It’s an unnerving feeling to resign from a job you’ve held for many years and knock your working-life trajectory temporarily off its path, but there’s no way you’ll ever regret taking a career break to travel overseas.
One of my best friends and I, with our 40th birthdays fast approaching and our jobs – teaching and journalism – becoming more daily grind than daily joy, decided to take some time out and spend a couple of months living life in the present on the other side of the world.
We’d both been offered sabbaticals, but opted for a complete disconnect in a bid to refocus and reboot our lives and careers.
The search for serenity
It was a voyage of discovery, complete with an “Eat, Pray, Love tour with your bestie” sort of vibe – our first destination was a week in Bali and beforehand we joked (sort of) about finding love in the rice fields or at the yoga studio. We didn’t end up visiting either.
Some people thought we were nuts; we wondered that ourselves as departure day approached. Most, though, were envious and said they wished they had the guts / freedom / motivation / money to do the same.
The flexible frontier
Employers are becoming more open to the idea of a sabbatical as a way of letting staff members go off and do their thing without losing them entirely. It’s a show of good faith, a way to inspire loyalty, and can actually be beneficial to a company if the employee comes back with new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Auckland-based career management specialist and transition coach Kaye Avery agrees.
“Having a sabbatical almost always is a good thing for an individual’s career. It provides them with an experience that is re-energising, revitalising them physically, emotionally and connects them with a way of being that is more fluid and in touch with themselves and their environments. It provides a shift in, and an opening of, perspective,” she says.
“When we are out of our day-to-day routine our senses are open to new experiences which bode for a return to work/a familiar environment that may have undertaken some change while we’ve been away.
“A re-energised level of engagement is almost always good for the organisation as well.”
The undiscovered country
Our basic plan had a bit of wriggle room and a few twists and turns led to the crowning moment of the trip – a 10-day roadtrip in and out of California through Nevada and Arizona to see the king of all the national treasures in the United States, the Grand Canyon.
We managed to escape the sprawling outskirts of Los Angeles with minimal fuss though soon found ourselves caught up in the Friday afternoon freeway crawl to Las Vegas which delayed us by a few hours.
But hey, no matter: part of this whole experiment was about freeing us from any restrictions and demands on our time. We were in no rush.
Over the next 10 days we took it easy driving across the three states and back, booking accommodation a couple of days ahead as we went.
The actual driving proved more exhaustive than we’d expected – something to do with those long straight roads and desert colours – so we made our stints in the car shorter with lots of breaks at the rest stops.
There were no meltdowns, and only a little frustration during a couple of rare moments when things didn’t go quite as planned.
Mostly we just chatted, listened to music, took turns staring out the window at that enormous, empty landscape, and enjoyed being in the moment and not worrying about work.
Our internal headspace soon reflected the space surrounding us, giving us plenty of opportunities for soul-searching as we traversed the craziness of Vegas, the relaxed, chic vibe of modernist Palm Springs, and the cooler alpine climate of Big Bear Lake, two hours west of Los Angeles.
In Prescott, Arizona, we went to a National Cowboy Day celebration, complete with shoot-outs and re-enactments and local people kitted out in late-1800s dress; as we drove through Joshua Tree National Park, a ferocious lightning storm danced across the desert plains hundreds of kilometres in front of us.
Best of all was the early morning drive from Williams, Arizona, up to the Grand Canyon’s south rim. It doesn’t matter how many photographs or videos you see of this magnificent 6 million-year-old natural wonder, nothing can prepare you for how impressive it is. If you only ever do one thing in America, this should be it.
The voyage home
Returning to Los Angeles after the 10 days were up brought with it a surprising sense of achievement. We felt like we’d conquered even that tiny part of the United States. We’d made it to our destination and back with no hiccups, negotiating some of the busiest roads and cities in North America on the opposite side of the road.
We didn’t get lost (thanks Google Maps), there was no point where we felt unsafe or in danger, and we were still best friends. Success!
Rebooted and refocused
Looking back, the benefits of the break have been immense. The decision to leave our jobs fortunately paid off – we’ve both stayed in our professions but changed roles for the better, with not too much of a gap between pay packets.
The lack of a rigid schedule meant we could go with the flow, lose ourselves in that wide open landscape, and make the most of opportunities that presented themselves along the way – an extra night in Palm Springs, a zoo visit in California, a day doing absolutely nothing by the pool.
We both feel refreshed and rejuvenated – and yes, rebooted and refocused – and are ready to take on whatever the next few years brings.
I guess the lesson is that if you throw yourself out there, things will work out – but you do have to make sure you have enough money and motivation to make it work.
If you approach it in the right way with the right attitude of letting go, your decision to get off the hamster wheel, even for just a little while, will definitely be worth it.