An unplanned sabbatical makes room for uncertainty and a transformed creative process. Rather than simply offering a break, the space opens out into a changed course entirely.

After the relationship ended, I let go of twelve clients, closed my office, and left the country.

What had happened was this: I was in a relationship that failed. After being with someone for six years, and struggling, and growing, and wanting it to work, and working so hard, and realizing that it had failed, I came to understand that sometimes, no matter how much it hurts, you have to leave the one you love.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I would also leave everyone else. For six months following the breakup, I slowly dismantled several of my most intimate professional relationships—therapist, employees, clients.

I was tired. I didn’t want to accommodate anyone anymore. But I wasn’t thinking about it like that—what happened next was more like a series of scripted operations. Like the autopilot kicking in again after turbulence. Suddenly it’s smooth, and you forget that you’ve been jostled around. Later, you find bruises.

Soon after my partner moved out of the apartment, I ran into Louise Fili on the street. I told her how much I missed Italy. We had been there together earlier in the year for an intense program in typography with the School of Visual Arts.

“Why don’t you apply to the American Academy in Rome,” she suggested.

Two months later, I found myself accepted there as a visiting artist. I scheduled meetings with clients to let them know that I was closing Soulellis Studio and leaving the country for six months. Maybe more.

What I told everyone was this: after working as a creative director and running a small, successful design studio for exactly ten years, I wanted to see what would happen without clients.

What kind of work would I do?

I asked myself if I had a personal design philosophy. Could I create work that was more satisfying if I was producing it for myself? Did I need an audience? I sensed that without clients, I might be free to explore these areas between art and design.

I allowed myself to ask these questions before leaving, but I really had no idea where the journey was taking me. I had a sketch, at best—I would produce new work in Rome and then study Greek in Athens, my father’s homeland, for a few months. I knew I would be stretched in new directions but had no idea how I would react. This terrified me.

My only plan was to be present in the world by looking and listening and being open. And to myself. After years of trying to make a relationship work, I needed to return to myself. To do that I had to get comfortable with uncertainty. I needed to get back to curiosity.

I was leaving the office to get to work.

I called it a six-month sabbatical. I guess it was important to name it. To give it some definition and shape in the face of self-doubt. I feared loneliness. I feared mistakes. I was afraid that if I wasn’t careful I would destroy everything I had worked so hard to build in my career.

It turns out that careful was only half of it. The other half was a letting go and an opening up to serendipity; the breakup was a break from the familiar. It allowed me the luxury of not knowing what would happen.

Eighteen months after the breakup, I find myself in a very different place, my work transformed. I have an artist’s studio now but continue to consult with design clients. I recently showed work in a gallery for the first time in my life. Even my creative process has changed. Uncertainty and fear, the duo that accompanied me throughout the breakup and the sabbatical, seem to be here to stay in a now-cherished concept that I struggle to shape and incorporate in my creative process: design humility. It’s a lens that seems to have emerged from all of this, one that might bring a new clarity or discovery.

My sabbatikos (Greek for rest or week, derived from the Aramaic sabbata) was neither a fixed period nor a rest. Six months turned into twelve, and one year now turns to two. It began as a painful rupture, but this breaking profoundly reverberated through every aspect of my life.

“Give me a break,” we say to express exasperation or disbelief—a cry for space, a protest. The break, in fact, was a bend in my life. A space to breathe, unbroken. An opening for growth.

Paul soulellis

Paul Soulellis is an artist and creative director, maintaining his studio in New York. He founded his research-based graphic design and publishing studio Counterpractice in 2014, and he teaches at Rhode Island School of Design. He has produced award-winning work for clients including Cornell University, TED, Waterworks, Esri, and The Rockefeller Foundation.

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Portrait by Luke Pearson