I remember being the friend who would bail on expensive weekend trips or extravagant nights out. "I'm saving money to take a year off when I turn 26," I'd tell them, and because so many people dream about long-term travel but never actually take the flying leap, I knew they doubted me.
Months later, I had booked a one-way ticket to Indonesia and would spent the next 14 months trekking through Nepal, hitch-hiking across Laos and Burma, working on farms and studying meditation in rural India, living in Berlin, and road-tripping through California. I wanted a year to grow my blog and coaching business, become a professional freelance writer, and take the time to deeply reflect on what I wanted next in my career.
It was the best thing I ever did. I sowed my wild oats, thought deeply about my future, answered questions for myself, learned to be a true minimalist, reflected on my relationship to society, grew my online business, and worked successfully as a writer, which I could have only dreamed about years prior. To me, it showed that I follow through on my dreams, take big risks, and navigate the world with a high degree of independence while avoiding student debt.
Returning from a Career Break Gap Year
15 months later, I'm returning to my favorite employer on a freelance basis while continuing to grow my writing and career coaching business, which is my ideal lifestyle scenario right now. I also have a medium-term plan that involves going back to school for a really drastic change of career paths, but one that's more in tune with my true nature -- something I was only awoken to during my travels and after many months of stillness and reflection. I've erased all notions of timelines, re-energized my spirituality, and come to terms with just how non-linear and incongruous my short, medium, and long-term ideas for life may be. I've never been happier or more confident in what I'm doing.
So I don't mind when I get these kinds of questions: "Aren't you worried about the gap on your resume?" "Don't you think employers will assume you're irresponsible or flaky?" "Won't it ruin my career if I take time away?"
My response is: "No, not necessarily, and probably not." If an employer cares that I took a year off to see the world, think deeply, and figure out my true path forward, I don't want to work for them. If an employer associates travel and adventure with flakiness, I also don't want to work for them. And taking time away won't ruin your career -- as long as you do your homework before you ship out.
Here are a few ideas for ways to take time off without ruining your career:
1. Remember That Your Attitude Has Legs, and Everyone Will Follow Its Lead
How you talk about and evaluate your decision to take time off will dictate how everyone else sees that decision, too. I met a girl at a networking event in Berlin recently who hadn't worked in 3 years. I asked her if she was nervous about getting hired again after that long of a break, and her response was essentially:
"No way. I've had the time of my life, learned stuff that someone who's been in the office for the past 3 years hasn't learned, and I'm fresh. Other job seekers might be burned out, looking for a transition from that kind of head space, but I'm energized, ready to hurl myself back into what I know I'm meant to be doing full force."
If that's how you're presenting yourself after time off, this kind of enthusiasm is contagious. If you're confident that your time off was meaningful, endowed you with a unique skill set and perspective, and gave you the energy to do what you really want to be doing, then others will feel the same. If you feel regretful for wasting time or think traveling meant you gave up on something else, others will pick up on that vibe, too.
2. Make Sure You Have Professional Experience to Fall Back On
It's always better if you've had 2-3 years of work experience so you have skills to fall back on and get hired in your same industry or one that makes use of that same work experience.
If you think you can't leave because you're too senior or "the company needs me," you've been enslaved to an idea of importance that essentially hinges on your dispensability. While you are an asset, this is not the case.
3. A Career Break Gap Year is Easier if You See a Career Change Ahead
If you're working in finance but know you'd someday like to be a scientist, it's okay to take time off. You know you have a big "reset button" coming soon in the form of grad school, which is likely to view your international experience as a positive. Non-linear careers are less problematic for admissions committees than human resource managers at some conservatively-minded companies.
4. Try Negotiating a Sabbatical or Open Door Policy
If you're currently employed, leave on good terms. That's what I did this year when I was able to get re-hired by my former company. Another option, if money is a concern or if you're really risk-averse, is to negotiate a 6-12 month sabbatical so you know what you're coming home to.
5. Be Conscious of the Impact on Your Financial Health
You have to have enough money saved to sustain you through your trip and then another 3-6 months of US-based living expenses to cushion your transition back home. The only exception to this is if you'll keep making money while you're abroad or have an expenses-paid volunteer position secured.
I always keep separate accounts: a bank account built up for travel and exploration, and another that's reserved for longer-term investments like education or real estate. You should always have 3-6 months of living expenses stored away in an emergency fund that even travel can't touch.
6. Once Back, Learn to Talk About What You've Done
One of the most difficult things to do is learn to translate your experiences on the road to something meaningful to an employer. Spend real time figuring out how to explain why you took the time off and what you've gained. If you traveled more purposefully (studying a language, learning new skills, living immersed in one community, or volunteering abroad), definitely put it on your CV.
If traveling was more a haphazard series of fun events, leave the gap -- most employers won't notice if you have other professional experience on your resume, and you can address it later in interviews if it comes up.
Life Is More than a Series of Career Moves
The most important thing to remember is that a gap year is only a year long. A year is nothing in the grand scheme of your probable lifespan. Or maybe it'll be all you ever get. How do you even know you have more than this week, this month, or this year to live? Saying you can do something later is the greatest arrogance in the world.
It's also critical to remember that life is more than a series of career moves. Life doesn't have to abide by any patterns, move in a linear fashion, or hit certain milestones. Timelines and expectations are all in your head -- false ideas of what you're "supposed to do" that have been ingrained by social and cultural upbringing. You're not supposed to do anything.
My advice is to get out there, be grateful, and enjoy it, in whatever manner feels right to you. If that involves working 18 hour days to build a company and achieve a dream, then do it. If that involves taking a break from one career path to try another way of making your way in the world, then do it. And if it involves taking 12 months to see part of the world you've been blessed to be alive on, then do that, too.
Exploring your gap year options? Don't miss USA Gap Year Fairs every winter! These free, public events are held in 40+ cities across the country to provide a broad exposure to gap year options and connect prospective gap year students, parents, gap year organizations, educators, experts, and alumni. Register for a fair near you at usagyf.eventbrite.com.