Returning from a sabbatical

blog post on returning from a sabbatical

A long essay on finding the light after patches of darkness

Age is lovely. For everyone who is often scared of growing up after 25, I have always embraced that time and said that I grew into my age. It gave me agency, and a sense of security and identity that my early years simply did not have. 

But with growing up comes the ever persistent tug and tether of priorities, and the path that looked like it would continue to linearly go forward is forced to take many roundabouts and u-turns. It is likely that every few years you will find yourself lost, unanchored, hands tied and lying in the darkness of that lost path, trying to pin—point which turn you took to land here, and which turn you need to take to return. 

I am writing this after three months of complete inactivity at work – both at C4E where I look at content-strategy projects, and at Purple Pencil Project, the culture company I founded in 2019 and decided to move to full time early last year. 

The reason for the break is not consequential here and perhaps I will write about it when I am ready to be more candid in public. But today it’s about reflecting on what it has taken me to go from that inaction, overcoming the overwhelming feelings of lagging behind peers, juniors, and seniors, and having a good day after many many weeks of bad ones. And it’s about sharing what really worked to help me get to this one good day. My struggle has been to return from this sabbatical, but at a deeper level, it has been to return from a darkness that enveloped me as my life took a backseat for a quarter of a year, a return from the suffocation of inertia, from feeling like the clock was taking away the minutes and hours and days of this one little life we get to live as humans. 

This is not the first time I have felt it. This might not be the first time you are reading something like this. But let this be a reminder to you and me, then when you know how you have beat the darkness in the past, you can do it again. 

Drain your Brain once 

When I went on a break in October, everything was different. Perhaps the costliest thing about sabbaticals today is how much and how fast everything you know changes. The Instagram algorithm was different, the trending reels and aesthetic, the topics of discussion were different. A whole genocide began in that time. 

Cacooned away from these things, I came back to an onslaught of changes I did not know how to make rhyme or reason of. And so I stopped. For a week and then a few more days, I simply scrolled and browsed. Read newspapers and magazines, caught up on latest shows, and TV dramas. I read a lot of books. I showed up at team meetings even when I felt out of loop, and disconnected, perhaps even annoyed and jealous that younger colleagues had moved so far ahead. I looked at what competitors were upto. 

In the sabbatical, all the ideas and plans I had had, became stale and so, like clearing a swimming pool from old water, I had to drain the old ideas and refill it with a fresh approach. In order to do that, I had to stop, and completely let go of every intrusive thought my brain would throw at me. 

“What if you had done that in October?”

”What if your idea is just a copy of that one?”

Drain your brain once. And then refill it with freshwater. 

There’s more to talk about than work

There is a dialogue in Hometown Cha Cha that goes, “Talking is like pooping. You have to do it enough to feel healthy.” 

Breaks are tough. And many many conversations will feel like they are superficial, going around in circles, have no concrete outcomes, feel like an absolute waste of either your time or someone else’s. Empty promises, open conversations. It feels like cheating to not constantly complain about your work — as if by talking about it, you are building the illusion of solving the problem. 

But take a step back and let these familiar topics of conversation take a backseat. Let your words and conversations wander. Ask questions about what others are upto. Engage as a listener. It may seem worthless, but a stray word or sentence or reference can trigger something truly worthwhile. Take this for example. 

For a month after I had tried to return to work, my business advisor Aditya Save messaged me (thankfully not for an update for I had none to give), to ask me about my relationship with planners (more on this in another blogpost). I have been loyal to my Tiny Change planner for four years, and in that hour of back and forth about simply how I used the planner, I had several epiphanies on what I had to do to get out of this slump. 

It was not an immediate solution, but it reminded me of the things I would do in the past to feel unstuck, the mechanisms I had forgotten in the brain fog of lethargy. 

Retrace your steps

“Whenever I am lost” the planner helps me get direction, I told Aditya in that conversation. But I had barely filled the planner this year, and what i had filled, I had not returned to. This was one among the many coping techniques I have amassed over thhe years to bring myself back on track from any emotional setback I go through. 

Long walks in unfamiliar neighborhoods (There’s a journalism tenet that goes, “To find a story, take the long road to work. It’s always worked for me)

Engaging with art. Read books that interest me but may not necessarily help me in life, re-read old favourites. 

Painting, watching well-made cinema, listening to diverse music. 

Cooking. Cleaning. 

I had replaced all of this with scrolling through social media, which, though it was helping me catch up, it also made me feel worse about being where I am today, filling me up with a negative energy so strong, I became my own roadblock. 

The conversation about the planner helped me retrace my steps. I started to prepare meals. Work out of unfamiliar cafés with unfamiliar people whose stories I did not know, and because I did not know them, I did not have to feel like I was in an imaginary competition with them. I started reading a lot of books I would not have otherwise picked up (because Purple Pencil Project focuses on Indian literature, my international reading quota had dropped drastically). 

Slowly by slowly, I found myself returning. Like a wound that was healing, itching, but the itching soothed because I was letting the gentle wind caress my skin, and not pick at the scabs in the hopes of hastening my recovery (and then doing just the opposite). 

Be the Yes Man

And finally, the ability to say yes. If you do the above, you are bound to get some work and opportunity your way. A small innocuous project. An offer for a simple collaboration. A chance to judge a college competition. 

The instinct is to say no. These are opportunities that would benefit a 25-year-old. At 30 you look silly. But say yes. I don’t know if they are the signs, and I don’t know if they are the right decisions, but saying yes to one thing leads to action on that one thing, and action has a magical effect on life. It makes it shine. 

Being the yes man for a short while is exponentially beneficial in the long-run, but its impact as a brain trick is immediate too. Action begets action and infuses you with a positive energy. Selling our unBlock book for Rs 550 did more good to me than laying out the many many documents where I would make lakhs and crores of rupees. 

Breaks from work are hard. Harder now at the speed with which our world changes. But they must be taken sometimes, and sometimes you will be forced to take them. The only certainty you can have is the equipment to return to a good day, no matter the number and nature of your bad days. So you got to build up that arsenal early. It will stay as your North Star forever. 

Want to talk more about it? Tweet to me @pramankapranam or email me at prakrut[at]purplepencilproject[dot]com