Are you dreaming about taking a career break, but you just can’t see how you could pull it off?
Sure it’s easy enough for the single 20-something to backpack Europe on the cheap, return to the “real world,” and pick up another junior-level job. But you’re a parent and mid-career professional with a mortgage, childcare expenses, and your own retirement to fund. When a basic budget for a family of 4 in San Francisco costs $148,440, it’s no wonder that taking a break feels impossible.
I used to think that your working life should be a straight line, one job after another. But after having taken four sabbatical leaves (between nine months and one year) over the course of my 15-year working life, I can tell you that not only are sabbaticals feasible, they are absolutely necessary if you want to build your richest life.
In this series of posts, I will show you how to take a sabbatical while still achieving your financial and career goals. I’ll cover:
Before I get into the How’s though, let’s first talk about the Why.
Here’s the thing. Your biggest blocker isn’t money or logistics. Your biggest blocker is yourself. The reasons may come in a thousand different forms, but they all boil down to one thing: Fear of Uncertainty. Your day-to-day may not be ideal, but it’s predictable and comfortable. Disrupting that life can be very, very scary.
But if you can suspend the voice in your head shouting “but you don’t understand my situation, it’s impossible!” for a moment and allow yourself to start imagining the possibilities and benefits of taking a career break, you will have taken the most crucial step in this journey.
So why is a sabbatical one of the best things you could do for yourself and your family?
When studies confirm that work stress is far and away the biggest source of stress (and growing), taking an extended break is just as important for your health as good nutrition and exercise. You might not even realize how much stress you’re under until your body starts acting out. For my spouse, work stress manifested itself in a bout of shingles and chronic alopecia (yes, she literally started to lose her hair). For me, its insomnia and skin sensitivities.
I figured that annoying symptoms like these were just something you have to bear with as you age. But then my spouse’s alopecia resolved itself as soon as she left her high-stress work environment. And when I took one year off, a skin condition that I’ve battled with all of my adult life also miraculously disappeared. That’s when I realized that these symptoms were our bodies’ way of saying, “Something is off here!”
You may be managing well enough at the moment, but the stress of the daily grind accumulates over time. The fastest way to rest, rejuvenate and reset is to take a sabbatical leave. How long is enough? My personal opinion is that you need a minimum of three months to step out of your current pace and slow down. Three months is how long you got for summer break as a schoolkid, and remember how good that felt?
Rest is powerful medicine. Don’t defer it until something really goes wrong.
Taking a mini-retirement creates the kind of space in your life that cannot be achieved through a long weekend here or two-weeks off there. Life is long, so it’s easy to think that if you can just grind it out now, you can get to the fun stuff later. But I would argue that Life is Long, and therefore its absolutely critical that you make the space during the prime of your life to figure out what brings you meaning.
You may have a notion that you’d like to teach yoga studio, or launch a startup around green living, or trek the Annapurna circuit. You could sit on it and defer that dream to the mythical realm of “life after all responsibilities have been taken care of.” But instead, imagine for a moment how your life might change if you stepped out for one year to pursue these dreams?
Would that yoga teacher course unlock a passion to start your own yoga studio and retreat center? Could the startup evolve from idea to side hustle to a business that could support your family and align with your values? Could the trek give you the internal space to find the answer to the question we all ask of ourselves when we slow down enough: “Who am I, and Who am I meant to be?”
The point is this: the sooner you figure out what truly motivates you and gives you meaning, the sooner you can start moving in that direction, and the faster you will get to realize your great life. Until then, you’re treading water.
If you’re like me, you have a long-running list of travel destinations, projects, and entrepreneurial ideas for the “When I stop working” bucket.” And if you’re like me, you’d like to believe that you could get to some of these things in the evenings or weekends or vacation time. But the problem is you’re not just working a 9-5. An NYT article on America’s obsession with long hours points out that in a society with rising inequality, long inflexible hours are required if you want to be successful.
So unless you’re one of those superhumans that have endless mental and emotional energy and can run on 4 hours of sleep (I’ve tried, but I’m the “I need 8 hours or watch out for scary mommy” type), it’s just not feasible. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re not a lazy bum because you can’t get that side hustle off the ground while working a full-time job. You’re not a deadbeat dad because you couldn’t get the vacation time to take your kids on that cross-country RV trip.
It’s not you. It’s the system. And it’s a uniquely American issue. When I was living in Europe, it was not unusual to see new parents to take off one year (or two) to spend with their baby, or for workers (even those in managerial jobs and demanding professions) to take a month off for vacation. Until the system changes, it’s up to you to create that time for yourself.
Children are the source of life’s greatest joys, but research has confirmed that they are terrible for your marriage. Add long working hours to the mix, and things are not looking good. When you find yourself stretched thin, your relationship with your partner tends to end up in last priority after the kids and your own self-care.
My spouse and I used to spend hours just talking and being present to one another. Later with kids and full-time work, weeks could pass before we ever truly connected. We were each remote workers managing our own workloads and dealing with whatever kid happened to be in our care.
Perhaps the greatest gift of a sabbatical is having the time to be present to the people that you love. When my spouse and I took a sabbatical year to travel across a dozen plus countries, we developed a depth in our love and respect for each other that is still foundational to our marriage today. When I took 10 months off to spend with my children, I could read bedtime stories and play tickle monster without the nagging distraction of work emails or the next day’s presentation in the back of my mind.
And the benefit isn’t just for them. When it’s all you can do to get through the daily grind, childcare quickly becomes yet another to-do. But when you create space, you get to enjoy your family again. Imagine that: You hear your family coming in the door and you’re actually excited to spend time with them!
In his TED talk on Why I retired at 32, Carl Siedman argues that in a world where our working lives are getting longer as lifespans extend, diversifying your work experience and education is critical. At age 32, Carl took his first mini-retirement to invest in his skills and experience and pursue several entrepreneurial ideas.
He suggests that having a diversified work portfolio is the key to staying relevant and engaged. This enables you to have more success and stay in the workforce longer, which in turn leads to greater income and wealth
If you assume a productive working life between age 20 to 70, then you may not even be halfway through. What does it feel like when you imagine staying in the same career track for the next 30 years? If it makes your stomach drop, then ask yourself what it would take to make you excited about work again.
Maybe it’s pivoting to another role in the field that you’re in. Maybe it’s starting your own business. Maybe it’s a complete career switch. Whatever that is, a sabbatical gives you the space to experiment, network and get the education you need to reinvigorate your work when you return.
To end, I want to share a story from a friend who recently took a 4-month sabbatical to spend time with his family. Here’s what he had to say:
In my next post, I will show you how to be smart about the way that you leave your job so that you don’t derail your future. Here’s the punch line: Don’t actually leave your job. I’ll share my story of how I got my employer to buy into my sabbatical dream and give me a year off to pursue it.
Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a breadwinner mom raising my modern family in the most expensive city in the US. This year, I’m leaving my corporate career for a life of greater intention.
I write about how to achieve financial freedom for your family so that you can live your best life while providing for theirs.
Read my story here.