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The Five-Year Anniversary of my Sabbatical

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Herman Melville wrote, "Life's a voyage that's homeward bound." I have traveled the world, and perhaps ironically, the greatest journey of my lifetime has been the one home to my true self. My 2018 sabbatical served as the pivotal gateway to get me here.

Five years ago today, I sat in the Barcelona airport awaiting my return flight home to Los Angeles after backpacking through eight countries. Reflecting on the first chapter of my transformative sabbatical, I penned the following note:

Today marks the end of an extraordinary 10-week adventure. I have seen sights that left me awestruck, enjoyed flavors & textures unlike anything before, heard music that moved me to tears, soaked in a lifetime’s worth of art, felt the kiss of the Mediterranean breeze, logged 100+ miles of glorious runs along streets dusted pink by sunrise, and received such kindness from strangers. Every sight, sound, touch, and taste are imprinted, like tiles in a magnificent life mosaic, forever adorning my soul. I am left with an even greater sense of urgency to seize every opportunity, every moment, every glimpse of a shooting star. And from all of this, I will never be the same, nor would I want to be. I am heartsick that this chapter is coming to a close yet look forward to countless adventures to come. The more I explore, the more I realize I have seen but a postage stamp of this wondrous world. If you are yearning for something, DO.IT.NOW. Fear be gone. Time waits for no one. Be the change you need to set yourself free.

October 23, 2018

I commenced my sabbatical by flying from Los Angeles to Paris solo on a one-way ticket with only a backpack's worth of belongings along with hopes, excitement, and nerves. I had recently left my role as General Counsel at a startup—burned out from 16-hour work days, among other things—with no job lined up and no real plan. Just a deep desire to fulfill a yearning I held within every fiber of my being to get out of grind culture and travel.

For someone recovering from Type-A-tendencies with no prior "gap" on my resume and a heavily work-focused identity, plus no experience “quitting” anything before, it took some inner work to get on that plane. Not to mention, I divorced and moved from D.C. to LA the prior year, so this whole thing smacked of an infamous midlife crisis. I didn't know it at the time, but I was in fact in the midst of a midlife awakening, caterpillar to butterfly.

PERMISSION was my biggest hurdle in making the decision to take a sabbatical. I wondered, who am I to take off and travel, spending my modest savings from a career largely dedicated to public service? It felt indulgent, risky, and selfish (and in not a good way). Yet, the more I delved into it, a gentle, kind voice in me responded, "If not me, whom? If not now, when?"

Permission ultimately came to me during a workshop led by Elizabeth Gilbert and Martha Beck on my birthday that April in Scottsdale, in which I wrote this letter to myself:

Dear Gena, I am giving you permission -

To take the biggest leap of your life and leave your job to launch a new chapter of travel, art, cooking, reading, learning, exploring, and healing

To get back to your enlightened self, hair blowing in the breeze

To not have all of the answers

To not follow all of the rules

To no longer get a boost from being ‘perfect’

To go easy on yourself and be compassionate

To be courageous, knowing failure may be a part of your path

To truly, deeply, and intrinsically know your worth and all that you deserve

You are a phoenix rising and will rise again

I am beyond grateful that I listened to my intuition to cast fears aside, because it catapulted me into a metamorphic adventure. In addition to six glorious months in total of travel internationally and domestically, I gained so much more: I restored the essence of who I am and developed clarity on creating a truly fulfilling life, appreciating that my sabbatical was ultimately an answer to my soul's calling. It is only by giving ourselves permission to take the time and space to reclaim the lost and neglected parts of ourselves that we may step into our full potential.

If you view your life as a pie chart, there is typically work, family, hobbies, and other commitments—you too should be on that life pie chart, for our relationship to self is the most sacred of our lifetime. I had neglected my well-being for so long in my misdirected devotion to my career and other relationships that I did not have a solid piece of myself on my own life pie chart! Back then, I did not devote much attention to things solely for my own delight, sense of self, or well-being. Doing things purely for myself seemed to be an afterthought, something dedicated to the spare change of my time.

It was during my sabbatical that I finally prioritized my own full self – mind/body/heart/soul – for every waking hour felt like a blank canvas to sketch out what I genuinely wanted to pursue. I honored my body through a newfound love of fitness and getting enough sleep such that I no longer needed to wake up using an alarm. I boosted my heart through reading poetry and serendipitous connections—like the artist innkeeper in Sardinia who cheered up with our daily talks. I activated my mind by satiating my intellectual curiosity through endless books, podcasts, and museum outings.

Most importantly, I connected to my spirit. I blasted sunshine in my soul through music that moved me, nature that left me in awe, and following my bliss. I befriended my intuition after years of ignoring it. None of these things were premeditated, they all unfolded as if a homing mechanism activated within me, calling me to follow this trail of fulfillment.

Another powerful force in my sabbatical was getting out of the familiar comforts of my routine. I tend to crave routine, like a marble moving through a smooth groove, there is a pull within me to play it safe and keep things comfortable. Yet, it is only by stepping outside of our comfort zones that we can achieve a more radiant, kodachrome experience with life. Exponential growth lies in trying new things with a beginner’s mindset. By stepping into discomfort, we activate our sense of resilience and reliance on ourselves—we are all capable of so of so much more than we realize! Anything from navigating a foreign train station to driving stick to signing up for a race can activate strengthening muscles not often used, literally and figuratively.

A curtain lifted, and I understood that we remain tethered to so many things out of fear, so much so that we often prefer to stay stuck in a familiar hell than leap into an unknown paradise with trust that our wings will unfold. When we are in the murky unknown of the chrysalis, it’s hard to imagine a butterfly awaits.

Once I came fully alive again, countless unexpected treasures emerged—my sense of deeper purpose in life, comfort in being a nomad, need for few material things, reverence for solitude, and trust in the unfolding of this non-linear journey of life, along with deprogramming from the productivity myth, honoring my needs, setting healthy boundaries, shedding my identity as a lawyer, releasing the coping mechanisms meant to keep me safe earlier in life that held me back from my higher self (perfectionism, people-pleasing, workaholism), and building the foundation of what would become a new career as a Life and Executive Coach.

I felt like long-closed shutters flew open, as I regained my sense of self and felt more alive than I had in years. Alexander Den Heijer said, "You often feel tired, not because you've done too much, but because you've done too little of what sparks a light in you." The most potent cure for burnout and way to restore our essence is through filling our lives with things that bring us energy and remind us of our unique spark and capacity for joy. Many of these things trace back to childhood when we played purely for the sake of having fun, such as games or sports, creative endeavors, and authentic connections. With our lives consumed with work, family, and other obligations, it's hard to carve out quality time for these restorative things.

This is where sabbaticals come in—by taking all that time we usually spend working and filling this time instead with meaningful pursuits non-attached to notions of productivity, we restore our essence, grow, and step into a more empowered and authentic version of our selves.

Through the sabbatical, I began to carry a sense of home within me: just like walking through your front door and feeling an immediate sense of calm, there is a comfortable, effortless, inner reservoir of peace within each of us. This sense of home within holds an unwavering spark of who we are, our unique genius, our gifts. It is always there, like a pilot light, though it may become dim at times. Spiritual leaders refer to this as our authentic self, true self, higher self, essential self, or soul.

I became aware of a world of people who take travel sabbaticals somewhat cyclically with no guilt, shame, or fear. My lens shifted and I came to see sabbaticals as normalized. I am a believer that a sabbatical is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, if we are so fortunate to have the means and support to do so. Currently, sabbaticals are a privilege, as few organizations fund them, though the tide may be turning through efforts by the Sabbatical Project, for whom I serve as a coaching partner, and others.

Today, when I share bits of my sabbatical with others, they often immediately remark, “You totally had an Eat, Pray, Love experience!” and I joke back that it was indeed very Eat, Pray, Love, except at the end, instead of a romantic love, I discovered self-love and fell in love with my life.


The Sabbatical Project - resources, community, best practices, sabbatical stories, coaching, workplace policies, and more!

David Whyte - poetry that delves into the inner journey

Oprah Super Soul & On Being with Krista Tippett podcasts - inspiring conversations with leading spiritual and well-being experts

The Artist's Way - gateway to reclaim our inner artists

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert - other resource on embracing creativity

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