I work at Automattic, and one of the incredible perks we get is a three-month, paid sabbatical after five years (we’re hiring). This is as awesome as it sounds. And it was a personal turning point for me.
Here’s the interesting thing though. It wasn’t the sabbatical itself, it was the leadup to the sabbatical.
It’s such an amazing, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that I started researching and planning a year ahead of time to make sure I didn’t waste it. I read posts from other people who had sabbaticals about what they did, what they learned.
Lots of people traveled around the world, took a long break from the digital world at a remote cabin, or rented an RV and drove across the country. With a family of five, and without having saved for this ahead of time (whoops), we just didn’t have the finances for any of these.
Others focused their time on learning, building new skills, trying new things. This I could do. If we couldn’t afford an extravagant journey through the world, I could start an inner journey.
I also noticed a pattern to these posts. There was a common realization for those choosing the inner journey. Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, invariably the posts ended with “I realize now I could have been doing these things all along. I didn’t need a sabbatical to do this.”
Call to Adventure
What we really need is an inciting incident, a call to adventure. Like the hero’s journey, we need something that breaks us out of the ordinary world and motivates us to change. This doesn’t need to be a crisis. It can just be an idea. It can be a point of realization. And this was mine.
I decided not to wait for my sabbatical.
I set goals for myself. Be a better father. Write. Perform music. Get in shape. Manage stress. Be more patient. More confident. More forgiving. More helpful.
I read a ton. I practiced meditation. I changed my diet. I started regularly exercising.
In my reading I found commonalities in different religions, philosophies, and books on self-improvement. And I realized something… I realized it not just intellectually, but on a deep, emotional level.
We Are Our Choices
We are not our achievements. We are not our circumstances. We are not our limitations. We are the choices that we make and the values that we serve. I believe this is ultimately what makes us a good or bad person. What informs our value.
And this is what we control. It is in fact the only thing we control. But it is something completely in our control and can never be taken from us. I cover this more in my post Stoicism and Control.
No, you can’t just choose to be an astronaut. You can’t choose to be an NBA star. Those are outcomes. Outcomes are never guaranteed, and they can be taken away.
But you can make the same choices, honor the same values as people you admire, whether that’s astronauts, NBA stars, or anyone else. You can learn about their struggles, their paths, follow in their footsteps. Like these people, you can choose to be the person who puts in the hard work to make an outcome likely.
You choose who you are every day. Every moment.
Letting Go of Self-Punishment
Embracing these ideas was transformational to me and helped me let go of a lot of negativity.
You don’t need to feel crippled by self-doubt, regret, shame, embarrassment, or anxiety. You don’t need to lie awake hating yourself for your mistakes, your poor choices.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t feel regret or empathy. You will make mistakes. You will let people down. You will hurt people. I have, and I’m sure I will in the future. We all do.
But you don’t need to let it define you or to cripple you.
This is when you choose to be better. Look at the choices you’ve made. Are you living by the right principles? Did you make the best choice you could at the time? If yes, then you did your best and you can take comfort in that. If no, then choose to do better, be better. Learn from your mistakes.
You don’t have to be the same person who made poor choices. You can become a better person. And if you really do this, if you commit to new choices and new values, you become a different person. You don’t need to punish yourself for the person you used to be.
There is in fact no utility, for you or anyone else, to punish yourself for the person you used to be. That path leads to a sense of helplessness and futility and self-reinforcing belief that you cannot change. It will keep you in the same rut, unchanged, un-evolved.
Instead, let your mistakes motivate you to be a better person. There is no perfection here. There is only a journey, the progress, and motivation to evolve… to embrace a constant evolution.
Use your mistakes to motive you, to learn. But let go of who you were, and you can let go of the urge to punish yourself for your mistakes.
Be the Person
If you can be anyone, then why not be the best person you can possibly be?
Imagine someone who exhibits all of the qualities you most admire. Again I’m talking choices and principles, not outcomes or achievements. How does this person treat others? How does this person handle tasks? What habits does this person cultivate? What is important to them? What behavior do they avoid? How does it feel when they walk into a room? How do they make you feel?
Now… be that person.
This simple idea, more than anything, has helped me to create positive habits, forgive myself for stupid mistakes, and motivate myself. Figure out what kind of person you most admire, then be the person.
I admire people who are positive, make others smile, take accountability, make hard decisions, admit mistakes, allow themselves to be vulnerable, work hard, maintain their health, and treat people fairly. That’s the person I choose to be. I will fall short at times. But that’s my mantra. Be the person.
This wasn’t easy to write. Lots of ideas are self-referencing, so it’s hard to find a coherent path. It feels rambling, grandiose, self-congratulating, and a bit preachy. But somewhere in here is a lesson that has helped me, and I think it can help others if I can figure out how to say it. Gonna call this a work-in-progress and hit publish. 🙂