career break(previously published on LinkedIn on 13 August 2015)

Career breaks can be deliberate or the unplanned result of being made redundant. When I quit my senior marketing job this May, I hadn’t anticipated what I would gain from simply stopping. It has been over 3 months of self-reflection and rejuvenation. Seven lessons are helping me to move into a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle. Here they are:

Don’t be so serious– Having a few months with no meetings, no deadlines and no corporate identity made me realise I had put my trust and emotions in the wrong things. My children didn’t care where I worked – they just wanted me to be healthy and happy. My job is a separate thing from who I am. It was in my nature to do my best but I needn’t take it so seriously. I might make a mess of a project but it doesn’t mean I’m a mess.

Helpful read: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson

Go back to your roots or travel the world– I spent a significant amount of time soul searching, digging into what makes me tick. If I’m not my job then who am I? I spent time visiting friends and family, and also travelled to my homeland in Africa. I hadn’t been home in nearly 6 years and I hadn’t lived there in 11 years. Going home put a swing in my step through a renewed sense of meaning and identity. I wish I had travelled the world or even just spent more time in Africa. But there’s next time.

Helpful read: The Career Break Book by Joe Blindloss et al

Walk towards a positive– It’s easy to run away when a job isn’t working out. The question is: what are you running towards? I love how a friend of mine once phrased it. He said,

Walk towards a positive rather than run away from a negative.

Spot early on when things aren’t working out. I gave myself sufficient time to determine what my positive was, then I went towards it. A positive could be a vacation, a career break, another job, going back to school, spending time with the family and so on. Don’t run away. Run towards.

Helpful read: Women Who Think Too Much by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema

Rediscover yourself– Whether conscious or not, many of us conform to get along and ahead. Taking a career break might be a way to identify what’s you and what’s your employer’s culture rubbing off on you. All corporate culture is not bad of course but I found it’s important to rediscover who you are outside a company. There comes a time when we have to decide who we want to be. Are you going to be the same person at home and at work or will you have a different persona for the different environments? I personally could not handle being more than one person. At first, it was tough carving out who me was but once I did, I was determined to be authentic.

Helpful read: True North by Bill George et al (my personal favourite)

Tame your fears– I had sleepless nights. ‘What if I’m just stressed and a couple of weeks off is all I need?’ I knew enough to realise that I needed to think and I couldn’t think knowing that work was piling up somewhere and my inbox was bursting at the seams, waiting for my return. And that was that – I quit.

Quitting was frightening. I heard every criticism anyone ever said in those few minutes before I clicked send. I was paralysed with confusion. I thought, ‘If this is the right thing to do, why the hell am I shaking??’ I did it anyway. It took me till 5pm to tame the fear but I sent off my resignation.

Helpful read: Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers

Find your passion– I felt day to day that I wasn’t spending enough time doing things that played to my strengths. I discovered that I had a passion for teaching – something that was evident from a very early age when I would gather together the neighbourhood kids and teach them something – a song, a dance routine, or have them act out a play I had written.

I enjoy leading, learning, writing, building things from scratch and marketing. It could be a process, an idea or an event. If it involves a blank sheet of paper, it energises me.

Ability, knowledge and interest intersect to reveal a passion. The next phase of my life is likely to be dominated by teaching, learning and marketing – things I might even write about from my unique perspective. This is my sweet spot.

Helpful read: The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren

Make a re-entrance– After 3 months, I have become busy again. But it is good busy. I know what’s important to me so I make time for it. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you build flexibility into your routine.

I can pick up my children from school a few days a week. There is also time to be creative and just reflect, which has led to more personal essays and business book ideas. Because I’m happier, my family is happier. I continue the exercise routine I developed over the last few months. I find that I’m never stressed for long.

Helpful read: 168 hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Lauren Vanderkam

I’m grateful for the brief silence. It taught me that I have choices about who I am, where I work and what I allow to matter. I’ll always look back fondly on these months. And I can’t promise I won’t quit again. After all, I haven’t travelled the world yet.

Image from flickr user Boudewijn Berends : Mila at the Beach – see license here