3 Invaluable Lessons I Learned When I Took a Break From My Career

By Yon Na, Ph.D.

As a working professional, there are times in life when you are forced to take a break from working. The reasons vary — taking a medical leave, having a baby, caring for a sick family member or getting laid off from a job and not finding work right away. At other times, we may decide to take a break from our careers. 

For me, there was a time when I was gaining momentum in a job. But even though I was working toward a bigger salary and higher status, I felt the pull to find meaningful work. I wanted to transition from advertising sales to the field of leadership and organization development. This feeling led me to quit my job and take a break from working. During the nine-month break, I went back to school so I could learn about the new field I was embarking on. Even though I depleted my savings during my break, I gained much more in return.

Here are three invaluable lessons I learned when I took a break from my career:

1. I learned how to deal with ambiguity

When I stepped away from my office job, I no longer had a structured, nine-to-five routine. The ambiguous state forced me to adapt. While my end goal was to find a career aligned with my interests, I learned how not to think too far ahead and be comfortable in the state of flux. Once I built the capacity to accept ambiguity, I drew upon that particular muscle in many professional situations. 

Today’s work environment requires many instances where answers are often unclear and situations are muddled. The complex organizational structures we live in need us to be flexible more often than not. Work priorities shift on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis. Instead of holding back your efforts because you don’t know how the situation will turn out, being able to produce during times of uncertainty makes you a valuable contributor.

2. I learned the discipline of learning

During my break, I became a learner. I immersed myself in the field of leadership and organization development. I read as much as I could about the area. I connected with people who were in the industry. I researched jobs of interest so if an opportunity came up, I would be ready for it. 

I believe that no matter how long we have been in a job, there is always something new to learn. At one of my previous employers, Microsoft, Satya Nadella encouraged everyone at all levels to “think like an intern.” By that he meant to show up at work with the same curiosity and energy that a newly minted intern would likely possess. External factors such as politics, technology, economy and consumer tastes all impact the companies we work in and the work we need to deliver. If you are always learning and keeping yourself up-to-date on trends impacting your field, you will elevate your value to your company and in turn enhance your marketability.

3. I explored hobbies

This was a surprising one for me. I did not know at the time but later discovered the benefits of learning a hobby unrelated to my field. I took lessons in swing dancing. Health benefits aside, dancing took me out of my intellectual space and into a physical space. On most days, I worked in front of a screen surrounded by textbooks. But a few nights a week, I entered a different kind of environment, one where my mind was detached and I focused on being carried away by the music of the early jazz era. Even today, I have hobbies unrelated to my career, and the act of unplugging from my work helps me to be more effective. Discovering new activities helps alleviate stress and avoid workplace burnout.

People's needs are different, and some of these lessons may not apply to you. Stepping away from your career might sound scary. But the point is, if you have the means and are considering this option, think about all of the ways you could use your time away from work. You might be better off later because you took a break now.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards and career advice.


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