One of My Mentors Left for a 1-Year Sabbatical
I interviewed him for two hours just before he left, and here's what I learned.
Posted February 22, 2021
According to Forbes and Inc. Magazine, Joe Polish is "One of the most connected people in business.” He’s the leader of Genius Network, which is one of―if not the most―elite and exclusive entrepreneurial masterminds in the world.
In mid-2020, Joe started telling people that he was going to disappear during all of 2021. He was going to take a 12-month sabbatical. During that time, he would not be answering his phone. He would not be available to Genius Network members. No one should expect to hear from him.
Initially, I was a bit surprised and also somewhat skeptical. How was this going to be possible? Joe is always connected. He’s got literally thousands of people that utilize his knowledge, skills, and network.
But as 2021 came closer, he showed no signs of backing out.
I ended up interviewing him for over 2 hours to figure out:
- Why was he doing this?
- What was he hoping to get out of it?
- What scared him most about leaving for 12 months?
Interestingly, his answers tied all three of those questions together.
In full disclosure, I've been a paying member of Genius Network for nearly four years. Joe has been a mentor and friend since 2017. However, I received no compensation for writing this article. As an organizational psychologist and writer, I've written many articles and books about what I learn in unique environments and from high-performers.
After going through a great deal of personal loss and tragedy, on top of being totally burned out from his work, Joe needed a break... a big break. During the 2016 Genius Network Annual Event, the multiple New York Times bestselling author, David Bach, discussed how his life had changed by taking a sabbatical. In his own words, “I didn’t need to recharge my batteries; I needed to replace them.”
Research shows that sabbaticals can produce the following outcomes:
- Increased well-being
- Increased “resources” in terms of energy, cognitive ability, emotional availability, etc.
- Increased self-efficacy
- Increased feelings of control over one’s life
- Greater psychological detachment from work, which leads to higher levels of flow, well-being, improved relationships, etc.
Here’s how my interview with Joe went:
“What are you trying to get out of this?”
That was his answer.
“I need to change and grow.”
There’s a quote Joe has hanging on his wall that says, “Be willing to destroy anything in your life that isn’t excellent.”
“There’s a lot of my life that isn’t excellent,” he told me.
“I’m ready to really make the changes I want to make. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life. But I know I could be doing better. There are a lot of things I want to spend my time doing, that if I don’t take my time back, I’ll never be in the right space to do them.”
Joe comes from a hard background. He was molested as a child and ended up becoming an extreme drug and sex addict for a number of years. He’s since gotten clean and wants to dedicate his time and energy to making a global impact on the world of addiction recovery.
He wants to really help those who struggle. He has a non-profit organization, Genius Recovery, which seeks to change the global conversation of addiction by viewing addicts with compassion rather than judgment while providing effective tools and education for healing addiction.
But like many people, his life didn’t allow for that. He was really busy. Not only that, but he was exhausted.
There’s a quote by Meredith Willson in The Music Man:
“You pile up enough tomorrows, and you'll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.”
That’s what Joe was feeling. Too many days and years would go by without him making the meaningful progress he wanted on the cause and goals that are in his heart.
So, not only did he need to reset. But he wanted to restart. He wanted to get his mind and body to a place where he could focus and be in the flow. But he also wanted to reset his environment and lifestyle. He had trained his environment to always need him.
He got his team and business prepared to run effectively without him. That was one of the byproducts of preparing for this sabbatical. He prepared his Genius Network members to function powerfully without him. This was actually a big leap because, in those meetings, Joe was also the facilitator, and many people joined Genius Network for the purpose of being in Joe’s proximity.
He’s now re-trained his team and re-trained his network to function without him.
This reminded me of the quote from the historian, Will Durant, “The ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded.”
In psychology, the phenomenon known as the Pygmalion Effect shows that people’s performance rises or falls to the expectations of those around them. In Joe’s case, his leaving for 12 months is like ripping off a bandaid. Yes, he spent a lot of time preparing himself, his team, and his network for his sabbatical. But at the same time, now that he’s gone, he’s gone.
- He must now go through an adjustment phase of shedding off the habits and identity of his former self.
- His team must go through the adjustment phase of not needing Joe to guide or manage their work.
- His network must go through the adjustment of really utilizing each other without needing Joe as the centerpiece.
Sometimes, the best thing a person can do for a relationship is to leave for a while. Sometimes, intense measures need to be put in place for intense change to occur.
Joe wants an intense change in his life. He’s willing to go to extreme measures to get that change. This takes me to my next question.
“What are you most afraid of?”
I was expecting Joe to say, “That my business will fall apart.”
That’s not what he said at all.
“I’m afraid of what I’ll have to face in order to make the changes I want to make.”
Joe knows that change is an emotional process. It requires making the unconscious conscious, as Freud would say.
In order for him to get to the level he wants to in his life, he’ll have to face inner-demons he might not even be fully aware of.
I then asked if he was worried about everything falling apart in his life? After all, he’s got a great business, amazing network, and a great lifestyle.
Again, he surprised me.
“I’m willing to give up everything I have for the change I want.”
That was absolutely amazing. I pushed even further. “So, you’d give up Genius Network and everything you’ve built over the past 25-30 years?”
I know he was serious.
I’ve come to learn that in order to get something you want, you must be willing to give up what you currently have. Most people aren’t willing to do this. That level of commitment is required, though.
I found in Joe’s answers a connection to the research on psychological flexibility. In order to develop psychological flexibility, researchers have developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a process of fully embracing and confronting your emotions and learning to be more present and mindful while at the same time learning how to behave in ways that bring about your desired values and goals.
I can see that Joe has very clear and powerful end-goals and values. He’s willing to more fully confront and embrace the emotions, traumas, and challenges that will ultimately enable him to achieve his goals. He’s willing to change everything in his life that conflicts with his achieving his goals and values.
“What are you going to do during that one year?”
Logically, I wanted to know what Joe planned to do during those 12 months. Again, his answer surprised me.
“I haven’t planned anything yet,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I questioned.
“I don’t want to do any planning until it actually starts. I want to start my planning from a clean and blank-slate.”
As I thought about it, this made sense. Joe is someone whose schedule has been totally booked for the past few decades. To not have anything on his schedule must be a somewhat uncomfortable experience for Joe.
I love the idea of making plans from a blank slate. You don’t have anything pressing on you. You’re not trying to be overly productive. You’re, indeed, recovering and resetting.
Conclusion: My Thoughts as a Psychologist
It’s interesting to watch one of your friends and mentors go through such an extreme change. I believe it took incredible courage for Joe Polish to initiate a 1-year sabbatical. It’s clear that he’s willing to “risk” everything he’s currently got in his life to find his own next level of meaning and purpose.
For him to put his business, his reputation, and everything he’s spent the past 2-3 decades building on the line, in order to get a new perspective and in order to get healing—to me, that’s really amazing.
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