Our family took a sabbatical in Spain two years ago. I recently wrote about how to take a sabbatical, but I didn’t provide much background on the challenges we faced in taking ours. Or whether a sabbatical could change your life.
We are not taking a sabbatical
A sabbatical was not part of our considerations when we decided it was time to leave Zambia. Our plan was to return to the UK, take a couple of months off, and for me to get back on the hamster wheel find another job.
We’ve been hard wired by society not to think too far outside of the box.
Our post-Zambia plans changed whilst attending a finance conference in Greece with a bunch of financial independence enthusiasts. I had to bribe Mrs C to join me by offering uninterrupted sunbathing on a beach, a break from parenting our 4 kids, and promising that she didn’t have to talk to the finance geeks other attendees.
This week away gave us the head space to decide as a couple that it was the right time for our family to leave Zambia. This was something that we had been mulling over for some time, but we made the final decision in Greece. Getting time away from everyday life as a couple is key for making big life decisions.
Leaving Zambia was a tough decision, as our kids had thrived there. But also, because leaving Zambia meant returning to Scotland. We LOVE Scotland, but the thought of returning there left us a little flat.
However, we had a conversation with Kirsty and Bryce from Millennial Revolution at the conference. We talked about where we were financially and our decision to leave Zambia.
I remember a couple of things from that conversation.
Firstly, Mrs C telling these successful bloggers that my writing was only funny because she edited it. If only she had picked THAT moment to be sunbathing on the beach. But secondly, Kristy and Bryce challenged our assumptions.
Why were we only taking 3 months off after leaving Zambia? What was stopping us thinking BIGGER? Why did we think Scotland was our only option? What about Spain, or Portugal or Thailand?
Sometimes you need an outside perspective to shine the light on your limiting beliefs. To give you permission to dream more vividly.
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.
Henry David Thoreau
The ‘why’ for our sabbatical
We loved our 5 years in Zambia.
But living in a developing country can be draining. There’s a little extra residual stress every day. From rationed electricity and water shortages. The internet so slow even Mother Teresa would have turned the air blue. Those small stresses compound and build over time.
Our last few months in Zambia were the most stressful of our married lives. We had an intercontinental move to arrange, an intense final few months at work for me, starting to home school our eldest, and supporting a friend through some intensely traumatic challenges.
It’s not surprising that we were not the best parents. We lacked patience, were too busy for our kids, and when we were at home, we were not engaged.
Our ‘why’ for our sabbatical was to recharge our batteries after a period of running on empty. We wanted to spend more time with our kids, and to be present for them. To be better parents.
We also wanted more time to reconnect as a couple and to have time for the bigger conversations about our family’s future.
But I did not think that a sabbatical could change my life.
How can we afford it?!?
The most common question our American friends ask is how we financed our sabbatical. Our British friends are much too polite to ask, but I’m sure it’s also their first question.
We funded our trip from a combination of savings and some of the proceeds from selling our house. Moving to a lower cost of living location like Spain means that those savings stretch further.
If you think that saving for a sabbatical is impossible, this may be a great time to start looking at your finances. Saving about 10% of your income would allow you to take a 6 month sabbatical every 5 years. Most people can save that much by cutting out spending which doesn’t add value to their lives.
Savings are not the only way. We have friends who funded a travelling sabbatical for their family with an inheritance from a father. What a great legacy and a way to remember their dad.
I can’t pull the trigger
Most people think that financing a sabbatical is the most difficult aspect of taking one.
It. Is. Not.
The most difficult thing was accepting that we would have no income for a year.
Part of my brain is wired for fear. And when faced with having no income for a year, my anxiety kicked in.
Which is why, 3 hours after arriving back in Scotland following a 24 hour trip from Zambia, I applied for another job. I justified it as a rare opportunity to work for a great NGO in South America, but fear played a part.
That application turned into several phone interviews and a visit to Peru.
The eventual rejection phone call felt like a release. But there were other factors that had already started to ease my anxiety.
By this stage, it was 3 months since we left Zambia and I could see that we were more engaged as a family. The burdens had started to lift from our shoulders and we were better parents.
There’s nothing quite like seeing the benefits of a sabbatical first hand. If you are struggling with pulling the trigger on a sabbatical, taking a shorter 1 or 2 month break would be my advice. Baby steps.
Moving our sabbatical funds into a separate savings account was also a big psychological help. That allowed me to mentally write off the ring fenced funds. Not dissimilar to how you feel when you use your holiday savings to pay for a holiday.
I know I’m not alone in this fear. I was speaking with a friend yesterday who is a freelancer. He works for 6 – 9 months on a project before moving onto the next one.
His current project is coming to an end and I asked if he’d consider taking a break before his next project. I know he has the savings.
But he didn’t even think about his answer.
He couldn’t live with the uncertainty of no income. There is no danger of a sabbatical changing his life.
Where in Spain
Another challenge was where we would live in Spain.
I know what you’re thinking. When in doubt, prepare a spreadsheet. And that’s exactly what I did. Whilst I worked on the spreadsheet, Mrs C rolled her eyes. Many times.
The spreadsheet included all sorts of criteria, like the cost of living, distance from the beach, and closest international airport. Once complete, the spreadsheet said we should live in the Murcia region. Problem solved.
Not quite. Mrs C and I flew to Spain for a couple of days to get a break from our kids scout the Murcia area. It turns out the spreadsheet was wrong. Murcia was not the right place for our sabbatical.
After a few weeks with grandparents, we returned to Spain for a second scouting trip. This time as a family and this time to Andalusia.
We immediately felt like we were in the right region. After experimenting with living in a mountain village (beautiful but remote), we settled in Granada, which has been a great fit for our family.
Our decision making approach
At the risk of another eye roll from Mrs C, I think we had a solid approach to pinning down a location:
Validate our assumptions on the ground
Be flexible and willing to change
I asked a friend two years ago for advice since his family had taken a sabbatical in France. From day one his family hated it, but they stuck it out for a year.
Unsurprisingly, he advised against taking a sabbatical.
If its not working, figure out what’s wrong, and iterate until you fix the problem.
Many other things
There were many other lessons and benefits from our 18 month sabbatical.
Some of these were minor things, like getting used to my only sibling referring to me as his ‘unemployed’ brother. My birthday present from him last year was a book on how to find a new job. Brotherly love!
But I’ve asked Mrs C to share her perspectives of our sabbatical, and I need to leave a few things for her to talk about.
I’d like to finish by talking about how the sabbatical changed my life.
Can a sabbatical change your life?
I’m not sure if I expected a sabbatical to change our outlook on what the next few years would hold for us. But there is no question that some of our thinking has been reinforced, and some of our thinking has been transformed.
It is not our intention to pursue financial independence as fast as possible. Our kids are young and we want to prioritize time with them now. Our sabbatical has reinforced this thinking.
What has been transformative for me is my work priorities.
I’ve realized that I value flexibility of time over security of income.
Flexibility to be able to pick up the kids from school every day and have lunch with them. Flexibility to go for brunch with Mrs C (when she’s not sunbathing…).
That kind of flexibility is difficult to find in a traditional job, or working full time. Instead, I’ve been freelancing over the last 6 months.
There are many opportunities to earn enough income whilst working on engaging projects without having to give up the flexibility that is now my priority.
Perhaps a theme from our sabbatical is that when you take a risk, the next risk causes less anxiety.
If we had not had our horizons opened to taking a proper sabbatical, or if I’d chickened out of pulling the trigger, our lives both now and going forward would look very different.
A sabbatical could change your life.
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.