The Benefits of a Creative Sabbatical

Nassim Assefi has been busy. For the past 3 years, she was the director of Stage Content at TEDMED, a natural outgrowth of her TED Fellowship 7 years ago. She is a doctor, who takes care of patients in her home base of Seattle, and advises startups such as ZocDoc and Maven. She has written 2 novels. Now she is the Executive Director of MEDICC.

I interviewed her, listen here:

She calls it her “creative sabbatical”. Her first was when she was 18, when she did an extra year of college to do all the things she couldn't fit into her pre-med regimen--more theater, creative writing, a radio show, and political engagement. After college, she moved to Iran to do her first public health research project in a mountainous village.

She has taken a creative sabbatical, on average, every 3-4 years:

"Basically, it is a pause from whatever I’m doing, to do something completely different. To give my mind a rest, to do some creative play. To recover from the intense pace of work that I’m prone to engaging in. And to learn new skills, too.”

This phenomenon harkens back to a term I read in a book by called Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz called The Power of Full Engagement. The term is Oscillation.

To prevent any muscle from atrophy, it must be rested & fueled properly.

"Energy, not time, is our most precious resource”, say Schwartz & Loehr, who continue to outline 4 more types of energy: "physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

After she takes these sabbaticals, Nassim runs full-force into a new project, and that is it. In my interviews, I like to understand how an experience - whether that is a book, documentary, conversation, or trip - has changed someone’s perspective on something. When I ask Nassim, she answered in a cheerful way that underscores an urgent interest in making as much progress as possible:

"The first answer is I almost don’t read or watch anything that is going to change my life... I understand that many people read or watch movies or TV for entertainment, and for distraction. I don’t do that. I don’t have time for that. And that's not really how I unwind anyway."

Then, she caps it off with a statement that reflects a way of intentional living that seeks to be continually invigorated by her environment:

"Everything that I read and view and persist in going to the end changes me. That's the big picture answer.”

Writing is something else she spends her energy & time on. So, I asked her about writer’s block. “I don’t have time to have writer’s block”.

Looking back at the interview, and others I’ve done, it shows me that time is a hugely important currency. Despite what Loehr and Schwartz say - about energy being our most precious resource - while it may be hugely important important, it is renewable.

Time is non-renewable. But, you can outsource it, slow it down, or speed it up.

A creative sabbatical acts as a way to bend time to your advantage. You can take the time to understand what gives you energy when you’re not in a creative sabbatical. It is a time to learn about yourself, to identify what your goals are, and whether or not you have the skills you need to achieve these goals. If you need different skills, you can figure out if you’d rather our-source the skills, or if you’d want to learn them yourself.

Just as food preferences change over time, your interests change as well. You might go from liking heavy metal music to appreciating classical. Or, you might find that you like each, but in different settings. Creative sabbaticals offer a way to be able to reflect on why your preferences have changed, how they have changed, and where you want to go in the future.

Full Interview:

Have you taken a creative sabbatical? Comment about it below - what did you discover? 

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