I recently wrote a personal essay for the New York Times about my decision to take a break from work. At the age of 50 and as a self-professed workaholic, the decision to pause did not come easily to me. I hadn’t realized how much I had been struggling with my choice or how uncomfortable that choice was going to make others. The reactions to my story made me realize how little we talk candidly about our career journeys.
The idea to write the piece came to me as I discovered that the new “Rites of Passages” column was soliciting submissions about “notable life transitions, large or small.” I wanted to acknowledge that we had complicated realities when it came to our work lives. I was pretty sure you couldn’t lean in all the time and still have room for other priorities.
I believe it’s important to call things what they are and find ways to support each other as we make different and personal choices, rather than set up unrealistic expectations that none of us can attain.
We are told, particularly as women in the corporate arena, to be strong and in control. There is no room for fear or doubts, which are considered a weakness. But life is complicated and filled with ambiguity. We all face struggles and great challenges; until we can be more honest and real with each other, we’ll continue to feel alone.
The responses I received were telling. Here’s what resonated with people based on their comments.
Many people who read my piece are considering or are going through transitions. Some expressed hope that “more people would talk about this [topic].” All were glad to know that they weren’t “alone” in needing to take time off.
I heard from both men and women, from all stages of life. The ones starting their careers were relieved to know that those whom they consider “successful” don’t have it all figured out. Others who were mid-career or near their final chapters needed the affirmation to take time off and find time to prioritize “me” and “what is important in my life.”
Everyone joined me in recognizing that stepping off is a privilege, and by definition not available to all. “Of course, our ability to take time like this is based on some level of financial viability,” one person wrote. That said, they recognized the need for this conversation because they had a desire to soul-search.
For some, the issue came down to making trade-offs. “I’m at a non-profit, so I had to make some choices in order to take some time off and figure out what I wanted to do next,” one woman said.
The notion that life is about choices and chapters provoked a way to talk about prioritizing different things at different points in our lives. “The quote ‘life is about choices and chapters’ truly makes sense to me,” one reader commented. “All too often, we get trapped into thinking we don’t have choices, when in reality we actually do. Acknowledging the choices we make and why we are making them is liberating and empowering, and gives us the courage to move forward, even if we don’t know exactly what is next,” another wrote.
Transitions are stressful and having the right words to untangle them helps. One reader said, “Thank you for articulating what’s on my mind — even as I cannot yet explain it to myself.” This is true particularly when you talk with others. Another shared: “I needed words and context to my current chapter. Deep breath in. Slow breath out.”
Certain cultures are more open to the notion of a pause. “I’m an immigrant and in my culture, leaving a role without having another lined up is not something you do,” a reader wrote.
In certain industries, the idea of taking a break is part of the norm. “I have found the attitude towards ‘a year off’ is different on the West Coast — you’re practically expected to do it periodically. People found it almost weird that I hadn’t done something like this previously,” a friend who went west for her sabbatical shared. The idea of stepping away and restarting is part of the startup/tech culture, but not so in all parts of the U.S.
Giving ourselves permission to consider the idea that no plan is a plan, and that this is okay, proved to be a stress reliever. Many people reported being grateful to be reminded to take a breath, to solidify their understanding that life is full of various pathways in career decision-making that are all meaningful, relative, and unique to us as individuals.
A few readers offered thoughtful tips. “In retrospect,” one wrote, “I wish I had talked to more people who had taken time off before I did.” Great point! It helps to understand what to expect, including the fact that Monday mornings can be tough. Another said, “Trying to find my groove in scheduling the day has taken a lot longer than anticipated. The gym first thing helps a lot.”
Several of those who wrote had gone back to work — some to similar jobs, others to careers they considered more fulfilling. Many were still searching for what was next. But all, even those now anxious to find work, reported finding the time away priceless.
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