Four years ago, we started putting money away into a joint account with the hope of one day travelling the world. It’s easy to say ‘fuck it, let’s take a year out’ but it’s another thing actually doing it. Two years ago, we booked our round-the-world flight package. My place of work agreed to give me a sabbatical year, also known as a career break, where I signed a contract about what would happen in my year of absence and what I could expect on my return.
Once the flights were booked the doubts started flooding in. I started to worry that taking a year out of my career could be costly. It can be difficult enough for women to progress, and I worried that if I wasn’t in the room I would just get forgotten. I began believing that when I returned to work I might just have to start all over again, while everyone else took advantage of the opportunities I was missing during that year. I wondered if the person they would hire to replace me during my sabbatical year would be a better fit, and whether I would be welcomed back at all.
I started to hand over projects and responsibilities, thinking that it was just a way of preparing to leave, but knowing deep down that I couldn’t face working on things I was going to ‘leave behind’. I got upset and angry at what I assumed was a lack of concern from anyone else around me to replace my role or simply prepare in some way for my departure and the arrival of a new manager. I got nervous about what would happen with the strategies and projects we’d put in place.
I wondered if this was how women preparing to take maternity leave felt. Only, I wasn’t taking a year out to birth a human, I was taking a travelling gap year. Is that a valid reason for a woman to take a career break? What would happen if I eventually chose to take maternity leave? Would I be looked down on because I’d already used up my first career break quota? How much further would another year out set me back in my career development? What if I don’t even like travelling? What were we doing!
Of course, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing. Those thoughts are all completely unfounded, but it didn’t make it any easier at the time. And there probably isn’t a lot I can say to help if this is what you’re going through right now, but I’ve put down some of the reasons I took the choice in the first place and how I feel about it now, nine months into travelling.
Why did I stick with it and make the choice to take a year out?
Humans tend not to be too good with change, and even less so if they have to make the decision to make huge lifestyle changes when they are already in a comfortable position. When you’ve been working for ten years or more it is hard to imagine doing anything other than the 9-5, and you get used to a regular salary payment.
I made the choice because the idea sounded romantic, leaving work to travel the world, and after travelling Madagascar for a month when I was 17 I’d always loved the idea of seeing more.
Two of the reasons I stuck with it is because I’m stubborn and lazy. I tend to make impulsive choices and stick with them anyway because I don’t like to quit or leave things unfinished, but I also can’t be bothered with the admin of making changes once a plan is in motion (this is only in my personal life, I’m pretty responsive at work). When it came to actually saving, it helped that I had a partner who was really excited but, of course, it also put more pressure on me sometimes when I wasn’t feeling as enthusiastic. This is just what happens when you choose to plan something like this with another person, whether it’s your best friend, sibling or partner. However, what it really boiled down to was that little, clichéd niggle in the back of my mind: if I never tried I would never know. Maybe it would be good for me.
Handing in the notice, the initial flight and first few days on the road
Handing in my notice was fairly easy because I had been talking about travelling for so long (we’d been saving for four years) and I’d been honest with my employers from the beginning. Once we had booked flights I told them straight away and we started negotiating my sabbatical year terms. The last day of work felt surreal and it wasn’t like any other I had experienced. I think it’s because you’re not just leaving to move to another job, like would usually happen after handing in your notice. You’re not going to have a job, a salary, and you’re also leaving where you live, the country you know and the friends and family who have been your support for so long.
The first few days felt like a holiday, and even the first few weeks whizzed by, but I still hadn’t given up my connection with work. I tried contacting people to see how things were getting on and I would get sad if I didn’t hear back. I got homesick quite often, and on multiple occasions (when travelling was a little overwhelming) I would question if I had made the right decision.
Finally, there came a moment when it all clicked into place. You notice that you have stopped pining after the familiar and you’re actually putting everything you’ve got into travelling. For me, that was somewhere between Bolivia and Chile, six weeks into our journey. It takes a while to let go, but when you do you realise just how beneficial it’s going to be for you personally and, as a result, for any future employer.
Am I glad I did it?
Once you’ve made the leap you will wonder what you were ever worrying about. The people who want to keep in touch with you do, the place you work keeps ticking along and you experience learning new, exciting things every single day. Sure, there are changes at home and work, but I’ve changed too so when I return I know I will have to spend some time learning about how I fit back in.
Taking time off work gives you space to learn about yourself, to stress, worry and think about other things, to move away from living paycheque to paycheque, and to learn about what you really enjoy doing. Some people decide that they don’t want to return to their job, or even go back home at all, but I was lucky because, as it turns out, I just realised that I’m working my perfect job in a sector I love and am passionate about. Either way, it gives you the clarity you need to achieve what you want in the future.
It’s not all gin and unicorns, sometimes it is extremely challenging. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t learn anything.
The added bonus about going as a couple is that you actually get to spend real time with each other, not just evenings and weekends where you’re also using the time to de-stress from work. And not just a week-long holiday where, again, you’re going to wind down from the stress of work. You get to know about their real motivations, passions, strengths and weaknesses. There are few other opportunities where a couple would really get to know each other this well.
Am I looking forward to going back to work?
Hell yes! I’ve only kept in touch with a few of my friends from work and my manager sent me a Christmas update, so other than what I see on social media I have no idea of what is happening. Just before I left, the organisation was about to grow hugely in terms of staff. I know that when I get back I won’t recognise half of the faces, I know I’ll need to spend some time learning about teams and the wider organization. I’ll need to get to grips with new processes and projects. I know it will show me just how quickly students’ unions change in the UK. But I’m excited to be going back to work in an organisation I love with people I admire.
As a result of taking a year away from it all, I better understand my personal motivations and what makes me happy. I know what makes me stressed. All of this will filter into how I behave at work, which should only improve my professional relationships.
Things to remember if, like me, you’re slightly older and wish to take a career break to travel but you’re getting a bit nervous:
- Know that it won’t be a big deal for anyone but you – unless you know someone who has taken a career break to travel, chances are the people around you won’t really understand what you’re worried about. Travelling is glamourised all over social media so people only see selected outputs, they don’t see what goes in to it under the surface. Also, people are inherently selfish, not saying that in a bad way but most people will only be thinking about what is happening in their life.
- Create your plan and stick to it – it will get scary at times, it will seem unachievable at times but believe me you can do it. Check out an article I’ve written about creating and sticking to plans.
- A year is shorter than you think, especially when you’re travelling – a year at home can seem to go by so slowly, but when you’re moving around every few days you will barely notice the time go by. You’ll be home before you know it, so don’t worry about what you will miss out on when you’re not there. Chances are, not a lot is happening.
- You’re going to be working full-time for at least another 30/40 years (and if the government have anything to do with it, we won’t be retiring) – what difference will taking off one year make? Really? Honestly?