A year to remember

If the daily grind is getting you down, it may be time for a year off. You’ll return to your regular life with a new sense of purpose.

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by

From the Summer 2010 issue of the magazine.

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Five years ago, Much Music VJ Jennifer Hollett stuffed a backpack with clothes, cameras and video gear, and left the security of her job and the comfort of her Toronto home for a year of travel and discovery in East Africa.

A year later, emergency room doctor Susie Tector packed up her scalpels and stethoscopes, said goodbye to her colleagues at Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital, and spent six months in Pakistan with the medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

In September of 2008, lawyer Bob Tarantino said his goodbyes, leaving the Toronto-based law firm Heenan Blaikie for a year in order to take a graduate degree at Oxford University.
And a month from now, in August, CBC video documentary journalist Peter Wall will be departing with his family for a year in Bali, Indonesia.

What’s going on? It seems the sabbatical—an extended leave of absence once the exclusive prerogative of professors and priests —has gone mainstream. “More and more people are taking sabbaticals,” acknowledges Clive Prout, who makes his home in the bucolic San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest and bills himself as The Sabbatical Coach. “And more and more people are self-financing their sabbaticals, instead of having them financed through their employers.”

So who exactly is taking sabbaticals, and why? All sorts of people, as it turns out, and for all sorts of reasons. Jennifer Hollett, for example, might on the surface appear an odd candidate for a sabbatical. After all, when one thinks of Much Music VJs, images of stressed-out professionals needing time away from the daily grind don’t exactly spring to mind. And, indeed, that wasn’t the case.

“I’d had a great run at Much Music, was turning 30, and decided I wanted to do something else for a while, to take a break and travel,” says Hollett. “I thought, ‘Why put it off?’ So I saved up some money and took a year to explore East Africa and do some volunteer work for CARE. I wanted to learn more about the defining issues of our time, extreme poverty, AIDS, women’s inequality. It changed me, absolutely. I came away with more questions than answers, but I’m a journalist, so I’m used to that.”

Lawyer Bob Tarantino, by contrast, was definitely in need of a break. After eight years at Heenan Blaikie, his enthusiasm was waning and he was finding it more and more difficult to get up in the morning and face another day at the office. Equally important, he felt his lifelong dream of attending Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most storied universities, slipping irrevocably away.
“I knew the window was ultimately going to close. I felt it would be a lot easier to go back to school in my mid-30s, as opposed to my mid-40s or 50s, when my career demands would be that much greater,” he says.

The big appeal for him, apart from “getting away from the daily work pressure” was the chance to think, learn, and have deeper conversations, rather than “worry about booking billable hours.”

Now, having been back on the job for more than a year, he says his perspective on work has undergone a profound shift. “I thought that maybe after I was back for six weeks I’d once again start viewing my job as a bit of a grind, but it hasn’t turned out that way. I re-discovered what I loved about my job. I discovered I missed my clients and my colleagues. I enjoy my work again.”

In Susie Tector’s case, taking regular sabbaticals to do humanitarian work was always part of the plan—indeed, she chose to become an emergency doctor, rather than a general practitioner for that very reason.

“If you’re running a private practice, or are a medical specialist, it’s very difficult to get away for extended periods of time,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work for Médecins Sans Frontières all the way through med school. In fact, going on missions in places like Africa and Pakistan in many ways validates the incredible stress and grind of med school, because you get to use everything, absolutely everything you learned.”

Like Hollett, Tector says going on her first humanitarian mission was a life-changing experience. “It’s incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult, by far the most difficult work I’ve done. But there’s a powerful feeling of being useful, and I came back with a new perspective on how lucky we are in Canada, how lucky I was to be born here instead of, say Chad or Congo.”

As for the CBC’s Peter Wall, he hopes a year in Bali will provide the necessary respite and distance to re-examine his life and career path. “It’s a good chance to reflect on the last 10 years, and look forward to the next 10 years. To work on my editing and writing skills away from the pressures of work, of having to constantly worry about productivity and how many times I’m on the air.”

And that, says sabbatical coach Clive Prout, is exactly what people should do during their time away. “I focus on people for whom the sabbatical is symptomatic of the need for a larger change in their lives. It’s very hard to get perspective on your life when you’re in the thick of it. You need enough time to get rid of your stress patterns and anxiety, and that’s very hard to do in a two-week vacation.”

Prout says the main pitfall people encounter when they take sabbaticals is not thinking about the future, about where they want to be when they return to the working world. “They take a year, lie on the beach, and then when the year’s running out, start getting stressed again, thinking ‘uh oh, what now?’ ”

To avoid that situation, Prout says he advises his clients to think about where they want to be in a year’s time, and spend their sabbaticals working toward specific goals. “Gain new experiences, take an internship, volunteer, learn a new language, explore a new career path. Even climbing a mountain looks better on a resumé than lying on a beach.”

HOW TO FUND YOUR YEAR OFF

Ask if your employer provides sabbatical funding
“The CBC has this great program, called the deferred salary leave plan, whereby you can take a pay cut of between 25% and 40% of your salary for three to five years, and they’ll pay it back to you in bimonthly installments or lump sums,” says video documentary journalist Peter Wall. “It’s a little painful when your first docked paycheques arrive and you’re accustomed to getting a lot more money, but you get used to it quickly and the pain goes away.”

Draw up a detailed sabbatical savings plan
“We created a budget for the year away, factoring in expenses like tuition costs, housing costs, groceries, etc., and then cut back on our discretionary spending,” says lawyer Bob Tarantino. “We became pretty dedicated savers for almost the entire 12-month period before we left.”

Says former MuchMusic VJ Jennifer Hollett: “I worked with a financial planner to figure out
how much I’d need to take a year off, and then I set up a system whereby a portion of my paycheques automatically went into a special savings account.
I created a budget and stuck with it. I’m naturally a very frugal person, so it wasn’t that hard.”

Use TFSAs and RRSPs to save
Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) are a great way to save for a sabbatical, as your money compounds faster while it’s tax-sheltered. You can contribute up to $5,000 a year.
As well, “if you’re going back to school, the lifelong learning program allows you to draw money from your RRSPs without having to pay taxes, as long as it’s being used for educational purposes,” says Sandra Foster, president of Toronto-based financial services firm Headspring Consulting.

Adds sabbatical coach Clive Prout: “More and more people are dipping into their retirement savings to fund sabbaticals, in part because they’re losing faith in the idea of early retirement. They’re thinking they may be working when they’re 70, so they might as well take a sabbatical in order to help them find a career they love.”

Plan a budget getaway
“I travelled low-end on my sabbatical, backpacking, staying in hostels and using public transportation, which in Africa bears no resemblance to what we call public transportation here,” says Jennifer Hollett with a laugh.

Adds Tarantino: “My wife and I pretty much lived like typical students while we were in Oxford. We grocery shopped and cooked for ourselves a lot more than we do at home in Toronto. It wasn’t a particular hardship. We viewed it as an adventure. It was fun.”

Make it your financial priority

“I definitely make a lot less money doing humanitarian work for Médecins Sans Frontières, but I’ve adapted my lifestyle accordingly,” says doctor Susie Tector. “I don’t drive a Porsche like some of my colleagues. I have a modest house, and I have someone stay in the house while I’m away, to pay the utilities. My goal is to not get further in debt, to be financially neutral.”

Says Hollett: “When I tell people I’m taking a year off work to travel, they say ‘that must be nice,’ as if they could never afford such a luxury. But I’m not buying new houses or cars like they are. I’d rather do without the car and take that $27,000 and put it into travel.”

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