Ok, ok, so if you follow me around on Instagram or in my Facebook group or on Clubhouse, you know I talk about career breaks, like a lot. And now here I am writing an article tossing an additional word in front of career break. Intentional. Why did I do that? Is this different than what I normally talk about? I feel like this is a bit nuanced and given that fact that I am pretty limited by character count on some other platforms, I don’t take a deep dive into what I view as the most important factor of a career break. The intention. The why. The outcome you hope to achieve.
In life, we pretty much do the best we can given what we know at the time. When we’re in a job that is severely overwhelming, we are mostly focusing on survival as well as dwelling on our circumstances. How can I get out of here? Why is this so horrible? I can’t believe so and so would do that. It becomes a spiral of negativity. We typically assume all of these negative things are happening to us and we have no role in this. Preservation of the ego tells us it is everyone else but us. We’ve all been there (and yes, this may be a hard truth). Perspective and awareness is everything. They are skills that we can absolutely learn to help us thrive better in stressful environments, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if a person is drowning, that isn’t the time to administer swimming lessons. You take them out of the water first. This is how I view a career break.
A career break=taking someone out of the water.
An intentional career break=taking someone out of the water and teaching them to swim + maybe some travel or self discovery and other amazing opportunities that we don’t typically have time for while in the survival state.
In order to have an intentional career break, we do need to have some level of self-awareness about how we are showing up in our current environment. When I decided to take my first career break, I was crying in the bathroom at work regularly due to stress. I was angry that I had to work so much. I was angry that everyone around me was “incompetent” (deflecting blame). I was beyond stressed by the demands of the job. I was at a breaking point and I was burnt out. It was not a situation I could overcome in that environment, but I also didn’t believe there was anything to overcome because in my eyes, nothing was my fault. In hindsight (and through a ton of internal work) I can now see how reactive I was. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of making mistakes. I would pass blame whenever possible to preserve my reputation as a hard worker who produced quality results.
So what happened? I took my career break to travel the world. I figured this was my one chance to see as much as I possibly could as I would need to return to the workforce at some point. I explored South America and then flew from Brazil to Vietnam…the long way (what? why?), hopped over to India and Nepal and then to Europe. With the exception of Greece, I didn’t spend more than a week in any European country, sometimes just days. I was on the move, getting.shit.done. Again, in hindsight, I traveled the way I worked. I was an achiever. Going to more places felt like I was accomplishing something. But it actually made me tired. I didn’t have a clear vision of why I was doing what I was doing. I was traveling on autopilot, just the way I had been living my life.
After 2+ years of travel, I did feel ready to return to corporate life. I said I felt refreshed. I said I learned so much about myself. And to an extent, I did. I liked myself when I traveled because I wasn’t controlling. If things went wrong on the road, I was able to recognize I couldn’t fix everything and just go with the flow. Flat tire? Oh well. Food poisoning? I’ll wait it out. Disgusting hostel bathroom? I’ll simply switch accommodations. I realized that a lot of my problems weren’t problems. I stopped complaining about little things like weather. I had seen so many places with people who had next to nothing, but they were happy. That was truly eye-opening. At the time, I truly believed that the time away cured the burn out. I spent 2+ years living a life of leisure with zero time intentionally spent on personal growth.
I returned to a brand new job in a brand new industry. I was enamored at first. The work culture was completely the opposite of where I had come from. Everyone seemed so competent and happy. I was shocked to be honest. As I learned more about my role and the company, the shininess began to wear off and I could start to find some cracks in the perfect facade. Hindsight: I would actually look for problems so I could fix them and be the hero. And the more problems I found, the more I had on my plate, the more stress I took on, and the more underpaid I felt for the work I was doing. Ultimately, all things I had brought upon myself. I brought stress on myself, but I couldn’t see this at the time either. This time I placed blame by saying they didn’t pay me enough for all that I did. So I left. I took another job back in the world of engineering. Back in a toxic environment. The coworkers were unhelpful and unfriendly. I dreaded going to work immediately and I was completely unwilling to put in the effort to overcome this feeling. I left that job as well, this time for a second career break. This time I saw the patterns that had been emerging over the past several years. This time I recognized I needed time and space to truly reflect on my role in this equation and why I was never satisfied at work.
I still bought a one-way ticket and traveled. I did so slowly. There were days when I did nothing. I would walk around and reflect. I would sit in my room and reflect. I would enjoy the landscape and reflect. I dared to spend time alone with myself. I dared to see that the world wasn’t conspiring against me in every job. I was open to the possibility that I needed to take responsibility for the way I felt in the workplace. This work is super uncomfortable. The ego hates this. The ego likes to be defensive. The ego says it’s not your fault.
Yes, I have worked in toxic environments. No, that is not ok. I am not saying that if I blamed myself then things would have been different and I am not suggesting to stay in a toxic work environment. Hell, I’m not suggesting to stay in any work environment. I think career breaks can be so powerful despite your circumstances. What I am saying is that there are ways to manage your circumstance while you are part of the environment. I had no boundaries. I thought saying yes all the time made me a good employee. But at what cost?
So to circle back (ha, gag, such a corporate term), an intentional career break incorporates that deep inner work, self-reflection, and self-awareness so that if you do return to the workforce, you are better equipped to handle yourself when stressful situations arise. You won’t go straight to burn out. This is the piece that was missing for me the first time around. This is the piece that transformed my life the second time around. And this is the piece that is just so dang uncomfortable. I LOVE supporting my clients with this piece. Sure, I love travel and planning trips and career transitions and exits, but this piece of intentionality is the secret sauce. Anyone can take a career break, but an intentional one? Your life will never be the same.
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