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It had been my dream ever since I was a young girl. The scene had played in my head like a television rerun. There I was, sitting by the Champs-Elysée eating flaky, buttery croissants and exchanging banter with the locals, while the reverberating voice of Edith Piaf softly drifted through a hidden speaker behind an ornate mahogany bar manned by a handsome, dark-haired, mustached Frenchman named Pierre wiping dry large café au lait saucers. You could say my fantasy of moving to Paris was a vivid one, complete with its own soundtrack.

After years of dreaming, I finally did something about it. It wasn’t the full dream. It was more of a catnap. But it was enough to give me a taste of a Parisian lifestyle and reinvigorate my soul and my work. This past summer I spent three weeks in the grand City of Lights enrolled in a creative adventure with the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. The program was technically a painting and sketching course, but for me, the class was a creative booster shot.

The idea of the “big dream” had been bandied around for years amongst my friends and colleagues. “What would you do creatively if you could take time off work?” was a common conversation. We’d talk casually about our desires, but never dared to pursue them. Our creative fantasies barely slipped from our tongues before we conjured reasons why we couldn’t go forward with them. There were the problems of money, and family obligations, the pets needed walking, the plants watering. And of course there was that “nagging” issue of holding down a job.

I speculate that many of you reading this column may share similar dreams and have brushed away your own pursuits for these very same reasons. We put off our fantasies to some time in the future... “When I retire I’ll do such and such...” or “When I hit the jackpot...” But what if tomorrow was the future? What if you could stop dreaming and start doing?

It’s tough to manage, I know. I don’t mean to be blasé about taking a vacation from our responsibilities. We all need to make a living. We all have obligations. There’s no denying these facts. I’m here to say it is possible—if you’re willing to make some tradeoffs/sacrifices and commit yourself to planning—to squeeze in the dream with the least of your excuses being the job. And more than likely pursuing the dream of all dreams will enrich your 9-to-5 and your life more than you can ever imagine.

“I often recommend that my clients take a break from their regular work to get a bigger perspective on their lives...Many people make the mistake of thinking they lead two separate lives—business and personal,” said Talane Miedaner, a certified life coach and author of several self-help books, including Coach Yourself to Success: 101 tips from a Personal Coach for Reaching your Goals at Work and in Life. “In reality, we are only one person and as much as you may try to divide your life, if something isn’t working personally, it will affect your work and vice versa.”

I’m not suggesting this is a new thought. Many people have taken sabbaticals. Perhaps the idea of taking a break was just new to me. I never believed it was possible to carve any time away to pursue something that seemed somewhat self-indulgent. Maybe it’s the immigrant’s blood in me. And maybe it’s a cultural bias. As Americans we’re sometimes apt to plug, plug, plug and chug, chug, chug. We are a culture bred on ambition and success. It never occurs to us that sometimes we may need a little time away from the job to bring something back to it.

For Stefan Sagmeister, of Sagmeister, Inc., taking time off was a necessity. He said he needed to chisel out time for himself to experiment and find new solutions. The idea for the working sabbatical came to him after seeing the eclectic mix of explorations collected within Ed Fella’s sketchbooks. Sagmeister was inspired to begin some experimentation of his own.

“I could use a dose of that—aimless experimentation,” Sagmeister recalled thinking.

So a year before closing shop, Sagmeister warned his clients of his impending hiatus and refused any new work. For a year, starting June 2000, he dropped out of graphic design and dedicated himself to focusing on discovery. Everyday Sagmeister concentrated and worked hard on a different facet of experimentation.

“I felt very silly doing it,” he said. “I was tempted to lie about it and tell people I was working on a really big job. Somehow it (taking time off) felt unprofessional...but I realized that I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it.”

Illustrator and designer Laurie Rosenwald of Rosenworld.com felt the same pull. She wished to flee the routine of New York City and experience a new environment. One day she found herself in front of the Foundation Center, a philanthropy resource organization in NYC. She walked out of the building with the names of 50 international artists residencies. That evening she sent an e-mail to the names on her list and told them she would pay rent rather than wait for a grant, as is the usual procedure at these places.

A Swedish art colony said yes. That was it. Rosenwald packed up her stuff, sublet her apartment (for a profit!) and set off for a three-month adventure that has now become a lifestyle, blending work with the dream.

Like Rosenwald, James Grady of Kor Group in Boston wished to see some country. The graphic designer said he was feeling a little fried. He too needed to recharge. After arranging a leave with his employers, Grady set out for a road trip across America serendipitously spending a few nights here and a night there, wandering from town to town in the southern part of the Midwest. All the while, he recorded his adventures in his journal and snapped photos.

“It was a release for me creatively and personally...It was really an incredible experience...It changes your whole perspective on things. You don’t feel like you’re a machine,” Grady said of the trip he took over a year ago.

Sharoz Makarechi of Think Tank 3 in New York City felt a different kind of compulsion—that of a social cause. A year ago this fall Makarechi boarded Kam Air for Kabul, Afghanistan, to serve as a creative director for Aïna, a media Non Governmental Organization. Her goal was to teach media skills and develop integrated communication campaigns for various issues including disarmament.

“...Going to Afghanistan felt like a responsibility,” she said “Packing was a bitch and telling my clients was a sensitive issue, but my timing was just right. I think as creatives we’re powerful beyond what anyone else in the industry will really give us credit for. Pats on the back, awards, all that is one thing, but we have the core ability to create images and tell stories that resonate and, if we can use our skills to do good in the world, then we should.”

I share the experiences of these wonderfully talented individuals to prove that it is possible to live out your dream without losing your jobs or business and without going bankrupt.

For some, it’s easier than others. Grady for instance, lucked out. The Kor founders have an unofficial policy of supporting the dreams of dedicated employees since the founders themselves started their business on a dream.

The group was started by three partners—Karen Dendy Smith, Anne Callahan and MB Jarosik—while chatting over a bottle of wine. That evening they discussed what they would do if they ran a firm. By the end of the brainstorm, they asked themselves why they shouldn’t start their own studio. Twelve years later, they’re still going strong.

The partners have always supported healthy curiosity and the need for relaxation. Each request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis and given to the individual based on situation and the employee’s contribution to the company. Several have taken advantage of the unofficial policy including Jim Gibson and Kjerstin Westgaard, who both took short hiatuses to spend time with family.

Smith calls the approach a “working to live and not living to work” philosophy. “We’re looking for people to have a balanced life,” she said. “It really just depends on what that person needs to be a total, whole creative person.”

Not all bosses are so understanding, however. But you can help them comprehend the need, said Miedaner. The first tip she can offer is to point out how the company will benefit from the sabbatical. “Tell them the new skills you will learn and how you will come back a better employee.”

Your next move is to remove any obstacles to your sabbatical and present a solid plan as to how your work will be handled in your absence, Miedaner added. Another strategy is to link your leave with a company need. For instance, maybe the business requires the knowledge of new software skill development. Turn the adventure into a win-win, Miedaner recommended that you ask your employer to pay for training and perhaps negotiate salary.

And if you need time off because you’re teetering on the edge of burnout, Miedaner suggested candidly explaining that you need time to recharge and that some time off would provide you with much-needed energy and commitment. Chat with your employer about your needs including securing your position and your return and perhaps suggest a leave without pay.

“It is much more cost-effective to retain a good employee than it is to hire and train a new one,” she said.

You could approach your employer in any one of the above stated tactics, or adopt my groveling tactics. I pieced together all my vacation time, personal days and floating holidays and begged to be allowed to go. My boss took pity on me and gave me her blessing. (Thank God.)

For those of you who own businesses, you’ll have to do more planning and less pleading. You can approach the break in the same fashion as Sagmeister and Makarechi. Be up front and honest with your clients. Give them ample notice to wrap up current work or to compensate for your absence. Another solution is to hire temporary replacements to hold down the fort for a short while, said Miedaner.

Or you could follow Rosenwald’s lead and take some of the work with you. With the Internet and cell phones, what does it matter where you’re working so long as you’re getting the work done, she said. Sometimes getting away doesn’t mean leaving everything behind.

And if it’s just not possible to take an extended break away from the office, you can always approach your discovery in little bites much the way Sean Kernan, of Sean Kernan Studios, does. Perhaps one day the Connecticut photographer will take a well-deserved sabbatical. But for now he’s happy squeezing it into his busy weekly schedule.

Years ago Kernan fell into improv comedy. A theatrical friend visited his class to speak about his improv experiences. Kernan would constantly bring people from different disciplines into his courses. “I’d bring in anyone I could to make us think in a different way,” he said. It didn’t take long to get Kernan involved.

In another effort to express himself and delve into another interest, Kernan began taking weekly classes in calligraphy from a 94-year-old Asian woman. “We were like two little kids playing with crayons,” Kernan said.

Time off is time off whether it’s a chunk of time or a morsel. “I’m not quitting my job. I’m just integrating it...(But) you have to schedule it in,” Kernan said. “If you don’t do that, you’ll end up doing commercial work and thinking commercial thoughts.”

As creatives, so much of our work is about invention. Invention relies on revelation. But how do you come up with something new when everything’s the same old same old. That’s where the breaks come in. Though it may not feel like it, you’re getting a lot done while on hiatus.

“It leads to something else,” said Kernan. “It’s just not measurable. Your mind gets bigger. You know more. And in part the benefit is finding out what the benefit is.”

“Most important, use this time away to learn more about yourself, to try things you’ve always wanted to try, but never had the time to do. To go places you’ve always wanted to see. Don’t worry what other people may think. This is your time to find yourself and renew your love of life. This is the perfect time to experiment in living one of your top values. Listen to your intuition and see where life takes you for a change,” said Miedaner. “Sometimes we have to get off track in order to get on the right track again.”

For Sagmeister, the time off paid off. He dedicated each day to doing the sorts of things he always dreamed of doing. He developed a schedule that included self-given exercises like creating a CD cover and booklet in an hour instead of months. He spent time lost in music stores. He’d visit those galleries he always said he would. And “I found the joy in design again,” he said.

For Rosenwald, the time away has offered new perspectives and friends. “It’s true wherever you go, there you are,” she said. “But at least you have the problem in a different background.”

For Grady, his trip has given him inspiration and creative fodder. “I take all that (I’ve seen and done) with me on a creative basis back to the office.”

For Makarechi, her time away from the American bustle was an awakening of sorts. During this time she learned to appreciate the conveniences like electricity that we expect rather than relish here in the States. She learned that no matter how ravaged a country is, that people inherently carry an incredible resiliency. And she learned that taking time to do something you believe in or just want to try or think would be fun makes you a better person, as opposed to a bitter person.

And for me, I don’t think I can even begin to understand how my three weeks in the glamorous Ville de Paris will impact me spiritually and creatively.

I can tell you a few things I’ve already identified. First and foremost, we Americans do everything too darn fast. Twenty minutes at your desk is not enough time to eat lunch properly. And cheese that’s taken the time to age a bit is actually pretty good.

Doing nothing can actually be doing something. It was only during this time off that I did the unthinkable. I sat for an afternoon in a café by the Seine sipping—not guzzling—a Diet Coke and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think they call it resting and it’s not overrated.

There’s a lot to be said for being surrounded by beauty. Louis the XIV had the right idea, if you surround yourself with inspiring, beautiful things, you are more apt to be enlightened yourself.

Best of all, I learned to appreciate the art of discovery. I, like so many of us, often fall under the spell of duty. I’m so concerned with getting the job done fast and right that I lose sight of the idea of play. I reach into my toolbox and use the tried-and-true solutions that I’ve used before. And I’m bored by my solution because I’ve been there before. The great thing about doing something new whether it be a course, a trip or a life’s dream is that you haven’t been there before. Everything captivates and invigorates. And that develops into a spark that you carry with you and you never know what it will ignite.

I found one of my sparks early on in my trip. One of my favorite excursions was to a small town called Chartres, about an hour train ride outside of Paris. The town is the home of a beautiful, gothic church, Notre Dame de Chartres, and a charming little village with meandering shops that sell everything from antique dolls to the usual tacky knick-knacks. When I saw the trip on the class itinerary, I felt disappointed. “Another church,” I complained. I had seen so many. I foolishly thought the time would be better spent doing anything else.

The day we visited was gloomy. Rain threatened. So I gravitated to a map from the local tourist office of the area and began studying it. There was a reference to La Maison Picassiette. Despite the weather, I decided to venture out to it with one of my classmates. We walked for what seemed like miles. We almost abandoned our trek. I kept muttering to myself, “this better be worth it.” Suddenly the small neighborhood gave way to an entrance. It was nothing spectacular at first. Then I walked through and felt like a pirate discovering the treasure of King Midas.

Every surface of the small home was blanketed in broken bits of ceramic, pottery and glass. Not an inch was bare. The story goes that Raymond Isidore, a poor laborer, acquired the four acres of land for 450 francs to build a house for his wife and stepchildren. He started modestly, building only a kitchen and two bedrooms. Over the years he added more and more rooms and expanded his engineering to the garden. But the extraordinary part of his home wasn’t necessarily the structure, but what he put on it.

It is said that Isidore was inspired by what most would have overlooked. One day he was walking through a field and spotted some fragments of crockery. He pocketed them and stashed them in a portion of his garden. Over the years the pile grew. Though his neighbors thought him odd, Isidore gathered as treasure what others thought only junk. In time Isidore collected fifteen tons of rubbish. He spent 30 years creating masterful mosaics that camouflaged everything including the kitchen stove. Now more than 30,000 tourists visit a year. Still, I felt like I was the only one to discover this intimate sanctuary.

Standing there among all the fragments I felt so inspired. Isn’t this in a way a metaphor? Aren’t all our lives cobbled together experiences that we draw from to create meaning, stories or marketing pieces? Isidore had no idea when he picked up those shards what would become of them, just as I don’t know where the pieces of my trip will come out in my work, but I’m betting they’ll appear in the most unexpected of places. I can’t wait to find out where.

Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are now available in the book of the same name, compiled and edited by DK Holland and copublished by Communication Arts and Allworth Press (www.allworth.com). —DK Holland


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