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How I Took a Career Break in my 30s and How You Can Too

returning to law after a career break

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Quitting your job and still having enough money to live a rich life – it’s the dream right? I did just that in 2019-2021. And I returned to a job that is a much better fit for my lifestyle.

The Back Story of My Career Break in my 30s

For seven years, I was living the glamorous and not-so-glamorous life of a litigator in a midsized firm.

And I was burning out from the stress. But I kept working, and then I burned out more and more, until one day I spontaneously put in my notice and quit my job at age 35.

I had never planned to quit my job without anything else lined up. But I’m the daughter of immigrants so my finances were in order. After paying off my law school debt, I saved and invested more than 50% of my income every year. Even though I’m not actually a FIRE (Financial Independent Retire Early)-enthusiast, my lifestyle was similar.

For two years, I was on a career break. I discovered and rediscovered hobbies – like reading, the crossword puzzle, and playing the piano (basically the things you would expect from an Asian English major). Before the pandemic, I traveled, attended a few weddings, and started this blog. But mostly, I rested and thought about my career and life trajectory. And it certainly crossed my mind that I could become one of those “I retired at age 35 and so can you!” peeps. I also considered a career pivot into a differently industry. But instead, I chose to go back to work in law, and I’m really excited about it.

So what happened?

My Career Break in My 30s Solved Some (But Not All) My Problems

1. My Job Wasn’t The (Only) Problem

One of the main reasons I quit my job was because my health was suffering. My hair was falling out, I had dark circles under my eyes, and I had this nagging pain in my left thigh whenever I sat down. The kicker was that I had lost my appetite. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but my mother and doctor did.

I wanted to believe that after a break, I’d be in perfect shape, with sunkissed skin, Kate Middleton-hair, and a hearty appetite. And that didn’t necessarily turn out – because that’s actually a lot of work and money, and I never cared enough to do them. After two years off, my hair is fine and my dark circles are gone. Still, I have some pain in my thigh and I don’t have much appetite. Time off (and concerted effort) didn’t solve these problems. The job and stress weren’t to blame for these problems sticking around.

Granted, I couldn’t and didn’t want to stay in my job. But a big part of the reason I was leaving was I thought working in law was killing me. It wasn’t entirely true. Much of my pain is just aging (ack!). And I’ve learned some better methods to mitigate the problems.

I’m someone who can be oblivious about their own health, i.e. I missed my appendix bursting. My new job won’t have the time demands that the old one did. But it was important to me that for once in my life I put my health as a priority. And I feel that it’s in a good place now

2. My Career Wasn’t the Problem, Either

Part of the reason I, and many others, became lawyers was to make a difference. And then somehow we get stuck in law firms, trading our lives for cushy paper-pushing jobs. It’s hard to give up because, well, the money.

A turning point for me during my break was working on a pro bono compassionate release motion a few months ago. It felt great to write again, and to flex my skills for something meaningful. (Also it feels great to win!).

I was reminded that I never had a problem with the work. I just had a problem with the hours and the environment.

3. Early Retirement Is Not For Me (Right Now)

I never meant to quit my job altogether. But I had certainly entertained the idea. FIRE is a big trend in the personal finance world and I have always wanted to be on-trend.

I’m not trying to say early retirement is a bad thing. But at this place in my life, it’s not what I want. It would probably be different if I was married and had kids, or needed to take care of sick family members. I think I do better with structure, I miss work, I miss going to work.  And the beauty of early retirement or any kind of retirement is that it’s not irreversible. I can go retire later when my circumstances have changed or when I’ve changed.

Two years ago I quit my job and embarked on a career break. Honestly, pretty early on I wanted to return to work. Part of it is inertia. I’m used to working. Part of it is people are terrified of being alone with their thoughts. Early retirement gives you all the time in the world and no excuses.

4. I Felt Left Out

One of the stereotypes of living in the Washington, D.C. area is that you’ll get asked about your job almost immediately. I’ve been in multiple conversations, some dates, where people have complimented not immediately asking about work.

The pandemic helped because instead of feeling like everyone was off at work, I felt like everyone was stressed at home. I mean, I wasn’t stressed; I had all sorts of new playmates.

5. I Miss Having Too Much to Do

There’s that old adage that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person. I’m a nonstop efficiency machine. I love coming up with little tips and tricks to save time. Of course, when you’re not working, you don’t have as much need for efficiency. Of course, you could say, I could occupy myself with my hobbies, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

When I started my career break, I found it hard to engage in hobbies. I thought this was enlightening. Why did I value my time less when I used it for myself rather than when a company was using it? It took concerted effort to  learn not to feel guilty when I was just having fun, and being unproductive. It’s basically like a muscle – you just have to spend your time on yourself and soon enough your mind and your body learn that time on yourself and on joy is valuable.

We live in a nonstop productivity cycle. And I know this is in some ways a failing that I am not someone who enjoys nonstop travel, side hustling, etc.

6. My Mom Has Been Bugging Me to Get Back to Work

I don’t know how FIRE people get their parents off their back. =D

My mother just likes the idea that I occupy my time. She stated that she didn’t worry about my finances at all. I think she worried more about violating the Protestant work ethic. Idle hands, they say.

I also love having work as this perfect all-purpose excuse not to do something. Don’t tell my parents I said that.

Lessons Learned From my Career Break in my 30s

I took a two-year career break from 2019-2021. Basically one year before and one year during the pandemic. It was longer than I expected, but it was a great, amazing time. Here are seven lessons I learned during my time off.

1. My Time is Valuable.

In the early days of my career break, I felt guilty spending time on myself. Even though I didn’t have an employer to answer to, I still felt like the time wasn’t mine. After using more time on myself, I slowly started to realize, hey this time is mine, not my employer’s!

This mindset gave me so much freedom to engage in things that took a lot of time. So often we only give ourselves a few minutes here and there. We don’t think we deserve to commit to a large amount of time for ourselves. It’s selfish. It’s unproductive. Instead we spend way too much time on our phones (just a few minutes here and there but it adds up!) and not enough time pursuing more meaningful goals.

Now that I’ve started working, even though it’s a much more relaxed time commitment, I feel a little resentful of my employer taking my time. It’s a good reminder to set boundaries on my work, rather than what I used to do, which was set boundaries on my free time. Never forget that your life is yours if you claim it.

2. I Don’t Regret Leaving My Job One Iota.

A friend asked me if I knew what I know now about the pandemic, if I’d still quit my job. Absolutely! I met a woman who quit her job in January of 2020, planning to travel the world, and was completely sidelined due to the pandemic. I quit at the perfect time to travel. And I’m so happy that I was able to do that before Covid.

Also, 2020 was a terrible year for many workers. The blurring lines between work and home, the constant zoom meetings, the lack of human connection. I actually love commuting, getting dressed up, and going into the office so 2020 was not the year for me to be working. There was no time during 2020 when I really thought, oh I wish I was working right now! It seemed incredibly stressful and I was happy to be able to opt out.

3. Financial Independence is Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be

Having enough money to survive extended unemployment is wonderful. I didn’t change my spending at all (except that I couldn’t travel much in 2020). And my net worth went up a lot!

You can save up money and never quit your job. That’s always an option. But having that safety net that I can just walk away is amazing. Having a lifestyle that’s sustainable even without income means you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice; instead it’s like building up extra time in your life.

4. People Don’t Treat You the Way You Think They Will.

I expected people to denigrate my choice and urge me back to the career path. No one did. Probably because people don’t really care. I know that sounds harsh but it’s really nice. I love nothing more than anonymity and not having my choices being questioned. Look, I’m not foisting my choices on you so there’s no reason for you to foist your choices on me.

Granted, my mother wanted me to keep working, but out of her fear for my future unhappiness. And she didn’t even worry about me financially during my break.

Mostly, I found my friends and family just want me to be happy. And strangers were jealous.

5. I Don’t Need a Job for Identity.

I’ve heard about a lot of people having psychological breaks from being unemployed. There isn’t anything wrong with identifying with one’s job, but one should brace for what happens when that identity is taken away. It can cause a lot of emotional turmoil, and don’t forget that your job is not completely in your control.

I thought one of the biggest obstacles to being on a career break was what to identify as. In the end, people don’t really care. I said I was a lawyer because I am a lawyer. People weren’t tripping over themselves asking about my work. People just want to talk about themselves, not you.

I’m excited for the opportunity to work again but I know that I’d be fine without it too, and that’s very liberating. I don’t have to worry about losing my entire identity in case my job changes.

6. You Won’t Get Everything Done.

I know it seems like I should have written the next great American novel, learned several new languages (I did learn some Italian and Portuguese), and started a company. It seems like a lot of time but it’s not as much time as people think it is.

There was time recovering from burnout, reconnecting with friends, catching up on old bills (whoops), and applying to jobs. And then I started to think about what I liked to do, what I wanted to do, and how I could accomplish those goals. Look, I’m sure a more industrious person could have done more with that time, but there is always more to do. If there isn’t more you aspire to do after two years, then you don’t have enough aspirations.

I still have dreams ahead of me, and I think that’s great. It’s something to look forward to to have hobbies outside of work or hobbies for my next career break!

7. It’s Ok For Your Career Break to “Fail.”

I heard that when Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were talking to investors about creating their respective companies, both put their chances of success at 30% or less. They knew that the odds were against them and that they would need a lot of luck. They acknowledged that failure WAS in fact an option. Still, they felt that it was worth trying just to move the needle in the right direction. 30% chance of failure in the immediate endeavor for 100% chance of progress. It doesn’t sound so bad if you put it like that.

I think so many people go into law because they’re afraid to fail. They’re high-achievers, and getting into a good law school virtually guarantees you a high-paying stable job. So the thought of taking a career break, and it not being a major success is a huge fear that keeps one from quitting.

Depending on where you are in your career, there could be a 10% or higher chance that you don’t get a better job immediately. But the break can be useful in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be a break that launches a billion dollar career. A career break is basically a statement you make to yourself that you want to work on something in your life besides your career. It doesn’t have to be more successful than that.

8. A Sabbatical Isn’t Career Suicide

A legal recruiter’s “pep talk” to me was not to worry about my obvious weakness, which she pinpointed as my time off. This wasn’t as peppy a talk as I think she thought she was giving. But I didn’t let it get me down because the time off didn’t seem to affect my job search.

The legal recruiter wasn’t giving me a pep talk for my very first job interview. Except for a few months into lockdown, I had interviews pretty consistently. Granted, I didn’t get selected for those other jobs, but the point was that I got to the interview stage with the gap clear as day on my resume. And I didn’t get asked a lot about the gap in my interviews either.

There’s certainly the fear that once you start talking about the time off, that’s all people will focus on, but that wasn’t my experience. It might be because I’m a woman of a certain age where taking time off is natural. It could also be that the fear of the gap is most prominent for those that don’t have a long work history. I certainly can’t say that if you take a career break you definitely won’t have problems finding a new job. I can say, it’s not inevitable that your career will tank after taking time off. And for it to be normalized, more people have to take time off. I’m happy if my career break makes it easier for others to take time off.

Conclusion -Career Break in my 30s

It’s been good for me to learn about what I need to do so that when and if I do retire, I know what I’m getting myself into. After college and before starting my career, I took a year off to teach English in China. To others, it may have seemed like a spoiled thing to do. And maybe it was. I could have made a lot of justifications about the educational or vocational benefits. But in reality, I never cared. I mean, I was 18 without amazing career ambition deadlines to meet like “make partner by 35” or “start the next Facebook.” And not having those goals meant that I was free. I didn’t see it as a lost year, or a detriment to my goals.

There was this podcast about our increasing instrumentalism – how we only do things to get other things like money or career advancement. We used to do things for their own sake. My year abroad was a great year even without a million dollar idea or marketable skills. It was worth it for its own sake. That’s also how I feel about time to myself. It’s not about recharging so I’ll be a better employee. It’s about doing whatever the hell I want to do because I can.

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