Recurse Center

Sabbaticals for the rest of us

Mai Schwartz

The word “sabbatical” often evokes either a professor deep in a distant dusty archive or someone relaxing on a beautiful beach. But while in theory you could throw your phone in the trash, get bangs, and move to Bali, most of us can’t just walk away from our lives. Dropping everything to do self-exploration isn’t realistic, affordable, or even attractive to most people, but you don’t need to sever ties or renounce society to take a sabbatical. You don’t even necessarily have to leave your house.

A sabbatical is really just a period of time you set aside to explore new ideas without being beholden to a specific outcome. It’s not a vacation or a cure for burnout (although it can help you clarify why you’re burned out), and you don’t need to have an existential crisis to qualify. Maybe you’ve maxed out the learning and growing you can do at your job, or maybe a side project is outgrowing the free time you have for it. Maybe you lost your job in a reorg or layoff, and you’re not quite ready to look for another one. A sabbatical can be a time to explore at your own pace and think about what you’d like to do going forward.

This post is about how to think through whether a sabbatical is right for you, when you should take one, and what taking your sabbatical at RC can offer you.

To state our biases upfront: we think that anyone can benefit from a sabbatical and that if you’re a programmer RC is a particularly good place to do it.

Why would you take a sabbatical?

You might associate sabbaticals with tenured professors or senior executives, but anyone can take one and there’s no minimum level of experience or salary at which you suddenly deserve it. You also don’t need to have a world-changing idea. A sabbatical is a chance for you take the time for yourself to explore what’s fun and interesting to you. Give yourself permission to follow your curiosity, even if it’s not clear where it will lead.

Taking a break from paid work to take a sabbatical may seem like a luxury, but it’s actually an investment: in yourself and your knowledge and skills, and also in your very capacity to learn on your own. At RC, we call your ability to direct yourself your volitional muscles and we think growing them is one of the most valuable things you can do.

Building your volitional muscles means following your own intrinsic motivations, rather than external pressures or fears. It means doing the work that excites you, rather than the work you must force yourself to do. It means asking yourself what do I really want to do? and then doing that. Making those decisions for yourself is a skill that gets easier with practice.

Taking a break to do this kind of intentional reflection is valuable not just for programming, but also for thinking about your life more broadly. A sabbatical can help you rediscover what you deeply care about, independent of what your family, financial necessity, or society at large might pressure you to do. A sabbatical can expand your idea of what’s possible and of what choices are in your power to make.

When and how should you take a sabbatical?

You can take a sabbatical wherever you are, whenever you’re ready. Maybe you’re an IC with a passion project, or a manager who wants to dive back into the nitty gritty. Maybe your job has sapped your enthusiasm, and you’re ready to reignite your love of programming and learn things that no one wants to pay you for. It might be time to take a sabbatical if:

  • you’ve taken advantage of all the opportunities to learn and grow in your current role, and you’re still hungry for more challenges
  • you want to write software where the architecture, language, tradeoffs, and more are determined by your curiosity, not their business value
  • you want to learn or build things for the fun of it
  • you have a side project you’re so excited about that it keeps taking up more of your time and attention, and your loved ones have been complaining that you spend too much of your spare time programming…

There’s no one way to take a sabbatical. Logistical considerations vary a lot and are addressed in our FAQ and User’s Manual. If you’re ready to take a sabbatical but you’re not sure what exactly your sabbatical should look like, that’s okay! Start thinking about something you’re interested in learning or building, and don’t discount the importance of it. You can act as though your ideas matter before you fully believe it.

When I first started working as a facilitator at RC, I thought most people needed help going easier on themselves. I’ve come to believe it’s the opposite: people underestimate themselves and need encouragement to take their own work and ideas seriously. I still regularly remind Recursers to be kind to themselves, but now I also say that one of the most important ways to be kind to yourself is to not sell yourself short.

Think about what conditions your ideas need to grow, and cultivate those conditions around you. This generally means devoting some combination of time, energy, and attention to them. It can also mean changing your environment to support your work or investing money in relevant tools, but it doesn’t have to. And at some point, it’ll likely mean sharing your work with other people.

Why sabbatical at RC?

As RC alum Allie Jones said: “The thing RC kind of teaches you is that you can figure anything out, given enough time.” At RC, you have the time, space, and support not only to dive deep into concepts you thought were beyond you, but also the freedom to figure out what you actually care about and what you can say no to in order to focus on it. It’s an open invitation to do the best work of your life, in a community of others doing the same thing.

RC provides lightweight structure and dedicated time and space to work on your projects without external pressures or deadlines. Doing your sabbatical at RC also means you’re not alone. You’ll be surrounded by kind, curious programmers who are all choosing to push themselves to grow, and you’ll have the support of a community with a high degree of intellectual ambition and a high degree of psychological safety — many environments have one or the other, but not both.

What’s your biggest programming dream? What’s the project that’s been itching at the back of your mind and won’t let you go? What’s the most ambitious thing you would learn or build if you really had time to focus on it? Tell us about it when you’re ready to apply!