The idea of stopping your career dead in its tracks after you’ve trained for years might be vaguely terrifying but for some people it’s the very thing that propels them towards their goal.
Karen Kwong gave up a long-standing senior role in the City, taking a break to focus on her mental wellbeing. She eventually founded coaching business RenOC. “There is a lot about trading that I still love, because I very much enjoyed the company and team,” says Kwong, “But I’m easily bored and, at the time, I was more than ready for a change. After a while I’d stopped learning and became increasingly aware of that fact. Things that never bothered me suddenly grated. For instance, I had little patience for bureaucracy and I grew very cynical about the business.”
Kwong considered a move within the company but her internal clients weren’t keen for her to shift into a different role and, she says, “besides, roles within the firm away from what I was doing just seemed so dull and, well, more bureaucratic.
“My job had become stagnant and I knew I had to leave to be able to breathe and to start thinking clearly about what I wanted next.”
Once she quit, Kwong decided to take a year off. “The plan was to learn to do new things, including having a lie-in (something I hadn’t done in years) and learning to relax.” But she had a constant voice in her head asking what next: “During my year off, I thought hard about what I liked about work, what I was curious about and what I was interested in learning more about.”
She started noticing that her friends, colleagues and acquaintances would complain a lot about work, “rarely about a situation or difficult circumstances, but almost always about a difficult person, horrid manager or toxic environment”. She adds, “There were clear communication issues, conflict and badly handled problems – all of which, in my mind, were down to people and a lack of leadership, people skills or self-awareness.” Since forming her own business Kwong has worked with clients of all sizes – from startups to FTSE100 companies.
Taking a break isn’t without its challenges. For a start it would be outside of most people’s financial remits. “Worrying about what my future had in store for me and whether I was going to run out of money was definitely a challenge,” says Kwong, “Luckily, I had enough set aside for the year off, but when I decided to start my own business – after another ‘year off’ doing my master’s degree – I suddenly realised I was stretching myself a bit thin. It worked out in the end but there were definitely a few tenterhook moments.”
And there can be detractors. Kwong says, “There was an inordinate amount of people who said I shouldn’t leave a well-paid job for an uncertain future, because it was a stupid move. For others, it was the change of career at my age – they saw it as career suicide. So many recruiters and businesses looked at my CV as if it was ridiculous that I’d want a change and that I had no future with the decisions I was making. In fact, some of them still do.” But she’s never looked back. “One of the best things about my career change is that I have learned that I can do whatever I set my mind to,” she says, “I like that I am learning every day – whether this is as a business owner or when I am with a client and helping them navigate through their role, career, challenges and successes.”
Tor Carver is co-founder of William's Den, a family-friendly indoor-outdoor adventure centre in Yorkshire with 2.5 acres of outdoor space, mud kitchens and zip lines. But Carver’s previous job couldn’t have been further from the bucolic life she now leads.
As TV producer/director at Reuters her job took her all over the world to film festivals and theatre and film premieres interviewing some of the world’s most successful names. But by 2003 she’d fallen out of love with the industry. “It was the rise of digital, and like a lot of industries, brought with it massive cuts,” she says, “For me, a reduction of people led to a reduction in quality and I fell out of love with it as I’d loved working with a team.” She took a year out, ostensibly to do a film-making course at the New York Film Academy but instead she spent six months renovating her London flat and went to a summer school in Florence. Shortly after she returned she fell in love, got married and got pregnant. “For once I put my personal life first.”
William’s Den (named after their son) went from a scribble on a piece of old wallpaper to a thriving business. “Having a career break can lead to a dip in confidence or self doubt,” says Carver, “Starting from scratch – especially in a new industry with no existing contacts – is a real challenge. But I can’t believe how William’s Den has developed. I have no regrets in taking a break and reassessing my career,” says Carver, “having that time out to explore new ideas was the inspiration into an exciting new business.
“It sounds cliché, but I really did go travelling and find my passion,” laughs executive coach Richard Harris, “Taking a career break was one of the most productive things I ever did in my working life.” Harris took four months off to travel across South America after running successful tutor businesses. “During that time I got my head straight and realised that I would be most happy working as a life coach.”
He’d been, he says, “running around trying to start companies and be successful but I was always sneaking away and reading philosophy or psychology or spirituality. Even though it was fashionable to talk about sport or business, I was most alive when I could pin someone down to a geeky conversation on how consciousness worked and how to use it more effectively. The evidence was actually right in front of me.” It’s not easy to do but, says Harris, “The destruction the travel caused to my old life was probably part of the process.”
If you’re going to take a career break, says Harris, “plan one with lots of time and no pressure whatsoever. Backpacking probably works best. Grappling with these big life questions reminds me of a Zen koan – the harder you try to work it out, the further away you get.”