One of the greatest things I’ve ever done for myself was to plan and take a sabbatical from my law practice to travel throughout Asia. From October, 2006 through March, 2007, my wife and I traveled through Japan, China, Thailand, Nepal, India, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia (Bali), Australia, New Zealand and French Polynesia (Tahiti and Moorea).
Before, during and since the trip, people (colleagues, family, strangers) expressed a variety of responses to the notion of taking a break 15 years into our law practices to do extended travel. While most were positive (some bordering on a kind of awe), I knew there were a few people who saw the time off and the trip as an extravagant self-indulgence. After all, isn’t that the kind of travel (especially rough, the way we did it) best done right after college, before you get going in your career, start developing clients, etc.?
I thought that way, too, when my wife first proposed it before we got married. But she had dreamt of doing extended travel for years before we met and, since I loved to travel, it wasn’t too long before I was fully on board with the program. But while I am grateful and proud of us for taking the sabbatical and doing the trip, I will say it took a lot of meticulous planning to transform the dream into reality. I thought I would share some of the details, in case others are interested in planning a 6 month or longer travel sabbatical.
1. Start planning early. We started our serious planning for the time off and trip at least 5 years before our departure. Credit for this planning goes 100% to my wife, Heather. While I was committed in principle to the dream of taking a chunk of time off to travel, I found it hard to think practically about how to make it happen. But I’m really glad we had 5 years to plan, because that time made it possible both to save money and give ample notice to our employers.
2. Telling the boss. This was in many ways the most important part of the planning process and the aspect that can seem like the biggest challenge (at least it did for me). In my case, I had layers of “bosses” (aka partners) to whom I needed to plausibly sell my dream. Here’s the rub: most of us desire to be so indispensable that our firm cannot thrive without us, which is why we command large salaries, big offices, etc.; at the same time, we may want to have the freedom to pursue a dream like a travel sabbatical. Some (many?) would say that’s not possible, and there’s probably some truth to that. The very definition of indispensable means it would be devastating to my practice to go away for 6 months, largely incommunicado. In my case, at that time, I was not indispensable. I was still largely a “service partner” and it was possible to hire a senior associate to take over my a good part of my caseload (I’m happy to report she has since been elevated to partner).
But I don’t want to oversimplify this part of the equation. I was (and am) very fortunate to work for a law firm and with a group of lawyers sophisticated enough to embrace the notion of a partner leaving for half a year to go explore the other side of the planet. I fully recognize that many (if not most) law firms and managing partners either cannot or will not permit someone to take such a leave, absent some kind of emergency.
In any event, I approached my mentor and senior firm management with the proposal to take a 6 month unpaid leave about a year and a half before I intended to leave. I will admit that I was concerned that, if the request was not well-received, it could impact my advancement and compensation even if I never went, but that was a risk I was willing to take. While nobody received the proposal negatively, it did take the better part of a year before I finally received written “permission” to take the leave.
3. Save. Save. Save. Even if you travel pretty rough, as we did, it’s still expensive. My wife bought my one major airline ticket which got us to and from Asia and across some major geographic gaps for about $4,000 as my 40th birthday present (Thanks!). I still saved and ultimately spent about $20,000 on the trip. When I use the term “rough” here, it bears clarification. We did not stay in youth hostels–mostly because we’re old and I didn’t want to be that creepy 40 year-old guy hanging around, leering at somebody’s young Swedish girlfriend while my wife contemplated divorce (or found herself leering at the Swedish girl’s boyfriend). So, when I say rough, we tried to find acceptable lodging just above the hostel level, which meant we always had a private, lockable room, and sometimes our own bathroom. Insects and cold showers were not that unusual. We also treated ourselves occasionally to finer lodgings, like over Christmas, when we rubbed shoulders with India’s upper class at a plush resort in Goa.
4. What to do with your primary residence. This can be a pain in the ass, but it wasn’t for us. Our next door neighbor, a Cal Tech professor, made it possible for us to lease our house, completely furnished, to two Harvard history professors who were on research sabbatical. Not only did the rent cover our mortgage, but they took better care of our house than we usually did. And we became friends! We also had a vacation condo in Santa Barbara and had to find a renter there, too. Again, we found a visiting French scholar doing post-doctorate research at UC Santa Barbara. All I can say is, if you can find academics to rent your house, they make great tenants.
5. The value of good advice. We have never been “guided tour” people, who call a travel agent and let them plan everything. We did that once, in Egypt, and it made a lot of sense. But for our sabbatical, we did 95% of the planning, arrangements, etc. ourselves. This is harder in some regions than others. Traveling solo in China can be very difficult. Fortunately, for some destinations, particularly India, we benefited from some really solid, trustworthy advice and help both inside and outside the host country.
6. Other details. There were a thousand and one other things to plan and do before we left. These included: arranging for care for our 2 cats, finding the right luggage to “lug” around for 6 months, buying a small quantity of clothes we didn’t mind washing and wearing over and over, in a variety of different climates (Cambodia was sweltering, while the hills in northern Vietnam got really chilly), getting visas for destinations that required them and getting necessary vaccinations. I also decided to blog about the trip, so I bought a computer and set that up.
There is a lot to think about if you contemplate taking a travel sabbatical. And it’s not for everyone. I recognize that the rough lodging alone might seem worse than work for many, and I’ll confess I try to travel more comfortably now. But I’m enormously proud that we planned and did the trip and grateful to my wife, our families and employers for making it possible. I came across a quote from Mark Twain that my wife used to describe how she felt about taking the time away and traveling to distant lands. It fits nicely here:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”