Consider A Career Break - We Wish We Did Sooner - Our Life Changing Experience So Far

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Saturday 16 January 2016

Consider A Career Break - We Wish We Did Sooner - Our Life Changing Experience So Far

What's the point of a gap year or career break and what are we going to get out of one? If you'd asked us a questions like this a few years ago we probably would have shrugged our shoulders, or suggested that a gap year or a career break were just a nice long holiday. However, since we set of on our adventures we have discovered they are so much more. The time and experiences we've had on our career break has completely changed the way we view the world and what we want to do with our lives. We're so passionate about and grateful for the opportunity and subsequent changes in our own lives that we want to share a few reflections on our experience and also explain why we'd encourage anyone feeling dissatisfied with their current situation to create time for a break; to just do it and not keep making excuses like we did for so long.

Growing Up Without Questioning Our Choices
Before our adventures neither of us had challenged the life path we were following, always taking the path of least resistance based on what felt easy at the time and what we thought was expected of us from our upbringing and the people around us. As children we had been influenced by parents, teachers, peers etc. Then as we 'grew up', we got more choice and restrictions were lifted but we never took the opportunity before our working life started to ask what we actually wanted to do with our lives.

Getting Dissatisfied
For a long time after school we just continued making choices in this way and it either felt easy, or if there were challenges we'd blame it on the immediate situation and look to change it.  We might look for another job, move house, change our body through diet and exercise etc.  But no matter what we tried we always had an underlying feeling there was more to life and that we could be happier.  Sometimes once we'd run out of reasons to blame our dissatisfaction on or things to change we even started to think there might be something wrong with us.

We both experienced this feeling in different ways and at different times but both found it very scary to consider that a more radical change was needed. We'd already invested so much time, effort and money into our careers, house and lifestyle. At the same time we'd also been narrowing the field of what we were good at or qualified for. Anything beyond 'conventional' changes wasn't on our radar or just felt impossible. Plus, to admit we wanted a drastic change would have made us feel we'd been wasting all that time and energy and we didn't want to feel that regret. Also, what if we tried to change and it didn't work out? Then we'd regret trying to change as well while struggling to get back what we'd had, since although unhappy we'd at least been coping.

It's like the saying goes, "the grass always looks greener on the other side". For us, we kept spending money and time on products to improve the grass we had and the more we spent the less we wanted to consider ripping it up and starting again even though we still weren't happy with it, never mind questioning if there were options other than grass.

We eventually convinced ourselves that the main reason for our continued dissatisfaction was that work was causing all of our problems, that we didn't have enough time or energy left after work to spend together or on the things we liked to do.  Therefore we convinced ourselves that we'd only be happy if we could either reduce or remove work from our life.  However, as we had also convinced ourselves that a drastic life change was too risky we just had to push on in our current situations (with a few small changes from time to time) to reach that point. We were concious that we could perhaps have made drastic lifestyle and/or career changes if we'd done so straight after school or even university, when there would have been less invested and so less time wasted to regret, but we had this heavy feeling it was now too late for us to do that.  Instead we'd just have to make all the small changes we could to bring the point where we might be able to reduce or even stop work a little nearer. Somewhat inspired by a BBC TV series called 'Pay off Your Mortgage in 2 Years' we started cutting costs, selling things we didn't need anymore and taking on extra work in the short term.  We always knew it would be more like 5-10 years for us but thought that if we could significantly reduce our mortgage we could at least reduce our largest outgoing and not need to work as much.

Planning A Career Break
After several years of striving we believed getting to a financial position where we could both reduce or stop working was still too far away and we just needed a breather, so we decided to have an extended holiday or 'career break'.  We were just so tired from the struggling of making small changes and wishing it was different all the time. If only we could have a break to get more energy and more clarity then we could come back ready to see through what we'd started.

We thought back to the last time we'd felt truly free and happy and it had been during summer holidays as students when for half the holidays we'd worked and then spent our earnings on backpacking adventures so that is what we decided we needed. A break to go travelling and clear our heads.

However, we had become so risk averse to losing what we had invested already in terms of time, effort and money that even though a career break was financially possible we kept pushing it further away. We always found another project or reason to wait a while longer or worried about our prospects when we got back.  In the end we decided that we had to go, whatever the consequences.  We knew we would have some options to fall back on and the rest we'd just have to deal with when we got back.  But still we found more reasons to delay so to commit ourselves to going we set a date to get married and called our proposed career break an 'extended honeymoon'.  However we even put our wedding date off into the future by more than 6 months to coincide with an arbitrary anniversary so that we would have more time to be sure..... then Dan got seriously ill just a few weeks before the wedding.

From Short Career Break To A Journey Of Discovery
Dan getting ill in February 2014 catalysed the conversion of our originally planned career break into a slightly longer one, but it was really the break itself that opened us up to a whole world of possibilities and gave us perspective. Having originally told ourselves we'd go back into our old lives somehow after a year - we'd kept everything open to do so like renting out our flat, storing our possessions, keeping work options open, finding foster homes for our pets etc. - it has been our experience on the road that has finally allowed us the time to reassess what it is we really want to do with our lives while at the same time showing us many other possible ways of life.

We know people who are and always have been passionate about what they do for work. We also know people who have had a gap year, a supportive family or great friend networks to signpost a change they always sensed they needed like leaving an office job they disliked to do community work. We want to celebrate that this is possible for some people and that they have the courage to just make a change.

But we also know people like us that try and patch up their life with small changes and who are always striving to reach their next goal, whether it's more money, bigger house, more time etc.

What we have realised through our adventure is that we'd had another option than pushing through all along, we just couldn't see it. Because we had no idea before what other opportunities were going to come up if we were willing to try a drastic change we were judging our future prospects based only on our past experiences and current situation, which was very limited. It was as though we were sat in the bottom of a valley and all we could see was the familiar places we'd always seen. It wasn't until we climbed up the sides of the valley to the top that we could actually see all the other places we could go.

We thought we couldn't go for so long because we were too scared to consider there being another way we could do things, but we now see that we could have gone so much sooner.  This has been proved to us not only by the cost and lifestyle we are personally experiencing but by the many inspirational people we have met as well.  In hindsight, although we didn't, if only we had known of the countless people taking breaks in all sorts of different ways (travel, volunteering, further study etc.) on all sorts of different budgets we could have started to see the possibilities.  Also, we can now see that taking a career break (even in our 30's) wasn't as big a risk as we had built it up to be and if we still wanted to now we'd left the door open enough to return to something resembling our old lives.

What Are We Learning? A Middle Road Exists 
We thought it was work that was the problem and that we just needed to reduce or stop working to be happy.  Work had always been about earning money so we could do things we enjoyed with our 'fun vouchers' - like spending time outdoors, sport, socialising, cooking, reading, writing, volunteering etc.  But even though we had an entire year where we didn't work after first setting off, catalysed by the "life's too short" mentality left by the health scare in February 2014, and we had the opportunity to continue on a second adventure, the dissatisfaction we felt with life still came back in other ways eventually.

For us, we're now finding a middle road.  We no longer think 'work' was the problem any more but the intention with which we approached our working life that was making us dissatisfied.  All we used to focus on was what we were going to 'get' out of work in terms of money and security which we believed we needed for our future happiness.  Neither of us had much passion for what we were doing because we'd never asked ourselves why we were doing it. Now we see that there are naturally things we want to do which in the past we would have considered 'work' but which we now have a real desire to do (even if that means a complete departure from what we are trained in). We are finally seeing, what we saw but never understood in some of our friends, that when you realign what is is you care about and want to invest your time in, whether paid work or not, it brings a whole new satisfaction to life. "Find a job you love and you'll never work another day in your life."

A career break has given us the time to reassess what it was we were doing with our lives along with the opportunity to meet many inspirational people and see different ways of living and working.  For many years, something deep inside of us knew we needed to make a change but we kept putting it off, too scared and worrying about the risks of regretting leaving what we had, even though we weren't happy - better the devil you know.  We are now extremely grateful that circumstances opened our eyes to the fact that we needed to finally take the plunge; take a break and start working out what we really wanted from life. We might not have all the answers just yet but at least we're starting to work out what makes us tick and see the many opportunities that we never would have seen before.

Recently someone we met said it really well.  You sit in a waiting room waiting for your train (a better life) to come along until one day you realise that train isn't coming and that life was actually what was happening whilst you were in the waiting room all along. Or as John Lennon is famously quoted as saying: "life is what happens whilst you're busy making other plans".

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