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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[1]. 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.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Alexander Saeri for your valuable feedback on this post.

  1. ^

    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.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:11 AM

Thanks for writing this up, Emily. I think your decision to do this helped me feel more secure about taking a career break of my own - including some time set aside to do no work or career planning!

That makes me very happy to hear, Zan!

Thanks for writing these reflections down! I feel there's another unspoken career benefit here in that (I suspect) you'll probably stand out amongst other candidates when asked "What's a stressful situation you've faced?" or "What have you been doing for the last six months?"!

I agree Nathan, there's definitely a lot of content there for future interviews. I'm sure the interviewers will get tired of me saying, 'Well, when I hiked...'

Thanks for sharing about your experience.

I see 4 people said they agreed with the post and 3 disagreed, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on this. (I was the 5th person to give the post Agreement Karma, which I endorse with some nuance added below.)

I've considered going on a long hike before and like you I believed the main consideration against doing so was the opportunity cost for my career and pursuit of having an altruistic impact.

It seemed to me that clearly there was something else I could do that would be better for my career and altruistic impact that e.g. taking 6 months to go hike the Appalachian Trail so I dismissed considering the possibility more seriously, as tempting as it was. (Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods tempted me when I read it in 2012.)

I still think that most young people who actually do decide to go on such a long hike could have done something else that would have been better for their career and pursuit of the most good, and I think the same would have been true of my former self had I decided to actually spend 6 months going for such a long walk.

That said, what my life experience thus far (a very lackluster career) makes obvious to me now is that deciding against going for a 6-month hike on the basis that it was almost definitely subpotimal was a mistake. After all, almost every potential path is suboptimal, whether it's a 6-month hike, Job A, Job B, or almost every other concrete option.

A more reasonable way to think about the question is whether the long hike seems better or worse than the other options one is considering. And on that note I'd opine that there are many unideal jobs that one could work for 6 months that'd be worse than spending those 6 months on a long hike that one is really motivated to do.

And I don't just mean trash jobs one isn't considering. Rather, I think going on a 6-month hike can actually often be better than the job-path one would have taken otherwise.

Reflecting on my own past, it's not clear to me that had younger-me spent 6 months going for a long hike that that would have been worse than what I actually did. I've spent a lot of time in mediocre jobs and also a lot of time not working and yet not doing any intentional career-break project like a long hike. So I think going for a long hike would have been quite a reasonable decision had I chosen to do so. It very likely wouldn't have been optimal path, but it may well have been a good decision, better than the likely counterfactuals.

Thanks for sharing this! I really appreciated hearing your personal experience and perspective on this. 

I agree that it's important to consider the realistic counterfactual (maybe that term is already implying 'realistic', but just wanted to emphasise it). There's definitely a world in which I could have spent six months doing something that was even better for my career on the whole. But, whether I actually knew what that alternative was or would have actually done it is a different story.

Your message that almost everything is suboptimal is also really insightful. I agree, and think that trying to pursue the 'optimal' path can lead to some anxiety (e.g., "What if I'm not doing the best thing I could be doing?") and sometimes away from action (e.g., "I'm going to say no to this opportunity, because I can imagine something being better / more impactful"). I obviously still think it's worth considering impact and weighing different options against each other, but while always keeping in mind what's realistic (and that what you choose might not optimal in the ideal world).

Thanks again for the reflections, William.

This is a very interesting point of view.  I also noticed that there were some disagree-votes. There is so much context to these individual choices, and I would be interested in hearing which specific points people disagree with. 
 

Nice post!

I did really enjoy it, so I hope you’ll forgive me for making one small criticism: I think it’s a good standard of discourse not to refer to a view you’re arguing against as ‘rhetoric’ and ‘pervasive’ before arguing against it. That feels like it’s trying to get me to associate that position with malintent. Better to explain why you think it’s wrong or doesn’t fit your experience than to cast aspersions on the motives of the people who hold it.

As it happens, the two views “focusing on your career is best for your career” and “taking some time out is best for your career” both seem plausible and I think we can easily have a non-adversarial discussion about it.

Thanks again for the post!

Thanks so much for your comment. I hadn't thought about that perspective in the context of this post, and will spend some more time thinking on this. It definitely wasn't my intention to imply malintent - I actually think the opposite, that almost all this advice is provided with good, positive intentions. 

I appreciate the prompt to to reflect on this!