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Episode 028

 Bill Barbot

Bill Barbot

Sabbaticals

with Bill Barbot

Taking a week off from work can seem tough to many of us. Two weeks? Doubtful. A month? Are you crazy! And if you run a digital agency, you probably feel like you struggle to take the afternoon off. And yet, increasingly, people in the Bureau community are embracing the concept of sabbaticals. Today Bill Barbot from Threespot shares with us his experience of unplugging for six weeks. Removing his work email, deleting Slack and telling everyone in the company that only one person would be able to send up a flare in case of emergency. Listen in to see how things went.

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Full Transcript


Welcome to the Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl, and with me today I have got the co-founder of Threespot, Mr. Bill Barbot. How's it going, Bill?

Bill Barbot:    
It is going excellent.

Carl Smith:    
I am glad you were able to be on the show. I know recently you went off on a sabbatical, and this really piqued my curiosity. I've heard about a lot of people in the industry starting to do this and I wanted to get you on the show and just find out, what was that about? What was it that made you decide, "I need to take some time off"?

Bill Barbot:    
First of all, I was guarded about calling it a sabbatical because I wanted ... I was taking my wife and my daughter, who's two, with me to live in my best friend from college's house in Montpelier, Vermont. He was between jobs, so he and his wife managed to pull their kids out of school and jet off to Europe for about three and a half months. He said, "Hey, are you interested in coming up and house sitting for me?" I was not really thinking that 2016 was going to be the year where I took a significant amount of time away from the business, but the opportunity landed in my lap.
    
While I was not able to spend the entire time that they were gone up in Montpelier, we were able to carve out about six weeks to head up there. It was almost just serendipitous that I decided to say, "You know what, this is an opportunity for me to take a break." I've taken vacations many, many times in the past, but I wanted to make sure that I didn't think of this just as a vacation. In a vacation, you're always thinking about, what do I do? What do I do on vacation? I've got to get up in the morning, and think about how I maximize my time when I'm in Paris, or when I'm in Hawaii, or when I'm in the Virgin Islands. I want to go sailing. I want to climb this mountain. I want to go see this tourist site.
    
I was going to be in Montpelier, Vermont which, no offense to Montpelier, it's a sleepy, little town. It's the capital of the state of Vermont, but I don't know how many thousand people live there, but it's definitely in the low end of the two or 3,000, I don't know, maybe 5,000. There's not a whole lot going on in Montpelier. Vermont is a fantastic state which I have loved for years, but it was less about what I did on this trip, and more about where I was and what I was looking to do with my head while I was on this trip.

Carl Smith:    
First of all, I really want to go on vacation with you. Paris, Hawaii, hiking mountains, good Lord, man. I understand not wanting this to be a vacation, but those vacations sound kind of awesome. I know exactly what you're saying. When you go on vacation, you have a plan. Like you're saying, you have to do things. It almost becomes a second job in a way.

Bill Barbot:    
It does.

Carl Smith:    
Like, "I have got to relax."

Bill Barbot:    
It does.

Carl Smith:    
I must maximize my relaxation capability, and my ability to speak, which is always important. You have this extra time. How much time did you have total?

Bill Barbot:    
It was about six weeks.

Carl Smith:    
About six weeks.

Bill Barbot:    
Yeah, give or take a couple days. Six weeks, yeah.

Carl Smith:    
Six weeks, significant amount of time, and you want to clear your head. You want to figure stuff out. When you say you didn't want this to be a vacation, what did this non-vacation look like to you?

Bill Barbot:    
My partner, William Colgrove, and I have been running this business for 17 years, and I have taken numerous vacations, even significant ones. I went to Indonesia and Thailand a couple of years ago with my wife, but I've never successfully unplugged. I always had a temptation of the phone in my pocket beckoning me back to work. I knew that this would be an opportunity for me, given the duration of the trip, to actually shut it off. I literally removed my work account from my phone. I removed Slack. I gave a dictum to the entire staff that only one, and only one person, Colgrove, was able to contact me, and even he was only allowed to do that in case of a real dire emergency.
    
All the people who were used to just having me around to bounce ideas off of, to ask my thoughts on various things, would have to learn how to deal without me. I felt, on the one hand, it was going to be a benefit to them to be like, "Okay, how much do I actually need Barbot and his opinion around to do my job and to execute the vision of the company," but the benefit was also going to be mine, in that I would give myself space, which I have never given myself before, to just see what happens when I turn everything off.
    
That was a scary proposition for me, because you get lured into the belief, as an owner of a company, that you're essential, that you are the linchpin that is holding the entire machine together. You are the cog without which everything falls apart if you stop turning. That sounds like hubris, right? It sounds like I've got a ridiculously high opinion of myself, but it's an easy trap to fall into. I thought, "The only way that I can do this is if I just literally pull myself out, if I just pretend like I'm dead and ask the company to pretend like I'm dead and see what happens."

Carl Smith:    
You don't have to die, Bill.

Bill Barbot:    
No, but it's pretend. This is make believe.

Carl Smith:    
It's make believe dead Bill.

Bill Barbot:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
Honestly, you have to get to that point. I know for me, with running nGen, there was a time when we had people in eight time zones, and I felt like I had to always be on call. Even if you're located, even if you've got a more traditional schedule, you're still always on call. You're always thinking. You can't turn your brain off. It's a horrible way to live. You shouldn't sacrifice yourself because 17 years ago you started something. You give yourself this space. You turn everything off. You unplug. What does your brain say to you when suddenly all of these inputs are turned off?

Bill Barbot:    
My brain immediately told me that my routine was broken. My attitude towards my day, and how I was going to approach each day, was messed up, because I think that, and you and I touched on this when we had a conversation the other day, you get lured into a belief that because you are essential to the business, even if you are taking a servant leadership approach and thinking, "I'm here to serve my staff. I'm here to serve my clients. I'm here to be a tool of the business," when you've got staff in eight time zones like you did at nGen, or when I've got a group of people who are used to having me literally sitting out in the room here ... I don't have an office. I sit on an armchair out among my staff. They're used to having really easy access to me.
    
I was thinking I was doing everybody a favor by being that accessible and by being that focused on helping them, when in fact I was disserving them. That recognition when you unplug, and you sit back and you think about how would I spend my day, when I'm at work, the first thing I do is see who needs my help. I plunge into email. I check Slack. I see what I need to fill my day with to help other people. What I was doing inadvertently was I was disserving myself. That sounds like, "Oh, well, you must be a selfish SOB to think that serving yourself is important," but no, it's actually quite the opposite. If you're not taking care of yourself, you're not taking care of your business. I learned that in my marriage. If you're not taking care of yourself, you're not taking care of your family.
    
Waking up that first morning that I was in Vermont, literally the birds woke me up at 4:30 in the morning. It gets bright early there in the summertime months. My buddy's dog, who we were watching as part of our house watching routine, came up and started jingling his collar outside the door to go outside around 4:30, and the birds were chirping. I was like, "Man, what am I going to do today? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?" I was like, "Well, I need to pick up my computer, and I need to look at my email." I was like, "Wait a minute. No. I'm not doing that. I'm not doing that today. I need to look at Slack. I need to check my voicemail. I need to look at Facebook. I need to look at all of these various channels that I was relying on to help form my agenda for the day," and realizing, "Wait a minute, I want to set my agenda for the day."
    
Getting to a place where I'm beginning the process, and I did not fix this by being in Vermont, but I began the process of recognizing my responsibility to set my own agenda for the day, which is kind of business 101. It's kind of leadership 101. Of course, as the CEO, as the owner, as the founder, whatever, you need to be setting your own agenda. You need to identify your big rocks. Then you fit in the little rocks in between, but if you're ignoring those big rocks, then you're not actually moving the business forward. All you're doing is reacting.
    
That space, having that moment of clarity and openness in my schedule where I was like, "I get to pick what I do today. I have nobody to pay attention to except what my two year old needs, what the dogs need, what the chickens need." I was watching chickens too. They're important players in all this. When I thought about, "You, Barbot, what do you need to do today," I was like, "I need to get some exercise. I need to go outside and look at some mountains. I need to think about how I can free myself from letting the world set my agenda for me."

Carl Smith:    
You may have accidentally taken a job on a farm. I just want to make you aware of this. I know you said it's a friend's place, but you're up at 4:30. You're taking care of chickens. It sounds lovely.

Bill Barbot:    
Yeah, there was a lot of farm action. I actually had a chicken die on my watch unfortunately.

Carl Smith:    
Oh, no. Did you try to replace it with another chicken, just like ...

Bill Barbot:    
No, no. Again, serendipity was treating me well when I was up there. Just before we arrived, a stray chicken had appeared in the neighborhood, and one of the neighbors brought it over and introduced to the flock that we were taking care of. My buddy left with four chickens. The flock grew to five. Then one died on my watch. When they came home, they still had four chickens.

Carl Smith:    
Thank goodness, because I don't know what kind of an agreement you signed when you took the job, but you may have been in some trouble. I can't agree more on the take care of yourself part of this. We do forget that. You talk about business 101, but most of us never set out to get into business. Most of the people running digital agencies, like Threespot, like nGen, like most of the people that are hanging out with the Bureau, we're musicians, we're artists or writers, or I was in theater. For whatever reason, we were in creative fields, and so we were drawn to this, but we don't know about the big boulders and the small rocks. We don't think about things that way, so when you get this break, and when you find out, "You know what, I am doing a disservice to everybody by trying to help all the time, because I'm not giving them a chance to grow. They expect me to show up and help, instead of giving them the opportunity to learn and stand up."

Congrats, man. Congrats on that first day and realizing you had to shut all that stuff off, get yourself some physical activity, put yourself out in nature, because again, science. Science shows us that when we go outside, we get better. We become better human beings. We're more relaxed. We have fewer heart problems. Our brains are more active, all of these amazing things. You go out there. What do you start thinking? What do you start feeling? Once you get through that first day, where are you?

Bill Barbot:    
There was surprisingly less fear than I anticipated. I thought that it would take me several days or a week to begin the process of unwinding. I think that if I had chosen to remain somewhat connected, that would have been true. Even the temptation of knowing that there are emails in my inbox waiting for me on my phone would have been too potent a temptation and would have proved to be an albatross hanging around my neck, even if I didn't open my inbox. Paving that way for space was really important, like literally forcing myself away from that stuff was critical.
    
The fact that I was in Montpelier, Vermont was also very important. I live in DC, one of the busiest, most trafficked, crazy, high intensity towns in the world. If I had tried to do this in my home, I wouldn't have been successful, because I would still hear the airplanes overhead. I would still feel the traffic buzzing around me. It's not all that hippie dippie, I believe, to recognize that spaces have energy. The space of being ... My office is in Chinatown, a very bustling, very urban part of DC, and while we thrive on that energy while we're working, when you're trying to give yourself a mental break and give yourself some space, it's very, very difficult to do.
    
There's a reason why monks choose to live in monasteries and not just hang out in the park and do their meditation in Dupont Circle. There's a reason why we try to set aside certain spaces as sacred, and nature is a sacred space for me. Getting to a place where I was literally surrounded by nature, like you walk across the street ... You're in a "city street" in Montpelier. You walk across the street, and you're looking into woods. There's not a sprawling set of suburbs outside of the heart of Montpelier like there is in most of the East Coast. You're in the woods.
    
Being in the woods and being in the mountains gives you that kind of physical reinforcement and reminder constantly that, in order to fill your body and fill your brain and fill your time with new habits, you have to pave the way for them. You got to get rid of the old habits. You have to literally create that kind of space in your calendar to pay attention, to listen, to be creative. It's very, very difficult to be creative when your email is dinging at you, and your phone is ringing, and people are all walking around you, firing questions, even if they're only firing them sideways. You get absorbed in other people's problems, and you're not solving the problem that you need to be focused on.
    
That physical space was really critical for my being able to just give myself the chance to do something creative. Honestly, you and I didn't talk about this, but I spent a lot of time making music when I was in Montpelier, nothing to do with the work that I do. Clients weren't commissioning me to write them a piece of music. I was just making music because that is a way that I switched to another part of my brain that is focused purely on creativity and purely on openness and possibility, that is very, very difficult for me to find when I'm under deadline putting together a presentation or a proposal or writing some work for a client.

Carl Smith:    
You go back into a place that you used to go. You go back and find a part of Bill that kind of got ignored, because you were a business owner and you're managing all these things. That part was the true, pure, creative part. You're there for six weeks. You start to discover or bring back parts of yourself that you haven't been able to pay attention to. Now looking back on those six weeks, what did you come away with? What were the big ahas, or were there any after the trip was over?

Bill Barbot:    
I think the biggest aha, and again these things sound really self-evident when I say them out loud, but it takes going through it to learn this for real, is first of all, I think our culture, particularly the culture of very driven people, is we want answers. We want the solution. We want the pill that is going to fix the ill. I had this belief, naïve as it may sound in retrospect, that going away on a sabbatical, even if I did it once a year or maybe once a decade, was going to be the "shot in the arm" that helped re-energize my practice and get me back to being hyper-focused and very productive and super creative and all these kinds of things. I thought that that was the pill that was going to fix a certain malaise that had set in in terms of my attitude towards my work and where I was taking the company and all that.
    
That's wrong. It may work for some folks, but recognizing that it is the process of pushing yourself to take those kinds of steps, to take those kinds of activities, and build them into your life. Even if it's once a year, you get away and you go to the woods and you do nothing but not work. Once a day, you meditate or you do some yoga or you go for a run, like pushing yourself to this place where it's about the process, not the output, getting to this notion that I am not going to fix the company, I am not going to fix this creative challenge, I am not going to fix this client problem. All I can do is put myself in a mindset where I'm continuing to hammer away at it and make progress with positive loops of applied effort and rest and restoration after that applied effort.
    
I read a book while I was up there called Manage Your Day-to-Day. 99U put out a series of books, and one of them is ... They're a compendium of articles written by various thought leaders. One is called Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Mind. I was like, "Right on. That's what I want to do. I want to build my routine. I want to find my focus. I'm going to sharpen my creative mind. I'm going to read this book, and it's going to get me to a place where I walk away after my six weeks feeling like I have managed my day-to-day. I have built my routine. I have found my focus, and my sharpened, creative mind is like a freaking razor," right?
    
No. That's not the way it works. Reading that book was helpful in helping me understand techniques and habits that I can employ. You're reading an article by Leo Babauta or an article by Seth Godin or Stefan Sagmeister or Gretchen Rubin, like all these wise people. They're not going to give you the answer. There's not one answer in there that's going to work for you. Even all the answers aren't going to work for you, but the process of seeking answers, of looking for that wisdom, and trying to figure out ways that you can incorporate things that work for you into your life, is a lifelong process that you need to, every once in a while, take a step back and just push some freaking effort towards it.

Carl Smith:    
There's an answer economy, isn't there? There's this whole economy built around people like us looking for the answer. I don't mean to say that the people who are writing those books are doing any disservice. They're writing books that have great techniques, but we're all wired differently. We all have different goals. We all have goals we don't even understand ourselves. To think that there's an answer in a book or a retreat or anything like that, yeah, when you say it out loud, you start to realize it's silly, but you're still so desperate for somebody to show you the right way, which is just a fallacy in itself.
    
That's why I love the opportunity to have calls with people like you and to hang out with people in the community, because we're better together. There's not an answer. There's just paths forward, right? Just like you're saying, it's about making sure that you're taking care of yourself, and you're giving yourself space. I think it's really important. I just realized this as we're talking. You have to have time around people who you're not working with, but who understand what you do. At the same time, you have to have that space to yourself, so that you can actually think without any concern about outside forces coming in and disrupting that thought pattern. Wow.

Bill Barbot:    
Yeah, not to sound like I'm just a patsy for the Bureau community, but the Bureau community is a kind of space for me. It enables me to step away from my business, and in thinking about other people's businesses, it then reflects back ... It forces me to reflect back on my own. When I'm on a call with somebody from the Bureau community, he says, "Hey, you have this kind of experience. Can I talk to you about your experience?" I talked to Ben Strackany yesterday, and he was asking me about management structures. I was like, "Well, I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'm just going to tell you what my experience was."

I think that that lens is something that is important for me to reinforce every time I read a book or any time I have a conversation, is that I need to preface those conversations or those articles or those podcasts that I listen to not with, "You should," but with, "Here's what worked for me." If I read what Seth Godin does, it's worked for him. That's great, and there's value in my reading it, but I shouldn't say, "Seth Godin says I should do X, Y, or Z," because he's a very different person from me. He's a different person with a different business and a different agenda and a different family life and a whole different set of circumstances.
    
I can't listen to what he or any wise person has to say as prescriptive for me. It just is information that helps me take a look at what I can incorporate into my routine and what I can do in my day-to-day to feel more engaged with my work, to feel more engaged with my company, to feel more aligned with what I'm trying to get out of life, and how all the parts, my family life, my work life, my paying attention to myself, exercise, yoga, and meditation, is doing to help move my personal vision and my personal mission forward.

Carl Smith:    
In addition to all of that, the people who are writing those books, they don't have it all figured it out either, you know?

Bill Barbot:    No.

Carl Smith:    
We're seeing that best face. We're seeing the best of what they've done, and they're still good people. I had the good fortune to interview Dan Pink once right after a book after Drive had come out called To Sell Is Human. I asked him, I was like, "So what's a bad day for Dan Pink like?" He goes, "Sometimes I just can't get my shit together." He was just explaining how some mornings after that second cup of coffee, he can't figure out what he's supposed to be doing. I was like, "There you go." I also got to speak to Simon Sinek. He said that he was so confused when that original video on the power of why, like when it exploded, he really was ... There were so many opportunities, he couldn't figure out what to do.

We put people on pedestals because they get somewhere, but then if you ever get the good fortune to talk with them, or you read interviews with them ... For example, the Dalai Lama, he actually says in the intro to one book, the thing that really upsets him. I'm like, "Oh my goodness, the Dalai Lama gets upset. I didn't know that. I thought he was the ultimate chill dude, but no, he gets upset." I think we need to all give ourselves a break, and realize everybody is figuring it out. No matter who we see, no matter what we think, they're all just trying to figure it out.

Bill Barbot:    
Yeah, and I also think that we need to recognize that we may even have something figured out that works for us today or this week, and it's probably going to stop working next week or in a month or in a year. Be cool with that. Not be resentful of it, but be cool with the idea that, "Man, my circumstances are constantly changing. That's just life." I can think like, "I've got this awesome routine where if I get my daughter out the door to day care by X o'clock and my son by Y o'clock, and my wife gets to go to her work, and I get to go to my work, and if I get in by such-and-such a time, then cool, I'm super productive and everything's cool." That's not the way life is going to happen.
    
Kids remind you of that, right? Kids are like, "Dude, remember how I knew how to tie my shoes every day up until yesterday, and now I stopped knowing how to do it? Guess what? You got to add an extra five minutes to tie my shoes again that you thought you were over." Either you can buck against that and fight it and spend the rest of your life wishing for something that you don't have, or you can go, "Yeah, you know what, change is reality. Change is inevitable. Being human is all about being overwhelmed by all the stuff that is going on around us that we have absolutely no control over," and just go like, "My job is to figure out how to roll with it. My job is not to figure out how to fix it."

Carl Smith:    Oh, man. Bill, it was so great having you on the show today. Thank you for sharing that, and sharing the fact that you have no wisdom. That is in fact your wisdom.

Bill Barbot:    
Carl, man, that was heavy. Awesome.

Carl Smith:    
I didn't even write that before. That just flowed. That just happened.

Bill Barbot:    
Just came into your mind, right? A little gift from the universe.

Carl Smith:    
Seriously, thank you so much. Everybody who is listening, thanks a lot, and we will see you again next week. All the best.


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