I have just, officially, concluded a nine-month sabbatical period. So it feels like a good time to synthesize some of the key learnings of this interval in a brief note.
The fluidity of ‘quasi’
Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter: the big overriding insight of these last months is that the notion of ‚sabbatical’ is misleading, or rather that it keeps us from extracting all the potential that such an gift to ourselves has to offer. Conventionally we frame a sabbatical as a timeout. You stop doing what you usually do and for a given period of time — usually a year — you do something else. Most often it also involves a temporary move or a physical journey.
About halfway my sabbatical I started to reframe my time off as a ‚quasi-sabbatical’. The very practical reason for that was that I felt unable to completely dissociate from work. I knew from the very beginning that that was going to be impossible. But I didn’t really have an idea how it was going to pan out. Eventually it turned out that work would never be very far from my mind during these nine months. And the traveling and reading would be punctuated by more or less short periods of intense professional activity.
Initially this felt like a compromise. But I didn’t fret (too much) about it. On the whole I felt it was fine as it was. Now I’m starting to understand that this notion of ‚quasi-sabbatical’ is actually a felicitous discovery. In a way it’s obvious. ‚Sabbatical’ posits work and life as two polar opposites. For a year you escape and after that blissful interlude it’s back to the chain gang and the stress. The prefix ‚quasi’ deconstructs that opposition. And that deconstruction trails remarkable opportunities in its wake.
For a start a quasi-sabbatical does not force us in the template of a distinct time interval, with a marked start and ending. And that fluidity is also what I experienced. For practical purposes I marked the start of the timeout around mid-June 2014. But I took the decision to go for a sabbatical during a sleepless summer night already in August 2013. That line in the sand changed everything. Suddenly the world started to vibrate with promise and potential. It seemed as if I had been sleepwalking for years! For instance, for a long time my collection of art books had been a rather dull, amorphous mass occupying a floor to ceiling section of the living room. After that night I couldn’t walk by it without picking out a volume and browsing and marveling and thinking about my own creative projects. For me it felt like the sabbatical had already started. At the same time I was still deeply engaged in professional commitments.
Unthinking on the bike
In fact I can easily see how the sabbatical started way before August 2013. Because I would never have taken such a firm decision without having spent more than a year on the bike. In June 2012 I took my bicycle, a second-hand aluminium racing steed, and rode it 800 km down to the south-west of France where my parents live. Despite the lack of training I enjoyed the solitary ride immensely. It launched me into a phase of obsessive riding, clocking up 15.000 km in 18 months. I wasn’t really aware of it but those long hours in the saddle created space in my mind for new things. As Robert Chia writes: „As you ride a bike and start to ride it well, there are moments when it becomes an affirmation of life devoid of separation and distinction: you ride through the earth unthinkingly rather than across it.” Cycling is really about giving yourself the opportunity to ‚unthink’. In 2013, as I edged towards ever longer rides, I felt myself unwinding. Professionally I continued to work hard but at the same time I felt more poised and loose-limbed. And then came that August night, the caesura. It motivated me to push myself even further, up to riding 350 km in a day. The culmination of that frenzy was the long ride from Bordeaux to Paris, end of May 2014: a distance of 620 km covered in less than 40 hours.
So accepting the perspective of a quasi-sabbatical revealed a temporal fluidity that reflected more truthfully my own experience. Obviously that fluidity also extends to the other end of the sabbatical. I will elaborate that theme soon.
From will power to surrender
But a quasi-sabbatical also raises the stakes. As I said the notion of sabbatical respects the opposition between work and life that we very often take for granted. It puts the timeout in the sphere of the ‚jouissance’, of a solipsistic pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. Indeed, more than a few of my acquaintances considered the sabbatical somewhat of a whim, a time slot ‚to do whatever I liked’. From the start that was not the way I saw it. I didn’t want to stonewall myself in self-gratification. I wanted to take time to read and write, to try to consolidate some of the professional experience built up over more than twenty years. So there was a task, an ambition. But I did buy into the idea of a caesura, a suspension of the normal regime in exchange for something more leisurely and creative. But as the sabbatical unfolded I started to see it in a new light and I understood that it was not a suspension of normality but altogether another rhythm of life I was after.
This discovery was fueled first and foremost by the support I received from my coach Noor Bongers. I didn’t know Noor very well when I contacted her early in the sabbatical. But she seemed a very gifted communicator and I wanted her to help me in the writing of my book. Eventually Noor’s contribution went much further than that. She helped me to anchor my ambitions for the sabbatical in four key ‚intentions’. It is worth repeating them here:
- „My desire is a permanent state of sabbatical in which I create value for myself, my family and my environment.”
- „At all times a pay attention to my process, to everything I do. For the coming period my focus is on realizing the transition from will power to surrender.”
- „In the coming period I grant myself moments and experiences of pure pleasure and repose and I consciously create space to accommodate them.”
- „I trust my skills as a professional to relax in the here and now, in each moment.”
An artistic ethos
What Noor helped me to articulate was what I would now qualify as an ethos of an artist. When I embarked on the sabbatical I truly loved my job. I didn’t feel burned out or anything. But I was running on will power, trying to keep too many balls into the air. I knew the consultancy projects I was doing were fantastic learning opportunities. But an element of routine and drudgery had crept in and that wasn’t right. It had become too much ‚work’. I knew I didn’t want to earn my daily bread any other way but I also realized that I had to relearn to experience those professional challenges in a more relaxed, fresher way. I wanted to do those projects only because I wanted to do them, because I was good at doing them. I wanted to stop struggling, to stop testing myself.
So what’s ‚artistic’ about that? Years ago I read a reflection by photographer Emmett Gowin that has been a constant source of self-interrogation: „I like to think that in order for any of us to really do anything new, we can’t exactly know what it is we are doing. (…) Of course, this is one of the really important things about art, that you can make more than you can understand at the moment the thing is being made. But the gap between what we recognize inside ourselves — our feelings — and our ability to trust ourselves and to trust exposing ourselves to those ideas, can be great. Now when I look at my students I see that the old uncertainties are still in business — this is the real dilemma for them. Their program has been to never be wrong. You get bad marks for being wrong. So you have to be right. It’s a potent conflict. (…) We preach clarity. But it is the aliveness of the unguarded intuition and the persistence of our own feelings that guide us in our discoveries.” From the start I recognized the truth of this statement and yet I didn’t really grasp it. I think that now I’m starting to get an inkling of what it means to rely on those unguarded intuitions as a bedrock. Noor helped me to visualize that space much more clearly and viscerally.
Reconnecting with my photographic practice
And over the last half year these intuitions have taken further shape in my photographic pursuits. When I formally started my sabbatical photography wasn’t very high on my priority list. I started shooting about ten years ago. After an initial, long period of intense commitment my creative energy started to falter. I can point to many reasons for that but the bottom line is that I was running out of ideas. Perhaps as some sort of compensation I channeled a lot of that excess energy in my cycling adventures. Initially I didn’t bother about shooting. I just rode. But I traveled through such wonderful landscapes that I felt compelled to document the journeys anyway. At first I found the mix of riding and shooting very awkward. One seemed to exclude the other. But gradually I started to appreciate the photographic possibilities of the iPhone which I always carried in the pocket of my cycling jersey. The discovery of the Snapseed photo editing app was another breakthrough. I wasn’t any longer hemmed in by my limited Photoshop skills in pursuing the visual style I was after.
Late in last year’s summer, with thousands of cycling kilometers under my belt and hundreds of snapshots on my iPhone, my creative juices started to flow again. In September 2014 I stayed for a week at the Nietzsche Haus in the Swiss Engadin. I wanted to write and ride, but I also took my camera with me, just in case. Unexpectedly I came back with the nucleus of an exciting photo project that wanted to explore the relationship between the philosopher and the landscape in a wistful series of nightscapes. Just a few weeks after my return from Nietzsche’s sanctuary in the Swiss Alps I applied for two photo workshops. In February I traveled to Sicily to join, once more, my beloved mentor Lorenzo Castore. It was Lorenzo who taught the very first photo workshop I attended, sometime around 2007. It was an intense, shattering experience that never ceased to resonate. Relying on shock tactics Lorenzo wanted to pierce the multi-layered, clever defense mechanisms that kept his students from accessing that creative wellspring of unguarded intuitions. But he did that in such a supportive and honest way that you really wanted to trust him and jump headlong into the fray. I have never forgotten that intense burst of energy and insecurity that stretched across those days in the Tuscan campagna.
And so I was very glad and also somewhat apprehensive to meet him again in the extraordinary setting of the Festa di Sant’Agata in the Sicilian town of Catania. One of Europe’s biggest religious festivals, it assembles a huge crowd of ten thousands of people to worship the city’s patron saint. It was an eventful week. I spent a long evening at the emergency unit of a local hospital with fierce and inexplicable back pain. And at the end of the week I succumbed to the flu. It kept me bedridden for days. But in between those intervals I shot some of my best pictures ever. Lorenzo sent me on the streets with a laconic mission: get close to people, photograph faces as landscapes. I had never done that before. But in getting close, really close to people I experienced how my anxiety gave way to a very pure, uplifting kind of energy.
A month later I was in Venice with Anders Petersen, doyen of contemporary street photography. Anders strongly reinforced the message that Lorenzo taught me: don’t worry about taking ‚good’ or ‚bad’ pictures. Photography is an alibi to put yourself in situations you are really longing for. Anders: „It’s not about being strong enough, but about being weak enough. You have to be open, full of emotions, have to be a victim of the situation. Have that courage. Photographers are very often hiding behind the camera. Don’t do that. Don’t use the camera as a shield … „ That week in winterly Venice was permeated by an unearthly beauty. Thinking about Nietzsche also in this city, and about Wagner, who died here, my sojourn morphed into a quest for the evanescent blue of the symbolists and the resonance of the Tristan chord as tokens of transience and transcendence.
I know I have made a significant step in deepening my craft as a photographer. This has been of the big surprises of the ‚sabbatical’. A new horizon has opened up. It draws me in with fresh creative impulses but it also confronts me with lots of questions. I will only be able to work through them by intensely messing around with the camera. I have asked Lorenzo Castore to mentor me in this new phase.
There’s a third, slightly more technical element that has contributed to reframing the sabbatical from an escape to an experiment: Personal Kanban. I have always been a ‚to do list’ junkie. The lists propeled me forward, gave structure to my day-to-day activities. Without a solid grasp on my do-list I’ve always found it hard to put my mind to rest. But to-do lists induce anxiety and a constant feeling of stress. They lack context. They consider accomplished tasks as waste. And they haven’t kept my work routine from being polluted by undisciplined use of internet, email and social media. So during my sabbatical I started to actively scout for a more sophisticated time management system. And I found that in the shape of Personal Kanban (PK).
In a nutshell: Personal Kanban is a flexible tool to dynamically visualize a workflow for an individual. The visualization is structured along a simple *value stream*. The most simple value stream is READY (work waiting to be processed), DOING (work-in-progress) and DONE (completed work). Tasks move through that value stream. They are picked out of a BACKLOG: the amorphous cloud of ‚things we have to do’, „the ton of bricks on our chest that prevents us from breathing.”
Personal Kanban’s simplicity is deceptive. It’s more than mere mechanics. It’s an operational scaffolding for life’s innovation processes. Benson and Barry describe it in their Personal Kanban book as follows: „Personal Kanban respects our humanity and the way we process work. Not only do we see priorities and the ‚done-ness’ of our tasks, but we see how completing tasks impacts our options for future action. By using Personal Kanban, we begin to set our own boundaries around the ‚games’ of work and living. (…) We play this ‚game’ on an ever-changing board (reflecting one’s life and context) which impacts outcome. In contrast, the to-do list ‚game’ entails little more than completing tasks as quickly as possible: no flow from one action to the next, no suspense and ultimately no reward. Games should be energizing and evolutionary. We make a move, thus opening a series of options. Our opponent makes a counter move. Some options close while other present themselves. Being able to visualize our work like this — as a system, as a game with intermediate and ultimate goals — enables us to become passionate about work itself. Life’s trade-offs become explicit.”
Personal Kanban is a valuable tool. But I believe that we need a mindfulness complement to fully realize its potential. The lure of multitasking is powerful. The switch from working in push to pull mode can only be realized if we also develop a mental discipline to stay in the moment, to ‚surrender’ ourselves to the timing and nature whatever it is we are doing. PK in itself doesn’t help us to acquire us that discipline. I found the advice from Paul Loomans, who developed, the Time Surfing approach very valuable in this respect. But it is fiendishly difficult to put into practice. I am still very much struggling with it.
Emotional return on time invested
For me ‚quasi-sabbatical’ works. The evidence leaps out when I look at my Personal Kanban boards of the last six months. Tallying the tasks that gave me week after week the greatest emotional return on time invested I notice an interesting pattern: tasks related to professional obligations are as stimulating as purely creative and social pursuits. The message is simple: taking your time to do good work is a bedrock of a fulfilling life.
I realize I am tremendously privileged in having been able to build a professional footing that allows me to be my own boss, to work with kindred spirits on societally relevant challenges and to travel widely. And my family has provided me for decades with a rock solid foundation. Nevertheless we also have to acknowledge that it is possible, despite these strong fundamentals, to mess up the whole thing. I have seen some of my very best friends, working in very similar settings, crash. It is our responsibility to find out what we really enjoy doing and to shape and chisel the circumstances in which we can thrive. Douglas Coupland: „The one thing I know to be true in the world is that you, if you’re creative, have to know what it is you are enjoy doing. Most people don’t know this. It’s amazing how many people go to the grave without knowing what they like doing. I suppose this is how nature ensures there will be always people to man the counter at the local DMV. But the point is that if you know you like making shoes or candles or snowboards, no matter how much the world changes, you’ll always be interested. Contrarily, if you launch a career doing something you don’t really like, then even if you’re successful, you won’t feel successful, and you’ll be contemptuous of your success.”
As I am writing this I feel I’m on the crest of a high wave. I am suffused with the beauty and friendship and creative vibes I have experienced over these last months. The quasi-sabbatical has given me more than I could ask for. And it’s not going to stop.
24 March 2015