Episode 59: Quit your life temporarily, featuring Colleen Newvine, MBA ‘05

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Listen in, Michigan – Ep 59: The Mini Sabbatical, featuring Colleen Newvine, MBA ‘05

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. On this episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” I invite you to consider the idea of a mini-sabbatical, say five weeks or so, that transcend the bounds of your regular routine. Your guide will be my next guest, longtime journalist, life coach and Michigan Ross MBA grad, Colleen Newvine.

Now you may quake at the idea of ditching your familiar home and hearth for the unknown. Imagine how your spouse, your kids, your boss would respond – so you just poo poo the idea.

You may think sabbaticals are reserved for the academics, the independently wealthy, the young and the single and the childless.

But it’s not always true, says Colleen. And she speaks from wisdom and experience – her own, and many others who shared tips, tales, tricks,  and hacks that comprise her guide: Your Mini Sabbatical: Quit Your Life Temporarily.

Great title, right? I mean who hasn’t entertained such a notion. I have a niece who literally quit her own medical startup to run off and join the circus. That said, it should be noted that Temporarily is the key word in Colleen’s mini-sabbatical lexicon.

But you need not even travel to reap the benefits from this practical lifestyle guide. From crafting a budget to understanding your spouse to starting a conversation with a random stranger, this book also speaks to Colleen’s other passion, what she terms the “loneliness epidemic.” We need to embrace the “YES” in our lives no matter where we are – so accept that New Orleans wedding invite even if you just met those people today — because it’s those people and these experiences that shape us, transform us, and often surprise us. Here’s Colleen.

Colleen Newine: I hate early mornings with the intensity of 1000 suns, like I am a night owl. We go to Costa Rica, where we lived in a surfing town. The entire city kind of shuts down after sunset because everybody wants to be up in the morning when the waves are the best at sunrise. Lo and behold, I find myself, much to my surprise, being the kind of girl who gets up at sunrise to go swim in the ocean before work. Didn’t see that coming. The environment shapes your behavior, shapes your choices. And did it last when I came back to New York? Absolutely not. But in Costa Rica, I was a morning person. That was a different kind of experience of how I perceived of myself.

And you got to see what it’s like to be a morning person. Little mini, a little mini. Window into that world and then you could say, OK, that was good. See you later. Research shows that it is important for your brain to mix it up once in a while and it’s really effective for your creativity to upend your schedule, your life, your routine

CN: Our brain wants to put as many things on autopilot as possible. It’s part of how we operate in the day — if we have to do everything as a conscious choice your head would explode. So you know, every single thing when we go on a mini sabbatical. Becomes conscious again. Which grocery store do we go to and where do they put the bread? When I’m turning on the light switch in the bathroom of our rental? Is it inside the door or outside the door? And do you have to jiggle the toilet? You know, it’s it’s all a thought process again. Which gets you much more paying attention to what’s happening in your life.

DH: So you hopefully create some new connections, firing some new neurons, new pathways, all that good stuff. Ohh, I like that. the sabbatical is definitely different than being one of these digital nomads who’s just living off the grid or just doesn’t have a home to return to … just jumping off the Cliff altogether.

CN: I’ve certainly met and talked to people who have gone to that full extreme, right. They don’t have a home address anymore. They are fully living out of their suitcases wherever the wind blows them. For me, the going away on an adventure feels much more possible when I know no matter what goes wrong, no matter what I do or don’t like, at the end of five weeks I’m going to be sleeping in my own bed. For me, it makes things that might be annoying if it was forever infinitely doable.

You know, like, ohh, we we lived in an apartment that sounded really quaint because it was going to be on Main Street in a little tiny Catskills town. And it turns out that Main Street is also the only highway that every truck headed up and down into the mountains was using. So is super loud. If I had to live there for a year, I would have lost my ever loving mind. For a few weeks. I could figure out how to make it possible.

DH: Yeah. Ohh, that’s so interesting. Yeah. Because you can then use that stuff later in your life too, or in other situations. And then knowing that you have the flexibility or that you even have the skills to cope with it, to figure it out. Let’s just first we’ll talk about the different kinds of sabbaticals there are. So there’s the kind sort of that you took when you worked at University of Michigan, which was an unpaid leave, and you got your paid leave. If you’re lucky enough to score that, then you’ve got the in-between jobs person.

CN: I mean the levers you can push to be able to make it work for you are kind of infinite. You could travel during the summer vacation when your kids are off school? Is there a way that you could afford it if you made a plan that was specifically around going to an inexpensive place? Or do you have a friend who has a cottage you could use for a month? If you name the objections and sort of start saying, well, what are some possible ways to overcome that thing? You start to see that maybe it’s possible. Is it possible for everybody? Absolutely not. You know, and I recognize that there is a tremendous amount of privilege in being a person who can afford to do this and who has the flexibility to do this and that is not something that everyone can say. And a lot of people who start out at I could never do this. It turns out they can.

One guy I interviewed went on an artist retreat, which helps pay for some of the costs while he was in between. I’m a big fan of working remotely, and while some people might not think of that as being a sabbatical because they they have a mental mindset that oh, you need to not be working your job. So if in five weeks in New Orleans I’m working three of them and taking two vacation weeks, I’m still getting that sense of how is the culture different, how is my lifestyle different evenings, weekends,  the time that I’m able to take off while I’m there.

So you know, that’s that’s one way to make it possible if you’re if the roadblock for you is, I can’t quit my job, my boss would never let me take five weeks off all at once, and I’m not sitting on a pile of cash. It’s, you know, it’s it’s one of many options.

The cat sitting and house sitting, Boy, you know that that’s a whole arena I was not aware of until I started doing research. But there are websites that do matchmaking between people who have a beautiful place to stay and need someone to. Watch their dogs and cats.

Everybody’s happy, right?

And something will go wrong. And trust yourself to be a problem solver. So, you know, we rented a third floor walk up in New Orleans where we were told we weren’t allowed to open the windows and the air conditioner didn’t work. And you don’t want to be on a top floor in New Orleans with no air flow and no air conditioning. Now what are we going to do? So you know, it’s just things you can’t anticipate until you get there.

And I think just like building your courage muscle, the more often you do this, I think it it develops the trust that whatever comes along, we will either be able to deal with it or fix it, yeah.

DH: Yeah, sometimes It’s those crises that we almost needed to have a be a valuable experience.

CN: If you think back on just about any vacation, it’s pretty rare to like sit around and tell the story of the absolutely flawless Tuesday afternoon that you spent on the beach… So the story you tell is the one about like, “Remember when the boat almost sank and we had to swim in…” Maybe not your favorite at the time, but in retrospect it’s part of what defines an experience.

DH: Yeah, I mean it really does speak to the journey not the destination. You don’t make a list before you go and time out every single moment you’re going to spend. Allow time to see cultural things, you know, have time, if you’re in a place where your friends are to be with your friends and all that kind of stuff so that you’re not

CN: I mean if if the point is giving yourself a break, then running an entire mini sabbatical with the same kind of stress level that you might have back home is just a different flavor of over-scheduled and stressed right? So giving yourself the opportunity to bring it down a notch, but also to allow for the serendipity of you don’t know what will pique your curiosity or what you might enjoy in that new place until you get there.

If you are rigidly attached to things working a certain way, you are going to be deeply disappointed. I feel like one of the the big transformations for me in becoming someone who has regularly done these mini sabbaticals. Is appreciating the power of being someone who’s default is yes. Often the Plan B would end up being more fun, more interesting than what I had planned to begin with. So I began to relax into not needing to know what the plan was and just allowing it to to unfold and show itself. For a type  A girl that was a, that was a big, big shift.

DH: Looking at your budget and the different ways you can budget, I like all your tips. What are some tips that you could share with people about figuring out financially how this can work for you?

CN: It’s really all in your control. So if two months is more than you can afford, do one. If it’s too expensive to go in peak season, what about off-season. If it’s too expensive to go to this country there are a whole lot of other countries, so just thinking about like if you want to reverse engineer it from: I would be willing to spend $5000 on my mini sabbatical? OK, well what does that tell you about? Does it probably need to be someplace you can drive because airfare might eat up your entire budget if you’re taking your whole family. So it’s just it’s thinking about all of those variables, about what kind of lodging, what are you going to do while you’re there? Activities can be either really expensive or you can do all of the free fun.

I’m a huge fan girl for Rick Steves and his travel books, really steeped into how I think about travel. Money can buy you comfort when you’re traveling, but it can also buy you isolation. So you know when you’re traveling a little more inexpensively,  you’re probably going to stay in a hostel or eat at a restaurant where people aren’t five miles from one another, but maybe you’re at a communal table, whatever that experience is. The less-expensive choice probably also involves more connection with other people instead of being off in your little fortress at The Four Seasons. So I I think there’s something to be said for allowing the connection of the more simple and the more human way of traveling.

DH: Explain how you would approach your boss about wanting to take this time in a way that your boss is going to say yes.

CN: I took the Dale Carnegie course when I was in my 20s. And one of the the best takeaways from that course was: If you want to win somebody over, the best way to do that is not talking and talking and talking about why it’s good for you. It’s to put some thought into why it’s good for that person. So you know, it turns out this works for your boss, your spouse, your kids, your nextdoor neighbor. Anytime you want to win someone over, there’s a pretty good chance they’re thinking: What’s in it for me?

What do you think is going to matter most to your boss? And how can you solve this in a way that acknowledges and honors what’s important to your department, your company, your coworkers?

A lot of this applies whether you’re taking a sabbatical or not, right? And so giving that thought to if I’d like to pitch almost anything at work. Taking that beat to consider: Who are the real influencers? Who are the real deciders? Who do I have an alliance with who might advocate for me if I don’t feel like I’ll get a yes from my boss? Is there someone who can help advance my proposal?

I mean, that applies to a lot of things, not just taking a month away.

DH: That is so true. Many life lessons here. So what is your advice for people who do have families? You had some pretty interesting tips for them too.

CN: Yeah, I talked to a couple of parenting experts. I don’t have kids. And so I felt like I really wanted to call in people who have expertise around these ideas. And, you know, it turns out to be so common sense. So creating a plan that acknowledges what are your kids excited about? What do they love to do? What are they hate to do? Do they know where the place is that you’re talking about going? Can you show it to them on a map? And you show them the Airbnb listing and this is going to be your room. So they can really start to envision and get excited about it.

You know, I started out writing this as a as a much more. What would you call it, A much smaller version of this, People would ask, how did you do that? And I started out thinking, well, I’ll just write up like a Word doc. That’s our our cookbook for how we do it. But as a journalist, like, just doing that was so boring, even to me. I was like, well, that’s what works for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.

So I wanted to find the other people with other flavors of mini sabbaticals. So that if you read my book, what evolved into my book,  someone in there might feel like, you know. That sounds like a trip I could do.

DH: All those little details and make a list of, you know, don’t forget your bills, your prescriptions, your this, your that, your mail. I saw that one person always brings a headlamp, like the kind that you know a miner would wear almost, because it’s dark and you don’t know what you’ll bump into in the night. So you should be prepared. Bring your favorite – whatever.

CN: We like to cook at home and I love being prepared to do that better than a lot of Airbnb kitchens are set up for. So I have a weekly pill organizer that in each day of the week I’ve put oregano, basil, hot pepper flakes, garlic powder. So those are the those are the kinds of little nerdy things that you start to learn after you’ve done it a few times. What did I not have last time? OK. Make a note.DH: And then returning to your life, Ohh yeah, I gotta go pick up the mail. I have to renew my prescription, I have to pay the phone bill, all that stuff.

CN: The fun part is planning for the going away and then returning home sounds like it’s just going to be the end of the trip, right? So giving some thought and planning to how do I wrap up the trip in a way that’s pleasurable and easy and not stressful? How do I give myself a nice soft landing when I get back so it doesn’t feel like I’ve just parachuted back into, you know, a wall of stress?

DH: If traveling is not necessarily your thing, and you’re going to meet new friends or you want to meet people you know, being prepared with conversational prompts or wearing AT shirt that will invite conversation or

CN: One of the topics I’m passionate about, in addition to many sabbaticals, is, you know, the loneliness epidemic. A lot of people complain that it’s really hard to make good friendships as adults, and so much of our lives are set up in a way that’s very isolating. If your wear a Block M almost anywhere in the world, you will probably get a Go Blue! and it’ll probably start a conversation. It’s happened to us so many places. Having those conversations starters and and sort of like that idea of. If you’re lucky, you need to say yes. If someone strikes up a conversation with you instead of immediately like getting shy and going back to your menu, ask you know, so when did you go to Michigan and do you live here or are you just visiting? Open up a conversation, when you have that conversation starter so. There’s lots of things to practice in the book even if you don’t take a mini-sabbatical.

DH: I like your line: I’d rather take a sabbatical while working than sit at home dreaming about it.

CN: I’d so much rather be talking to a real human being at a restaurant or a coffee shop, than reading the comment section on a political story online, right?

So, you know when we’re together, when we’re real humans and we can feel each others humanity, that’s when I feel like we’re much more capable of finding the common ground instead of shouting at each other. I read this article years ago in Psychology Today where researchers studied people who self-identify as being lucky. And one of the things they found was correlated with people who feel that they are lucky is they;re open, they’re “yes people.” So when a serendipitous opportunity comes along, they they take the ride. So if you’re rigidly attached to your expectation of how life is going to be, it might be safe, it might be comfortable, it might be predictable, but it’s probably not going to be lucky.

DH: It was Dirty Harry who said, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky?” I say, Just say yes and see what happens. Colleen reminds us that we can be organized AND spontaneous, self-reliant AND self-indulgent. Learners AND teachers no matter where we are. And wouldn’t you like to have those revelations on a mini-sabbatical somewhere? It’s your call.

OK, till next time, enjoy your travels, and as always, go blue.

Gone girl

Headshot of caucasian woman with brown hair and blue eyes. Shoulders and above.

Colleen Newvine, MBA ’05

For many professionals, the shift to hybrid work amid the COVID pandemic opened the door to a strange new working world. Gone was the commute, the coffee break, the water-cooler chat. Gone was the actual office! How was this going to work?

Colleen Newvine, MBA ’05, had answered that question years earlier. Well before lockdown, this Brooklyn-based journalist, marketing consultant, and life coach crafted her own concept of remote work in the form of “mini sabbaticals.” Rather than cursing gridlock en route to the high rise, Newvine might be found diving into her laptop after rising with the sun in Costa Rica.

But it wasn’t always that way. For much of her career, Newvine had followed a linear trajectory, ultimately landing a dream job at the Associated Press (AP) in New York. Like most gigs, it was great until it wasn’t. When a new boss arrived, she sensed it was time for a change, so she decided to put her MBA toward launching a marketing firm. But she got pink-slipped before she could pitch herself as a part-timer. Undaunted, she responded by creating a job description for a part-time, remote position; the AP’s CEO approved. Using the argument that remote was remote, Newvine negotiated two months working from New Orleans.

“This is what one of my retired AP bosses, Tom Slaughter, called my double-bank shot: Flipping a pink slip into a part-time job with geographic flexibility,” writes Newvine in her inspiring how-to guide, Your Mini Sabbatical: Quit Your Life Temporarily.

Mini me

The new release chronicles Newvine’s subsequent adventures in hopes others may embrace this version of temporary wanderlust. After that initial stint in New Orleans, she and her husband, John Tebeau, BS ’86, have maintained their home in Brooklyn while working from San Francisco, the Catskills, Ann Arbor, and more. They’ve experienced life in small towns and surf towns. They’ve lived above a coffee shop, in a converted garage, and at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They’ve encountered setbacks, intestinal distress, and a broken air-conditioner in a third-floor walkup with sealed windows. Throughout, Newvine remained creative, productive, and employed, all while embracing new cultures, adventure, and resilience.

“Our brain wants to put as many things on autopilot as possible,” she says. “And when we go on a mini sabbatical, every single thing becomes conscious again: Which grocery store do we go to and where do they put the bread? When I’m turning on the light switch in the bathroom of our rental, is it inside the door or outside the door — and do you have to jiggle the handle? It’s all a thought process again, which gets you paying much more attention to what’s happening in your life.”

Secret ingredient

Woman works on laptop at an outdoor patio table surrounded by greenery.

Newvine working outside while temporarily living in Patchogue, Long Island in the summer of 2018. “My coworkers were chickens, ducks, geese and a turkey — much to the amusement of colleagues on video calls,” she says.

The secret to making it work? Keeping the “mini” firmly in your mini sabbatical. Newvine’s sweet spot is five weeks. That’s enough time to immerse in a new routine, make a friend or two, and endure a few unexpected hassles while knowing your home base awaits. The logistics may seem overwhelming to the uninitiated, but Newvine presents a detailed plan that can apply to multiple scenarios, locations, and budgets. She has lists and tips and hacks to share, from which kitchen essentials to pack to how to convince your boss that your mini sabbatical will benefit others in the organization.

“At first, I thought of it like our ‘cookbook’ for how John and I do it,” she says. “But that was so boring, even to me. I wanted to find other people with other flavors of mini sabbaticals so readers could feel like, ‘That sounds like a trip I could do.’”

Newvine spoke to parents and parenting experts, life coaches, and researchers. She interviewed artists, business owners, and people between jobs who took their own mini sabbaticals. Some travelers had savings or disposable income, others were working within a strict budget. Some enjoyed flexible working environments, others had limited time off. A few even worked for organizations that offered formal sabbatical programs. 

You can do it!

Chapter headings are practical and self-explanatory: “To work or not to work,” “Sabbatical with your kids,” “Social life on sabbatical,” and so on. One of the most essential must-reads is the chapter “Giving yourself permission.” It’s relevant whether one is planning a mini sabbatical or not, Newvine says. She muses on the “power of yes,” the concept of luck, and the joy of connecting with all sorts of people. The experience builds confidence, problem-solving skills, and courage because “something always goes wrong,” she says.

Life lessons abound through her subjects’ experiences. Obstacles — real or imagined — are no match for Newvine’s probing questions and imaginative suggestions.

“The levers you can push to make it work for you are kind of infinite,” she says. “And a lot of people who start at, ‘I could never do this’? It turns out they can.”

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