I am not going to say that going on sabbatical in Milan for half a year with my family is not a great opportunity. I fully realize that, relatively speaking, it’s a privilege, and I do value it. Without exception, everyone we know, who heard about our travel for the first time, said that something ranging from “I wish I could go with you” to “It sounds like something out of a romantic novel”.
Having said this, my subjective view of the experience has been evolving from the the excitement of the initial planning, through the realization that it would take a substantial logistical effort to move the household to the stress of settling in the new town.
After everything is said and done, I absolutely think that coming here was worth the effort. Just as a note, I am writing this after living in Milan for three weeks. I will keep you updated as my opinion changes or reaffirms.
Here is one reason why academic sabbaticals are perfect mechanisms of promoting creativity and enabling a variety of viewpoints on familiar issues.
I recently read about the seminal work of Joseph Connell, a biologist, who established a framework for the so-called “intermediate disturbance hypothesis”. The idea is that in order to allow biodiversity in a certain geographical region, this area needs to be exposed to a periodic disturbance of a medium strength, like a tall tree that sometimes falls in the middle of a forest or a storm that rips through a coral reef once in a few years. The disturbance temporarily dislodges a dominant species in that area and allows other species to compete for resources (e.g. sunlight).
There are two key factors in this concept:
1. A significant disturbance is necessary for diversity (otherwise, one species would croud out the others).
2. The disturbance should not be too harsh or too frequent (otherwise, only the hardiest species would be able to survive).
Since Connell’s discovery in the 1950’s, people have drawn parallels between the intermediate disturbance hypothesis applied to biology and its apparent validity in other areas. In fact, I learned about it in Charles Duhigg’s book “Smarter Faster Better”, where he argues that it applies to a generalized creative process.
I think that an academic sabbatical, which, in the case of my university, can be taken once in every seven years, is a perfect example of a medium disturbance to the dominant modes of thinking and of dealing with everyday problems that we all have a tendency to develop and follow. Specifically, I think that travelling to a foreign country and collaborating with colleagues by physically joining their research group satisfies the key requirements of a medium disturbance.
First, going on sabbatical is undoubtedly stressful, notwithstanding all the romantic concepts of travelling to Italy or another location with an exotic flair. We are forced to adapt to the foreign customs and to learn the logistics of living in a new city. Also, joining another research group and the closeness of collaboration with other researchers compels us to internalize their viewpoints and and ways of approaching problems.
Second, the stress of sabbatical travel is not so severe that it forces us to completely uproot your way of life. Also, the sabbaticals, don’t happen too often to completely prevent routine and procedures from taking root.
I really hope that this year’s trip will provide just enough disturbance to broaden my, and my family’s view of the world and our own life. Incidentally, I an noticing that our five-year-old daughter is definitely more adaptable to the transition to the new place than I am. For example, I am sure that if the word “stress” was in her vocabulary, she would not have chosen it to describe her initial experience here in Milan. This is the evidence that a child’s outlook to the world is inherently more diverse that that of an adult. Somewhere, along the way of growing up, one way of thinking crowds out the alternatives, just like a dominant species of plants in an Australian forest steals the sunlight from the other plants, and it takes some uprooting to open one’s mind to creative possibilities.