Updated: Feb 6
Before I took off on a 6-month sabbatical from my job, I had spent a good part of 3 months meticulously planning how I was going to spend that time. After several weeks of planning, looking up organizations I wanted to work with as well as places I wanted to visit and getting confirmations from a few of them, I was able to divide my time off into three volunteering stints. I was giving up a lot to go on this adventure so I felt a certain degree of pressure to make the most of it. Which led me to spend a lot of time reading up about these organizations, thinking of what I was going to work on and jotting down the finer details of how I was going to get it done. By the end of it, I felt confident and all set to change the world.
But, as with all stories worth telling, there is a ‘but’. A few days into my sabbatical, I felt something was not quite right. I realized that while the founders, staff and other volunteers were good people who were deeply committed to their work, they didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for what I wanted to do and while they were open to help whenever I asked for it, they weren’t forthcoming in actively involving me in their work. I had left behind a good paycheck, a stable life and spent months having painfully tedious discussions with my parents to convince them to let me take this plunge. All for nothing! I felt isolated and lost.
So I re-looked at my approach and it led me to an important life-lesson in humility. I had made up my mind about what I wanted to do without listening to what they had to say. I had subconsciously decided I knew enough about the work they were doing without spending a day in their shoes. My weeks of google search and project planning was, although important, no substitute to years and, in some cases, decades of having lived and worked with the issues the organization was working towards solving. Here’s a few things that helped me step back and take a fresh approach, which ended up making the rest of my sabbatical a lot more meaningful and personally fulfilling -
1. Spend time understanding the social context
Most of us who have worked in corporate setups tend to have an action bias, which is great when you are working in a familiar setting. But when you work in a new environment, it is important to spend time observing, listening and asking questions to understand the social context - what the people there are like and how they came to be that way, how they work, what they believe in, the local customs and so on. The key is to be really curious. Observe and question everything as if you were 5 years old.
2. Use this knowledge to sharply define what you want to work on
If you don’t know where you are going, you will definitely end up somewhere else. Once you get a decent understanding of the local context, clearly define what you want to do and why. Discuss it with the relevant people in the organization so that you get their support and, more importantly, validation for yourself that you are going in the right direction.
3. Accept that you don’t know it all
As the famous Zen saying goes - ‘You cannot fill a cup that is already full.” Accept that there’s a lot you don’t know and that you can’t do it all alone. Then look out for those in the system who know more, acknowledge their strengths and involve them in what you aim to accomplish.
4. Practice gratitude
One of the worst things you could do to yourself is to think you are doing a favor by volunteering. Your experience will be a lot more fulfilling if you realize that there’s a lot to gain in terms of experience, perspective and life skills. Be thankful for the opportunity.
5. Lighten up
It’s a sabbatical - a time to do things that challenge and excite you but also a time to step back, relax, laugh a lot and spend time with yourself. So while you may have ambitious goals, it is important to cut yourself some slack and have the humility to accept when things don't always go as planned.