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How I Decided to Go on a Sabbatical

Narrative Lifestyle
by Caterina Kostoula Feb 1, 2017

‘What would we do if we won the lottery?’ I would ask my husband on a typical date-night. And then we would start fantasizing. Live on an island. Swim every day. Spend time with the kids. Learn something new. Work a little and because we want to.

In two days we are about to step into this fantasy. We are moving to Koh Samui, Thailand for six months. No, we did not win the lottery. We did not have to.

The idea came about gradually. I was inspired by Stefan Sagmeister, a NYC designer. He is taking five years off of his retirement and intersperses them throughout his working years. This comes at about a year off every seven years. These off-years fuel his creativity. His Ted Talk is worth a watch.

Then Jon Jandai’s talk was also an inspiring one. It is called “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?” Jon describes that when he was in Bangkok, he would work and study all day, but hardly have money to eat. He would never be able to afford a house.

When he quit his job and university and decided to go back to his village, his life became easy. He works in his little garden for a couple of months a year and has enough food to feed his family and sell to the market. He goes fishing. He has built houses on his own and now has a lot of them. And he has plenty of time to enjoy life.

It reminded me of the story of the fisherman and the Harvard MBA. A fisherman in a small Brazilian village fishes just a few hours a day to cover his family’s needs. The MBA asks him ‘What do you do the rest of the day?’ The fisherman replies “I sleep late, play with my children, watch ball games, and take a siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs…”

The businessman wanted to help the fisherman. He offered him a 20-year business plan to grow his business and make millions. Work more hours, buy more fishing boats, control distribution, move to the city.

‘And then what?’ the fisherman asked. The MBA boasted, “Then you could happily retire with all the money you’ve made. You could move to a coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ball games, and take a siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want.”

Both stories show how we can be happy with a minimalist lifestyle. As long as it is aligned with our values. Maybe waiting for weekends and retirement to enjoy life is not the answer.

“We buy things we do not need, with money we do not have to impress people we do not like.” -Fight Club

Last year was a tough one for my family and me. I was pregnant and sick with hyperemesis. Then I got pneumonia. My husband and I were working full time. Our daughter did not enjoy the nursery. She would often cry at drop offs. We struggled to find a nanny. An offer we made to buy a house fell through.

My sickness forced me outside of the day-to-day grind. From a distance, I realized what mattered to me the most. Family. Health. Creativity. Helping people. We discussed with my husband the idea of a Sabbatical.

And we started forming a plan. What if we used my one-year maternity leave to move somewhere else? A tropical island? With a lower cost of living than London? The timing was perfect. I could take a year off of work and still have a job waiting for me at Google when I get back. My daughter was not at school yet. My husband was ready for a break before the next step in his career.

We started working on the details. We chose Koh Samui because of the lovely beaches, delicious food, and good health care. We would also spend 2.5 months in Greece with family. We would store everything and leave our rented flat in London. Remove our car from circulation. Save the money of the nursery. Adopt a minimalist lifestyle.

Our friends’ reaction has been varied. Most were happy for us. A few jokingly said they were jealous. Others said we are crazy. How could my husband quit a good job? How could we uproot ourselves with a newborn and a toddler? How can we move to a place we have not been before? Some predicted that the kids will drive us mad.

The decision feels right. We are taking a year off work to nurture our family, our health, and our minds. Yes, we are giving up at least 1.5 years worth of wages to do so. We are ok with that.

Some would argue it will cost us a lot more than 1.5 years worth of wages. Ellevest CEO, Sallie Krawchec estimated the cost of a 2-year career break for a woman with a $85k salary. It is more than $1.7 million over the course of her career! As a woman, you usually take a double-digit percentage salary cut when you come back from a career break. Even if you just take your maternity leave, you face a huge risk of discrimination by your employer, including losing promotions, bonuses, and even your job.

Yes, you are taking a risk when you go on a Sabbatical or even when you take your whole maternity leave. If money is one of your top values, you should think about it twice. If we lived in Greece with 50% unemployment, we would not do it. If we had no savings, we would not do it. If we had no confidence that my husband’s skill set will be in high demand when we get back, we would not do it.

But, I would argue, if you are in a creative business, your career will be better off after a career break. Sagmeister makes money out of his Sabbaticals in the long run. As his work gets a lot better after a Sabbatical, he can charge a lot more. He argues that all his ideas the seven years that follow a Sabbatical have their seeds in that year off.

“Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs. But many of us fear emptiness. We prefer to remain…surrounded by things…we imagine are subject to our control.” -Wayne Muller

Career is not the typical ladder anymore. We used to think that if you step out of the ladder, everyone else will catch up and surpass you. Career is more like climbing a rock. Taking time to enjoy the view will help you think more clearly about what is the best path ahead. And make the experience a hell lot more pleasant.

So, here is what I want to do in the following months:


I want to enjoy waking up leisurely. Hug and play and laugh with my daughter in our pajamas. Enjoy my newborn sleeping on me in the early hours of the morning. I will have nowhere to be the next day. Put the kids to sleep and spend some romantic time with my husband.


I have found a yoga place in Koh Samui with babysitting service. It is in a garden. We are going to swim a lot. Hopefully, get into the habit of meditation.


I want to explore Thai culture. Learn to cook some Thai recipes. Read a lot of books. Write on my blog. Meet some new people. I will work on the thesis for my Executive Coaching Masters. My husband signed up for an online course. I kept only a couple of coaching clients who I will coach via Skype.

Overcoming my fears

Now is a happy time for me. The family is healthy, and we are treating ourselves. We just spent a month in Greece surrounded by loved ones and good food. We are about to move to a tropical paradise.

‘Joy is the most terrifying, difficult emotion.’ -Brené Brown

As Brené Brown explains, when we feel joy, we also feel fear. We are scared it will all be taken away. We watch our kids sleeping, and our heart melts with love. And then the thought crosses our minds of something terrible happening to them.

I need to follow Brown’s advice and stop ‘rehearsing tragedy.’ Just be grateful for the opportunity of this year. Allow myself to feel the joy. It is those joyful moments that will help us face anything difficult ahead.

There is one more fear I need to face. The fear of disappointment. There is a problem with fantasies. They are loaded with expectations. Mostly unrealistic. This is one of the reasons a lot of people get depressed at Christmas.

I am trying not to idealize what we will find in Thailand. Life will still happen there. The kids will probably get sick. Not everyone we meet will be nice. And, I will still be a sleep-deprived mom.

This Sabbatical is not about happiness. The more you chase happiness, the more it eludes you. It is about growing. There will be bad experiences and good experiences. I will try to greet them all the same way. It is also about love.

This story originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.

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