As millions of students and their parents continue to reflect on and question the value of a COVID era collegial experience, much has been said about the beloved “gap year”. Without surprise, thousands of American students have chosen to take one in the current academic year.
But young people who intrigue their souls are not the only ones who can benefit from a year of reflection at this worrying time.
In 2019, at the age of 50, I embarked on a 40s sabbatical year. My trip took me to one of the most unlikely places in the world – a remote island in the Indian Ocean, 1,500 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa.
After climbing the corporate ladder for three decades and holding leadership roles at United Airlines, Starbucks, and US Airways, I realized it was time to stop fueling my ambition and refueling my soul. So my family and I sold our house, packed our bags and moved to Mauritius, where I was an executive in residence and director of communications atAfrican University of Leadership(ALU).
I was seduced by ALU’s moonshot mission to develop a new generation of entrepreneurial and ethical African leaders. The school, with campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, does this by challenging students representing over 40 African nations to declare a mission rather than a great one – and in doing so uncover their purpose and face a great social challenge. . Students work with faculty to create a learning path to catalyze their personal appeal. This may help explain whyNew York TimesjournalistDavid Brooksdescribes ALU as one of four places on earth “where history is made”.
There are three big lessons that I woke up to while spending time in this innovative environment during my break year from my 40s:
Do difficult things
In 1961, John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are difficult.” At ALU, we liked to say that solving Africa’s biggest problems calls us to do tough things. In my case, I’ve been called upon to do crazy things – like sell our house and move 10,000 miles from the leafy suburbs of Chicago’s north coast to the turquoise north shore of a distant African island. Now, perhaps more than at any time in our life, it’s time to stop contemplatingwhat ifand start declaringwhy not.
Find space for space for reflection
The breadth and volume of news, information, and noise to which we are exposed provides little or no refuge in which our brains can do what they are supposed to do: think. So take long walks, choose the silent car on the train, skip the movie on the plane, or rent a secluded cabin for a week (or maybe move to a remote island for a year). As my daughter reminded me during our third month of quarantine, a silly old bear once wisely professed, “Doing nothing often leads to the best of something.”
If we care about everything we’ll never do anything
In the three months before our departure for Mauritius, there were a hundred reasons not to get on this plane. For example, ensuring adequate international health insurance has become a bureaucratic quagmire. (To our surprise, the waiver of pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act does not apply to international coverage for U.S. citizens.) And nothing has broken my heart more than trying to reassure my teenage daughter that everything would be fine. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she fell asleep each night, devastated at the thought of leaving her best friends behind and worried about making new friends in a far away land.
Each new headwind would have been a valid reason in itself to abandon our plans. But we never gave up on the only reason we were doing this in the first place: to do our little bit to help change the trajectory of a continent with so much potential for itself and the world. And along the way, change the trajectory of our own lives.
Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “There is no passion in playing small – in settling for a life smaller than the one you are capable of living.” This is why I have come to believe that our lives will not be measured by the titles we get, the rewards we collect or the wealth we accumulate, but rather by the moments of impact we get – the the mark we leave on people and the world around us and, more importantly, the extent of our willingness to let them markwe.
After spending 12 months surrounded by the limitless potential of a new era of African leaders, I realized it was time to stop trying to prove myself to the world and dedicate myself to making the world better. . In August, I returned to the United States as a professor of public relations at Syracuse University. In my new role, I am on a mission to help my students declare and achieve their missions. And along the way, I’ll do my little bit to help shape the next generation of entrepreneurial, ethical and consistent leaders our world needs more than ever.
University lecture theaters are a far cry from the lavish executive suites I have visited in recent years, but there is something magical about living on an African island for a year. I got the person I thought the world expected from me and I left the person I know the world needs me.
Isn’t that what the sabbaticals are for, at any age?
Jim Olson is a professor of public relations at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and former director of corporate communications at United Airlines, Starbucks and US Airways.
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