Valuable Lessons For Anyone Who Wants to Take a Break From Work

The topic of sabbaticals has been gaining a lot of traction recently. That’s why I was excited to chat with DJ DiDonna, HBS alum and founder of the Sabbatical Project. The Sabbatical Project is an organization that brings together researchers, companies and advocates working to catalyze sabbaticals and their enabling policies for people everywhere. It has always been a dream of mine to take three months off from work every year, travel the world, and come back refreshed. However, with my responsibilities towards my staff, my board members and my clients, I never gave myself the permission I needed. According to DJ, my concerns are typical. In his conversations, DJ found that even Ivy League graduates with high-level positions found it difficult to take a break and explore activities outside of work (e.g., hiking, spending quality time with family and friends or reading). 

In my interview, DJ shares his experience with sabbaticals, why he thinks everyone should take a few months of work every few years, and his tips for anyone considering taking a Sabbatical. 

DJ’s background

DJ was born in Florida but moved around quite a bit during his childhood. He a Jesuit Highschool in Indiana that focused on service to others. It was there that his interest in international development began. He went to college at Notre Dame and later received his MBA from Harvard Business School. After attending Harvard, DJ founded EFL Global, a fintech company that developed a “FICO score for emerging markets” in 2010. 

EFL has enabled over $2B in capital to underbanked businesses and individuals across 20+ countries before being acquired in 2017. DJ is a true global citizen. He has lived in Kenya and South Africa and has travelled to over 60 countries. 

Why the interest in sabbaticals?

After six years as co-founder of his fintech company, DJ felt burned out. He knew that he was following his calling but still felt that he wasn’t bringing his best self to the plate. He also had other things that he wanted to do. That he couldn’t accomplish while he was trying to run a business. He spoke to his co-founders, and they jointly decided to create a sabbatical policy for the company. He took four months off from work, during which he travelled through New Zealand, walked a Buddhist pilgrimage on a Japanese island, and spent time connecting with his parents. DJ credits this experience with teaching him two things. The first is that our jobs play an inordinate role in our lives. The second is that the fast pace of our working lives prevents us from operating in a more mindful, grateful and caring way. After completing his Sabbatical, DJ decided that it was time to move on to another stage in his career. He decided to sell his company – an arduous process that took him through four separate acquisition rounds; and went on to form The Sabbatical Project. I am interested in psychometrics and how our personality can affect our lifestyle choices and actions. So, of course, I had to find out DJ’s Myers Briggs test results. DJ scored as an ENTJ, although he admits that he took the test a long time ago and should probably do it again. 

This score was surprising as my experience has shown that ENTJs prefer a corporate structure and a career with a steady upward trajectory. On the other hand, DJ’s main concern centres around making decisions that are in line with what he wants to bring to the world. 

Some interesting facts about sabbaticals

The working world has changed drastically over the last few years. The average career spans roughly 50 years, and most individuals will have upwards of a dozen jobs during that time. With this in mind, DJ believes that a break of three months every five years or six months every ten years is minimal. Individuals rank the experience of taking a sabbatical with other life-changing events, such as having a child or getting married. This is because a Sabbatical gives individuals the space they need to explore and find their identity. In short, the benefits one can gain from taking a Sabbatical far outweigh the potential risks. So, if Sabbaticals are so great, why aren’t more of us taking them?

Barriers to taking a sabbatical and how we can combat them

There are several concerns associated with taking Sabbaticals. But by far the most popular are concerns about finance. And about the negative impact time away can have on our careers. DJ suggests that breaking these barriers has to be a joint effort between professionals and employers. He notes we are slowly changing the minds of employers, for example, high profile companies, such as Adobe, already have sabbatical policies in place. It is important to note that many companies do not openly offer Sabbaticals. Individuals have to inform themselves about where these opportunities exist. In the end, the need for a sabbatical policy in the workplace is all about perspective. A company with a longer-term view will focus on making its workplace an area for employee wellness and growth. On the other hand, a company with a shorter-term perspective might focus on achieving specific targets. 

His recommendation around sabbaticals

DJ shared a few recommendations for anyone considering a Sabbatical. First, spend at least two and ideally three to six months away from work. Based on conversations and his experience, DJ believes that it takes at least this amount of time for us to disconnect from work. Second, ensure that you use the opportunity to do things that you have always wanted to, whether that is learning yoga, hiking, learning a new skill or spending time with friends and family. Third, let go of your plan. Mistakes will become part of your story and part of your adventure and will enable you to let go of living your life in an overly controlled and stressful way. Finally, DJ admits that the idea of taking a sabbatical is still a privilege. He asserts that we need to shift the conversation from one where employees have to ask for time off. To one where employers make it possible for their team to take the time they need to recover and come back refreshed. 

The next step for DJs career

DJ’s story is an example of someone living their Soul Career. He lives internationally and has framed his work around his core values. DJ plans to work on a book that helps to empower people to live their life and explore their journey. His ultimate goal is to encourage others to put their mental health first by taking a break. 

My key takeaways from the interview

We can learn a lot from DJ’s career thus far. First, DJ found that when he took a step back from actively trying to sell his company. The acquisition process finally went through. This shows me that we need to move away from the chasing mindset. When you stop chasing, you start attracting the thing(s) that you want the most. I tell my clients this all the time. I’ve also noticed this in my life. Second, there are real benefits associated with sabbaticals. I can confirm this from observations of my Soul Career clients. In almost every case, I had to work hard to convince them to take time away to avoid exhaustion. And an existential or even a mental health crisis. However, once they took the sabbatical, they reported feeling happier and more creative. 

I enjoyed my discussion with DJ. Feel free to check out the full interview on the Soul Career YouTube channel. Until next time

Onward!

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