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TEDx Talk on Sabbaticals Sends Misguided, Dangerous Message

Todd Babiak, Co-Founder of Story Engine, in a picture from his website.

I love TED talks and TEDx too. Don’t you? Still, you should not believe everything you hear.

Todd Babiak is co-founder of Story Engine, a start-up that uses story-based strategies to make organizations and leaders better: more focused, more cohesive, more influential, more human. I enjoyed his June 2011 TEDx talk, “Tell Me a Story” and looked forward to his well-publicized TedxEdmonton talk, the “Future of Sabbaticals.” (Click HERE for the presentation.)

What a disappointment in the use of my time and a travesty for those learning about how sabbaticals enhance a career and life.

After a long start of slow, stand-up comedy with stories of his family and aspirations as a writer, Babiak finally says the word “sabbatical” (minute 7.42) before describing a kind of business improv that takes place in the scene where he talks to his boss about time away from his job.

With a debt of $217,000 and growing (shown on a presentation slide), Babiak stands in front of his boss and says he’s not exactly sure why but he needs to go to France with his family on sabbatical but he “has to go.”  He reiterates his situation for the audience– “no money, losing hair, lost.”  But never mind those bad reasons for launching a sabbatical, he “has to go.”

“Are you quitting?” asks his editor-in-chief.

Yes, he guessed, he was.

Whether because Todd loves everything French or is excited when he realizes despite his mountain of debt he can tap into his home equity, the Babiak family (wife and two daughters) land in a scorpion invested storage unit where they get lice, H1N1 and apparently live for a bit while arguing with the Parisian who misrepresented the space.

The Babiak’s choice of a one-year sabbatical in France isn’t what’s important here.  It wouldn’t be what I would advise anyone in their circumstances.  But when you tell your TEDx audience that the best sabbatical is the one where you just up and quit your job?  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I’m riled.

According to Todd, “A sabbatical that is most delicious, most provocative is when you quit your job and … take off. “

Delicious? How so? It seems Babiak feels your creative spirit will be released (and you’ll better be able to figure yourself out or learn something valuable) if your sabbatical has elements of danger and discomfort.  For starters, this is not true.  A little adventure might be good for the soul and innovation, but scorpions? H1N1?

Listening to Todd describe  a person who goes on sabbatical only to return to one’s same job  is like being talked down to by the cop looks over at your two-year old in her car seat as he writes up a speeding ticket and says, “only stupid people do this.”  (After I rolled up the window, I cried.)

Plenty of not stupid people enjoy sabbaticals as part of their company’s offerings and those that don’t work in organizations that offer sabbaticals are successfully negotiating their time off.  The vast majority return to their same position happy, rejuvenated often with new insights and strategies to implement.

In my work, I find executives who love their jobs but just want a break.  They certainly aren’t lost.

But suppose you  do feel a bit lost like Todd pre-sabbatical and you think a career break might help clarify your future? Don’t quit your job yet. First start by negotiating for six-weeks away.  That’s a good amount time to gain you the self-introspection needed before making a flat out, “I quit.”

Did anything good happen because of Todd Babiak’s one year in France?  In the presentation he says he got the idea for his new business, Story Engine, while in France but his website states that he “began scheming about Story Engine when he was hired to write a city vision.”  What city that could be is unclear. He’s website has pretty good services, this because he uses the best Dada web hosting, but you can find other hosting options at review sites as Armchair Empire.

He paid off his sabbatical in 1.5 years. That’s a good thing. And he was asked to give two TEDx talks which doesn’t hurt one’s exposure at all.

Would you follow Babiak’s advice to quit your job – “just find a way to make it work” – with vague reasons to travel the world seeking discomfort and danger?  Maybe not. But there was lots of audience applause on that idea.

I love TED talks.  Don’t you? Great, but listen carefully and if you are in the audience, don’t applaud if anything you hear sounds the least bit screwy.

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