5 Things I Learned on Sabbatical

View from the beach

I was fortunate recently to take advantage of a great benefit of working at Microsoft. The Microsoft Achievement Award is a sabbatical program that is offered to eligible employees of the company, giving them the opportunity to take an extended leave from work. I won’t go into all the details of the program, eligibility, etc. but MS employees can learn more about it on HRWeb. In my case I chose to take 8 weeks of leave plus one week of vacation, so that I could get most of the summer (to spend with my kids while school was out) as well as some time after they were back in school to spend days with my wife. I’m extremely grateful to the company for affording me this time, and it was a (mostly) wonderful and energizing time away.

ProDrive Racing School

Besides relaxing and strengthening my relationships with friends and family, I learned a ton. I learned many things in the usual way. I had time to read stacks of books and magazines, and articles online. I spent some time learning new software and technologies like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Dreamweaver, Azure Web App Development, Azure ML, Python, and more. I learned hands-on as I did projects on the house, and with my track day car. And I learned from the seat of my pants at a 3-day racing school at Portland International Raceway.

I also learned about myself as I used the time to step back and reflect about how I have been working, and how I want to show up at work going forward. In this post I would like to share some of those learnings and insights, as much in the hope that they’ll be useful to others as to cement them in my mind so that I don’t forget them as I am once again embroiled in the busy daily life of software development.

#1 – I still love working here

By far the most common question I got when people learned I was planning to take a sabbatical was: “Are you coming back?” I always gave some kind of vaguely affirmative gesture or statement, but truthfully I didn’t know. I’ve worked here for 26 years, starting the day of my 20th birthday. Maybe I would decide it was time for a change? For the past 10 years or so I’ve given people the advice that there are 4 factors they should evaluate to decide if they should go get a new job:

  1. “Do I like the people that I work with?”
  2. “Do I like the kind of work that I’m doing on a typical day?”
  3. “Am I learning?”
  4. “Do I think that my leadership is taking us in the right direction?”

I usually suggest that they rank each on a scale of 1-10 and then add up the results. Total less than 10? Get out! More than 35? That’s a great job. Any one factor rated 3 or below? Find a way to fix it or bounce, even if the rest are 10s. I decided that I would wait a few weeks to get some distance and perspective, then answer these questions for how I felt about Microsoft at this point in my career. Here’s how I scored:

  1. “Do I like the people that I work with?” 8 – I really get to work with some amazing people that I admire and think of as friends
  2. “Do I like the kind of work that I’m doing on a typical day?” 8 – Most days I am pretty fired up about the opportunity I have to make an impact
  3. “Am I learning?” 9 – It can be daunting at times to keep up, but there is a tremendous opportunity to learn
  4. “Do I think that my leadership is taking us in the right direction?” 10 – I am a huge fan of Satya and think that the exec team is solid

My takeaway: It is great to have a feeling of resolve, that I am in the right place for me. Any anxiety that I felt about whether I should still be here is gone, and that makes it easier to approach each day as an opportunity to learn, have an impact, and have fun working with people that I like.

#2 – I work for my family

I’m embarrassed to say it, but I really did have to remind myself that the most important thing in my life is my family. It was fun to spend time with my wife and kids, travelling, going to horse shows for my youngest daughter, and just generally hanging out. It reminded me of all the time during my normal working life that I’m not really “with” my family when I’m with my family. This hit me when my wife squeezed my hand at dinner a few weeks into my sabbatical and said “it’s so nice not to have Janice at dinner anymore.” (For most of our marriage, Liz has called my phone “Janice” after the annoying girlfriend on Friends that Chandler can never seem to get rid of.) It’s true that often there is something going on at work that really does require me to be mailing or texting during family time.

Me working while  “on vacation” 

When I ran the Windows Insider program I was pretty much surgically attached to my phone as I tweeted at all hours of the day. But the truth is also that sometimes I just took my phone out of my pocket out of habit, and found myself engrossed in some email thread or status report and then tuned out. I’ve missed a lot of what was actually important in the process.

My takeaway: I will be more rigorous in partitioning family time from work time going forward. I don’t think it means I will work less, but I do think that it means I will defer some things until later where in the past I wouldn’t have.

#3 – It is insanely easy to get stressed about the wrong things

A few weeks into my sabbatical, I noticed that I felt AMAZING. I had fewer aches and pains getting out of bed in the morning, my neck and shoulders (usually tense) felt relaxed, and I’d had no headaches or stomach aches in weeks. “Less stress dummy” was the obvious answer to me wondering why I felt so good, but it wasn’t a completely satisfying answer. I contemplated why there was such a difference in my stress level. I like my job, and my team is making great progress, so the stress of the actual work wasn’t that bad really. So what was it? I realized that what really stressed me out at work was the “drama” that surrounded the work. There was interpersonal drama: certain personalities at work that rubbed me the wrong way, or people that I thought should be replaced with someone more capable. There was management drama: people on my team who weren’t getting along or were pulling me into drama that they were dealing with. There was organizational drama: what will happen with the next reorg, what is the obvious or yet-to-be-revealed fallout from the last reorg? All these things are like little whirlpools that suck you in, spin you around, and become hard to escape. But, removed from them, and with the context of my renewed understanding of what was actually important to me (my family, and doing meaningful work) I felt kind of silly that I let myself get sucked in and spun around. Did I really need to spend energy on these things, especially knowing that they create residual and compounding stress that I take home? No.

My takeaway: While I of course still need to be cognizant of all aspects of work, I will try to be intellectually engaged but not emotionally entrenched. I’m starting each day with a reminder to focus on the things that really matter, and shrug off the things that really don’t. I feel like this is going to be a continuous challenge. After all, I never intended to let these dramas cause me stress, they just snuck up on me.

#4 – Social conversations feel very different than most work conversations

I am by nature an introvert. Many people who know me only at work would probably be surprised by that, since I am typically fairly gregarious and garrulous at work and ensure that I get my point across in work conversations. On sabbatical, in conversations with family and friends I was more in my natural character – listening quietly more often, sharing information in a more “take it or leave it” way, and talking more to incite laughter than to persuade a course of action. During a lull in a long conversation with my friend Andrew, I was reflecting on how much better it felt to talk with him than in many of my conversations at work. Why? I consider many of my coworkers to be real friends as well, so it wasn’t just that he and I were close. Andrew and I often challenge each other or argue, so it wasn’t that was no conflict. We were discussing serious topics, so it wasn’t that the conversation was just frivolous and fun. It hit me then that the purpose of the conversation, and our approach to it were substantially different than most serious work conversations. The purpose of the conversation was for each of us to learn and increase our shared understanding. Our approach was that we each genuinely wanted to hear the other’s point of view, which meant that even if we talked over each other or interrupted accidentally we were quick to apologize and give the other room to speak. In contrast, I think that many work conversations have the purpose of many parties in the conversation trying to “win.” Participants are often trying to push a course of action or viewpoint that they have already decided upon, so new information or viewpoints introduced are approached as things to counter or diminish in some way. Other participants try to “score points” by being the first to jump in with an insight, or pointing out obstacles, which frequently means interruption and a struggle to keep the conversation on track. I know I have been guilty of this myself, even as I have actively sought to be more inclusive and respectful in how I engage. But I realized that I always sort of accepted that this was an essential nature of work conversations – that we had to argue to consensus or conclusion which meant that some point of view had to “win” in the process. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true anymore.

My takeaway: I believe that work conversations don’t need to be a zero sum game, where there are winners and losers. I will be trying to approach these conversations in a more thoughtful way myself, as well as trying harder to ensure that the conversations I’m a part of are healthier. I want to feel as energized and mind-expanded from work conversations as I am from social conversations with my friends and family.

#5 – More humility is a good thing

At work, I have a lot of expertise in most of the things that we wind up talking about. I’ve been employed making software for 57% of my existence on this planet. And the expectation of managers at Microsoft (expressed or implied) has always been that they should be experts in everything that their team builds. But that expertise often comes with the side effect of leaders feeling they should always know what “the right thing” is for the team to do, and to drive that “right thing” actively. Again, this was super obvious on my sabbatical in conversations with friends and family. When someone was talking about a topic which they knew really well but I didn’t, it felt great to sit back and listen and learn. They had no expectation that I must be an expert in what they were talking about, and I had no anxiety about whether I really should know it or not. Those conversations just felt better, even when we were mutually trying to decide on what “the right thing” was to do. For example, when my friend Andrew and I did some work on his car we both approached it with humility. He was an expert in some things, and I was an expert in others, and collectively we worked through it in way that was fun and educational.

One of my favorite books is “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling (seriously, everyone should read this book) and there is a passage in it which I absolutely love:

“Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.” It also means, when you do have an opinion, being prepared to change it when you discover new facts. It is quite relaxing being humble, because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.”

– Hans Rosling

My takeaway: I think that we err too far sometimes in the belief that leaders need to be experts on all aspects of what their team does. I will try to be more of an expert at leading, and more humble about what I think I know or what “the right thing” is to do.  

There are a great many other things I learned, or was reminded of, during my time off. And I feel like as I return back to work, I’m likely to be struck by some other realizations as well. It was truly a wonderful opportunity to step away, reflect, and learn. I am incredibly grateful to my family, coworkers, and Microsoft for supporting me in taking the time off.

Thanks for reading,

13 more random things that I learned

  1. Be sure to check whether the Airbnb you are renting in San Diego for a week during a hot spell has air conditioning.
  2. There is almost no shade offered at horse shows in the summer.
  3. The importance of sunscreen is directly proportional to your quantity of baldness.
  4. It is possible to drive to Boise from Seattle and back in 1 day but it’s not advisable.
  5. It is difficult to back up a 22′ trailer without hitting your neighbor’s mailbox.
  6. Don’t forget to bring your dog’s vaccination records if you take her to Canada with you.
  7. Organic strawberries picked moments before eating them taste like an angel punching you in the taste buds.
  8. Birthdays after 21 involve an asymptotically less amount of tequila.
  9. Naps. Are. Amazing.
  10. It is exponentially difficult to reduce lap times. Going from 1:43 to 1:35 is easy. Going from 1:34.1 to 1:34.0 is staggeringly hard.
  11. Always double check whether a delivery from Home Depot actually contains all of the items you ordered *before* it shows up at your house.
  12. It is incredibly and unbelievably painful to have to tell your child that their pet (and best friend) has died.
  13. My wife is the most amazing, wonderful, patient, and beautiful woman that has ever lived.

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