Maybe it is obvious. That a person like me, never should take on such an ambitious project. On the other hand, that’s what I’ve done all my life – taken on projects that are too ambitious. And so, maybe it has become a habit or maybe I’m just the masochistic type, but here I am, ready to embark on a six month sabbatical to Zanzibar with my family consisting of a husband who…(forget it, I’ll get to him later), and three kids aged 6, 8 and 9 whom I will be homeschooling. Not that that’s such a big deal. Doesn’t everyone go on sabbaticals these days? At least that’s the impression you can get when you read the weekend editions of the newspapers or the trendy women’s magazines. Not that I’m influenced by those. (Sorry, that’s not true, in generaI I love getting inspired by those magazines, but I was not when it comes to the specific decision of taking a sabbatical at Zanzibar).
Actually, I’ve taken a sabbatical before. And indeed, I think I am doing it again simply because I did it once before, and it was the best thing I’ve done in my entire life. Ok, so my life has changed a bit since that time in San Francisco when my husband and I took half a year off to play around and have no obligations except for chilling out and renewing our energy after an immensely intense period of working 24/7. It’s like ten years, three kids, a lot more mortgage and a few disappointing setbacks in terms of career moves later, but even more so; it feels like just the right thing to do, making a stop, slowing things down and rethinking a thing or two. Those last ten years have gone by like a whirlwind. Life has been so hectic. Yeah, taking a sabbatical really seems like just the right thing to do right now (doesn’t it?).
After all, didn’t I make a drawing fifteen years ago in that Women in Management class at San Francisco State University, completing the assignment of drawing myself in my wildest dreams, lying in a hammock on a sandy beach with a couple of kids playing in the sand next to me? I spent most of my thirties bringing about the kids. Now, I was ready to bring them to an exotic island off the coast of Tanzania and actually fulfil that dream from way back when. It feels pretty cool, to be honest. As I had tried to explain to a friend of mine who wondered why and how and whatnot around the decision to take a sabbatical; this was one of a few substantial life dreams that I have carried with me over the years and now seems the perfect time to see it come to its fruition.
I realize fifteen years may seem like a long time to wait for a dream to come true, and it certainly feels like a long time since I drew that dream on the sheet of paper in Professor Carr-Ruffino’s class. But really, so what if it takes fifteen years to fulfil one of your life’s dreams? If we only have a handful of dreams (I’m obviously referring to “substantial” ones), and we’re lucky enough to live an average amount of eighty-five years, fifteen years is nothing to gasp about.
Yeah, right, you might be thinking – but I am serious about this, I think a lot of people think they have so little time (this includes myself when I was younger, I always felt I was too late, too slow, too old, or too outdated), but this is an erroneous way of thinking. There is enough time for the really important things. It doesn’t matter if it takes longer than you expect or plan for. As long as it happens. So what if it took me fifteen years to get to that dream island with those kids, now I’m actually fantastically going!!!
Of course, I have added a few, minor ambitions to the dream picture. One is to make a clean cut in order to reassess what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, and the other one is to reassess whether one of the other major dreams that I’ve had for a long time, but haven’t yet fulfilled, remains a worthwhile dream to keep. In fact, I did not only make one drawing of myself in my wildest dreams that time at San Francisco State, but two. The other one was of myself sitting at a talk show, sharing ideas and stories from my own book which was stacked in piles next to me. And even if I was lucky enough to get my first book published only a few years later, I had upgraded that dream to an international context. Now I dreamt to published in an international setting, to create a book that would enable me to get my voice out to a much bigger audience and in turn enable me to realize all my other ambitions, such as creating the “The leadership institute”, which would be a place where women’s ways of leadership would be legitimized and celebrated. (In case you wonder, I’m a specialist on women and leadership.)
However, I do not seem to be getting very much closer to realizing this dream as all my other obligations and priorities take all of my time, and even though there are several unfinished scripts stacked away in my bookshelves, it is not difficult to admit that they hardly seem to be of the kind of “best selling” material I need to move forward.
So, it seems appropriate to make some major reassessments, and what better way to do it (is my thinking), than escaping from the cold winter of Norway and the trivial and tedious assignments taking up so much of my time, and give myself and my family a break. Yeah, a break surely seems the appropriate thing!
Except, this isn’t all of the background story.
There is a husband. And he is in many ways worthy of a story all in itself, but the important thing to mention here, is that he has some of his own ambitions for the sabbatical. Which, in some way or another, he has managed to drag the rest of the family into. Of course, they are fun projects. Like the one with the monkeys; he calls it “Hey, hey with the monkeys – project”. Who would dare to be negative to that one?
The monkeys are, more precisely, the Red Colobus Monkeys and they are unique of its kind so much that apparently the only place they exist are on the Zanzibar island. So, my husband thought, why not make an effort to help the poor kids of Zanzibar by turning the attention to these interesting and fun creatures, as he spent a lot of time on the exotic island while conducting one of his other projects. Which is why he established the “PP monkey fond” (yeah, wouldn’t you know it, PP as in Peter-Peter, is his own artistic version of his original name Peter). But this was when the project was still very modest and pretty much limited to having a bazaar at the local mall in Larvik where we live, and collecting some teddy bears to bring to the children of Zanzibar. Now the project has grown big, and I mean BIG; involving all of the primary schools in our city and most of the nurseries and primary schools in Zanzibar. And that is just one of the ambitions he is bringing with him in our collective baggage.
As I’m speaking of ambition, I was browsing through my favourite magazine shop the other day, when my eyes caught a glimpse of those exact words in red thick capital letters on the cover of Time magazine; “The secrets of AMBITION”, it read. Isn’t life funny, just our mind focuses on something specific, we notice it in all kinds of ways and places. Not that the topic was new to me. When your professional endeavour involves women and leadership, you are bound to touch upon the topic of ambition. I’ll never forget how affected I was by a question posed in a book written by Harvard professor Anna Fels on the topic; Why are so many professional women willing to walk away from their dreams? She asked. And you know, after you have thought about it for a bit and swallowed the grief you feel by the assumption implied in the question (that women are in fact walking away from their dreams), the next thing you’re bound to ask is; are they really?
I had been able to explore that question among quite a few outstanding Norwegian professional women, but what I found was perhaps even more discontenting: Most of them didn’t even relate to the idea of having any dreams about careers or making it to top leadership positions or being at the forefront in their fields. They seemed to walk along, taking one day at a time and resolving the challenges that were presented to them step by step. No proud feelings because they in fact were superwomen handling it all. – I don’t feel like a superwoman, a young and successful financial officer and a mother of three children commented in a focus group I had conducted. – I just do what must be done. In other words, there was no specific dream or goal driving her, but rather a strong work ethic and an ambition to master her career and at the same time being a good mother and friend and wife and all the other things modern life imposes on a woman.
Relating the topic to my own life, there were other dilemmas. I surely had dreams, but seemed to lack the ability to follow through. For example, I had been working on my PhD for ages, and never seemed focused enough to finish. Or, what about the book scripts that were more than half way finished, stacked away in my book shelves. Surely, it had been my goal to finish them when I started up. However, parallel to the superwoman cited above, there are so many things going on at the same time.
The idea that I was pursuing too many goals and dreams at the same time, clearly had crossed my mind. But I seemed unable to choose between them. On the contrary to Fels who argues that women walk away from their dreams, I seemed unable to do just that. I wanted it all. On my own terms. And refused to admit that it was impossible. It simply meant taking more time, and following a slower route.
The article in Times, helped me clarify one thing; being clear about ones goals is vital. As psychologist Dean Simonton of University of California, Davis stated; “Ambition is energy and determination, but it calls for goals too. People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the coach saying ‘ One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap’. People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”
The problem, that they forgot to elaborate further on in that article, was precisely the problem of goals. How to make up your mind about which goals to pursue when there are so many things you want to do?? What if you’re the type of person like me (and a lot of other people I know, and women in particular), who are not single minded enough to focus on one or two things, but instead try to juggle at least fifteen at a time? And mind you, five of those are most often thrown at me from the outer world just when I don’t need them, i.e.; children with all kinds of more or less legitimate needs, life partners with all kinds of more or less legitimate needs, teachers, trainers, friends, neighbours, helpers, or other people or tasks that seem to appear out of nowhere in a non-stop fashion throughout the day. Important things, most definitely, but alas, not things that bring me closer to realizing my dreams…
In fact, every time I read about successful business men who prescribe the single minded focus on one goal to be the requisite for success, I frown. What would the world look like if everybody focused on only one thing? It would become a very boring and unfriendly world, I think. Nevertheless, I had to admit I was in the habit of creating too many goals and ambitions for myself and this was something I was planning to work through as I had an entirety of six months at my disposal.
And if everything else failed, the one goal I was determined to reach, no matter at what cost, was to learn the practice of
Kapittel 2. fra Irmelins bok A DREAM COMES THROUGH kommer neste søndag, 25. september kl. 18.