My “Time-On” Sabbatical, or Where the Heck I’ve Been These Past 10 Months

Susan Su multi stamped passport and visas“Aren’t you done relaxing yet?” a well-intentioned entrepreneur friend once asked me.

I was startled. For an overachiever plowing through life, taking time to be with myself and not have anything important to do was the most un-relaxing thing I could imagine.

In fact, it was excruciating.

Last fall, I left my position running business operations at a web startup in Austin to spend what I thought would be four months with myself, the person I’d somehow lost touch with over the years and had been awkwardly avoiding for most of 2012.

I loved leading that team, and I loved working with Noah, who became both a mentor and a close friend. Still, I had a feeling that designing sales strategies, no matter how brilliant they were, wasn’t my calling. The problem was, I had taken such a long break from being quiet with myself that I didn’t know what my ‘calling’ was. Or if it mattered. Did my Chinese cousin who worked in accounting for a Chongqing real estate developer know what her “calling” was? Still, she seemed a lot more content than I was.

Getting an adjustment in kapotasana from teacher Rolf Naujokat

Enter my highly uncomfortable ‘relaxation’ time, where I spent five months living in western India, doing a 10-day vipassana meditation course, and deepening my existing yoga practice with Rolf Naujokat, master Ashtanga yoga teacher, a spindly 58 year old German who had been living peaceably in India for 30 years. My intention was to clear some space for the real me to emerge from its hiding place.

Doing less might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d spent a lifetime cramming in more and more achievement and excellence, which conferred to me the enormous privilege of taking a multi-month sabbatical — but which also distanced me from the part of myself that did have all the right answers to my biggest uncertainties, the part that truly knew what was good and healthy and right.

In reality, my time ‘off’ was anything but ‘off.’ It was a time for me to turn on like I’d rarely had to in my entire life. Lighting the inner light required energy, vigilance and attention. Using that inner light to illuminate my essential self required softness and courage in the face of painful opening and vulnerability. Ultimately, getting to see and know this essential self was my way of finding guidance that no friend, no advisor, no parent, no book, no blog, could give to me.

I gave up a few things for this experience…

  • Around $8,400 — also known as, a few short months of living in SF. See my spending breakdown here.
  • 10 months of my career to uncomfortable joblessness, aka no safe identity that I could use as social currency with family, friends, and even strangers on the train
  • 10 days of my life to Vipassana meditation
  • Countless hours and joules to my daily Mysore Ashtanga yoga practice

I gained a lot too…

A way to practice knowing, accepting and attending to myself, every day.

Attention is an act of love, and I discovered that paying full attention to myself and all my internal and external sensations, rather than running towards distraction or avoidance or otherwise reacting to what I observe, was the very real and pragmatic way to love myself without getting too new agey.

Love isn’t in the little luxuries or indulgences I give to myself for a hard day; it’s in the way I unwaveringly observe, with clarity and compassion, whatever it is that is my experience in this moment. Love is not looking away.

Trust in myself.

I thought I trusted myself before, when I was an outwardly confident and successful professional. But, when I left behind the identity that I’d built on my career, my schooling, and other external factors of my persona, I saw that my trust was actually quite shaky — I only trusted my shot if all the conditions were just right.

That trust was fickle; it could go away as soon as my circumstances changed to something unfamiliar, like being a ‘nobody’ in the middle of India, a middling yoga student practicing alongside people who had dedicated their lives to that path. Slowly, I learned to realign my self trust so that it connected to the part of me that’s essential and internal, not my job or resume skills or what my body can do.

On top of these internal gains, I also:

  • Met the amazing man of my dreams, who is my friend, teacher, and partner. This is no small feat, as once upon a time I stamped my feet at God and shouted, Is it ever going to happen??!
  • Set sight on what it is I want to do with the next few years of my life.
  • Reawakened my health and vitality. I’ve never felt more healthy, energetic, attractive (yes!!), strong, and flexible in my life. This alone is worth it. It used to suck to live in this body. Now it’s like swinging in a hammock in paradise, plus I can also climb trees, type really fast, practice yoga, and eat delicious meals.

ANYWAY. There’s lots more I could say. It was 10 months, after all.

If you’re reading this and thinking about taking your own “Time On” sabbatical, I obviously high recommend it. My many thoughts and tips are all jumping up and down shouting “Me first, me! Me!,” making it hard to organize them. So, if you’re reading this, and it speaks to you, and you’re not shy, go ahead — leave a reply in the comments, email me, talk to me! :)

What’s holding you back? What’s pushing you forward? Where do you want to go, and what do you want to do?

UPDATE: It’s been amazing to hear people’s feedback on how this has resonated with their own questions and experience. I realize that not everyone can travel or leave their homes, but… I’m also a believer. I realize that not everyone can travel or leave their homes, but I believe that transformation is for anyone and everyone who’s willing to go out and look for it.


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4 Comments on “My “Time-On” Sabbatical, or Where the Heck I’ve Been These Past 10 Months”

  1. Glad to hear you’ve hit the “refresh button” and started looking inwards for acceptance. Though I feel it’s too early for me to pursue a sabbatical, I’m open to the fact that some day I will want/need to do so.

    I’m not particularly spiritual, so my take on your situation is broader and slightly more objective. In college, I wrote a paper that you may find relevant (see link below). In it, I talk about how democracy and its emphasis on equality leads to a dissatisfied, consumerist nation. On a more personal level, it’s one perspective on why we (people in America) are generally discontent.

    For instance, I might look at someone who’s doing just slightly better, and think “I want what he has”. In order to compensate, I might buy things like hair gel, a cooler jacket, shoes, tight jeans, etc… The problem is that there’s always someone who is slightly better, so I’ll continue to do this for years! Eventually, I’ll let go of what makes me, me. Classic “keeping up with the Joneses” scenario.

    It’s ingrained in society to think this way. Often, the individual who positions herself without identifiable labels (e.g. occupation) doesn’t “fit in” or is considered “weird”. Some, like Ramit Sethi, recognize and excel at this game (e.g. Dream Job, Earn1K). Others, like Tim Ferriss, Steve Jobs, and now yourself, escape it and find alternatives.

    What I admire most is that you made the decision to take a sabbatical. Living in India severed you from identifiable labels, the ones we always fall back on (occupation, credentials, etc…). From reading your experiences, it seems to me that they forced you to take a hard look at WHO you’ve become and HOW you became it. As a result, you became more present as your past became irrelevant.

    I recently read parts of the book Positioning by Al Ries & Jack Trout, and have found that “positioning” is even more powerful than strategies and tactics. Strategies/tactics get you to a position of higher serendipity / chance of getting hired / ability to keep the right man or woman / etc…

    Now that you’re back from your sabbatical, how might you better position yourself in the minds of people? How might you transcend labels like “consultant” or “employee at XYZ”? What words will you carefully select to describe yourself to reach the right people for you?

    I’m sure you’re already aware of this, but it’s ultimately not about me or you. Rather, it’s about the person we’re intending to help. You’ve already earned my trust as an advisor because you not only worked with Ramit, but also took the time to unravel my personal concerns.

    In any case, congrats on meeting “the amazing man of [your] dreams”, knowing what you want to do with the next few years, and vastly improving your health. If you’re ever in SF / Bay Area, I’d love to grab coffee (or a healthier alternative) sometime and hear stories from your trip.

  2. randomly thought where the heck you’ve been after clicking on noah’s site and here i am – reading about your past ten months. BOLD! And congrats on taking the plunge to do this. Takes an awfully courageous* person to trust doing this all works out in the end. Glad everything worked out so well! I don’t think I could ever fathom doing it but sometimes I do think my wife would love to give this a try if it weren’t the financial reasons we need to maintain for the lives we have (and account for the parentals). I think there are some similarities in that she’s good at what she does and always aim to overachieve, but doesn’t like it one lick. I tend to feel guilty I can’t give her the opportunity (yet) to say, “you know what? quit that. go and explore and find out what you really want to do and be.”

    Write me (and tweet… that will remind me to come back. :) ).


    (*courageous if responsible!)

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