This year, I walked from Mexico to Canada. I walked over 4,265 kilometres – through snow, blizzards, heatwaves, mosquito swarms, wildfire smoke, and extreme exhaustion. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. And I almost didn’t do it. Why?
Not because I doubted I could do it (though I did).
Not because I was worried about river crossings and hypothermia and falling trees (though I was).
Not because I thought it would break me into pieces (though, believe me, it did).
I was hesitant to embark on this epic journey, because I was concerned about what it would do to my career. How it might stall my professional journey. How it might even make it regress.
I could not have been more wrong.
This post is about why taking a break from your career, to do something that doesn’t seem at all related to your career, could be great for it.
The current rhetoric, and what’s wrong with it
Implicit in all the career advice I’ve consumed is the rhetoric that in order to grow your career, you have to focus on it. ‘Focusing on it’ involves doing things that directly advance your skills, knowledge, networks, or understanding of what you’re a good fit for. According to this advice, your energy should be committed to 'making it happen', and to doing things that are very obviously career-relevant.
Want to gain experience? Apply for internships.
Want to grow your skills? Commit to self-study.
Want to find a job that’s a good fit for you? Spend a year exploring different roles.
Want to take a break from your job? Wonderful, use that time to consider what you want out of the next one.
This advice is pervasive, and it’s convincing. It can make people feel anxious that they need to always be ‘career-ing’, and guilty if they’re not. It sends the message that the only way to improve your career trajectory is by very explicitly focusing on it and prioritising it.
This rhetoric can become deeply ingrained, especially in young people, and this was the case for me. When I first considered doing the Pacific Crest Trail, I went through quite the internal battle. Was it worth taking six months off work to go for a walk? Would my career stagnate or regress? Was it selfish to prioritise travel over impact, and should I just try to overcome that desire? What damage would this do to the position I’d worked hard to get to?
Then, when I decided to actually do the hike, the battle continued. I tried to negotiate with myself, reasoning that if I weaved in some career-focused element then maybe I could justify it. Maybe this would be a good opportunity to think more about my career. Maybe I could use the time to consume relevant podcasts. Maybe I could firm up my stance on issues I care about. In the end, however, I told myself that I didn’t want to take six months off work, to then spend the six months thinking about work.
So I didn’t. I didn’t journal about what I wanted out of my career. I didn’t listen to any podcasts with the intent of professional development. I hardly even thought about what I was going to do when I got home. I spent maybe a total of six hours thinking about work, and that was just when I sporadically felt like it. I’d come to accept that for six months, I would stop focusing on my career. And that meant, according to what I’d been taught, that I’d be temporarily abandoning it.
However, that’s not quite what happened.
The career-related benefits of a non career-related break
Although I’d stopped intentionally working on my career, I would now classify what I did as a career-building activity. I’d go so far as to say that walking the length of the United States was better for my career than the counterfactual career-focused work I would have done at home (the work that the current rhetoric emphasises).
I’ll tell you a couple of reasons why. Keep in mind that although I emphasise the experiences I had on my somewhat niche trip, I think they could apply to many other non career-related breaks.
I built confidence and gained perspective.
Putting one foot in front of the other, literally, can get surprisingly hard. I went through some of the lowest moments of my life on that trail. There were periods where I felt alone and scared and freezing and delirious and deeply, deeply exhausted. There were so many moments, moments where I longed to be somewhere else, that felt like they would never pass. But they did. And so the mantra began to play in my head, ‘This will pass’.
There were also many times where I could not, for the life of me, imagine how my situation was going to work out well. I’d walk through a storm and turn up at a trailhead with no way to get to town, nowhere to stay, and occasionally no idea of which town I was even going to. I had gear break and weather change and injuries spring up. But it always worked out fine, even if it wasn’t how I originally pictured it. And thus, the mantra became, ‘This will pass, and it will work out’.
These learnings are extremely relevant to any career. When you get through any hard thing, you always carry with you the knowledge that you got through it. That can propel you to do other hard (and potentially work-related) things. In my case, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is, ‘I’ve gotten through a blizzard, I can run a goddamn workshop’.
I’ve brought that mantra and confidence back with me back to my professional life. During hard projects, with difficult clients, or in times of transition, the deep belief that ‘This will pass, and it will work out’ will always be there.
Many of the skills I gained are transferable.
No doubt, I gained many skills that are absolutely useless in the workplace. I can now tell the difference between about five types of snow just at a glance. I can plan my rock-hopping strategy across a stream without slowing my stride. I can assess the likelihood of a tree falling on me in the night, if winds get high enough.
Yet, many skills I gained are transferable to the workplace. Here are a few examples:
- Making decisions under pressure: what you decide to do when caught in a snow blizzard at 13,000 feet is kind of consequential.
- Resilience: when you fall over 23 times in a day, you can choose to either laugh or cry about it (or both).
- Organisation: planning out every single thing you're going to eat for five weeks requires attention to detail.
- Building new connections: when you rely heavily on the generosity of strangers to give you hitches or let you sleep on their lawn, you get pretty good at networking.
- Attention to detail: 20-feet of snow will, surprisingly, cover up the trail you once followed. Instead, you learn that certain colours and patterns in the snow indicate footprints. (You also become very good at being lost.)
- Remaining calm in high-stress situations: as you watch your backpack (containing everything you own) plummet 200 metres down a steep, snowy mountainside, you need to remain calm and figure out how on earth you're going to find / retrieve it.
- Persistence: you learn that you can always dig a little deeper, including when you've been walking for 15 hours in 40-degree heat through intense wildfire smoke and on 4 hours of sleep.
I built up these skills in situations that are more high-stakes, more intense, and more painful than any I would experience in my work life. As a result, I honestly think that the capabilities and beliefs I developed on trail would have taken years to learn in the workplace (if at all). And recall again, that what I was doing was not career focused.
My examples are pretty extreme, but I’d guess that many non career-related breaks require as much or more dedication, persistence, organisation, and resilience than a typical job.
I had space for reflection.
When a typical day involves 12 hours of walking, you have a bit of time on your hands. Admittedly, most of this time is taken up with thinking about what you’re going to eat when you get to town, worrying about some new injury that’s popped up, or dreaming about the shower you’ll have next (sadly, in five days’ time).
Yet, there is some fraction, however small, of ‘productive’ thought. I reflected on how I dislike the norm of working five days a week. That work-life balance is extremely important to me. That, somewhat strangely, having to dress up in corporate attire for work is a red flag for me. And that I’ve worked hard and am good at (at least some of) the things I do, and that deserves some respect (at the very least, from myself).
I wasn’t trying to think about these things, but I ended up thinking about them occasionally. And when I did, the reflections felt deep, and they felt important. Taking off the pressure to progress, and think about, my career, counterintuitively opened up space for me to do just that.
And I’m preventing regret.
My life philosophy centres around wanting to prevent regret. I base many decisions, including how I spend my time, how I treat people, and what work I accept, on whether I think I’ll regret it in five, twenty, or fifty years’ time.
When deciding whether to do the trail, I considered what I’d be more likely to regret. Surprise surprise, I thought it was more likely that I’d regret not doing it. Post trail, I still agree with that assessment.
How is this relevant to my career? Well, I doubt my career is going to be super impactful in twenty years’ time if I’m plagued by regrets and the ‘could have been’s. For me, preventing regret is integral to my life satisfaction. And, I don’t think I would be truly satisfied with my career, if I’m not satisfied with my life more broadly. Again, this is a career-related benefit that I think can only be achieved through non career-related activities.
Are you considering a break?
There you have it folks - I took six months off my career, and it was a great move - even for my career. It reiterated to me that doing things that aren’t explicitly related to your career, can still be really great for it. In some situations, not focusing on your career can bring more benefits than focusing on it. I don’t think the current messaging about career growth acknowledges this. Not only can that dissuade people from taking (unintentionally) productive breaks, it can also cause a lot of anxiety and guilt about doing anything that’s not career focused.
To be very honest, there may be future employers who see taking six months off to go for a walk (or have some other non career-related break) as a strike on the resume. But, I know that it was time well spent and I predict that my career will be more impactful as a result. If they aren’t open to hearing me explain why, I’m not sure I want to work with those people.
Obviously, what you do on a non career-related break can vary wildly. I’d hazard a guess that the impact of a month-long silent meditation retreat will be different from a drunk, hostel-hopping trip across Europe. And that’s not even to say the latter won’t be valuable – it depends on what you value, what you want out of it (and your career), and how you want to grow.
Regardless of what you do, I want to reiterate that non career-related breaks can be justified, and they can be productive (even if you’re not intentionally trying to be productive).
And if you’re just looking for someone to convince you to walk across a country, hit me up.
Thank you to Alexander Saeri for your valuable feedback on this post.
Don’t get me wrong – I understand the rhetoric, and I do agree with it to some extent. Gaining experience, building your skill set, and trying new things are fantastic ways to progress your career. It’s just not the only way.