Spin doctors call it a “forced sabbatical.” Your ex-boss used the term “development hiatus.” And you tell your folks that it’s a “severance retreat.” Whatever the euphemism, the time between jobs need not become a lost era of SportsCenter, classified ads, and Danielle Steel novels. In fact, an unexpected layoff could be the best thing that ever happened to your career — if you value a pink slip’s hidden opportunities.
Ignore Monster.com’s job board. Let the résumé languish. Use this downtime to build up rather than keep up, thrive rather than survive, and seek rather than hide, suggests career coach Hope Dlugozima. She encourages the recently downsized to defer cover letters and networking parties for a few weeks — or a few months — to unearth new types of opportunities. The smartest career move that you can make after a layoff, she says, is a move out of town — on a sabbatical that will restore self-esteem, independence, and drive.
“Successful sabbaticals begin when people take advantage of the upheavals in life,” says Dlugozima, author of Six Months Off: How to Plan, Negotiate, and Take the Break You Need Without Burning Bridges or Going Broke (Henry Holt, 1996). “Don’t spend the next three months watching Oprah, drinking pineapple juice out of the can, and waiting for the phone to ring. Don’t wait for fate to determine what happens next. Grab hold of your future. Make a proactive move, and you will recover the freedom and strength you lost after that layoff.”
That all sounds good on paper. But aren’t sabbaticals only for rabbis and tenured professors?
Hardly, says Dlugozima, who took an 18-month sabbatical in Prague that helped her leapfrog careers and gain perspective on life. She says that a productive sabbatical should live up to the participant’s specifications and goals, not outside expectations. A sabbatical can be cheap or expensive, exotic or domestic, extended or brief. But, according to Dlugozima, it absolutely must be personal and guilt-free.
“Think of yourself as a horse that’s stopped by the side of the road to rest,” Dlugozima says. “If you linger, another saddle will be put on your back, and you’ll rejoin the wagon train. But if you take off running now, you’ll be able to choose your own path because no one else is driving you.”
Here, Dlugozima offers five steps for blazing a brilliant trail during your forced sabbatical.
Start From Scratch
Whatever you’ve heard about sabbaticals is wrong. Sabbaticals are neither a luxury of the wealthy nor a plaything of the selfish. Above all, they need not compromise your financial security — you don’t have to lose your house while trying to find yourself.
Dlugozima recommends four strategies for financing a sabbatical: “Win it, beg it, save it, or do without it.” Her book estimates that about 50,000 scholarships, fellowships, and grants exist in nooks and crannies around the globe. The exact number is difficult to verify, but the fact remains that potential sabbatical takers have a tremendous range of options from Fulbright scholarships, to professional-development fellowships, to artistic and philanthropic grants.
Most of the abruptly downsized can’t take advantage of corporate sabbatical programs or lifelong sabbatical savings, but everyone can think creatively. Dlugozima suggests timing a sabbatical with the end of your apartment lease or subletting your place for a few months. Swap houses with a home owner in Buenos Aires. Lend your car to a friend who will pay its insurance while you’re gone. Choose a relatively cheap destination like Portugal or Costa Rica, rather than France or Switzerland. Or transform your sabbatical into a family-bonding experience by choosing a kid-friendly destination like Ferry Beach or LEX America. (For more sabbatical recommendations, see the sidebar Get Lost.)
“You can even take a sabbatical in your own backyard as long as you have a goal or accomplishment in mind,” she says. “Money is the smallest challenge for people who really want to take a sabbatical. The largest hurdle is your mind-set — the fear of diverging from the status quo, the fear of telling others, the fear of returning to normal life. Money is manageable; fear of the unknown is harder to deal with.”
Dlugozima argues that now is an ideal time to get lost. As more smart people flood the talent pool this summer, job hunting will get harder before it gets easier. Why compete in the decade’s tightest talent market if you can use the time to expand your career in creative ways? In the end, Dlugozima says, a smart applicant can leverage her sabbatical to score a better job.
“Suppose, seven months from now, I’m considering two résumés from two equally skilled people who got laid off around the same time,” she says. “One applicant has been making phone calls, going on interviews, worrying, collecting unemployment checks, and trying to find a job. The other person has been pursuing some personal goals — working for a nonprofit, taking a sabbatical in Thailand, expanding his vision of the world. In my mind, it’s a no-brainer. I’m going to hire the person with a sense of adventure and risk, because chance takers attract like-minded people. And I want captivating people working for me.”
Declare a Panic-Free Zone
You just packed your entire career into a brown cardboard box and joined the COBRA brigade. Now, don’t freak. Panic seeps into cover letters, phone conversations, and email correspondence. Employers can smell it a mile away, and they will take advantage of a candidate’s terror — or recoil from it.
Dlugozima’s advice? Don’t bother thinking about résumés and paychecks for 30 days after your layoff. Declare a panic-free zone in which you can contemplate next steps, new goals, and old hang-ups without feeling pressure to attain any tangible, revenue-producing results. Use this time to ask yourself, “If I could do anything, what would I do?”
“The question becomes, ‘How do you eat an elephant one bite at a time?’ In other words, how do you whittle down the universe of possibilities into a manageable list that you can tackle in 30 days?” Dlugozima says. “I think Bill Murray said it best in What About Bob?: It’s all about the baby steps.”
Begin by jotting down realistic goals. Research four museums in Cairo. Find four environmental groups that work with children. Price five rental properties in Spain. Comb your brain for every whim, wish, and wasted opportunity that’s ever flashed by. As you take inventory of those dreams, patterns will appear, and the perfect sabbatical will emerge, Dlugozima says.
Then seek out former colleagues and friends of friends who have taken sabbaticals, and listen intently as they gush. Connect with organizations that offer fellowships, and ask to speak with past participants. Hook up with groups that solicit volunteers, and begin to infiltrate their ranks. Dlugozima recommends sparking conversations with big thinkers, not with former coworkers who will undoubtedly just want to compare job-hunting notes. When the 30 days are up, you should be ready either to launch your sabbatical or to sketch it out and save it for a better time in life.
“Think selfishly in your panic-free zone,” Dlugozima says. “Oftentimes, an incredible job walks in the door when you least expect it. Resist the temptation to jump back into work right away. Give yourself this gift of 30 days, and really use it to think only about your time and your next steps.”
Compose a Cover Story
Before you leave, think about your return.
Devise an elevator pitch that champions the merits of your sabbatical. If you plan to spend six months backpacking through Australia, concentrate your cover story on the two weeks that you will spend working with Habitat for Humanity in Perth. If you hope to bum around the Italian Riviera all summer, bring a diary and set the goal of starting your first novel.
“Don’t worry about sticking word-for-word to your cover story,” Dlugozima says. “Just devise a story that thrills you when you say it out loud. State the accomplishment first; make the steps to get you there second.”
The best cover stories inspire envy, curiosity, and admiration while communicating some universally valued goal or ambition. They intrigue others while inspiring you. Half of that challenge lies in choosing the most provocative language.
“Nomenclature is everything in life,” Dlugozima says. “Harness the power of the word ‘sabbatical.’ Don’t call it a ‘leave of absence,’ because that sounds like a stay at the Betty Ford clinic. Don’t say that you’re going to figure out what you really want to do in life. That speaks of wealthy parents and no gumption. It implies that, until now, you haven’t tackled anything really worthwhile. ‘Sabbatical’ holds a certain power and intrigue to it. It denotes a plan of action and a deliberate path.”
Once you’ve fine-tuned your cover story, practice saying it out loud and putting it down on paper. Include your sabbatical at the top of your résumé. Dlugozima says that future employers will value and appreciate a sabbatical description that suggests personal initiative, ambition, and practical experience — regardless of the destination or specific goal.
“Plan to return from your sabbatical in a position of power,” she says. “Having a solid cover story in place connotes an aura of success. If you emit a winning attitude, people will perceive you as a winner.”
Share the Adventure
When the pink slip stops at their mailbox, most people seek sympathy and validation from family and friends, so they compose a “good-bye” email under the guise of passing along new contact information. Dlugozima encourages you to resist the temptation. She says that those email messages, which often solicit job leads and suggest financial woes, only succeed in making your loved ones feel guilty about not being able to help.
Instead, wait a month or two, and write an upbeat, newsy email containing exciting information about your planned sabbatical. Make your trip sound meaningful and appealing, but don’t rub it in that you’ll be learning to hula in Maui while your friends endure yet another PowerPoint presentation at work.
“Keep the email straightforward and businesslike,” Dlugozima says. “Above all, trust no one. Even if you’re scared to death of embarking on a six-month sabbatical, don’t confess those fears to anyone except your closest friend. Keep your outside appearance confident.”
Once you’ve embarked on your sabbatical, keep friends and colleagues engaged in your adventure through periodic correspondence that stresses your personal growth and social contributions. “You want people to live vicariously through you — and you want potential employers to know that you’re out there acquiring the skills they need and becoming a more fascinating person at the same time,” Dlugozima writes in Six Months Off. “Cultivate a larger-than-life image.”
Keep Hope Alive
The most stressful aspect of taking a sabbatical may be the return to civilization. Dlugozima says that postsabbatical depression plagues the majority of people who return from fantastic voyages to the same old, same old. Her antidote? Begin by planning your next sabbatical immediately.
But assuming that mortgage payments and career aspirations will prevent most people from launching one sabbatical after another, Dlugozima offers more practical advice for combating the real-world blues. First, schedule at least one week of transition time between your return home and your return to career obligations. Use that time to reorganize your life and to acclimate yourself to postsabbatical living. “Treat yourself tenderly,” Dlugozima advises.
Next, commemorate the end of your sabbatical with a ceremony of your own design. Host a welcome-back party at your house to share stories and photos. Set aside one evening to reread your travel diary. Treat yourself to that bottle of Merlot you picked up in France. Somehow, achieve a feeling of closure, so you can effectively advance to the next chapter.
Finally, institute personal rituals designed to keep you in touch with the people, places, and adventures that you encountered during your sabbatical. If you worked at a newspaper in Moscow, make contact with the Russian-American organization in your region. If you volunteered with an environmental group in Peru, offer to write an article about your experience for the Greenpeace Web site. The greatest benefits of your sabbatical may emerge from something you do while seeking closure.
“Courage was my greatest sabbatical take-away,” Dlugozima says. “Talk of layoffs just doesn’t bother me anymore. I became more resourceful during my sabbatical, and as a result, I lost my fear of the unknown. By thinking back to my days in Prague and the risks I took there, I evoke a feeling of fearlessness and confidence that permeates my work and life. My sabbatical will never truly end.”
Anni Layne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fast Company senior Web editor.