The Career Value Of A "Pointless" Sabbatical

It may sound like an idea for the dreamers, but taking a few months off with no plan for what comes after may be the best thing for your career. Vipin Goyal, cofounder of SideTour, tells Fast Company how he made it work.

It may seem paradoxical, but taking longer periods away from the workforce can actually help you work smarter or develop a new career direction. Sabbaticals mean that you’re not simply on vacation, but choosing not to work while gaining new experiences or refocusing your career. Recent studies attribute everything from a boost in employee retention and higher future productivity for those who take sabbaticals.

In the last five years, there’s been an increased acceptance of sabbaticals. Leaves of absence of six months or more are allowed for some employees at 29% of companies, including 6% of large companies and 11% of small companies, according to a 2012 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute. Corporations like Intel, American Express, and General Mills are routinely allowing their employees to take time away from the office through partially paid sabbaticals. Recently, blogging powerhouse Gawker reportedly offered long-term employees sabbaticals of four weeks or more based on years of service.

For entrepreneurs, the logistics are tougher and stakes are higher, says Vipin Goyal, 36, the founder of SideTour, who spent six months traveling the world before launching the company. Goyal planned the sabbatical with no set notion of what he'd do afterward or job offer waiting in the wings. Instead, he wanted to use the world experience to help him shape his new ambitions. “The goal wasn’t to have all the answers,” he says.

It worked. SideTour, which raised $1.5 million in funding and launched in New York last year, is expanding to two more cities this month, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The site offers peer-to-peer original experiences such as a graffiti tour, dining with a monk, or mixology class. Site users purchase tickets to attend.

Fast Company spoke with Goyal about how he decided to take time off, what other entrepreneurs can learn from his experience, and why taking a sabbatical to help find career direction is not just for the privileged.

Knowing When It's Time To Skip Out
Goyal had been working at online video startup Joost, backed by Skype investors. The first 18 months were great, he says, but in the fall of 2009, it became clear to him that "our company wasn't going anywhere." Goyal was close to joining another startup, and his wife, who had been working at Viacom for a number of years, had just started consulting independently. It's those moments of inflection that perhaps prove most tempting--and the most sensible--for taking a break.

"We decided to take advantage of this moment," says Goyal. "We were nervous about leaving. We had both had gone to [Harvard Business School] so there is a little bit of that mentality around what’s the next career step. Your progress usually means going from one job and one role to the next. It’s very linear."

But the timing will rarely feel right, he says--that doesn't mean you shouldn't pull the trigger.

"Whatever you want to do, don’t wait," he said. "So many people we met would tell us, ‘I wish I could travel like you guys.’ Basically you can, whatever those constraints are always appear more daunting than they actually are."

Setting Your Budget
Goyal and his wife broke their lease, sold their belongings, and bought two around-the-world plane tickets, using frequent-flier miles accumulated during previous business travel to keep costs down. They stayed with friends of friends or friends of family for about 60% of the nights they traveled. But they didn't get too hung up in detailing every little item they'd need or want.

"We kept a tight budget, but purposely didn’t account for every expense that would weigh on ourselves," he says.

Rethinking Your Concept Of "Vacation"
Goyal says he wanted space to think about the next step in his career and what he wanted to achieve in the future--something that might be hard to contemplate if they did the typical tourist thing.

The couple spent a month in West Africa, a month in East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and ended in Australia.

"We did things like worked on a chicken farm," says Goyal. "We wanted to engage in those communities--we didn’t want to have six months of a tourist experience."

Making Space For New Ideas
"As soon as we stepped on that first airplane, all of those constraints that we lived by every day evaporated a little bit," says Goyal. "So much of our mind is occupied by our daily routine. Taking that time off created an open space that could be filled in with new interactions with new people who brought new ideas and new perspectives."

Stepping outside the day-to-day made it "much easier" to launch a startup once Goyal returned, he said. Instead of getting back into job-search mode, he felt compelled to start something on his own (assuming they could make the finances work).

License To Innovate
"The norm in our culture is not to take that time off," says Goyal. "Just the fact that you take that time off actually breaks the norm and gives you some type of inner license to continue to break more norms."

And the best way to do that is to consciously not make a plan for "what's next" before your trip.

"That’s when it can really be a transformational experience," Goyal says. "If you already know what you’re going to do next, it’s more difficult for that time off to lead to an inflection point on your path."

[Image: Flickr user Nicki Varkevisser]

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7 Comments

  • Joan

    As an entrepreneur who's  company took off a lot faster than I thought it would...I found myself running on empty and there was no choice but to take some time off...or end up flat on my back.  I will say waking up to fewer and fewer emails and an empty calendar have been somewhat scary, but each day gets a little easier. I am realizing I live at two speeds...."fast" and "off" and hopefully after a few months I will find "moderate".
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Michael Lipson

    I think the greatest gift we can give to ourselves is "space" - the space to check into what's true for ourself, &/or try something new, &/or get off the merry-go-round and for sure dream/experience/play/be in the way one desires.  Stands to reason it's a fantastic "gift" an employer can give to its employees.  But... it comes with some baggage:

    "What if they discover they don't want to work here anymore?"  Well... then they aren't the ideal employee are they?  Trust you'll find someone even better, and that it's benficial to catalyze the switch over sooner than later.  

    "What if other employees want sabbatical as well?"  Set standards, and motivate your employees to achieve whatever's required to go on sabbatical.  Nothing better than positive motivators.

    "How do we handle their absence?"  This is a real concern - be realistic, be explicit, and in the end its no different than a surprise illness/accident except you can plan for it.  Its just another form of pregnancy leave, right?

    I split for 7.5 months with my family - traveled the world, homeschooled my children, contributed to others in ways that were new & inspiring, and returned with iall sorts of goodies: inspiration, gratitude of my great life, closer family bonds, and the satisfaction & accomplishment of having lived out a dream.  

    It's not about "how you do" your sabbatical, or where it comes from (given vs taken.)  It's about how it's better to live your dreams than dream your life - and if in doing so you're return aligned with your prior job (and many do) than you'll be happier, more productive and yield an even great return to your company. 

  • Ric Leutwyler

    Thanks for this, Alina.  It was great to read as I am wrapping up a year long sabbatical of sorts in which I took a very different approach.  While Goyal needed time and space to contemplate what he wanted to do next, I had something very specific in mind.  I just needed the time away from my income-generating career to get my head and heart in the right place to make it happen.  

    I look back on this time and feel that it was invaluable.  Like Goyal, I relished the time I spent with new people discussing new issues and ideas.  I have no doubt that what I do next, and how I do it, will be dramatically different because of the time I took to do something completely different.

    Whether you take time off to explore or to pursue something you already have in mind, I believe granting yourself the time, space and freedom associated with a sabbatical pays off immeasurably.

    Ric

  • Matthew Trinetti

    This is great, thanks for writing this. I'm currently 4.5 months into a 7 month sabbatical, and I can attest for everything Vipin says. The concept behind SideTour is something that popped into my head too! Glad someone is running the idea -- I think there's tremendous opportunity.

  • Ross

    "Some employees at 29% of companies" is such a lazy statistic that it's practically "pointless." 6 out of 5 dentists agree.  Otherwise, interesting article.

  • Dianne Doyle

    I just had a sabbatical handed to me in the form of a employee reduction where I worked. The nice thing was that it came with 9 months of severance pay. I am planning things that I have not had time for when I was working 50+ hours a week. I know that one of the many things will lead to my next field of employment.