What I Learned from a Three Week Creative Sabbatical from My Business

Last month I did something I’d never done before in my business.

I took a three week sabbatical.

To paint.

I’d been running my business for about five years and I could feel something coming on — I couldn’t quite tell if it was burnout or something akin….

For me, running a business is kind of like having a creative problem.

Except it’s like having a bunch of interrelated creative problems all at the same time.

Is the service the right one? Am I delivering it effectively? Offering it to the right people? Am I reaching them in the best way?

And when I have a creative problem my brain just spins — chews on it in the background — like a background program on your computer that never stops running.

And while I take a weekly sabbath from work, five years of a program running constantly takes a toll. I just knew I needed a mental break.

A reboot.

And a celebration.

So I decided to take three weeks off — and fully block myself off from thoughts about business.

Out of email. Nothing on the calendar.


A mental break.

And when I thought about what kind of mental break I wanted, I decided that I wanted to immerse myself in a creative project totally unrelated to running my business.

About four years ago I took a solo road trip — my first solo roadtrip — and one after a significant breakup. It was a way to claim my ability to be alone — and to prove to myself that I didn’t have to wait for a someone to come along to have the adventures I wanted to.

And I gave myself a theme near and dear to my former landscape architect-heart — I followed the Chicago River down to the Mississippi. I poked around cement factories and checked out old bridges, I hiked on old canals and investigated river locks.

I kept a journal, and intended to make art about the experience — while I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to make, my instincts said, ‘acrylic painting.’ And had over the last few years — but hadn’t created anything that had really captured the experience. (with no experience in acrylic….)

It’s the creative project that’s been in the background the last few years.

So I decided to take it on for the creative sabbatical.

I told myself (type A goalgetter that I am) that THIS TIME I would make ALL the art I’d been trying to make for the last four years.

That’s not exactly what happened….

But it was pretty great anyway.

So here’s a little window into what my creative sabbatical was actually like and what I learned from it.

I’ll be honest, it took me a little time for the hustle to seep out of me.

The first day I texted my business wingwoman — suuuper uncomfortable with the openness on my calendar. All my financial worries started to come out. Ditto with anything relating to how ‘productive’ I was.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal those first few days:

Day 2:
This is my second official day of sabbatical. It’s weird! Yesterday I found myself fixating on the recession and how my business would survive it. I had a little more chill today — but I can feel my energy contracting, fear — “the other shoe is going to drop.”

Day 3:
I had a stress dream. Liat was in it, and we were getting dressed for a party. I felt ‘less than’ in some ways. And then, my luggage — passport and all — exploded on a conveyor belt — so weird.

But rather than going it all alone and unstructured, I was smart enough to hire an artist friend of mine to critique / coach me.

My session with Arielle was nice. She had me clear out my studio and print out reference photos. But I think what I want/need is clear. I can think of so many ideas for a piece — I thought up two extra yesterday. I think she thinks I just need to surround myself with images and the truth will become clear. That might be true — I’ll try it today.

But I’ve also been here before and I know what’s happened — I have too many ideas and I just need to pick one (a few?) to pursue and leave the rest for the future.

Working through these thoughts helped me realize how much scarcity mentality I carry around with myself…

The sabbatical itself: That this time was such a luxury that I’d never have it again so I better create ALL my best art….

That if I’m not hustling all the time (and planning how I WILL hustle in the downtime) it’ll all fall apart.

But just showing up, day after day to make something and with gentleness 

(I had a lot of luxurious late breakfasts) I started to shed the fear and worry.

From my journal:

Day 4:
I’m glad I have this. It is a gift and I want to stop worrying about what will happen, what will get accomplished… It just is. That’s where I want to be.

And as I got into it more, I started to recognize just like my business — this creative exploration would be iterative — I couldn’t MAKE MY BEST ART EVER all in one go, but I could push the work an iteration farther.

I started to loosen my grip on time scarcity (it all must happen now!!!). As a result I learned in my business to be curious about the process.

And a lot happened. I…

  • worked with higher quality acrylics — including open acrylics and fluid acrylics for the first time.
  • mixed colors and started to move towards a color palette that spoke to me.
  • started to move from figurative work to abstract work.

And through that nonlinear learning and looping I created a finished piece I really loved — one of my first super large format (it’s 4’ by 4’) pieces that’s fully abstract.

I’ll confess — I was scared to make the first mark. But once I did — and recognized this piece would likely be the first of many, I loosened up.

And as I was able to unhook from that time scarcity narrative in art, I started to think through how it might flow back into my business.

From my journal:

Day 15:
What does my post sabbatical creative process look like?

Do I have space for the creativity required to build and run my business and my artistic creative practice at the same time?

I was convinced that that processor running in my brain — that one that churns away at all the creative problems of business had space for only one immersive problem at a time.

But as the sabbatical unfolded, I started to see thinking about my business all the time as something I might stop — making room for other creativity — as I re-entered my business.

From my post-sabbatical journal reflection:
Wow. I feel so chill, so relaxed, so excited from the things that are happening. I feel like I brought something special with me in to the sabbatical even though it was hard. A zen. A peacefulness. It also helped me see how far I have come. I’m so much less stressed, More confident.

I’d like to bring that peace into how I go back to my business. That simplicity, That purposeful belief.

And I started thinking about what upgrades and changes I might make to bring those values into my life after the sabbatical. I was lucky enough to move into an apartment with huge windows, and now I have a beautiful window nook where I can look out and art journal.

I also decided to join a The Wing — a women-centric co-working space I’d had my eye on since moving to New York so I could surround myself with the creativity, beauty and business community that might help me play bigger on my own terms.

It was just three weeks. It was paintings of the rust belt.

But it was also a frame that the creative process held for me — to help me figure out how I wanted to live.

I write regularly about women, creativity, ambition, and crafting the life and career you want. If you’d like to hear from me more, click here to sign up for my email newsletter.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.