New Zealand Law Society - A sabbatical - to be had, not worked out

A sabbatical - to be had, not worked out

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To support my professional development, I worked with a career/leadership coach 10 years ago. Here is an extract from one of our conversations:

Me: I feel tired … as if I am always ‘redlining’ it. This is in spite of being fit, sleeping well and reducing my workload. I also feel this gnawing apathy.

Coach: And?

Me: Well, I could take a sabbatical. But it isn’t practicable. It’s a Catch 22. You have a rest, come back to a mess. Running a legal practice doesn’t lend itself to taking a break.

We repeated this conversation a few times. My stance changed little, despite my coach’s subtle change in tack each time. I’m glad we persisted, as it eventually dawned that I wouldn’t convince myself this was workable. It was to be experienced, not rationalised. I had to get on and trust this would work, despite doubts.

The question remained of what to do on sabbatical. Trekking in Nepal? Doing Outward Bound? Pottering about home? Family travels in Australia?

Each would create a space to recharge, obtain a better perspective and to rethink a career in law. Whether they were the “right” things to do remained elusive. However, they piqued my interest and demanded I wear other “clothing”.

Working out what to do, as opposed to whether it would work out, helped greatly. With that came the confidence to make a decision. That came in the form of booking everything.

It was March 2004 and deciding to take a sabbatical was the first of many actions in making it happen. In deciding, I trusted that I would master the detail. Helped by my stepping into action.

There were six months to prepare. The team at work was too inexperienced to simply leave them running my legal practice. So I trained them … well. I found a senior lawyer to supervise. A week before my departure that lawyer pulled out. My ex law business partner stepped up at short notice and assumed this supervising role, as did one other senior practitioner.

Taking a sabbatical was life giving, where I experienced a profound sense of living versus working.

It was a return to, and awakening, of self.

For the first time in 20 years I experienced a sustained period of meeting my needs, rather than others’. I focused deeply and productively on myself. Experienced too was a good shift in capacity to trust, to reflect and draw on the past plus build and “front foot” the future. I realised that others benefit too from my living in a more present, authentic way; in my being out of “role”, whether that of provider, lawyer or employer.

Many looked on with concealed disapproval or open disbelief. I smiled, for only a year earlier I experienced similar doubt.

Taking a sabbatical set up what lay next. A feeling of emptiness followed the sabbatical. This was a personal thing, not a given consequence of a sabbatical. The break had “lifted the veil”. Ultimately it resulted in a substantial career shift. I moved into a different area – a much more intrinsic, rather than learned or conditioned, match with who I am.

Trust + Decide + Act. This is the “formula” that – for me – converted a sabbatical from a good notion into a beneficial reality.

It works too in addressing a tendency to “fall off” the actioning of life, career or health opportunities.

At its heart is leading with trust, including trusting that one’s capacity to fathom out, take charge or manage what follows will happen, as it does day in day out as we encounter other challenges, typically mostly for others. Assuming responsibility for oneself for a change is a welcome relief. By comparison, some might say a walk in the park.

Logic will not change an emotion, but action will — Anon

Martin Wilson is the Principal of Selfmade Coaching ( His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as Group Manager Communications and Human Resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a current member of the International Coach Federation and a past director of its Australasian arm.

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