Sabbatical, Step 3: Relax. Get a Plan.

“R-E-L-A-X. Relax.” -Aaron Rodgers

Easier said than done.

But I did learn how to do it.

I just don’t know if I can completely express the “how” I did it. It took time. And I had to learn that it was OK. When you have predicated your existence on ALWAYS being ready, ramping down takes practice.

It wasn’t until late in 2017 that I could actually sit down and watch a movie – I felt like I was wasting time. I couldn’t read for leisure until our road trip; if I was reading, I was supposed to learning something productive about medicine. Therefore, leisure reading wasn’t relaxing. It didn’t even exist in my world. Even one of my interests – distance running – involves a lot of work. Chopping firewood, too.

Even our son notices that the only time I’m quiet and relaxed is when I’m hiking. It’s funny, because of the four people in our house, I’m usually the most talkative. Except when I’m hiking. Then, I’m hands-down the quietest, and it drives Andrew nuts. “Are you OK, Dad? You haven’t said anything in an hour.”

It didn’t really feel like I was taking time off until around Sonia’s birthday in mid-January 2017. Then it hit me. I really was off.

I adopted a new schedule quickly – something else I learned about myself, even when I’m 60+ years old (I’ll always want the framework of a schedule. It’s healthy for me). I still got up early. I took Andrew to school for the 2nd half of fifth grade so he wouldn’t ride the bus. I took over doing the laundry and a fair amount of the cooking at home. I became Sonia’s delivery person for the post-office while she was still running her sewing business.

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What you don’t see is the enormous pile of wood on my parent’s patio.

I also made it a point to start catching up with people. Ping-pong nights with friends. Coffee club with the nurses that I worked with. Hiking every weekend with Sonia and the kids. I chopped up an entire 70 year old maple tree – with manual tools. I also hurt my right elbow and probably did some damage to my ulnar collateral ligament. Good thing I never had a devastating slider before this. 39 year olds don’t often get Tommy John surgery for lumberjacking.

I dove back into running – and probably too quickly. In early February, I went out to the Katy Trail and intended on running for 80 minutes. Right when I got to 40 minutes, I saw a bridge in the distance. It looked close enough, so I told myself that I’d turn around when I reached the bridge. 20 minutes later, I got to the bridge. I also learned that day that the longest I can go without water while running in 45 F weather is about an hour and 50 minutes. The best description of me on the final mile was “more than a bit woozy.”

I guess I learned to relax the way I lived. I went overboard on a few activities. I have learned since then. Seriously. Well, kind of.

I can give you a brief summary about how I was for the first 3-4 months.

January: “FRRREEEEEDDDOOOOOOM!!!!!!” (I threatened to not leave our bedroom for 24 hours; Sonia bet me that I couldn’t do it. She was right.)

February: “Don’t make me go back…. No, there’s no such thing as work. Please, just go away.” (Weeps softly to self in the corner while in the fetal position).

March: “I really like New Mexico. I’m never coming back to St. Louis. Future, yeah, I have a future. Although the only thing I can think about right now is air-conditioning. Damn, it’s hot, and it’s only March.”

April: “Hey, I still feel pretty good! You know, I think I might work again someday. I don’t know how to get there.”

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Sonia was sick, so I took the kids to Salt Lick Point in Valmeyer, IL. It’s our favorite hiking spot that’s within one hour of St. Louis.

So besides becoming the family man that I had always wanted to be, I could entertain the thought of the future. Yes, I had relaxing and unwinding to do. But I could begin to think about the next step. It took me 3.5 months to get to the point where I could entertain thinking about a productive future. I don’t know if that’s fast or slow.

I had two productive things to do in the second half of the spring of 2017. One was plan our crazy, four week road trip. The other was figuring out how I was going to put a career back together.

My sister had given me a copy of Do You Feel Like You’ve Wasted All That Training to read. Short answer: no, I don’t, and neither did the author. It’s probably worth reading if you are entertaining a career change. It’s much more helpful to read BEFORE one pulls the trigger on a change. (Note to self if I’m every a time traveler). The one big takeaway I got from the book was this: if you have been in a career with a very defined track, get outside/professional help on making a career change. And I could see why.

I had a CV, but no resume.

I knew I had done a lot of worthwhile work, but I didn’t know how to communicate to people outside of healthcare.

I had a lot of leadership and collaborative skills, but who outside of a pediatrics office would care?

I looked up some medicine specific career coaches. They were all out of town, a lot of money, and I didn’t want to handle a change this big on FaceTime.

I talked to a career coach out of state where we could have met once or twice for extended periods, but I wasn’t sure traveling out of state for advice would help me with a local job search.

Then I did something completely out of character for me. I researched life coaches.

Wow. Just. Wow.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m sure some people find life coaches helpful, and that perhaps there are some pragmatic ones as well.

I just didn’t find any of those people. What I did find was a lot of green crystals and aromatherapy. Yikes. If I went this route, I was on the “A Train” to hippie central.

Look, my analytical brain from 13.5 years of pediatrics won’t go away. Homeopathy just isn’t my thing. No offense to anyone that sees a benefit to it. However, pretty stones and scents weren’t going to get me from where I was to where I wanted to go. I felt like I was completely hosed. I then searched under local career counselors.

Remember, folks. When doing searches, if you ask a garbage question, you get a garbage response. Sometimes, you just have to enter the right data.

In mid-April, I found a person (Sue Eckberg) who runs a company called Career Focus. She is a true mastermind and mentor. I don’t know how to describe her, but the Bowerman quote at the top (of my next blog) is probably my best description. She is a kinder, less-gruff Bill Bowerman. She was the candle holder; I groped toward the light (more on this next in my next post).

DISCLAIMER: Anyone entertaining about taking significant time off before a career change should think about including in their budget for some sort of career counseling. I won’t talk cost (it’s not as bad as some think). Maybe working in a group (which would keep the cost lower) would be sufficient. But getting outside, unbiased, and professional advice can’t hurt. It certainly helped me.

I met with her a few days after first contact. For a flat fee, she met with me for two hours to discuss my career arc, strengths, weaknesses, and general potential pathways for me. She then agreed to meet with both me and Sonia (for free) two weeks later to discuss what type of services she offered beyond the initial assessment. If I felt that I had enough help from that, fantastic. She did not put on a hard sell at all. She did give me some time to think about coming on as a client of hers. If I did, I would have her assistance for 10 months if I paid for her career guidance. All she asked is that I let her know in a week or two if I wanted to come aboard because she needed to budget her time as well.

I found her initial assessment helpful. What I really appreciated was the fact that she sat down with Sonia as well (as she recognized that while she might just be working with me, my family was in fact along for the ride).

I wanted to come aboard, but I had one small problem. It’s early May – we would leave in 4 weeks to go on a road trip, and it seemed silly to do one month of work, then be gone for a month. I called Sue and explained my predicament. I asked if she would let me come aboard when we got back in July.

Sure, no problem. See you in two months.

Fantastic. I started to relax a little bit more. I had another two months to just relax before I would formally begin working on “The Future.” I was able to keep unwinding. I had a general plan for addressing career #2. Shortly before my 40th birthday, I was getting things figured out. My second blog was called “No Parachute.” I now had a parachute; it even had a functioning ripcord.

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At the state archery tournament. Steve Martin not pictured.

Sonia was right; the urge would come back. Make no mistake about it. I still wasn’t ready to “work” – I had promised my family that I would take AT LEAST one year. A promise is a promise, and starting before January 2018 was off the table. But I could now think about work, know that it was something I wanted to do and that I wanted to plan for.

I don’t remember much about May other than hiking, our kids ending school, and preparing for a 26 day vacation involving a lot of camping. I do know that I was at peace.

Which is not to say that the second half of 2017 would be easy. Far from it. I did learn that changing careers to accentuate the positive so that I wouldn’t DO THIS EVER AGAIN is hard work. In some respects, I was about to begin a level of work and introspection that was more difficult than I had anticipated.

But I saw a road. I had a map. I could see that positive things were not only possible, but likely.

So, when we got back to St. Louis in early July, I began to work my ass off like never before.

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Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 40 year old pediatrician transitioning to a teaching career, happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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