The Zanzibar sabbatical; about ambitions, dreams, goals and whatnot
Maybe it’s obvious. That a person like me, never should take on such an ambitious project. On the other hand, that’s what I’ve done all my life – taken on projects that are too ambitious. And so, maybe its become a habit or maybe I’m just the masochistic type, but there I was, ready to embark on a six month sabbatical to Zanzibar with my family consisting of a husband who…(forget it, I’ll get to him later), and three kids in the ages from 6 to 9. Not that that’s such a big deal. Doesn’t everyone go on sabbaticals these days? At least that’s the impression you can get when you read the weekend editions of the newspapers or the trendy women’s magazines. Not that I’m influenced by those. (Sorry, that’s not true, in GENERAL I love getting inspired by those magazines, but I was not when it comes to the specific decision of taking a sabbatical at Zanzibar). I guess I’m simply trying to downplay that taking a sabbatical is such a big deal, because from a general point of view it may not be, but in my life it’s quite a big thing.
Actually, I’ve done it before. And indeed, I think I am doing it again simply because I did it once before, and it was the best thing I’ve done in my entire life. Ok, so my life has changed a bit since that time in San Francisco when my husband and I took half a year off to play around and have no obligations except for chilling out and renewing our energy level as well as our mental baggage. It’s like ten years, three kids, a lot more mortgage and a few disappointing setbacks in terms of career moves later, but even more so; I do need to make a stop, chill out and rethink a thing or two. And so, a sabbatical seems like just the right thing right now.
And after all, didn’t I make a drawing 15 years ago, in that Women in Management class at SFSU (San Francisco State University), as I was completing the assignment of drawing myself in my wildest dreams, lying in a hammock on a sandy beach with a couple of kids playing in the sand next to me? I spent most of my thirties bringing about the kids. Now, I was ready to bring them to my dream island. As I wrote to a friend of mine; how many substantial dreams do a person have in their lifetime? Two, three, five? So what if it takes 15 years to fulfil one of those dreams? If we only have a handful of dreams (I’m obviously referring to “substantial” ones), and we’re lucky enough to live an average amount of 80 years, 15 years is nothing to ghasp about. Yeah, right, you might be thinking – but I an serious about this, I think a lot of people think they have so little time (this includes myself when I was younger, I always felt I was too late, too slow, too old, or too outdated), but this is an erroneous way of thinking. There IS ENOUGH time for the really important things. It doesn’t matter if it takes longer than you expect or plan for. As long as it happens. So what if it took 15 years to get to that dream island with those kids, now I’m actually fuckingly fantasticly going!!!
this isn’t all of the background story.
There is a husband. And he is in many ways worthy of a story all in itself, but the important thing to mention here, is that he has some of his own ambitions for the sabbatical. Which, in some way or another, he has managed to drag the rest of the family into. Fortunately, they are fun projects. Like the one with the monkeys; he calls it “Hey, hey with the monkeys – project”. Who would dare to be negative to that one? You probably are not aware of it, and neither was I, so please let me inform you that in Zanzibar there are two major problems when it comes to animal extinction; one of them involves the Red Colobus Monkeys (the other concerns the Zanzibar leopard). These monkeys are unique of its kind and exist nowhere else on the globe and they are in danger of becoming extinct. So why not make an effort to help in the process of turning around this unfortunate trend, my husband thought, as he spent a lot of time on the exotic island while conducting one of his other projects. Which is why he established the “JJ-JJ monkey fond” (yeah, wouldn’t you know it, he even has his own special artistic version of his original name John John!) But this is when the project was still very modest and pretty much limited to having a bazaar at the local mall in Larvik where we live, and making a contract between the members of the family that we would all make affirmations about making it to Zanzibar. Now the project has grown BIG, and I mean BIG; involving all of the primary schools in our city and most of the nursery and primary schools in Zanzibar. And that is just one of the ambitions he is bringing with him in our collective baggage.
As I’m speaking of ambition, I was browsing through my favourite magazine shop the other day, when my eyes caught a glimpse of those exact words in red thick capital letters on the cover of Time magazine; “The secrets of AMBITION”, it read. Isn’t life funny, just our mind focus on something specific, we notice it in all kinds of ways and places. Not that the topic was new to me. When your professional endevouir involves women and leadership, you are bound to touch upon the topic of ambition. I’ll never forget how affected I was by a question posed in a book written by Harvard professor Anna Fels on the topic; Why are so many professional women willing to walk away from their dreams? She asked. And you know, after you have thought about it for a bit and swallowed the grief you feel by the assumption implied in the question (that women are in fact walking away from their dreams), the next thing you’re bound to ask is; are they really? Or even better, are we really?
I had been able to explore that question among quite a few Norwegian professional women, but what I found was perhaps even more discontenting: Most of them didn’t even admit to having any dreams. They seemed to walk along, taking one day at a time and focusing on resolving the challenges that were presented to them. No big hairy goals to become prime minister or establish the best fitness center in town. No proud feelings because they were superwomen handling it all. – I don’t feel like a superwoman, a young and successful financial officer and a mother of three children commented in a rather matter-of-factly tone, - I just do what must get done. In other words, there was no specific dream or goal driving her, but rather a strong work ethic and an ambition to master her career and at the same time being a good mother and friend and wife and all the other things modern life imposes on a woman.
Relating the topic to my own life, there were other dilemmas. I surely had dreams, but seemed to lack the ability to follow through. For example, I had been working on my doctorate for ages, and never seemed focused enough to finish. Or what about the book scripts that were more than half way finished, resting in my book shelves. Surely, it had been my goal to finish them when I started up. However, parallel to the superwoman cited above, I have too many things going on at the same time. The idea that I was pursuing too many goals and dreams at the same time, clearly had crossed my mind. But I seemed unable to choose between them. On the contrary to Fels who argues that women walk away from their dreams, I seemed unable to do just that. I wanted it all, and as a result had ambitions pointing in all directions. With very little progress to show for my efforts. Or was it just a more slow road I had chosen? The article in Times, helped me clarify one thing; being clear about ones goals is vital. As psychologist Dean Simonton of University of California, Davis stated; “Ambition is energy and determination, but it calls for goals too. People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the coach saying ‘ One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap’. People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”
Guess which category I felt that I could identify with? Well, certainly not the first. The problem, that they forgot to elaborate further on in that article, was precisely the problem of goals.
How to make up your mind about which goals to pursue when there are so many things you want to do??
What if you’re the type of person like me (and a lot of other people I know, and women in particular), who are not single minded enough to focus on one or two things, but instead try to juggle at least 15 at a time? And mind you, five of those are most often thrown at me from the outer world just when I don’t need them (i.e.; children who start to fight With each other, or husbands who feel the need to pour out their hysteria about something that didn’t work out the way they planned, or your depressed neighbour dropping by for a chat…). Important Things to be involved in, most definitely, but certainly not things that bring me closer to realizing my dreams…
In fact, every time I read about successful business men who prescribe the single minded focus on one goal to be the requisite for success, I frown. What would the world look like if everybody focused on only one thing? It would become a very one-dimensional and notveryhappy world, I think. Nevertheless, I had to admit I was in the habit of creating too many goals and ambitions for myself and this was something I was planning to work through as I had an entirety of six months at my disposal.
And if everything else failed, the one goal I was determined to reach, no matter at what cost, was to learn the practice of
PS. This column is the first Chapter of a book that I almost finished while taking that sabbatical at Zanzibar about 10 years ago. I certainly didn't Reach all my goals for the stay, but I am happy to share that I did manage to learn the practice of yoga and did so every morning for most of my stay. And that is one of the most valuable Investments I have done in all of my life. 4 sure.