What is a sabbatical, actually?
It’s not a time to do nothing
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Sabbatical’s a weird word at this point in history. Corporations and entrepreneurs have embraced the previously academic concept and — as they do — added new layers of meaning to suit their needs.
Sabbatical is the word that feels right for the goal I’m working toward. But I wonder if, to some people, it sounds like I’m preparing for a long vacation.
The sabbatical I imagine is far from that. So I thought it’d be fun to explore the real meaning of the word to see how it fits in my path — and I was surprised by how it deepened my commitment to this goal.
The origins of ‘sabbatical’
I wasn’t surprised to learn the word sabbatical originates from the Hebrew word Šabat (the Sabbath, a day of rest defined in the Bible). I was a little surprised by how it was originally used: The Bible’s book of Leviticus describes an Old Testament god suggesting to Moses a sabbath year, in which farmers let the land rest every seventh year.
Then we get to what we all probably knew: In the 1800s, U.S. colleges began using sabbaticals as benefits to attract faculty, according to Times Higher Education. Professors would get an extended break from teaching every seven years to freely focus on research.
The first corporate sabbatical came from McDonald’s — that beacon of workplace benefits — which instituted its program for corporate employees in 1977, according to Harvard Business Review. By 2017, 17% of companies were offering some form of sabbatical leave.
Now “sabbatical” can refer to anything from a few weeks off from a corporate job to a student’s gap year to a semester traveling, teaching or researching abroad.
We still generally imagine a sabbatical as a benefit of employment. But entrepreneurs are getting wise to the trend and its benefits, and we’re hopping on it, too. (This conversation about sabbaticals and “slowbaticals” for founders on the Productive Flourishing podcast is wonderful.)
Sabbatical isn’t complete rest
The academic sabbaticals we most associate with the word haven’t ever been about doing nothing.
They’ve been about shaping a way of working that makes sense for the kind of work academics do. Traditionally, that involved research and continued scholarship, two things that require lots of deep work and self-exploration that can be hard to achieve amid daily teaching duties.
Even the biblical origin of the idea didn’t involve a complete lack of production.
Farmers (and, the passage explicitly notes as if it’s completely fine, the people they enslave) will continue to eat what the land produces during sabbatical. They just can’t tow or till or whatever people do to make the land produce more and in the ways we want it. The land doesn’t stop producing; it gets a rest from the expectation of a certain kind of production.
This is what you truly get out of a sabbatical: lack of expectation.
Don’t you breathe a little easier just thinking about it?
What I’ll ask of my sabbatical
I expect to work hard during my business building sabbatical. I expect to produce more than I’ve ever produced before.
I’m calling the period a sabbatical because it releases my work from the expectation of supporting me.
Elizabeth Gilbert introduces this idea in her book Big Magic (read this book!). She talks about not putting pressure on her writing to make a living, letting her creativity be free from that job.
“To yell at your creativity, saying, ‘You must earn money for me!’ is sort of like yelling at a cat,” she writes, “It has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away.”
I’m planning a sabbatical to create space to build Healthy Rich — instead of making Healthy Rich my new job. The latter would mean figuring out how to make enough money from working in the business; the former is about creating a meaningful business.
I’ll save the money to pay myself during the sabbatical year, and I’ll be prepared to start freelancing again after.
I’d love to use that time to build a business I can step into full-time for the long term, but I don’t demand that of it. I’ll just enjoy what the work yields when it’s allowed to grow freely, then get back to work, in whatever form that takes.