Top 3 Lessons Learned while Taking a Sabbatical and What’s Next?

By Jess Williamson

In 2018, Jess Williamson took a sabbatical from her 7 years building accelerators in London, New York, Tel Aviv, and Cape Town. After 11 months on sabbatical from the startup & innovation world, Jess took some time towards the end of that year to reflect on the goals she had set and the lessons she had learned along the way.

Goal #1: Visiting Antarctica

It’s been 11 months since I wrapped up my journey at Techstars, and I thought I’d take some time to share a progress report as well as initial lessons learned from sabbatical life. I may compile more lessons at a later date, but for now I’ll focus on the top 3 that have made a significant difference for me.

Progress Report

Some of you may know the 3 goals I set out for myself one year ago, and I am happy to share the quick update on those:

1. I went to Antarctica in February 2018, and our trip reached the southern most part of Antarctica that our ship had ever been to – Marguerite Bay. Lifelong friendships, incredible landscapes & wildlife, exciting sea sickness, and 3 weeks of backpacking around South America were all part of the adventure.

2. I made a final offer on a house in Slovenia last week. I have travelled over to Slovenia 4 times this year, survived a 10 day road trip around the country (my first time driving in Europe!), wound up speaking at a startup event, and met tons of wonderful people that have all helped me in the quest. If this house doesn’t wind up working out, I am certain another one will. 

3. I drew some latte art, including an unexpected latte unicorn. To be honest I was not a natural barista, but thankfully Amalia Agathou spotted the unicorn amidst my latte creations.

Lessons Learned 

1. Learning to hear the music, rather than tuning out the noise

I was strolling through St Pancras station in January this year, when suddenly I started hearing beautiful music and looked around to see pianos positioned throughout the station. I had run through the station countless times, usually following the Eurostar signs with intense focus ensuring I would make the early morning train to Paris for meetings or presentations – no doubt stressed about the slow moving crowds, the security queues, or getting up to the machine to print my ticket. Now feeling so peaceful with passengers elegantly flowing through, I had to ask myself, “Was this really the same station?!” I realised the place was exactly the same, but now that I didn’t see other passengers as obstacles to quickly manoeuvre around, my mindset was completely different. It made me wonder what other music I had been missing or tuning out. 

2. Having a full identity without putting ‘workaholic’ at the core 

I have long identified as a workaholic, and proudly so. My work has been central to my life for as long as I can remember, and pretty much everything else has been forced to fit in secondarily. How could it be any other way?! Having the work component of my identity peeled away this year was an interesting challenge, and it forced me to try being a WHOLE person based on other aspects of identity – ie. my interests, adventures, friendships, family, and hobbies (that word used to scare me). When one of my close friends from the Antarctica trip commented bluntly, “Jess, I can’t actually picture you working,” my initial defensive reaction was quickly replaced by a celebratory feeling. I silenced my urge to reply “Do you even know who I am?!” as I reflected on the bizarre comment a few extra moments. That’s when it hit me that I had enough of an identity without being a workaholic at the core… and it felt pretty darn good. I know I will continue to take pride in my work regardless, but hopefully it will be in balance with other aspects I take pride in too.

3. Leaving blank space for life’s delightful surprises

I was very clear about 3 goals I wanted to achieve in 2018, but I was deliberate about creating blank space for the goals I felt I could not achieve through specific dedicated actions – instead by leaving room for natural curiosity, spontaneous adventure, and some magical serendipity. I didn’t know exactly what a personal life should look or feel like, but I trusted that I’d have a better chance of creating one if I resisted the temptation to outline 50 goals or a 3-stage project plan. So…? Well, suffice to say many of my best experiences have emerged from having enough blank space to say yes to sudden opportunities, from having the time & energy to be a better friend and family member in times of need, and having the flexibility to rearrange so-called ‘plans’ along the way. I’ll confess dating life caught me completely by surprise this year and that part of my life could not be more different from 11 months ago. Looking back now, I am very grateful for the immense value of the blank space.

Life Post-Sabbatical

As I look at 2019 approaching, I am feeling refreshed and ready to jump back into the work world once again. After working on marrying startup investment and corporate innovation within the accelerator environment, for my next adventure I am primarily looking to move in-house into a larger corporate that is actively building more muscle around innovation (based in London or Surrey). Whether it’s designing & managing pilots to improve products or processes, influencing culture/politics, or increasing the effectiveness of existing efforts, I am interested to add value in that direction. I’m currently having a variety of conversations and will bring my new life lessons along as I embark on the next journey. If you are planning your own sabbatical or want to chat further on corporate innovation, feel free to get in touch at jessinblue@gmail.com. Thank you to so many of you that have made this year extra special!

Hiking around Patagonia… think this was El Chaltén, Argentina. So far, so good!

Nearly at the end of a 20 km hike in Torres del Paine, Chile, I was completely miserable from being injured, soaking wet, and freezing cold. I have no idea why I was smiling.

One of the many beautiful towns in Slovenia, where my house hunting has been focused. Now you see why I fell in love? (Piran, Slovenia)

Latte unicorn 🦄 – as spotted by @amalucky.

One of my favourite views in Antarctica from our G Adventures ship. Highly recommended for any sabbatical, and well worth the sea sickness to get there!


This brilliant article is re-posted with permission from Jess. 🙂 You can see Jess’ original post from December 2018 on her LinkedIn profile here or follow Jess on Twitter here!

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