It was July, and I had made up my mind to take a career break. But the decision was yet to be taken.
I wanted to do so much, explore a lot, try many things, and learn more for which I was either not finding the time or was dragging myself on. From languages to cooking, from sports to teaching, from books to travel. I wanted to discover and this was my direction.
I wanted to take the road less traveled, but there were so many stakeholders, so many components, so many steps. There were, at once, so many things in my mind and it was overwhelming. I struggled initially, digressed multiple times, felt elated a few times, but with support was able to translate my thought to action. Once you start thinking about making that decision, the steps start forming, first in your mind, and then on paper.
Where you start is where you end
The first time the thought of a career break came in my mind was in response to a question one of my mentors asked me – “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
It is a standard career question. Asked in so many entrances, interviews, training programs. As an HR professional, I myself had asked that question multiple times. I even have had a ready answer for so many years, which I used to keep refining and/or updating. And yet, when my mentor changed the context from ‘the organization’ to ‘in life’, the answer collapsed. I was blank. For the first time in so many years, I was blank.
And that is very unlike me. I always have had a response or a projection of it. This was unfamiliar territory. What next? As I stumbled my way through answering the question, went through so many options, I realized, I did not know the answer.
I needed to find out.
But I did know what was not the answer. Being in corporate was definitely not the answer for me. Corporate brought a sense of stability and achievement, yet also a lack of risk and fulfillment. I had dabbled with the question of corporate or not, at the start of my career, and this time I had a clearer idea. I am not discounting corporate forever, but at this stage, I wanted to do much more, explore, learn, fail, and discover.
And I took my first step in that direction.
Be true to yourself
Stating the obvious here – the single most important stakeholder in this whole decision is yourself! Call it self-actualization or self-realization or a vision statement, the ‘self’ has to be clear. There can be no halfheartedness, fogginess in this step and the best way to get that clarity is to ask yourself –“Why do I want to take a career break?”For me, it was about discovery.
Many self-awareness books (whatever few I could go through) have a maxim or two, ‘doing what you are good at will give you happiness’, ‘find the overlap between what you are good at and what you enjoy doing, and that’s your direction’.
I had been reasonably happy at my job, the work I was doing, the people around, but I couldn’t just keep doing ‘something’. There may yet be other maxims out there, but for me, they were not exciting enough. Should I continue to do something that I was good at and would that make me happy?
You have to truthfully find the answer. But then don’t just stop at the first answer; delve deeper. Ask yourself further questions and connect it back to the main question.Over the years, I had undertaken, for a lack of a better superlative, a journey to the self, through various tools and discussions and identified passions, strengths, inspirations, motivations. So I had clarity and direction.
And I took a step towards discovery.
You need an accomplice
Neither are you taking the decision alone, nor do you have to go through the journey alone? Or rather you shouldn’t. I am not talking about a support system of family and friends, whom you can depend on, talk to, discuss, or just depend on. That is also important, very.But it is critical to have an accomplice, who has a say in the decision as well as is impacted by the decision. In my case, I had two.
My co-traveler and the person who inspires me the most, my wife and my biggest teacher, and the person I look up to most, my father.
I will not write too much about them here (maybe soon), otherwise I will fill pages and pages, and yet, it will never be complete. In short, both of them have played the most crucial role in me being able to take this decision and this journey. From questioning me to motivating me to support me in keeping me on track.
Their nature is complementary to mine in most aspects and has played a critical balancing role, mentally and emotionally.
And so, I had conductors for my journey.
Back of the paper calculations won’t work
Financials are crucial. Very, very crucial. And it can not work by just being miserly.
I did not have huge savings, but enough to clear any and all debts or loans. That was something I was able to work out. I had made mistakes earlier in my career. I took a car loan before I started a SIP. I took a credit card before I had invested in long term savings. But I had thankfully realized this and started investing in different instruments. I could come out with a zero base. (Though I did get a surprise bonus while on break)
On the other end of the spectrum, I did not have a lavish lifestyle, but enough to warrant some optimization. We get attuned to a certain lifestyle, and after 30 years, you can only change so much. This is where the stability of corporate becomes the biggest barrier. We get comfortable with the salary cycle and align our needs and spend accordingly. A yearly appreciation of this amount helps us convince ourselves that we are growing every year and add hobbies and activities to support this paradigm.
But there are ways and means to cut the fluff, and yet continue to sustain and enhance one’s lifestyle. I realized that I actually only needed as much. And made a conscious decision to identify and cut down this excess. From cable to broadband connection, household to ‘miscellaneous spends’, I evaluated everything and was able to actually save. (In an ideal world, I would have done this irrespective)
And of course, a steady income of partner and family support is part of that equation. The expectations need to be very clear and even after that, there have to be continuing discussions. But the left and right sides were inching towards being equal.
And my journey had wheels.
Timing is not everything
But it is important. It is important for any of the above points to work. And for me, it was right because the above points worked.
Similar to a puzzle, plans don’t just fall into place, the pieces have to be fitted in. They have to be identified, cajoled, and linked to identifying the best course. I had to consider anything and everything with respect to timelines; pre and post the decision.
Yet, it may never feel like the right time. Many people I have spoken to about it get stuck with the timing. That breeds reluctance, which only grows. Once you have had the thought, it’s important to make a decision. Otherwise, you are stuck with that thought and are always less than a hundred percent in your current job.
Throughout my 30 years of existence, I had broadly conformed to the regular path. I was among the toppers in middle school, reasonably passed both my boards with distinction, got into a decent engineering college, got into a business school for post-graduation, got into a great company growing to be a functional leader. I soon married my ‘college sweat-heart’ (though she’ll kill me for writing it like that), and settled myself.
If not now, then when?
My emotional and mental state dictated a time frame, my support, and financial state narrowed it down.
And my journey had a date.
‘Have Courage’ is an understatement
Every person (well, almost) I discussed my thought with, not only questioned it but also had ten reasons why I should not do it. Many of those reasons were logical even. And while working through the process, a modicum of self-doubt kept creeping in.
Was it the right thing for my career? What will I do? Am I wasting my potential? How will I manage financially? Was I being unfair to my family, and especially, my partner? How would I explain it to friends, acquaintances, people I meet? Was I being selfish?
And I did not have all the answers, at first. But I trusted the process.
If you have honestly answered the earlier question of ‘Why’, you should have reasonable conviction in your thoughts and your responses. Conviction is a good first step, but it only takes you so far. That is where courage comes in.
Courage to not have all the right answers immediately. Courage to not even know all the right questions. Courage to defend the thought in front of the mirror. Courage to sometimes not have a clear direction in mind. Courage to be ready to fail. Courage to just be yourself.
And my journey had an engine.
All these questions and all these thoughts helped me not only act on my thought but gave me some clarity about the journey as well.
Family, friends, mentors, company, career, lifestyle, timelines, finances, interests; all factors played an important role in taking the decision to take a career break and further planning for it.
I had been reasonably happy in my life, family, friends, career through that path, and without regrets. But what next? “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
For me, the well-trodden path was not enticing enough.
For me, the above process worked and I was able to take the plunge.
Did I miss a crucial step in the process? Did you have a different process? Are you undergoing the decision process yourself?