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The Secret to Choosing a Sabbatical for Successful Career Transition

The Sacred Valley of the Incas near Cusco, Peru.

There are two socially acceptable paths to taking time out for career exploration. One is to go back to school; the other to go on a sabbatical.

Both may be good choices, but you’d be surprised how often “going back to school” falls quickly out of a very smart person’s mouth  followed by with a tilted head nod that seems to say, “School – good; sabbatical – hippie, dippie.”

After three career coaching sessions plus considerable in-depth work on “re-imaging my future,” Laura (not her real name) had identified her formidable skills and talents, and peeked into exciting possibilities to explore both within and outside of her current profession.

Out of the blue, she pipes up toward the end of our last meeting to say:

“I think I’m just going to quit my job and go back to school.”


“For a Master’s. In design, maybe.”

“But do you need or want a Master’s Degree, Laura?”

No she didn’t and she said so.

Then she said, “But, how could it hurt?”

Changing careers means changing our lives. Rather than just swapping one identity for another, re-imagining is a transition process that requires time and energy to reconfigure a full set of possibilities and investigate them. Caught in high-pressure careers it’s often hard to find the time necessary to do this. Why is it that the template for time out seems more legitimate by going back to school?

It’s hard to argue that going back for a Master’s, an MBA or a particularly coveted credential in your field would hurt you or your career.

But it could be a waste of time and money. Most important, if you are reinventing your career it might premature and/or irrelevant. Given both those outcomes the bottom line is – it would be a stupid move.

Career transitions are crooked lines. This means a structural engineer for thirty years could end up being a happy and successful sheep farmer – living in Peru – for his next forty years, after several years making money selling iPad sleeves on Etsy.

Career transitions also need big spaces – a lot bigger than a university campus may be able to provide.

Midlife gap years are becoming popular for baby boomers according to a Wall Street Journal article, The Case for the Midlife ‘Gap’ Year, 12/08/14. The piece profiles successful career transitions using a career break – sometimes up to two years.

While some attend workshops to help them find a future, others join peer networks, volunteer or travel, others do nothing. But all say the time brings fresh perspective to self and the future sometimes taking on a different direction than they every imaging.

Maybe this signals a new legitimacy to taking time out of your career rather than scooting right back school.

One person’s comment on the Wall Street Journal article exposes a secret of why some choose school over sabbaticals: “Sabbaticals take more self-confidence than money.”

Taking a sabbatical is rarely easy and the first step – saying it out loud – could be the most difficult.

How much self-confidence might you need to give a tilt your head and state matter-of-factly, “No, I’ve decided not to go get my MBA. I’m going on a sabbatical.”

Hippie dippie do. (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist this.)

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