7 Lessons Learned from a Career Break
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 freedom to live my life without 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 necessarily anything wrong with taking one’s identity from 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.
Maybe after a career break you have more trouble rejoining the workforce. 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 the world and yourself that there are other things in life besides your career. It doesn’t have to be more successful than that.
I like my new job but I’m not going to be writing a book about quitting a job and then getting another. It’s not that impressive. And that’s fine. I didn’t do this to be impressive. A lot of lawyers don’t even know how or why to do things that aren’t impressive or how or why to do things for themselves. But we all have lives outside our jobs and forgetting that leads to burnout, depression, and just being really sad.
Conclusion – Lessons from a Career Break
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. I didn’t have 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.
I listened to a 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.