The Joy Of Thinking

On this day one year ago, I woke up, stretched, poured myself a coffee, and inhaled my first ever day of sabbatical. It was weird and slightly disconcerting to wake up to the idea that I might not need to step foot on campus for months.

The first few weeks of sabbatical were awkward for me. I struggled to move past the idea that I would have no teaching and administrative tasks, that my time was my own again, and that things were supposed to be less busy. To be honest, I felt like I was somehow cheating the system, that I was getting away with something, and the guilt of seemingly shirking my responsibilities weighed on me for quite a while.

Of course, sabbaticals are not about shirking anything. They are intended to provide the time for us to step away from the day-to-day noise, to refocus our energies on learning new skills, or diving head first into our research. More than that, at least for me, sabbatical represented an opportunity to take stock of where I’ve been, what I’ve accomplished, and importantly, where I want to go.

And it’s amazing how much I needed the time to step away from my regular duties. After a few weeks of sabbatical, I found my thoughts were far more clear. Previously, ideas would form half baked behind a cloud of fog. And no matter how much energy I put into defining the edges of my ideas, they would fade away, forever lost to the ether.

Sabbatical provided a light and sense of clarity that I didn’t know I needed. Ideas came fast and fully formed, and I found this entirely energizing. That’s not to say that all of my ideas were good ideas, but sabbatical gave me the time to critically evaluate each of them because I had no interruptions to pause any train of thought; no meetings to attend, no committee work to address, and no grading to do. I could look at an idea in real-time and determine if it had merit. And this simple thing turned out to be everything, because I had no idea how much I missed the joy of thinking, of slowing down to give my thoughts and science time.

Amazingly, slowing down allowed me to accomplish much in twelve months. I gave talks in several countries, I got caught up on research and publications, I wrote a textbook and developed a new course, and I helped organize several fun events. But none of these accomplishments compare to relearning the value of quiet time, of uninterrupted thinking, of focus, and of slow science. Sabbatical helped me find a new appreciation for time away from work, for weekends, and for exploring the world beyond the academic role I have curated for myself.

Of course, in less than a week I will join students as they make their way back to the classroom – some to begin their very first university level courses, and others to begin the final credits they need to complete their degrees. I’m sure many of them are nervous and excited, because I know I am. Much like them, my semester will offer a lot of possibility, and a lot of challenges. It will likely come with long days, and the threat of overlapping deadlines and demands. My advice to students and to myself is to remember to slow down, to take time for yourself, and to embrace the joy of thinking.

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