Just like starting over…..

By Rohini Mohan

I recently saw an ad inviting people to be featured on a reality TV show called ‘Radical Sabbatical’.  Here’s how it reads: ‘Are you a successful realtor leaving your career in order to open a surf shop? Are you a lawyer leaving your practice to become a professional poker player? If so, we want to document your transition toward a life you are passionate about.’

It got me thinking. Research leads me to believe that ‘Radical Sabbaticals’ are not all that uncommon. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives realize that something essential was lost in the years of mind numbing routine. The rat race, the corporate ladder, running away from the stick, racing toward the carrot, whether you are a student or a full time parent or a professional, it can get daunting, frustrating and most of all boring. A certain complacency creeps into your life, you find yourself cutting corners, losing your edge, slowly burning out.

You want to come up for air and get a refresher – “re-evaluate your options” I am told is the comprehensive, official (euphemistic) term for it. Anything is appealing at this point, the only qualification being that it’s on a different track. A course in underwater basket weaving (!) 6 months as a chef on a cruise ship, a year on a kibbutz in Israel… ranging from the bizarre to the totally respectable, a million opportunities exist and a million people have taken advantage of those opportunities.

Ever since they could remember, Kavita and Nagesh Hatti wanted to take serious time off to travel to exotic places they had only read about.  This desire in fact was something they found in common and it brought them together as a couple. 2 to 3 week vacations were just not going to do it. Married in 2003, by 2005 they had decided that they were not going to wait for life to catch up. Both applied for 10 month sabbaticals. Kavita’s company refused and she quit. Nagesh's company obliged but the two would have done it even without. They had youth on their side and the conviction that getting another job was only a matter of time and patience. The fact that they had no mortgage to pay off or kids to worry about made the decision a little simpler.  Their families who never thought they would execute on what they thought was a whim, were incredibly supportive when the time came.

From Tiera Del Fuego to Angkor Wat, from Mongolia to Moscow, from a Nile Cruise to the Australian outback, they satisfied their voracious appetite for travel. And picked up where they left off when they came back to the Bay Area. Nagesh waltzed right back into his job. Kavita found another one in a couple of months; while prospective employers voiced some concerns about the break, by and large the “wow” factor dominated. The trip cost them about $70,000 plus the opportunity cost of their paychecks. They had dipped into their savings which was put aside for a home down payment, to make the trip but ended up buying a house the following year anyway. Not only do they have no regrets, they have a pact to do it again in ten years – even with kids!

I have always wondered whether we as Indians, who have been genetically coded to ‘focus’, ever consider chucking it all up? If I ever expressed a desire to follow my dream to be scuba diving instructor in the Cayman Islands, I can just imagine the horrified reactions of my family and my extended family, and friends and their friends. I would be deluged with suggestions of more palatable alternatives; for instance an MBA at Kellogg – so much more respectable. It comes, I think from a deep rooted fear of how I would be looked at in the job market in my second coming and how I would pay for my “indiscretion” (by dipping into my savings? the horror!). 

Kavita and Nagesh’s experience may have left them richer and wiser but taking a break may not be for everyone. In a workplace where the ‘mommy track’ often leads away from the main line, here is a counterpoint to the idea of taking a break.

Rekha Gopalakrishnan took a year off after high school – here’s her story.
Take a break and lose your groove!
Thinking of taking a break? Then think again. I am still recovering from the ones I took several years ago. I took my first deliberate break almost 20 years back. It was 1988. I was just 18 and not your average ‘born and bred in Madras’ type. Instead of cramming for my 12th standard boards, and working on college admissions like the rest of my peers, here I was, thinking of ingenious ways to take a year’s break from my education with my parents’ blessings. Good fortune came in the form a one year Rotary International Youth Exchange scholarship to the US. I found myself back in high school as a senior in a small hick town called Champion in the middle of the Midwest. I didn’t accomplish a whole lot from that experience other than develop a new found appreciation for curd rice and mango ooragai which I seldom got to eat during my year away. The details of that crazy year will be reserved for another article but please know that there were a zillion occasions when I kicked myself for not having taken the more conventional route. When I came back to Madras at the end of the year, my friends had already moved ahead of me in search of more competitive endeavors. I never really found my groove again. I went to a party college 50 km from home because it was the only one that would give me admission. I was penalized by the more reputable city colleges for being a non-serious student. A few years later, I repeated my folly when I decided to take a short break from work to stay at home and look after my new born son. This break was more devastating than my earlier one. When I decided to eventually get back to work three years later, every person, male and female, who interviewed me, dismissed me as being over the hill. I was only 30! Today, at 37, several new skill sets and a few college degrees later, the repercussion of my taking a break continue to haunt me. I am still trying to find my groove. 

Madhavi Cheruvu, an HR professional, offers some tips to make the transition between the break and the career smoother.  " What I would look for in a prospective employee," she explains, " is whether they have kept in touch with industry trends and developments while they were away." "While you are taking a break, keep your network alive," she advises. " Stay in touch with people in your field of interest. Attend the occasional networking event. Even while on break, continue to invest in your career. And be prepared to start at a lower level than your  peers. Give yourself a couple of years to catch up." 

The fact that there is a need for a break has been recognized. Some corporates build it into their benefits packages and throw in a sabbatical as a perk after so many years of service. A friend of ours, after working over 7 years at Intel took advantage of his sabbatical to take an extended road trip for 6 weeks. In the Western world, a large chunk of people pad up their life experiences with a year or two off. They can get this urge at any time – after high school or university, after several years of working, even when they are close
to retirement. “Seeing the world” is the most common pastime when they take a break.  A lifestyle change on a different career path follows as a close second.

In our new ‘flat’ world, with our flexi-schedules and remote offices, boundaries are melting, and attitudes are getting a make-over. It may only be a matter of time before the “gap” concept becomes a new trend, loses its taboos and is inserted into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs!    

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