• aimeelevensconsult

Exploring the Sabbatical


After over 22 years in the HR & Recruiting field, I knew things needed to change when it came to my professional vision for the future. I'd worked in so many industries since I was 24 years old, from publishing to nonprofit to government to manufacturing to veterinary to tech, then built a wildly successful recruitment consulting business for 8+ years that allowed me to pay off my student loans and credit cards. I met so many amazing people. Yet as I told my husband shortly before the pandemic exploded into our collective lives, I knew that the way I was feeling about my work was affecting my mental health.


Through the pattern of behaviors I'd witnessed by one of my final clients that represented all that was wrong with the tech world, I was not just exhausted, but emotionally done. Done with witnessing the normalcy of sexism, racism and ageism in the field. Done with the executives whose main goal seemed to be to do anything but comply with contract language they'd signed off on. Done with hiring decisions that were not based on a holistic view of the person and what they brought to the table. Done with the clients who told hiring teams behind my back that diversity was not important, who paid women less than men in the same role, whose executives made obscenely higher salaries than the ones who were ultimately responsible for their profits, who said that promoting work-life balance equaled "not working hard, discriminated against highly qualified individuals simply because they didn't have a degree, made inappropriate comments about my marriage, who begged for diverse candidate pools then ignored the multitude of candidates delivered on a silver platter that fit the bill - and the job requirements, mocked an overweight candidate behind his back, who (without telling me), made lowball offers candidates in job offers and put me in the most awkward position, who outright said that they would never hire a woman for a role because men were better suited for this particular type of work, who fully embraced the details of my standard legal contract then tried everything they could to get out of paying me when I delivered a completed project...and a year later came back begging for my assistance - on their terms.


It was just too much. While I know there were some I made a difference with, and candidates who appreciated my candor, knowledge, and efficiency, I knew that I was not living my best life...which is about working for causes that mean the most to me.

  • A healthy planet.

  • Women's empowerment.

  • Sustainable food systems.

  • Education in all its forms.

  • Equity and inclusion.

  • Creative explorations.

  • Living simply yet extraordinarily.

Not that my career hasn't been full of truly wonderful and amazing memories, both before and after 2012 (the year I started my own business)! Leaving the corporate world helped my heart and soul in so many ways, taught me so many valuable lessons, and reminded me that I could channel all those years I'd worked my arse off into something really special. As a solopreneur, I worked with over 30 clients and a number of them made the years so very very worthwhile. From hiring a majority-female engineering team (including VP) at my very first client, to interviewing an exceptionally motivated candidate as she literally drove from the tip of South America back to the US, to being treated like a member of the family by several of my clients (random field trip to tour a sock factory, anyone?), to the widest variety of conversations I ever could have imagined having with candidates, from astrology to sustainability to social media influencers to music to financial and much more. I've made wonderful connections and received phenomenal feedback, empowering hiring teams to take their processes to the next level, think about recruiting in a more commonsense, candidate-centric way, and encourage creativity, diversity and pay equity in their business operations and hiring strategies.


As a career coach, something I started off doing informally back in 2008 and ultimately turned into the smaller arm of my self-employment, I have found much more value and inspiration. The people who I've partnered with have taught me so much about who they are, what they value, and how they are (or aren't) willing to confront their challenges. It's been an amazing journey, and one that I will continue to do, and treasure. But this has always been a part time vision for my career, and will stay that way. I'm not some generic resume writer, and have a pretty strong disdain for those referring to themselves as resume experts who've never spent a day behind the recruiting desk to truly know how hiring managers and recruiting teams as a whole work. Too many times coaching clients come to me after receiving bad and/or conflicting advice from those who they paid very, very little for or who - worse - they paid a ton for yet who never took the time to get to know them and treated them as just another transaction. That's not how I work.


So how does this lead to the topic of Sabbatical? Well, as we know the universe has a funny way of showing us what we need at times we need it (even when we don't realize we need it at the time). I remember reconnecting with a retail coworker from 20ish years prior who had also gone the HR and coaching route, who during what was to be my last corporate HR/Recruiting job asked if she could practice coaching with me as part of her certification. Happy to help and not sure how I'd use her assistance, I jumped in and...sure enough, she was pure magic for the kind of coaching I needed, helping distill the frustrations I had in that job into the realization that there was something else out there for me. Within months I'd given my notice, and within a week of my last day, I met my first recruiting client. And now, as I approach NINE years since taking that huge step, I am at another precipice.


The precipice now is much different, because it's like leaving home. While starting my own recruiting consultancy was a new offramp of my HR career, it was still connected to the same freeway. A freeway that I'd inadvertently entered after leaving my first long-term employer, Nordstrom, after working there from 16 to 23. I'd literally taken a contract job with a newspaper and fell into an HR Assistant role because I got on swimmingly with the boss, and never really looked elsewhere. I had side hustles as a portrait and band photographer and chocolatier over the years, but nothing that ever financially beckoned me enough to leave the 9-to-5. So now, after over 22 years in the field, knowing that it no longer represents who I am at 47? It's hella scary...and a bit exhilarating, if I am quite honest.

My life is so (obviously) different than when I started off in HR at 24, to when I started my business at 38, to now in my (gasp!) late 40's. From city gal in Seattle to urban homesteader in Portland to coastal farmsteader in Astoria, my life has continued to evolve in amazing ways. While not everything turned out how I had hoped (namely, the loss of the dream of building a family either biologically or via adoption with my husband, which drained both of our 401k and savings accounts while devastating us so emotionally through multiple losses, frauds, and other traumas of the systems we worked in to try to make our dream a reality), when coronavirus appeared, we were blessed to have it happen with things fairly stable financially. Every windfall in my business paid off debts, from student loans to credit cards to chunks out of the mortgage, and our simple, sustainable lifestyle and priorities (like never having a car payment) made the transition to my husband as primary breadwinner a lot less difficult than it was for most. My goal, as I shared with those close to me, was "to make enough money where I could eventually take a pay cut." And with that, my husband and I agreed years ago that we needed to arrive in a situation where he could support the both of us, as you never know what might happen.


So when the pandemic hit and I knew the chances of my business reviving to its pre-pandemic levels were miniscule at best? I took a deep breath. Initially we were in what was to be the last attempt at parenthood, when an attempted foster care adoption fell through after I'd planned on shrinking my workload to accommodate that (ironically, with the plan to homeschool), and when 2021 arrived, I started looking at new ways to do my business.


Yet by March, I realized that nothing was going to truly get me to fall back in love with the career I'd built over the decades, and simultaneously felt a monstrous sense of guilt for "not being productive," as I repeatedly apologized to my husband. He being the amazing partner he is, simply said to take my time and figure out what I wanted to do. I'd obtained my certificate in health studies (another pandemic irony) from PCC but didn't know how to apply it, and in the meantime continued to work my arse off on this little farmstead we'd been remodeling since day one of arriving on the coast.


Then somewhere on LinkedIn I noticed someone in my network was on Sabbatical, and it hit me - if we could afford to do this, why shouldn't I? Hell, I've worked since I was 15 years old (first mall job was slinging Orange Juliuses before advancing to Cool Record Store Job in high school before my 7 year Tour d'Nordstrom through three states began), and with an unsafe work environment out there, and a less-than-stellar internet speed, why not consider taking a break from it all to really think about where I want to go next...?


Financially it might seem crazy to some but there are a lot of what some consider "basics" my husband and I don't have and do just fine, like:

  • A car payment - our car is used and will stay ours until we have enough saved up to go electric...without debt. Having been car-free for many years, just having a car is an investment with insurance and gas and regular maintenance. I can't imagine going back to 20 years ago when I had a payment.

  • A two-year cell phone contract - lots of cheap month-to-month plans out there. We pay $75 combined through Verizon prepay that includes more data than we'll ever use...even during a pandemic!

  • Cable and/or multiple streaming services (they add up!) - we don't have regular TV reception out here (even with an antenna), so we watch YouTube for free news and have Hulu on a seasonal basis (my annual Handmaid's Tale and Grey's Anatomy bingeing), then it gets put on hold, while taking advantage of free trials for things like Showtime and HBO when they come up for occasional rainy day marathons. And? We read, play Scrabble, go for walks, work on the house/garden, and other zero cost stuff.

  • Expensive toys and vacations - Our biggest expense this past month? A new pair of farm boots as mine had holes in them, and a new tire for my husband's bike, both under $100. Our mileage credit card that we use for literally all non-mortgage expenses - and pay off each month - is used to pay for hotels when we spend a weekend in the city a few times a year.

  • Car commuting - My husband bikes, and our investment in a $700 e-bike conversion kit for his Marin bike saved him not only from needing to drive on the worst weather days, but also on upgrading to an expensive ebike that are all the rage...or a second car.

  • Health insurance - It's been insanely cheaper for us to pay cash, and we download coupons from GoodRx for prescriptions that are almost identically priced as our former copay (i.e., my husband's medicated eyedrops are $11.88 compared to $10 copay, and my thyroid meds were literally 37 cents' difference in price). This might seem nuts to some to purposely decline it but when your husband's employer plan has high premiums, outrageous deductibles, poor lab/diagnostics coverage, and almost zero out-of-network coverage in a rural area that requires we travel out of network for several essential providers? And when you're in a pandemic where you can't see regular providers and the only hospital in town charges triple what you'd pay in the city? We calculated last year we actually spent MORE out of pocket WITH insurance than on the premiums - almost $8,000 for things like blood tests, annual exam, and an x-ray to diagnose my arthritis (the latter alone with a single cortisone shot cost us $900+ out of pocket after insurance covered a piddly amount...for a doctor who didn't tell me about 95% of the side effects of which I suffered multiple.). Having lived without health insurance before, the decision was not difficult. We are putting the extra money we would have spent on premiums towards our mortgage principal instead, and not engaging in high-risk activities. Bam.

  • High Utility Bills. This winter, we turned our furnace to 55 and used an Energy Star space heater in our bedroom on low. We have an ultra high-efficiency wood stove that will burn one load of wood for 16-20 hours, from wood my husband split. Four or five days a year we use the cooling feature of our heat pump but mostly rely on our ceiling fan and insulating window roller shades. We get garbage service once a month

  • Ordering Takeout/Delivery. Along with saving a ton, we are also keeping our carbon footprint down. The more takeout and processed foods you eat? The more trash you create. Not everyone connects this, but most of the bad foods are in non-recyclable containers, delivered in plastic bags with plastic silverware and plastic condiment packaging, etc...audit your garbage and you can quickly see why you probably get garbage service more than you have to!

  • Cosmetics. I may have worn my share of black eyeliner in my younger days but never ever understood considering this a basic. I splash cold water on my face in the morning. I have SPF moisturizer. I brush my hair. I brush my teeth and floss. Done. In pre-pandemic days, I might pull out my aging tube of Mac Paramount or paint my toenails, but cosmetics as a whole never have been categorized as an essential...and that's what I'm getting at here. Beyond the environmental impact of most cosmetics, from ingredients to non-recyclable packaging to the labeling of it as "beauty" (I'm not against adorning/decorating the body whatsover, just the implication via marketing that cosmetics are responsible for beauty, which destroys the self esteem of many a girl and deliberately manipulates the consumer through shame).

So with these thoughts, I re-read my favorite parts of Radical Homemakers, my favorite life-changer book (one that made such an impact on me when I started my consulting business and took a new look at life because of it), and then did an online search for stories of sabbaticals. This led me to mySweatLife's article, How Intention Turned My Unemployment Into a Sabbatical. Holllly cow. Ding ding ding! Did you hear that bell? This is what made it ring - LOUDLY - in my head...


"I knew I needed to leave my job for my own well being. I was also extremely fortunate to be able to do so...But while I knew I wanted to leave my job, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. Without a clear purpose or plan, leaving my job felt both immature and like jumping ship into a dark, terrifying abyss...'You're taking a Sabbatical'... I felt my whole body exhale as I turned the word over in my mind...I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, but this was going to be time to figure that out. I was going to pursue other interests, to work on things that I loved, to use that knowledge to inform my future path...Through intention, it gave me freedom. It shifted my perspective and solidified my understanding of what this chapter in my life was going to be. It was intentional time towards myself- for recovery, growth and discovery. Realizing that boosted my self love and compassion for my unease about something that was uncertain...Intention could just be the antidote. While you can’t know what the future will look like, you can know why you’re doing something. To take care of your health. To be happier. To do what’s best for your family. To put an end to suffering. While I didn’t know where the sabbatical was going to lead, I knew why I was doing it. Focusing on what I knew was my truth gave me the permission and courage to face what I didn’t know. "


Hot damn, that was it. I talked to my husband and said, do you mind if I take a sabbatical? We weren't going anywhere anyhow, it's a pandemic, so why not just do the occasional coaching, and start exploring the other possibilities in life?


The first month felt useless. Working without pay on the farm - it's still work but it's not contributing towards the utility bills, ya know. I did some more work on our family trees. I did some DIY projects. I was diagnosed with rapid onset osteoarthritis in both knees after a fall through a hole in the deck left me unable to walk, climb stairs, do yoga, dance, or anything else normally, compounded by an apathetic doctor's suggestion of a cortisone shot which left me in brutal pain. Oh yeah, and did I mention I've formally reached menopause years before most women do? Woo hoo!


Then I decided to assign myself projects to start nibbling at the areas I was curious about...and started taking my own advice as a career coach. I started reaching out to volunteer opportunities, ones I could do from home. I talked to some local folks online as well about post-pandemic volunteer work in public health. And I started perusing several volunteer job boards and sending in inquiries.


Well, anyone who knows about volunteering knows that the quality of the experience depends almost wholly on the organizational skills of the leadership involved. One misrepresented the role, another didn't respond, and yet another said he wanted to talk to me then never called at the time I selected on his calendar. But the fourth and fifth ones were pretty cool. One was looking for essay contest judges for middle- and high-school students writing about truth in today's society (fulfilling my 17 year old self's dream of becoming a high school English teacher, a la Dead Poet's Society), and another was for the opportunity to write content for a nonprofit's new app. Writing. Yeah, writing! So I'm looking into it. And I've reached out to others in the local food systems, from visiting a fellow beekeeper in the county to possibly volunteering with the local food advocacy group.


But just like in the world of the W-2 folks, I am carefully evaluating each organization. After volunteering for 25+ years, I've learned a lot about who I do - and don't - want to align myself with. Does leadership know what they're doing? Is there flexibility or extreme rigidity? Are volunteers well-organized... or are they all flailing in the deep end? Is quality a priority - or do they just take whoever they can get and try to overwhelm you with flattery to get unpaid work out of folks? Like I said, I've seen it all, and sadly there are a lot of organizations with great missions but little focus on organizational strategy, and leadership that brings little if any business acumen to the table. But every once in a while you bump into folks who are knowledgeable, responsive, and highly value the unpaid work that volunteers provide...and I'm hoping to find that, whether it be locally or virtually. Work that one feels good about, whether you are bringing in dollars or not? That's worth chasing after.


In the meantime, I've got an Etsy shop full of my vintage books, clothing, music, and other cool things collected over the years that I've decided to part ways with. Along with my work as a career coach, it has allowed me to bring in profits in the low four figures that I never expected (and wish I'd have tried years ago!). After all, if you've got no one to leave those things to, you never wear it, and/or never plan on reading it again, etc...maybe someone else can make use of it! Someone else now owns my Swatch watch from 6th grade and the neon sweatshirt that screamed "1985". Someone else now wears my pointy toed buckle boots from London Underground that I wore obsessively in high school. Someone else now wears my husband's old Magpie jersey when watching Aussie football. Works for us...and now doesn't sit in our "memory clothes" bin.


With that...off I go on this strange new adventure...and keeping in mind two of my favorite mantras:


1) I am no longer available for things that make me feel like shit.

and

2) Leap, and the net will appear.


Have you ever taken a sabbatical? If not, and you want to, what would you do with your time? Tell me more in the comments!