Taking extended leave wasn’t a new idea for Paul Luning (MBA 2011), it was more of a family tradition: his parents credit their extended honeymoon as a defining moment in their lives. Paul took time off when he could, by studying abroad, or extending start dates to give him big blocks of stress-free time off.

But his first real experiment in using time off for hypothesis-testing was going to business school. At HBS, he wanted to test whether he should work in international development and live abroad, or work in cleantech. So Paul joined (and eventually led) the Social Enterprise Club, and anything else which could help him understand what it was really like working in these industries. Armed with these experiences, (and the option of loan forgiveness from his former employer,) he returned to a role in consulting, but on his own terms: he’d take six months off before starting, and every three to five years going forward.

Two years out of school, Paul set out on a full year sabbatical to answer four questions: what should he do next in life, what would it be like to pursue a passion project, what would happen if he pushed himself out of his comfort zone, and how would it feel to relax and invest in friends and family? He set off on a project he called “Beyond the Headlines,” during which he picked places on the State Department’s “do not travel” list to couch-surf and see if maybe the world wasn’t as bad as what you read online. While travelling across Africa and the Middle East, he wrote a blog, which attracted thousands of followers. The experience also left him drained; he realized he’d been more burned out from work than he’d thought.

Next, he explored what it would be like to return and live in his family’s homeland—Estonia. There, he spent time with cousins, brushed up on the language, and got a taste for a dramatically different potential life abroad. His final stop was closer to home—Hawaii—where he wanted to see what it would be like to own an ecolodge. He spent months as a chef, learning the insides of the business, while experiencing firsthand the realities of working in the tourism industry far from friends and family.

Paul credits this sabbatical—and his five others—as instrumental in career wayfinding. He’s learned not to expect epiphanies from these blocks of time. Instead, they give him “accelerated learning.” For example, spending time in the eco-lodge showed him that there’s no such thing as utopia; he was surprised by things he missed—intellectual challenge and his community—back home. His time in Estonia proved to be just as valuable. He’s no longer pinning his hopes for happiness on retiring in a faraway homeland or exotic paradise.

But it did help him to find passion in his job. After this sabbatical, Paul left consulting and joined a company which shared his passion for travel and exploration: Airbnb. He credits his adventures and time off for helping him to stand out from other applicants—especially consultants—and to show that he’s willing to take risks to find out what he believes in. “Before my first sabbatical I was terrified that time off would lead me to fall behind in my career. After six sabbaticals I am confident that time off is what I need to be not only successful in my career, but also in my personal life.”

Luckily, Airbnb also had a sabbatical policy, which enabled Paul to take two breaks over 5+ year tenure at the company. Most recently, Paul completed his sixth sabbatical which looked quite different given the inability to travel due to Covid-19. The restriction forced him to stay closer to home both physically and mentally. He used the time to transition from city life in San Francisco to country life in Sonoma County. He proposed to his girlfriend, helped plan a wedding, and plotted a career transition from hospitality to healthcare.

“Maybe some people don't need a sabbatical because everything—their career, their life, their relationships, their hobbies—is just perfect. At least for me, this has never been true. If there’s something that lingers as an open question or aspiration, I give myself the time and space to explore and embrace it fully.”

As for his next sabbatical? It will involve at least one additional stakeholder—but there’s a few years of life and many questions to accumulate before deciding.

The Sabbatical Project Blog Series

This article is part of a series on Sabbaticals, authored by Dennis (DJ) DiDonna (HBS 2010).  DiDonna has dedicated his career to commercializing social science research to create organizations which positively impact the world. DiDonna founded The Sabbatical Project to explore when and why sabbaticals lead to positive outcomes for working professionals. Along with collaborator Professor Matt Bloom, The Sabbatical Project is now exploring the role and effects of companies in making sabbatical policies mainstream. DJ received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010.