We All Need Sabbaticals

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Publication date:

October 28, 2021

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The value of sabbaticals has been on my mind lately. They are something unique to academia but I believe that they hold potential for all of us, especially as we ponder a future of lifelong learning, unlearning, and relearning.

The fact is that we will all need space and time to think, reflect, and learn in order to keep growing and to remain relevant and employable. Sabbaticals play an important role in this.

Thinking about sabbaticals is part of my journey on thinking about thinking, and the crucial role it plays in learning. Let me set the stage with a story that will come across as extraordinary at first, but that – upon some reflection – will point in a direction that can benefit us all as we gear up for lifelong learning.

You must surely be joking, Professor Feynman

The physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman did something early on in his academic career that I have been thinking quite a bit about. It is one of those things that when you hear it, you stop in your tracks and think: is this guy nuts or what? I am pretty sure some of his colleagues at the time were convinced that he had lost it. With the benefit of hindsight, he clearly had not, and went on to win the Noble prize in physics. There is no direct line between what he did and winning that prize, but when you reflect on what he did and why he did it, you realize that we can all learn from it. 

When Feynman was a young faculty member at Cornell University, he took a short leave from his professorship in physics and went to work as a researcher in biology, a field he was neither trained in nor had ever worked in. He was just curious and thought he might learn some things he could not from his colleagues in physics. I can picture myself the face of his department head when he requested to take his sabbatical in biology, a field not even remotely linked to theoretical physics. But off he went, and he spent a few months doing experiments in biology labs.

What Feynman did is unusual even in academia, but there is wisdom in what he did. When we need to clear our heads or gain a new and better perspective on what we are doing, stepping out of our daily routine can be refreshing and rewarding. Nature teaches us that stepping out of routines is necessary for survival.

Lessons from nature

If you have watched fish in an aquarium at home or in a pond, you will have noticed that they sometimes come up to the surface or swim near the surface. They do so to be able to breathe more easily, and they will do it more often when the water is not clean. Dirty water stresses them out, and they will swim up to the surface where it is easier to extract oxygen from the water. Periodically leaving their normal habitat secures their survival. 

Whales carry a variety of parasites that might harm them. To rid themselves of the external parasites, they leave the deep ocean and swim up to the surface and breach it. They instinctively know that they have to leave their normal habitats to secure their own survival. 

As humans, we also need to leave our habitual environments and come up for air. Just as fish or whales, if we always stay in the deep and succumb to our routines, we might not be able to survive. 

Nature teaches us what we need to survive, and we should take a few pages out of its book. Just like whales, we periodically need to breach the surface of our routine to clear and cleanse our minds; just like fish, we need to periodically escape our normal environments and come to the surface to get a new lease on life. If we stay too long in the murky depths that shape our routines, we might not survive.

This is particularly true when it comes to learning. Being stuck in a routine blunts the cogs of our learning wheels. Furthermore, and without us realizing it, routines hold us captive in echo chambers into which neither new ideas nor new perspectives can easily penetrate. At some point, we no longer think or reflect, but just march on to stay with the rhythm of the routine.

Professor Feynman understood this, and as fish or whales, he wanted to get our for a while. As barnacles, physics was growing on him and he had to get out to remain sharp, mentally agile, and gain new perspectives. That is what true learning requires, and sabbaticals provide the space and time to do so.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an opportunity to take a break from ones daily routine. It is neither a holiday nor mental hibernation. In fact, it is quite the opposite as the objective is to reenergize ones ability to think and reflect, and, hence, learn.

The focus of a sabbatical is very much on mental activities that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the routine when one returns to it. The fact is that we are all way too busy, and are trapped in routines that prevent us from becoming better and smarter at what we are doing. Sabbaticals give us an opportunity to do exactly that. 

In academia, all tenured-track faculty have the right to a sabbatical after a number of years of service, and that right reoccurs periodically. At most universities, faculty can go on sabbatical for half a year at full pay or a full year at half pay. Most take the opportunity to go to another university for a fresh perspective, time to read and think, clear out a backlog of research projects, get some writing done, dive into a library to read up on a new area of interest, etc. Many objectives can be pursued.

The basic idea of a sabbatical is to step away from the routine of teaching, meetings, and administrative duties. You basically unplug and regain full control over your schedule and yourself.

In my academic career, I took four sabbaticals. One was early on when I was an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. I packed up and drove across the US to spend a year at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. I had some research work to catch up on and I would have the time and space at UCLA to do so.

A few years later, I spent a year at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. By then, I had crisscrossed the research field I had worked in since my PhD thesis, and I was looking for new and exciting questions to work on. I went to Cornell and locked myself up in their library to just read and think. 

When I stepped out of an active academic research career to become a dean, I no longer had access to sabbaticals. After all, leading an institute can only be done with a full 24/7 commitment. When I left the deanship at MSM SKOLKOVO, I took a full year off and moved to the French country side. I wanted to write, think and reflect on my experiences so I could learn from them.

Towards the end of my academic career, I took my final sabbatical: half a year at the MIT Sloan School of Management. I had some reflection to do on my career, write about it, and explore new areas of interest, particularly how smart technologies were going to shape our future, and what that might entail for human intelligence. I also wanted to dabble a bit in the start-up frenzy.

In all these cases, the ability to step back from an all-consuming routine was enormously rewarding. In fact, I have come to believe that no real learning can occur without taking time to step back, think, and reflect. 

Why are sabbaticals important?

At the end of the day, they enable and restore ones ability to learn. As another Nobel laureate, Albert Camus wrote many years ago: routine and pressure exhaust ones faculty for discovery and admiration. This is why Richard Feynman left his beloved field of theoretical physics and pitched his intellectual tent in the biology department at Cornell University for while. He felt that by peering through a microscope and studying the very small that he could observe, he might learn something about the very small he could not observe but was so comfortable with.

With permanent learning, unlearning, and relearning becoming mandatory, having access to true sabbaticals would benefit us all  on our individual journeys of lifelong learning. They are truly an investment in ones future.

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