Intellectual Sabbaticals: An Entrepreneurial Alternative

This is an article entitle Intellectual Sabbaticals: An Entrepreneurial Alternative that I wrote for EntreWorld (the publication of the Kauffman Foundation).

I have reprinted the article here:

Intellectual Sabbaticals: An Entrepreneurial Alternative

In October 2002, when I sold my third company, BridgePath, I was faced with the decision about what to do next. After five years of working 90-hour weeks to build my enterprise software firm, I knew that I wasn’t ready to jump right back in to another company.

Yet a sabbatical, with its image of unstructured time on the ski slopes or golf course, didn’t appeal either. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I need to feel productive.

I could have been stuck in a self-imposed limbo save for one factor. I’ve had a deep and long-standing interest in a topic other than entrepreneurship: foreign policy. And I had always envisioned at some point pursuing that dream.

The Case for Structured Time Off

So I used my interest as base to design a different type of sabbatical, which I have come to call an intellectual sabbatical. Rather than being unstructured and open-ended, my time off was highly regimented, with a fixed beginning and end, and designed to set me on a new course.

It’s a formula I’m now ready to recommend to other entrepreneurs, especially those who’ve long nurtured a passion for something other than company building. Of course, in my case, it helped that I was young –- I was 28 when I sold BridgePath. I didn’t have a family to support. And given that I had just sold my company, I had the financial resources to support myself. I was planning on taking three years off.

In constructing my sabbatical, moreover, I had a perspective from which I could draw, plus a goal and a plan. My perspective had been whetted as far back as junior high, when I was the type of teenager who would read biographies of Henry Kissinger. In college, I regretted that requirements for my engineering major kept me from taking public policy courses.

Even as an entrepreneur, with a grueling 24/7 schedule, I found time to join foreign policy organizations and start a few of my own. I also launched a blog, Summation, to have a platform for airing my views on the subject.

Clear Goals, Careful Planning

In pursuing my sabbatical, I wanted first and foremost to earn what I call an unofficial masters degree in foreign policy. My goal was to be able to assist on the world stage. I also wanted to be able to introduce others, specifically business people, to a field they otherwise might not pursue on their own.

Careful planning underscored my time off. I considered myself the CEO of me, and, in fact, friends have joked that I worked harder at that job than I did as CEO of my company. I set daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals.

I determined, for example, that I would read 40 pages a day of policy books, manuscripts, reports, and Web sites. I met weekly with at least 20 people who could enable me to broaden my thinking. I vowed to attend at least one foreign policy conference a month.

As a guest at conferences sponsored by think tanks, the military, and even individuals who held meetings in their homes, I was almost always the resident dummy. I felt honored to be invited. I could see that the contacts I made would lead to new opportunities. I got the chance, for example, to visit all four branches of the military and to spend a week as a U.S. delegate monitoring parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia.

Finding Yourself

My sabbatical, which I had thought would continue for three years, actually came to an end within a year, when in 2003, I launched my fourth company, Stonebrick Group.

Just as in an entrepreneurial company, I felt the need to evolve the company of me after it became clear that my learning curve wasn’t as steep as it had been at the beginning. I wondered, given that, whether I could continue to justify the time spent.

In addition, I was learning that, at least in part because of the knowledge I had gained, individuals and companies were interested in retaining me to arrange introductions that would facilitate their business interests. I discovered that I enjoyed that type of work, which is what Stonebrick does. Currently, I have six clients, four of which have interests outside of the United States.

Ultimately, my intellectual sabbatical, because it was structured, limited in time, and designed to help me figure out what I wanted to do, has enabled me to incorporate my passion into my work. I firmly believe that indefinite vacations can become too stressful for entrepreneurs and can lead to skills atrophying.

Sabbaticals, of course, are supposed to provide opportunities to reflect on life and make choices for the future. It’s ironic that structured time off fulfils that mission better than months on the ski slopes, but I believe that it does. So use your down time wisely. By spending your sabbatical in regimented learning, you will be taking the time to learn what you want to do next.

3 thoughts on “Intellectual Sabbaticals: An Entrepreneurial Alternative

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