Having returned from an eight month sabbatical recently, friends and colleagues often ask me “So what did you learn?” This is a tough question to answer in a cocktail party conversation and even in a longer blog post. So I usually tell folks “It changed my life, altered my career trajectory, and taught me many valuable lessons.” This blog post truly answers the question “So what did you learn”.
Before launching into the four truths I learned, I should briefly explain the structure of the sabbatical. Having given almost ten month’s notice before leaving my job as an executive director, I had the luxury of considering how the months off could be best used for personal growth. Ultimately, I planned three trips:
- One month hiking and exploring the national parks in the western United States
- One month trekking all over Peru
- Two months exploring Vietnam and Cambodia
I planned approximately one month at home with my spouse between each trip and had an ambitious strategy for the time at home. This becoming more fluent in Spanish, several short trips with my spouse, drafting two manuscripts (one of which will be published soon), and a great deal of time for reflection and contemplation.
Now that the amazing sabbatical experience has ended, I have learned at least four key truths:
Truth #1: Take Risks
I started each trip knowing only three things: (a) where I would spend the first night; (b) the city I would fly home from; and (c) the date and time of my flight home. While I had a general idea of what I might like to do at each destination, I planned the details of each trip as it unfolded. This also allowed me to add new sights and cities based on recommendations from those I met along the way.
Of course, not having a place to stay at night is one of the risks of traveling without reservations. Of the approximately 120 nights I spent on the road, however, only once did I lack a place to sleep by the time the sun set.
Approximately a week into my first sabbatical trip, I broke camp at Mesa Verde National Park one morning and decided to drive to Bryce Canyon National Park (about 9 hours away). On the drive to Bryce, I made a spur of the moment decision to stop at Natural Bridges National Park and lost all track of time while hiking among the beautiful natural stone bridges for over six hours.
Knowing that I would not reach Bryce Canyon that day, I glanced at the map and decided to camp a couple hours away at Coral Reef National Park. The drive to Coral Reef was indescribable: towering red and yellow mountains in the millennium- long process of crumbling. Steep grades, stunning views, and hair-raising turns. Of course, I stopped along the way to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
By the time I reached Coral Reef, all of the campsites were full. There were no hotels or open campgrounds anywhere else in this incredibly rural area, and I drove west desperately seeking a place to stay as the sun set and the temperatures plummeted below freezing.
It was too early in the year for seasonal camp grounds to officially open, and most were actively gated and locked. Driving past one closed Department of Agriculture campground that was neither shuttered nor attended, I decided to squat there for the night. I pitched my tent in the dark as the temperature dipped into the 20’s and quickly bundled up in my very warm sleeping bag. I fell asleep singing “This Land Is Your Land” and “Alice’s Restaurant”, only to awake the next cold morning refreshed and ready to continue with my journey.
The “safe” decision would have been to secure lodging reservations each night and religiously adhere to a schedule. But I would have missed the amazing beauty of Natural Bridges, the awesome drive to Coral Reef, and the fun story of squatting on Federal land.
Take risks. They are worth it.
Truth #2: Trust Your Gut But Don’t Make Fear-Based Decisions
About mid-way during my Peru trip, I planned to visit a remote island called Amantani, which is a three-hour boat ride into the middle of Lake Titicaca. Having read about it before leaving home, I was intrigued by this island that lacks hotels, has no cars, and has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Essentially, you show up at the island’s dock and the island’s mayor assigns you to a family who takes you in for the night (for a very modest fee). Since there are only a few visitors each day to this remote island, families take turns hosting the island’s visitors.
Deep down, I felt that the experience would be transformational but felt hesitation because of two conflicting fears. I was afraid that the island would be as commercialized as the floating islands closer to the shore, and I had read horror stories about home stays at this island (which included rats in beds, food poisoning, and huge language barriers).
After boarding the boat headed for Amantani, all of my fears and concerns just disappeared. This reminded me that sometimes I must jump in with both feet and know that everything will be okay.
At the dock, I was assigned to the home of Gladis, a vibrant woman who led me to her home a short 20-minute walk from the dock. Like most people on the island, she has a modest mud brick home with plaster interior walls and perhaps four simple rooms. The only electricity in the house was one outlet and a single light bulb in each room.
Despite the lack of modern conveniences, she had a lovely, clean, and safe home. All four of the rooms in her home opened to the outside, and I never felt the need to lock my door on this insular and safe island. During my stay at her home, she made some incredibly good authentic Peruvian dishes, and I helped by being the official potato peeler (Potatoes in Peru are as common as rice in Asia).
Throughout my short stay, I enjoyed a remote land with no cars or motorbikes, simple homes without running water, an agrarian way of life, and “high tech” redefined to mean a light bulb powered by a small solar panel on the roof. In addition to my home stay, I really enjoyed exploring the homes, grazing pastures, fields, and ruins on this island where no one considers themselves poor, all of the children have homes and attend school, and the murder rate is zero.
My gut said go, and I am glad that I did.
Truth #3: Compassion Above All Else
Traveling gave me so many opportunities to practice compassion, and I felt transformed when I acted or listened compassionately. Often the compassion focused on small things, like leaving an extra-large tip, listening to someone who was having a really bad day, or offering support to someone who was hurt. Other times, the compassion revolved around earth shattering events, like seeing hundreds of kilometers destroyed by agent orange, witnessing the historical interpretation of genocide under the Khmer Rouge, or realizing that the horrors of war still affect countries 40 years later.
Words truly cannot express the experience of visiting the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The museum, set in a former Khmer Rouge prison called S-21, documents in graphic detail the death of nearly 20,000 of the 1.7 to 3 million people who perished under Pol Pot’s regime from 1975 – 1979. Of those entering the prison, fewer than 200 survived the torture and executions that occurred here. If sent to S-21, there was a 99% chance that you would die a horrible, humiliating, and painful death.
The Khmer Rouge meticulously documented every person entering the prison. This included taking a photograph of each one, thousands of which were displayed throughout the museum. With hands tied behind their backs and a number hanging from their shirt collars, the faces of the now-dead look out those of us still alive. Each face represented a precious and irreplaceable human life. And behind each face was a horrible, miserable death. It was especially moving to see photos of children born about the same time as me who died in this wretched prison. I wept. Just wept.
I experienced this sense of compassion many times on the trip, often finding myself in tears while witnessing great beauty or great barbarity.
Truth #4: Love What You Do or Do Something Else
I did not enjoy Puno, Peru at all because it was full of tourist touts and tourist traps. Compared to many of the cities and remote villages I had already visited, Puno did not feel authentic. I stayed two nights in order to plan my trip to Amantani Island, and left immediately. Whether a journey lasts a month or extends over a lifetime, life is simply too short to do things you don’t love.
This truth was reinforced near the end of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. By my 6th week in Asia, I had grown weary of the routine of packing up, traveling a day’s journey, and unpacking at the end of the day. I wasn’t loving the act of traveling, so I settled down in Hanoi. While renting a room for the rest of my stay, built friendships with some Vietnamese people living outside the tourist district, and enjoyed a brief period of “living” in Hanoi. When I stopped loving travel, I did something else (and loved it).
Integrating These Truths Into My Life
Now that the sabbatical is over, the truly difficult journey has begun. It’s easy to live by truths when you don’t need to make a living. It is much harder to live by our truths when bills must be paid and a meaningful vocation pursued.
Nevertheless, those of us in the western world enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom. With just a modest amount of education, work, thrift, and discipline, we wield great of autonomy and control over our lives.
As I launch the next phase of my career as a consultant and business owner, I will strive to live and work in accordance to these four truths. It may require turning down lucrative engagements (or accepting some less lucrative ones), but I am committed to taking risks, trusting my inner voice, acting with compassion, and doing what I love.