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I caught up with a friend last week for dinner. She was in town visiting family before returning to her fabulous existence in New York. Somewhere between my third dumpling and her second glass of chardonnay she confessed that her lifestyle was less Carrie Bradshaw and more Nightmare on Fifth Avenue.
It seemed that the bite she had taken out of the Big Apple was stuck in her throat and restricting her airflow.
She described a torturous work schedule: nights where she returned home only to shower and change before heading back to the office, holidays forgone for deadlines and constant harassment from her BlackBerry.
“You need a change. Why don't you have a career break?” I asked. After a pause she finally conceded, “I can't take a break. I've invested too much.”
Having completed university here and again in the US, passed the bar exams and found a job, she felt as though she couldn't walk away. The only option was to stick it out.
Why is it that we feel like we are tied to something for the investment we have made and not for the joy that it brings? We are fortunate to have more choices than ever before, yet somehow we are paralysed by the number of opportunities and are afraid to change our minds.
Economics tells us that costs already incurred should not be factored into decision-making yet so many of us let the idea of university fees already paid or years on the job dissuade us from making changes which could ultimately deliver a higher return in the happiness stakes.
I knew exactly how my friend felt. I had been in her position a few years earlier. At that time my job was less a "labour of love" and more "hard labour". I was struggling to excel at something which I found dry and uninspiring but, having slogged away for eight years, I felt I was stuck. I was worried about the financial impact of going back to university and the idea of starting at the bottom of a graduate program was depressing.
As a result I delayed making any decision, which was a decision in itself. Being overlooked for a promotion finally made me realise I needed a change. I applied for a three-month leave of absence and did what any lost soul should do – I boarded a plane for France.
I arrived in Lyon and enrolled in a language school. I immersed myself in a different lifestyle and routine. I replaced working weekends with weekend trips to the Haute-Loire. I replaced career boredom with a real interest in acquiring a new skill. I rode my bike along the Rhone to class every day. I ate tartelette framboise and mille-feuille. I talked to people – lots and lots of people.
With plenty of time to think, I realised that the job I had poured so much effort into was not a good fit for me. After eight years without the courage to take a career break, it took just eight weeks away before I handed in my resignation. I had learnt that I could be much happier and more successful doing something I loved.
I learnt a few other things along the way as well:
1. An Elizabeth Gilbert-esque adventure is not required to make a change. You don't need 12 months off and a romantic tryst with an exotic local to find yourself. Sometimes all we need is a moment out of our 9-to-5 to stop and think about what we really want. When your 9-to-5 has become 24-7, the best way to get some thinking time may be through a career break.
2. Drinking cocktails on a beach in Thailand is not a career break – that's a holiday. A career break is an opportunity to get some perspective. Use the time wisely. A management consultant friend took three months off to complete a course at the French Culinary Institute in New York. She now uses the skills she learnt there to bake and teach in Australia part time (which she loves) while continuing to negotiate the corporate ladder.
3. In other words, a career break does not have to be a hole in your CV. Quite the opposite. Take the time to learn a language, take a cooking course, do voluntary aid work – whatever it is that interests you. If you use the time well, employers can look favourably on the experience you gained.
4. Time off is affordable if you plan ahead. You will be without an income for a period but the money you would have earned may not have bought you happiness. Consider it an investment. You are not the first person to take a career break and you will not be the last.
5. A career break does not mean a career break-up. Many have returned to their chosen field refreshed and reassured. Others have taken inspiration from their break and turned it into a new career. It is up to you.
6. You can make a change at any stage – breaks aren't limited to those fresh out of university. Take Sherry Ott, co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a useful tool for any aspiring career breakers. Describing herself as “a refugee from Corporate IT”, she left her desk job at the age of 36 and embarked on an adventure which she then fashioned into a new career – helping others to write their own career break success stories.
If you are looking to reassess, wanting to rediscover or hoping to learn, a career break may mean the difference between breakdown and lucky-break. A change may be as good as a holiday, but in this case it isn't. It's even better.