabbatical Benefitted Me, My Company, and the Environment
Given those qualifiers, prefaced and disclaimed, here are some of the benefits my time off created for me and my company, kW Engineering.
How I’m a Better Leader
- My faith in the people in this great country is much restored. I met an extraordinary number of generous people out there, and their generosity bears no relationship to their economic situation. They’re simply giving people. Be more like them.
- I am much more energized, clear-headed and positive.
- Optimism will serve you well. Not worrying about potential bad outcomes frees your mind for better experiences. I’ve travelled the country coast to coast with all my current worldly possessions unlocked outside a variety of convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants, etc and no one ever touched a thing. More importantly, I didn’t worry about it and enjoyed life more because of it.
- There’s tremendous value in sharing your thoughts, ponderings and feelings with others. My buddy Colman named these my “spinning meditations” – a name that has stuck. In sharing those meditations with others, I’ve been surprised to find beginnings of great conversations.
- It’s important to take time to wander, wonder, ponder, and reflect. We spend so much time running from one urgent duty to the next, we hardly have time to contemplate possible futures that are out of bounds vis-a-vis our daily lives.
- I discovered I’m a pretty good writer and photographer. I’m bringing these skills back to kW. The practice of blogging every day, and getting feedback from my friends and colleagues has made me better and more confident at both.
- I’m more connected with my family and friends. This leaves me feeling stronger, healthy, and able to act effectively when I have something of value to bring.
- Seek experiences that give you pure joy. A joyful mind is one that is open to new experiences, willing to meet and help others, in the moment, and happy. What better position to prepare yourself for what’s next? I’ve been lucky enough to experience many such moments on my trip. Near the end of my trip I experienced what I’d call pure joy; riding downhill, through the pines, smelling the trees, the fresh air, standing on my bike, no hands, arms outstretched like wings. Such wonderful play! Why don’t we do such things more?
- I learned that I have a lot of really supportive friends, family and colleagues that have my back.
- I learned that everything can be contagious, including happiness and depression. Pick your influencers carefully. Recognize toxic environments and leave. Seek out and return to people that buoy you up.
- It’s not enough to read, see, and watch. You get good at what you do, repeatedly and with effort. The daily practice of cycling, for example has not just bade me a better cyclist, it’s caused me to put myself in new, real, unexpected situations every day.
- I learned that all minutes are created equally, but we often don’t treat them that way. It’s mind opening to get up at 4:00 am and head out of town on a bike across Kansas. You can learn a lot about the difference between pain, suffering and inconvenience by riding in the rain. You can be as comfortable in a sleeping bag, on a sidewalk outside a campground restroom as anywhere if you’re tired enough.
- The people in your life are paramount. Remember this every day. You’re happiest when helping others to be happy, fulfilled and healthy. If it takes selfish motivation then fine. You’re usually happier helping others so, damn it, do it.
- The garden of Eden is more literal than allegory. We have been given a paradise to enjoy but somehow we forget to appreciate it. There is beauty all around us that will boggle the mind. Take the time to see and appreciate it. It’s not gone. It’s not lost. It’s there for you to enjoy right now.
And a lot more… See my Day 72 blog for more on what the trip gave to me personally.
How Our Company Is Stronger
- Our team is more empowered and individuals have more responsibility and ownership.
- My team did amazing things without me. We have an entirely new product ready for market that they developed, we have new clients, new projects, and new approaches.
- We’ve communicated a clear cultural message to our work community – that life, health and happiness are important to our company.
How We Helped the Planet
- We raised over $15,000 through ClimateRide, an organization that using cycling to raise awareness and money for organizations that seek action on climate change. My donations went to NRDC, an organization that hires scientists and attorneys to fight for policy change.
- I met hundreds of people coast to coast who had no idea that you could ride a bike that far, let alone enjoy the process. I think this awareness is really needed in the US. Getting there by bike can be more fun. (thus the “druther-bike” blog)
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