“We spend about 25 years of our lives learning. Then there are about 40 years reserved for working. And then, tucked at the end of it, are about 15 years of retirement,” says Stefan Sagmeister in this excellent TED talk. “I thought it might be helpful to cut off 5 of those retirement years and intersperse in between those working years.”
Basically, he structures his working years in this way: work for 7 years, take a 1-year sabbatical, work for 7 more years, take another 1-year sabbatical and so on until he retires. (If you haven’t watched the video, I highly recommend it. Aside from the thought-provoking content, it also has some stunning visuals.)
Why take a career break?
After watching the TED talk video, a man by the name of Winston Chen took his entire family to a remote island north of the Arctic Circle for a year. He reasons, “We live in a society that celebrates strong work ethics and delayed gratification — all good things, but we’ve taken this cultural mindset to the extreme. We deny ourselves the time to do anything significant outside of work until we’re physically and mentally well past our prime.” (Read his story here.)
What do you do during the sabbatical?
Sagmeister’s sabbaticals are deliberate; he even prepares timetables for himself, which contain items like “story writing” and “future thinking”. After all, he takes these career breaks so when he gets home he can enjoy his work better and produce fresh results.
Chen, on the other hand, had no lofty plans when he set off on his journey. But he ended up creating an app, learning to be more Zen and connecting with his children on a deeper level.
It’s really up to you what you want to do during a career break. In the TED talk, Sagmeister’s point seems to be that time off can make you perform better at work. But I don’t think that’s the only good reason for taking some time off.
Even Steve Jobs took a career break as a young man. He traveled to India to pursue his spiritual interests, which may have been set aside while he was working.
In the past, I have interviewed travelers who do this: spend a few years working as they save money, take off to travel until money runs out, then start working again (maybe to make more money for future travels). In this scenario, travel is a reason unto itself.
But how will I get a job after the career break?
Well, I have no good answer to that. This is a question that you can answer best; nobody knows better than you do how competitive your industry is and how marketable your skills are. (Obviously things are a lot easier for Sagmeister, who runs his own design business.)
Some companies do allow their employees to take sabbatical leaves, but they’re in the minority. Most employers don’t look too kindly upon gaps in employment, so the break could very well end up lasting longer than you want.
In other words, yes, taking a sabbatical is probably not the best thing for your job security and career advancement, .
But if you feel like this is something you need to do, then maybe it’s worth the risk. Winston Chen had two small kids and no guaranteed job upon his return. Fortuitously, the app he created during the break developed into a real business. This wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t take the time off. The path of a career, he notes, doesn’t have to be “linear”.
Image credit: Holly Lay (CC BY 2.0 License).