As I conclude my three-month sabbatical from my work at Automattic, I'm taking a few moments to reflect on what I did in that time, what the sabbatical meant and what I've learned about myself along the way.
What did I do during my sabbatical?
Thanks for asking. It was a lovely mix of world travel, puttering around the house, exercising, tackling fun projects or day trips with my daughter, visiting with friends, reading books, tinkering with my personal web presence and software projects, grieving my mom's death and working on her estate, volunteering for local organizations and political causes I care about, cleaning out my home office, watching movies, listening to podcasts and napping. (I did less writing and structured exercising than I'd hoped to, but I felt creative and in motion in other ways that mostly made up for it.)
And I learned, observed and realized some things during that time:
Sabbatical is an amazing gift.
Perhaps stating the obvious, but being paid to not work for three months is an amazing and generous gift from Automattic to its employees.
Not since I started working during my college years have I had such an opportunity to break away from the rhythms and patterns of "having a job" to spend time purely focused on self-care, hobbies, personal projects and family, without any concern for income or healthcare benefits. Even working from the starting point that Automattic as a workplace does very well with encouraging work-life balance and my own values around doing paid work that feeds me personally, it was so nice to have a break.
And, as the many people more familiar with the concept of sabbatical in academia were surprised to learn, it came with no expectations around producing anything, doing professional development, or reporting back to the company; Automattic's sabbatical is purely a way to thank people who have been at the company for five years and to encourage personal recharging and resetting.
Just wow. Thank you, Automattic. (We're hiring.)
Sabbatical prompted healthier information consumption habits.
Over the course of five years working at Automattic, and the many years of working in tech before that, I'd let some unhealthy or just unnecessary practices creep in around the information I was consuming on my computer and especially on my mobile devices. The process of shutting down my access to Automattic-related resources and thinking through what tools, software and information I really wanted to have in front of me during a sabbatical was a good chance to reset those practices. From notifications that unnecessarily interrupted my focus to online accounts that combined the personal and professional to making messages I would rarely if ever need to act on while "mobile" too easily available on my phone, I was glad to err on the side of detangling, turning them all off and intentionally enabling the ones I cared most about.
I'm not going to claim that I freed myself of all compulsions to be connected, and Twitter usage in particular was an area where I didn't do as well as I'd hoped in taking a break. But I did find myself using my phone less, reading long-form writing more (often in the form of books) using all of my devices more intentionally, and being grateful for going weeks at a time without doing much typing, message sending or feed reading at all.
I carry a lot of stress around, unrelated to work.
In this culture it's easy to join the narrative that life is stressful and that most of that stress probably comes from our jobs. I've never thought of my work at Automattic as particularly stressful; yes, there are hard days and stressful situations, but on the whole it's been an environment I've found to be full of collaboration, support, encouragement and reward, without a lot of the traditional stressors of a workplace. Still, I guess I had bought into that cultural narrative enough to think that when I went on sabbatical, some certain amount of stress would just lift and go away for that time.
When it didn't, I had to accept that most of the stress I carry around is probably not work-related. It's the other stuff: the bad things happening in the world, the hopes and anxieties that go with parenting, insecurity and self-doubt, the complexity of marriage, relationships and community, wrestling with my own mortality.
I already do various things to address most of these sources of stress, and they're rarely debilitating. But I still feel the stress in my mind and body, and continuing to feel it clearly while being away from my job for three months was important and helpful. I have more work to do.
I like the simpler living that comes with travel.
In my home life I have clothes, gadgets, gear, tools and furniture for every season, occasion and scenario that I have or might experience as a human. I like being prepared in that way, but in reflecting on the couple of trips I took during my sabbatical (Croatia, Switzerland, a beach trip with friends, seeing family), I was reminded of how much I like putting everything I might really need into a suitcase or backpack and living out of it for days or weeks at a time. It clarifies what's really important to me in the world, and makes me appreciate how unnecessary all of the other extra things are in the end.
(Of course, it's important to recognize the privilege inherent in this kind of voluntary simplicity backed up by the ability to buy new things on short notice if I lose or forget something important, compared to involuntary simplicity or poverty.)
These realizations were underscored by the time I spent during the sabbatical going through my mom's possessions and estate, trying to discern what things are really important to keep in her memory and what things I would just be holding on to out of grief or obligation.
May I continue to find ways of simplifying my life all the time, not just when I travel.
I'm drawn to technical problem-solving beyond just my profession.
As much as I did take a healthy break from working professionally in the world of WordPress, online publishing, website development and software tools, I still found these things woven throughout my sabbatical time. Whether it was messing around with my personal websites and web server, helping some organizations and candidates think about their web presence, continuing to research and explore the intersections of technology and journalism, or hacking my life and household through automation, I enjoyed using the tools and skills that I also get to employ for Automattic during my work.
This was a happy discovery. There was part of me that had previously wondered if, given the opportunity, I would find myself quickly drifting away from being a technologist, wandering off to live as a hermit in the woods, and resenting any time I had to use a computer to get things done. But for now I think I can put aside any romantic ideals of being someone just waiting to live a much simpler life or even "off the grid," and embrace that I thrive when I get to use these technology tools and skills, and that my ways of trying to make the world a better place actually rely on them. Among many other things, I'm an engineer who wants to build software, and that's okay!
I'm ready to learn and try some new things.
In that thread of making the world a better place with my professional skills and knowledge, I also discerned pretty early on in my sabbatical that I'm ready to pursue, in a structured way, some new kinds of knowledge and skills. It's nothing that takes me away from my current work at Automattic or even my current interests; in fact, I think it will be able focusing and developing those things even more, mostly around the aforementioned intersections of technology, journalism and publishing.
Happily, my work at Automattic already feeds that interest daily as I engage with some of the most prominent and innovative publishers on the web, and as I get to work on software that powers over a third of the web itself. But in addition to that and as a complement to it, I'm also starting some new learning adventures in the weeks and months ahead; more on that in a future blog post.
When I look back on this time, those are the main themes and observations that stand out.
Of course the best parts are buried in smaller moments from those months: watching my daughter smile as she gets the hang of riding her first real bike, harvesting tomatoes from our garden, feeling the wind in my face as I powered up a beautiful Croatian waterfall trail, lingering during a coffee conversation with a friend, standing with my wife at the top of a mountain in Switzerland, swimming on a hot summer day, eating a delicious meal I'd had plenty of time to prepare and cook. Good stuff!
Sabbatical went quickly, wasn't always easy, but it was full, rich and wonderful.
I am grateful.
Now, back to work!