Sabbaticals for highly effective people

By: Jennifer Good



I have never read the 1989 classic self-help bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the definition of “effective” — especially given how quickly it became a best-selling business book. My guess was that “effective” had something to do with a clear focus on making lots of money. So I never bought and read it. But at some point, I came across a list of the seven habits and a brief explanation of each. One in particular, has always stuck with me: “sharpen the saw.” To be effective one must occasionally stop what one is doing and replenish: mind, body, spirit.

The part about “sharpen the saw” that I’m not crazy about is the literal translation, as it were, of the analogy. Saws get sharpened, after all, to cut things like trees – and I figure we don’t need to be any better than we already are at cutting down. The part about “sharpen the saw” that really appeals to me is the encouragement to stop. Pull out the saw. Sharpen. And that, it turns out, is what I am doing right now: sharpening the saw.

The university is one of the last bastions of the sabbatical. Every three years I can choose to request a six month sabbatical – or every six years I can request a year-long sabbatical. I have to apply for the sabbatical by articulating what I will do during my six months. Then my department and the university must decide whether to grant the time away from teaching and if they do, I take a modest cut in pay. There are lots of ways that one can choose to fill the sabbatical time. Often people focus on research and writing. Or the time might include the revamping of a course. There could be travel involved. Conferences are often attended, courses taken, etc.

As I write I am sitting in a café in France. We rented our home to a professor from Europe who is on sabbatical and we are renting a small apartment in Lyon. I am reading books and articles that have been piling up for years. I am researching an article… that will become a book… about electronic waste (a new area of study for me). I will revamp my winter courses and attend a conference in England. I am running regularly (something that is always ridiculously hard to do when I’m teaching) and finding time to spend with my partner and daughter. All the while I am eating lots of pain-au-chocolate, practicing my French and wandering amidst centuries, sometimes millennia, old architecture. My mind and body are working hard and differently. All the while, I’m sharpening.

I’m not sharing this to gloat. I understand what a special situation I have and I think that similar opportunities should be more widespread – within the university and beyond. You Millennials may have something to do with this kind of “sharpening-the-saw revolution”. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Statistics reports that Millennials stick with jobs, on average, no more than three years and, according to a Chicago Tribune article from June of this year, you are likely to choose schedule flexibility and a meaningful job over a high salary. For a combination of reasons, you are a generation that seems to understand the importance of pausing.

So, while it may seem ironic to talk about sharpening the saw when the next eight months will be so intense, perhaps this is the perfect time to commit to maintaining balance. Perhaps that priority will not only help make you a highly effective student but also a force for positive change as you eventually embark on a career.


Jennifer Good is an associate professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film (she is on Sabbatical this semester).

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