On July 12, as I was shutting down my computer, I posted the following on my Facebook page- Can a work-a-holic unplug for 5 weeks?  At the time, I honestly wasn’t certain (as my hands shook while turning off my screen).  The fact is, I am your classic work-a-holic, but I love what I do, I work hard, I’m passionate about helping my clients and I put heart and soul into my work.  But there’s always a flip side and the fact was, I had become a little burned out.

I am fortunate to work for a company that values its employees’ contributions, hard work and loyalty, and rewards that with a five-week sabbatical after five years of service.  This summer it was my turn and apart from taking the vacation of a lifetime to Israel, Iceland and Stockholm, it was a time to take a step back and clear my mind.  I am extremely grateful to our company for adopting this incredible policy and my colleagues who stepped up and stepped in to make my time away appear seamless to our clients.

Before sabbatical started, I defined what unplugging meant to me.  So I wouldn’t be tempted to check work email, I deleted it from my iPhone and iPad.  Computer would remain off completely while I was home and I would not check my work email before I returned on August 19.  While out of the country Facebook would be used sparingly and more as a means to let my family and friends know I was alive while traveling on my own.  My personal email would be checked every few days.

Electronic guidelines in place and the promise to enjoy every second, I embarked on an incredible journey.   I learned a lot about myself during this time but here are five things in particular that can apply to the work we do:

Lesson 1: Be Present

It’s only when I took away the email that I realized how half-ass my interactions have been with the world around me and the people in it.  I was a passive participant, one half of my attention on the person or activity in front of me, one half on what I might be missing and worrying that something would happen if I didn’t respond that second.   My sabbatical interactions were richer, more meaningful and full of more color when I gave that person or activity my full attention.  In the post-sabbatical world, I want to strive to be more present for those around me both at work and, especially, in my personal life.  Does that mean my iPhone won’t be a presence at dinner?  Probably not (just being honest).  But that non-urgent e-mail I just got…it will probably be returned in an hour or two, not in a minute or two.

Lesson 2:  Take Chances

I’m afraid…no…terrified…of heights.   Yet…I climbed a glacier wall.   Not because I had to or because everybody else in the group was doing it, but because I wanted to.  I wanted to take a chance and I wanted that sense of accomplishment of overcoming something that scared me.  Believe me, I was holding onto those ice picks for dear life, but I was hooked up to a harness with our guide closely watching so even though I knew I was safe, there was still a fear that I might fall.  In our ever-changing industry and company there will be a lot of ‘glacier walls’ we’re going to have to climb- not all with a harness attached and sometimes we may fall.  But we cannot have that sense of accomplishment unless we first do something that scares us.

Lesson 3:  Deviate from the Map

I think I was sick the day they taught map reading in school or was simply not blessed with the gift of spatial perspectives because the surest way to get lost is to put me in charge of navigation.  More than once I found myself going east instead of west, right instead of left and I still don’t know how I got to the Western Wall in Jerusalem but for all my ‘gumping’ around (as I dubbed it), I learned that its ok to deviate from the map or toss it out completely and rely-to some degree- on instinct. As someone who zealously follows the prescribed path, changing the roadmap and ‘gumping’ around yielded some unexpected and surprising results.  While it’s important to follow the roadmap we lay out for our clients, sometimes, we also have to be willing to deviate a little in order to get them to their destination.  Practically speaking, I will never again rent a car without GPS…I think we can all agree that would be money well-spent.

Lesson 4: Make an Attempt to Speak the Language

As terribly as I read maps, I’m the opposite when it comes to foreign languages.  I was a Spanish major in college and genuinely enjoy learning how to communicate with people in a language other than English.   In a 24-hour period I spoke fragments of three languages en route from Tel Aviv to Iceland.  My Spanish was commendable, my French passable and my Hebrew laughable, BUT I made the attempt and those I spoke with clearly appreciated the effort.  As this industry and our company continue to evolve, we all have to learn some new ‘languages’ in order to work together to help our clients communicate better internally and externally.  Initial attempts will always be passable, but with patience over time, we’ll be able to more seamlessly communicate with one another…and the effort will always be appreciated.

Lesson 5: It’s Ok to be Selfish

This is probably the most personal takeaway I’ll include in this post, but sabbatical allowed me to reconnect with the most important person in my life…ME.  In client service, it’s sometimes easy to forget about yourself while doing important work for others.  During my time away, I did a reboot of my operating system so-to-speak to reset boundaries and priorities, and just exhale.  I was unabashedly selfish and did what *I* wanted.  I read five books, reconnected with friends, talked to strangers, ate a lot, slept a lot and made time for quiet contemplation.

…and I climbed a glacier.  Quite frankly, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.