Friday, July 17, 2009

A sabbatical is not supposed to be a vacation.

Among the definitions of sabbatical offered by Wikipedia, here is one that seems closest to my conception: ‘..any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something.’ In an earlier posting, I provided excerpts from my sabbatical proposal that described the two projects on which I am embarked: a book describing my experiences living on campus as ‘dormgrandpop’ and a book on sustainable poverty alleviation, based at least in part on a case study of Singapore. I am taking a full year off, partly self-financed.

Seventeen days have now elapsed and there are already moments when I feel as if the sands of this precious time are running out too quickly. The first week, including the 4th of July, was more a continuation of the ‘moving-my-office project’ than anything else. This was obviously necessary, but the time spent seemed unproductive. It was not until Monday that my calendar begin to show blank days, providing opportunities for predominantly proactive rather than predominantly reactive scheduling.

This week, I began to develop a routine. Mornings, when I am freshest, are focused on upgrading and reinvigorating my computer modeling skills and, soon I will begin to immerse myself deeply in the thought processes of System Dynamics creator, Jay W Forrester in preparation for modeling work on sustainable poverty alleviation. Afternoons I have set time aside to begin mastering the bibliographic software package, Endnote. If properly used, I am convinced that Endnote can transform the process by which one assesses the state of knowledge on a subject. Soon I will need to make the crucial decision about which metric to use as a ‘reference mode’ (behavior over time graph) to represent sustainable poverty alleviation. I have not yet figured out when I will work on my Dormgrandpop book, but I need to make that a priority soon. Perhaps weekends and evenings.

Though I am not yet fully into my new routine, I can already see how the continuity uninterrupted time provides speeds the process of mastering both new subjects and new technologies. As CTE Director, I felt I always needed to give the needs of the Center - its mission and staff - first priority. To do otherwise seemed selfish and irresponsible. There was always one more task to perform, one more meeting to schedule and then hold, one more memo on an ‘urgent’ topic to write, one more conversation to make time for, because it would make a difference. I needed to give first priority to ‘keeping the trains running on time,’ to achieving goals set by others, or at least to achieving the objectives we set for CTE within the context of goals, biases, and idiosyncrasies defined by others. As the day for stepping down as CTE’s Director approached, I realized that my mind mind no longer needed to be filled with CTEs needs, concerns and especially plans for the coming weeks and months, crowding out all else.

How am I to put this incredible gift of self-programmed time to use in a manner that will make a difference? What value-added can I contribute to human knowledge and the human condition? A sometimes painful but effective strategy that has worked well in accomplishing other projects, especially books, is to have crystal clear pictures of what I intend to accomplish and then to communicate those intentions widely in the form of promises. I describe the strategy as painful because in the mid stages of implementation, when rough patches are encountered, clinging steadfastly to one's intentions can be difficult. Promises help. It is much easier to abandon ambitious goals that have been kept to oneself than to abandon those that have been communicated to friends and colleagues.

The goals I have set are already a living presence within me and I am, as yet, far from clear about paths I must follow need to accomplish them. I only know that there will far more setbacks and unanticipated turns than I would wish. That has almost always been the way with my books. I do not anticipate that my sabbatical year, this space of self-programmed time accorded to very few individuals in in this world, will be a vacation. Nor should it be.

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