Career Break Planning: 5 Things I wish I’d Known 5 Years Ago

A moment of reflection this week was triggered by a question asked by EscTheCity, an entrepreneurial group of ex-city workers who continue to inspire me with tales of career changes and better work/life balance.

The question was “what do you wish you’d known 5 years ago?”

I used to be someone who believed everything happened for a reason.  I’m not sure I believe this anymore.  But I do believe that there is something positive to learn from every negative situation, especially when it helps you make changes and avoid repeating history.

My last 5 years have been a rollercoaster ride through a re-cycled map of lifestyle choices:

  1. Being content with but not passionate about my career and lifestyle
  2. Being energised and inspired on a 15 month career break
  3. Returning to the same career but with a better work/life balance and new outside hobbies
  4. Falling back into bad habits and returning to (1)
  5. Planning a second and very different career break

If I knew what I know now, I would have taken the one-stop train from (1) to (5) rather than the indirect but scenic rollercoaster route.  But that ship has sailed and the positive outcome is that I’ve learned some key lessons that have not only driven me to where I am now, excited about the next leg in the journey to DESTINATION UNKNOWN, but will also help me avoid falling back into old habits a third time.

1. You can accomplish more by doing less

This lesson isn’t driven by laziness, but a desire to make each second in life count.

“I want to escape the 9-to-5” is a phrase that has been coming out of my mouth for some time.  But what does it really mean?  Until I identified the aspects of the 9-to-5 reality that were causing my frustration, my escape was unlikely to be a successful one.  All paths leading away from the 9-to-5 routine felt like short term detours with an inevitable return to the starting point.

“I feel suffocated, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated…”  Because I was describing my discontent with general terms, I also viewed my escape as a general path and this made it feel unachievable.  Sure, I could save up enough money to go travelling for a year (again), but what happened at the end of it?  Like my last career break, I would run out of money and return to the only thing I knew, the 9-to-5 routine.

I now know that being surrounded by people who measure productivity by the quantity of the input rather than the quality of the output doesn’t make it my destiny.  We’ve all been there – feeling like it’s a career limiting move to turn your blackberry off when you exit the office, leaving work at 6pm explaining that you have something you ‘just can’t get out of’, eating lunch at your desk, or carrying over holidays into the next year rather than ask for the break you are entitled to.

Realising that the biggest source of my frustration is participating in the 9-to-5 routine because it’s expected instead of necessary, I have identified a possible solution.  I need to find an environment that doesn’t live by this culture and something that allows me to “accomplish more by doing less” (a concept I recently came across in Timothy Ferriss’ book “The 4-hour Work Week”). 

2. A detour can become the main path

I headed to Heathrow airport in 2009 excited about a year of travel and adventure that would be a break from the career I had been focusing on for the past 15 years.  It was a fixed term break, a detour, and I would return to my career re-energised at the end of it.  What I didn’t realise on that fateful day is that whilst I had plans for my career creak, my career break had plans for me.  It changed the way I looked at the world, at myself and at my future.

I now know that a career that started out on a single-lane highway can later become an opportunity to fund a future career break that, instead of being a detour, may become the main path.  And here is the surprising lesson I’ve learned.  Identifying a working environment more suited to your new mind-set means that changing the motivation for your input does not have to change the quality of your output.

When my career was my main path, I was energised by a permanent role that provided training and development and career progression opportunities.  Now that I view my job as an opportunity to fund future life changes, I am more suited to a consulting role with defined objectives and an end date.  And guess what – the quality of my work has been the same in both environments!

3. “Who you are” is more important than “what you do”

There’s nothing wrong when the answers to these two questions are different.  Many people not only enjoy wearing the ‘game face’ at work, it helps them achieve a healthy balance that results in a happier personal life.  There is the mother who cares for her children at home and makes decisions in boardroom meetings in the office, the plumber who designs websites on the weekend, the IT specialist who trains for triathlons in his spare time.  A job or career can be a way to fund our personal lives, an outlet for something we are passionate about or even as an escape from our alternate personas.

However, when the answer to ‘what you do for a living’ prevents you answering ‘who you are’ it’s time for a change.  When wearing the ‘game face’ at works drains you of the energy you need take it off when you get home, it’s time for a change.

The ‘job for life’ era is over.  Very few people are lucky enough to fall into a career that not only inspires and energises them for forty years, but gives them the opportunity to continually add value and make a difference.  When I realised I was not one of those lucky people, I also realised the decision to make changes is not a sign of failure – it is a sign of strength.

I now know you are never too old to change direction.  And this leads nicely on to the next lesson learned… 

4. The opposite of happiness is boredom

I came across this phrase in Timothy Ferris’ “The 4-Hour Work Week” and it immediately resonated with me.  I also found it interesting that he observed the crazy reality that most people would choose unhappiness over uncertainty.  People can cope with change when it is forced upon them (through redundancy, personal trauma or health scares) but the fear of the unknown keeps them in a rut of discontent when making a change involves making a decision.

My first career break was a refreshing reminder that there is a place for everyone in the world.  I came across so many people who were choosing their own paths in life and viewed getting off the beaten track as an opportunity rather than a risk.  All of these people have made decisions based on the belief that the ‘worst that can happen’ is completely outweighed by the ‘best that is possible’.

I now know that it’s important to find a way to connect with like-minded people who inspire you to follow your own path, even when you may not be quite ready to make the leap.  Bouncing ideas around with people who are not like-minded is just as important as it can often help you identify the path you need to divert from and the path you need choose.  But applying a filter to these conversations is critical – taking on advice from some people is just as healthy as ignoring judgement from others.

5. The most valuable commodity in life is TIME

Whilst money is an avoidable enabler of making the most of our time on earth, TIME is the one thing in life we don’t have control over and it’s the one thing we can’t leave behind when we die.

The reality of our own mortality is a lesson we all start learning the older we get, and yet the balance between money and time seems to get unhealthier at the same rate.  Are we greedy, are we scared of change or are we in denial about our mortality?  It shouldn’t take hearing about others’ misfortunes to get the kick we need to re-balance the scales of money and time.  And yet it often does.

I now know that money is a replaceable commodity.  It can be traded, it can be earned, it can be saved and it can be re-generated.  Time cannot.

Life is too short not to get out there and live it.

“Dream like you will live forever, live like you will die tomorrow”



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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at

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