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The biggest lessons we’ve learned from taking a sabbatical

Behind Middleton & Company, you meet two sisters: Taylor & Kailie.

One of the many things we have in common is our love of traveling and exploring the world. 

The best part? We both acted on this interest and took a sabbatical during our careers.

Our sabbaticals looked different. We had two very unique experiences. But we agree that it is one of the best decisions we’ve both ever made. 

Taking a sabbatical taught us a number of things. 

If you’re hesitating to go on your own adventure, if you doubt it will be beneficial to you, then this post is for you. It provides a glimpse into the lifelong impact the experience can have.

Keep reading for the biggest lessons we’ve learned from our sabbatical.

Some background…

Taylor: A 2.5-year sabbatical to join the Peace Corps and travel around Southeast Asia

“After working 8 years in corporate jobs in Seattle, my husband and I took a 2.5-year sabbatical to join the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan and then travel around Southeast Asia. I liked my jobs leading up to this experience. We were just at a point where we were ready for something different. The 4 full years to pull everything together to make it happen was well worth it.”

Taylor crossing a river on the back of a horse during a hike in Kyrgyzstan

Kailie: 3 years teaching English in Oaxaca

“I graduated college in 2009, a tough year for job prospects. Not finding a job right away was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Because it led me to Mexico. I lived and worked in Oaxaca for 3 years teaching English. While this definitely wasn’t my planned career launch, there was so much good in it, and I learned a lot of things that would be useful in every job I’ve had since then.”

Kailie at a comparsa outside the city of Oaxaca for the celebration of Día de los Muertos 

6 lessons from our sabbaticals

Over the years following our sabbaticals, we’ve spent countless hours retelling our stories of living abroad, and we’ve found some surprising similarities that bridge both of our experiences.

Some of our most profound takeaways came from just going through a daily routine somewhere else and learning to navigate new and strange systems. 

Here are just a few of the lessons we learned along the way:

#1 Time is Relative

It’s so easy to get caught up in the never-ending list of to-do’s, working towards the next big thing – the next big promotion, the bigger house, training for that triathlon you’ve always wanted to do. And feeling rushed as we do it, constantly racing against the clock. 

But when life slowed down for us, the level of urgency (and the importance of some of those things we were working so hard for) seemed to gradually fade away.

It took some time to unwind, but part of the fading away had to do with our changed perception of time. 

Kailie noticed in Mexico, the term ahorita could mean I’ll be there in 5 minutes, or I’ll see you in a couple of hours. That’s because people were just more relaxed about their relationship with time. Yes, there were some schedules that could be counted on, like for the executive class bus, but other day-to-day things, like what time the water truck would drive by to switch out the water jugs, well, that just happened at some point (or maybe not!) within a 4 to 6-hour time frame. 

On her return trip back to the US, Taylor remembers overhearing a man in the airport ranting and raving about his flight delay. She couldn’t help but look at him and genuinely think, “what’s so bad? You have a ton of restaurants around you, you have the money to eat in any one of them, you have the ability to get on a plane and go somewhere different…what’s wrong?” Inconveniences, even big ones, just didn’t have the same weight after living in another country for 2 years.

Ultimately, what’s the point of being in a hurry if it doesn’t get you there faster? And what’s the point of complaining about something you can’t control?

#2 Just “Go See” 

We often talk about countries in really generalized statements, as if everyone in them were a single unit. But that’s just not how the world works.

Kailie lived in Mexico during the “War on Drugs” campaign in the US. There were daily news headlines about the violence between Mexican drug cartels. People back home would constantly ask “but isn’t it dangerous there!?” To be honest, in the three years that she lived in Mexico, she never felt any less safe than she did going about daily life in the US. Although the news made it seem like there was violence on every street in every state in Mexico, in reality, the mass majority of people were all just going about their daily routines. Boring daily life just isn’t newsworthy – but it is what most of us experience.

While in Kyrgystan, Taylor learned that the majority of news channels were re-broadcasted state-owned media from Russia. Talking with locals, she was so surprised by some of the blanket statements that they would say about other countries, and even other oblasts (states) in Kyrgyzstan. These were places they had never been to, but had heard about. Her key takeaway was that we are what we read and get exposed to. The Kyrgyz were curious and interested, but she noticed that searching for information is a skill, and misinformation, or rumors really, were what formed a lot of opinions. 

We agree that the best way to know what’s real is to actually go see and experience it for ourselves..that’s why our travel bucket lists just keep getting longer and longer and longer!

#3 Constantly Question Our Assumptions About How Things Are Supposed To Work

We both saw things on a daily basis that were different than what we had grown up with.

We marveled at the ability of a family of six to all fit on a single scooter, sometimes with shopping bags, building supplies, or the family pet. Or how many people cram into a marshrutka. Just because there are only eighteen seats doesn’t mean forty people and a sheep can’t all fit inside! In Mexico, it tended to be a bunch of chickens or a goat in a colectivo, but hey, same thing. 

 

But that’s just one of many examples where we saw that the “rules” about how things are done – the ones we thought were universal – are just, well, not universal at all.

Another example is how common, everyday household items can be used in different, more imaginative ways than we had ever considered back home. The single-use plastic bag is an awesome example of this! Our local cities are now passing legislation to urge consumers to reuse plastic bags…well, of course, they have so many uses! We saw (and adopted ourselves) many different ways that plastic bags could be used: to carry your groceries from the store, yes, but also as a colander, a personal to-go bag to pull out of your purse for leftovers at a social gathering, an impromptu umbrella or poncho, a trash bag, an on-the-spot mini washing machine to keep clothes from staining while you’re out and about…the list goes on and on. 

 

We just can’t unlearn or unsee these experiences. They made us think with flexibility and appreciate others’ imaginative and ingenious ways of solving problems. We also reserve the right to change our minds over time as we experience new things too. 

 

#4 People Are Just People 

We saw this over and over again: We’re all just human. And we’re a lot more alike than we are different. 

 

You know when you hear someone speaking another language, and you think “I wonder if they’re talking about me?” Well, our experience has been that, nope, they’re most likely not. 

 

Just like we talk about our favorite TV shows, what we’re doing for dinner tonight, how frustrated we are that our kids won’t eat vegetables – all the things you talk about in your day to day in English, well, they’re doing the same thing…just in their native language.  

 

The ability to communicate in the local language helped us see how similar we all are. 

Plus, having to speak a foreign language every day helped us to learn humility (sometimes begrudgingly). Turns out we’re just not as witty or well-spoken in a second language. It taught us to be gracious and understanding with those learning English, because, hey, we’ve been there. We know the feeling of just nodding your head yes, crossing your fingers that the question you were just asked (that you didn’t completely understand) was a yes or no question.

 

As perfectionists, we were hesitant to put ourselves out there and fail. But we had to let go of our egos, speak like 4 year old sometimes, and remind ourselves that the goal was just to communicate with the people, not to be perfect. We are just people ourselves, after all.

#5 We Have Some Non-Negotiables 

While it’s great to get out of our comfort zones and experience new things, one of the surprising outcomes of our sabbaticals was that we got to know the true core of our beings better too. 

What the heck does that even mean? For us, it means that we didn’t even know that we had some core beliefs until they were challenged. Honesty and integrity, different expectations and roles within a family unit, what professionalism looks like – all of these were themes that we both questioned during our time abroad. 

Taylor describes this in a really visual way.  She recounts it as if she had a post cemented in the middle of her body, and a few experiences just clanked against it. She was stunned by the initial impact each time, it was a physical reaction. 

Her core beliefs were challenged. And by being challenged, she had to decide how flexible she was willing to be in certain situations. 

The end result: there are a few core beliefs that she didn’t know existed until they were questioned. She is aware of them now. Kailie had a similar experience. 

#6 We Plan On Taking Sabbaticals Again – and more than once!

Our experiences have helped us long after our return to the US. Each time we think about where we want to take our business or how we want to live out our personal lives or spend our time, we know we can be a little bit more intentional about it. 

We have a baseline to go back to. We know who we are when we slow down and take a breath. But that doesn’t mean we stay in that same state of calmness forever. As time goes on, we get wound back up with all the crazy day-to-day happenings in our busy worlds too. 

So we’re committed to continually taking time away. Sabbaticals for us are not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but rather a lifestyle. 

Because when we intentionally carve out the time and space to decompress and think about who we are, what’s important to us, and how things should or could be, we can take better actions to support those things. 

Taking time away is important. 

 

Both of us agree that our time away was one of the best things we’ve done. There were a lot of unforeseen obstacles to overcome, but with some planning – and some flexibility – we learned a ton about ourselves and the world, and are now big advocates for this type of experience. 

 

This is exactly why we’re here. To help you take a sabbatical too! 

 

If you’ve been wondering if it’s time for you to quit your job and go travel the world, we made a free guide to help you get clarity on what you need right now. Download it now. 

 

You are not alone! 

We are on a mission to make sabbatical breaks not only possible but also an important and intentional part of one’s career. 

With smart financial & sabbatical planning, we make your dream a reality! If you’re curious, contact us today. You can schedule a discovery meeting now or send us an email

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This blog post is provided for educational, general information, and illustration purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Middleton & Company, unless otherwise specifically cited. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness.
 
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