Boston, recovering

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The Christian Science Center, taken on the morning of Marathon Monday, 15 April 2013.

The Christian Science Center, taken on the morning of Marathon Monday, 15 April 2013.

I took this photo on my way to Fenway Park on a beautiful spring morning, just hours before bombs exploded at the Marathon finish line.  Earlier today, on Boylston Street, I saw a city coming back to life.  Nothing is forgotten – the memorial from the barricade has been moved to Copley Square, and for a public space it is surprisingly quiet and reverent.

Viewing the memorial and being on Boylston St., I kept thinking of a lovely prayer that my college chaplain used to use, and that several clergy friends have invoked in the past weeks.  It is attributed to Henri-Frederic Amiel.

“Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind.”

It would be a shame if we were only moved to act in this way in the aftermath of tragedy.

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You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ve been very conscious, as I continue my planning, of not overloading my schedule, and not trying to take on too much.  Given my personality, there’s never been a chance that I’d lay on a beach for 3 months.  It’s much more likely that I’ll overcommit, and try to do a thousand things, and then curse myself at the end of August for not accomplishing everything on my list. It happens, and we’ve got the New York Times article to prove it.

To guard against this, I’ve tried to separate my goals and activities into two buckets, which I call the Checklist and the Springboard.

The Checklist is pretty self-explanatory. It’s stuff I want to do that can be planned, executed, and completed.  There are friends I want to be sure to see, and places I want to hang out and explore for a few days.  I want to kayak on Spot Pond and swim regularly at Walden Pond and do some fly-fishing.  I want to bike around Cape Anne and go to Cape Cod and find the best ice cream in New England.  I want to finally read Infinite Jest and go to the movies in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.  Write ‘em down, check ‘em off.

The Springboard is a bit more complicated. There are fewer items on the list, for starters.  The challenge for each is to define what kind of involvement would satisfy me.  Would it be enough to expose myself to something new?  Or aim for a thumbs up/thumbs down decision as to whether it’s something I’d like to pursue more?  Should I try to set some level of mastery or progress as a goal?

The reality is that the items on the Springboard list are life-long pursuits, and I’m hoping my sabbatical time will allow me to deepen my skills and my appreciation of these interests.  Research shows that attitude, enthusiasm and intent are key to keeping the mind nimble and continuing to develop the brain at any age.  It’s important to have goals, but exposure, practice, and enjoyment matter, too.

My Springboard activities are going to use my brain in new ways, and I don’t think the learning will be easy.  Instead of getting hung up on a specific outcome, I would rather focus on the wonder of my brain’s ability to change and absorb new knowledge.  I want to pay attention to when and how things “click” (assuming they will, at some point!), and how I feel throughout the process.  I want to be sure to remind myself that learning is the goal.

Making Plans, or, Not Everyone Wants To Go To Thailand

When I started looking for information about how to structure my sabbatical time, I found some good general resources, but I couldn’t find quite what I wanted. Many websites offered suggestions for corporate folks who were looking to do volunteer work abroad.  I sort of already do that, given that I work for an international health organization.  Other sites focused on long leaves and world travel, putting your life in a backpack and hitting the road.  I knew I’d have 3-6 months, at most, and I wasn’t interested in traveling extensively without my husband, who only has a few weeks of vacation time.

I went to a fun, well-organized gathering of people planning “career breaks”. There were a lot of inspiring stories and information shared about budgeting, solo traveling, culture shock and more.  But nearly everyone I met there was planning at to take at least a year off in between jobs.  Most were doing round-the-world travel with long-term volunteer stints mixed in, teaching English or working in an orphanage.  While the experiences shared were varied, there was one thing that was consistent: Bangkok.  The most frequent piece of advice I received was, “Whatever you do, start your trip in Bangkok!  Thailand is incredible and so cheap!”

It was almost impossible to explain that I had no desire to go to Bangkok.

What I really wanted to get from the event was for someone to tell me HOW to figure out what I wanted to do.  What would make me feel challenged and engaged, but also rested and restored?  What was my Bangkok?

I think one way to answer that question is to think back on all the times you’ve said, “One day, when I have time, I’d like to…”.  How do you finish that sentence?  If I stopped you on the street and asked you that question, what would you say?

Better yet, if I asked your spouse, your closest co-worker, your buddy from college, what would they say?  What’s the thing you’ve been going on and on about for YEARS, testing the limits of the patience of those nice folks in your life?  Out with it.  You’re boring the hell out of them and they’re just too polite to say, “For the love of God, will you just go DO IT already?”

There is it. That’s your Bangkok.

Your own worst enemy

Here’s how I started my campaign for an organizational sabbatical policy several years ago, somewhere around 2009:

“Hello there boss, with whom I’ve worked for over 10 years.  You know, this international non-profit work we do is pretty stressful.  We’ve dealt with lots of crises, disasters, challenges, and just the day-to-day stressors of our jobs.  It would be great to take a break, and I don’t want to have to have a baby to get time off, since I’m pretty sure that maternity leave is NOT relaxing.  At all.  So, yeah, let’s think about a sabbatical policy.”

It won’t surprise you to hear that this was not terribly effective.  The only thing I accomplished was to get the word “sabbatical” tossed around the office a bit, which was something.  A work/life balance initiative was undertaken in 2010, but due to the average age (young) and the average tenure (short) of my colleagues, a sabbatical wasn’t at the top of their priority list.  In fact, it wasn’t until mid-2011 when our Executive Director decided to institute a sabbatical option.  She announced the existence of the policy and the eligibility criteria, and then said she’d be the first to take advantage of the benefit.

Her 7-week leave started the following Monday.

Here’s how I might have organized my campaign, if I was the slightest bit strategic:

“Hello there boss, with whom I’ve worked for over 10 years.  You know, this international non-profit work we do is pretty stressful.  We’ve dealt with lots of crises, disasters, challenges, and just the day-to-day stressors of our jobs.   There’s research that shows that offering a sabbatical can increase staff retention and job satisfaction. And they’re not just for academics and priests any more.  Many companies offer some sabbatical options; there are many ways we could structure it to make it work in our organizational culture.  Would you be open to me making a proposal for you and the executive leadership team to review?”

The lesson here is pretty clear. You need a plan. (As my husband would remind us here: “With no plan, there’s no attack.  With no attack, no victory.”)  If your employer has a sabbatical policy already, that’s great. If not, don’t despair.  As a committed and talented employee, you’re in a position to advocate for this benefit. Check out some of the links on the Resources page, and think about what would work best for your company’s culture.  Then sketch out a few options that you can share with Human Resources. Get the ball rolling.  Trust me, you’re not the only one thinking about this.

Boston, you’re my home

Nothing to say today other than to share my sadness and anger about the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon.  The Marathon is an international event celebrating the athletic achievements of elite athletes and “ordinary” folks alike.  It’s a joyful event central to the life of this city, my adopted hometown.  That this day of celebration would be marred with violence and destruction seems unthinkable.

For now, all I can do is send thoughts and love to those affected, and send thanks to those responders who run towards danger when others run away.

So I’m just a little late to the party

Starting a blog? Really? In 2013? How original. As usual, I’m a bit of a late bloomer, particularly when it comes to technology.  So I’ll offer a little explanation about why this, and why now, and then we’ll get down to business.

In about six weeks, I will start a 3-month sabbatical from my job with a global health organization in the Boston area.  I’ve worked there for almost 15 years – the majority of my professional life.  I’ve grown with the organization.  I started in an administrative role, part of a staff of about 15 people.  I’m now a Director, and the organization has increased in staff, budget, and influence.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, and now this much-needed break is on the near horizon. I want to be sure I use the gift of this sabbatical as wisely and effectively as possible. It was suggested I blog as a way to stay in touch with friends and coworkers during part of my break when I’ll be traveling. I’ve decided that it can be more than that – that I can use a blog as a way to share what I’ve learned (and what I’ve overlooked) in planning my sabbatical. That I can use it as a space to share resources, to explore options, and to voice whatever discoveries I make as I prepare for and embark on this adventure.

As I start this, it’s my intention that this will be finite, and that the blog will wrap up around the time I return to work at the end of August.  I hope that beginning to blog now will get me into the habit, so that I stick with it while I’m actually on sabbatical.  We’ll see how that works out…

Thanks in advance to anyone who’s out there following along, and thanks especially to my ridiculously supportive husband.

And we’re off…