On Work and Taking Time Off

I recently added the following statement to the “Experience” section on my About Me page:

In 2006-7, I took seven months off and didn’t work. It’s the second best thing I ever did for myself.

And this to the “Work History” section on my Experience page, sandwiched between two other jobs:

I took time off from October 2006 through April 2007.

It might seem weird to brag about not working for seven months when talking about my work history and experience, but I put a great deal of thought and planning into it. It was very good for me personally and for my career. It’s an important part of my history.

I started working in professional theater while I was still in college. I worked—gig to gig, paycheck to paycheck—for over a decade. When I stopped doing theater, I had no idea what else I might want to do. I started temping, fell into a career working in health-related nonprofit organizations. It was comfortable, paid the bills, but really I was just drifting.

I looked back and realized I had never given myself any real time off. There had been times I was unemployed, which is stressful and not at all relaxing, but I hadn’t taken any kind of intentional vacation in over a decade. Nothing more than a rare long weekend.

I looked at my savings and expenses and calculated I could take six months and not work.

That’s exactly what I did. I told everyone I was going to take a “sabbatical”. I didn’t work, at all, for seven full months. (I stretched my budget a bit more than my original calculations.)

I spent the time exploring different ideas and options for what to do with my life. I’d done what I set out to do at the age of 18: I made a living doing professional theater. But I didn’t want to do that anymore and I was tired of working random temp jobs to pay the bills. I needed time and space to figure out a new purpose. To find what drives me.

I’d suffered significant clinical depression in college and it lingered through my 20s. I never did much to treat it. I never did much to deal with the effects of it. During my seven months, I finally did the work to get my head in a healthier place. If I hadn’t taken this time, I wouldn’t have been healthy enough to handle a serious relationship when I met my wife shortly after my sabbatical.

By the end of those seven months, I’d figured out I wanted to be librarian and I enrolled in grad school. Shortly after that, I met and started dating my wife. Now I have a wonderful marriage, a successful career, and financial security. We own a home and have the sweetest dog. The life I have now wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken those seven months to rest, to reevaluate, to get to know myself all over again. To stop drifting. To find a new path with intent.

That time made me healthier, stronger. It was time I desperately needed.

My wife is doing something similar now. She left her theater career, tried her hand at banking for a few years, and now she needs time to figure things out. To discover who she is now that she’s not someone who does theater. To decide where she wants to go.

She’s intentionally not working to give herself time and space to undertake the mental, emotional, and psychological tasks it requires. She also needs time to recuperate after a series of difficult and trying years.

The thing is: It’s really hard to not work in our society. Our culture doesn’t want to allow it. We’ve made a cult of work, an obsession out of productivity. So much in our world judges us for choosing not to work, makes us feel guilty for taking time, makes us feel like taking intentional time for ourselves is somehow shirking our responsibilities.

And that’s sad. Because sometimes taking time off—not just a week’s vacation or a long weekend, but months, something more like a sabbatical—is the best thing we can do for our health and well-being.

This is more than just an opportunity to figure out a new career path. It’s good for the soul. Good for the mind. It’s time to heal, to center yourself, or push yourself out of a rut. Time to get caught up on all the things life throws at you.

When I tell people about the time I took, most say it sounds like a great idea. Most people are supportive of my wife when she tells them about her plan to take time off. It’s not individual people who make us feel guilty for not working: it’s our culture of work.

I added the statement to my “About Me” page and to my “Work History” because I want to normalize the idea of doing this. I think we’d all be healthier if our society embraced the idea of letting people take substantial time off sometimes.

I recognize there’s a lot of privilege in choosing not to work for several months. Many, many people will never be able to afford that option. Which is more reason why I wish our culture would change its attitude toward work. If we embraced the idea of letting people take more time off, maybe we’d start to find ways to offer the option to more people at all income levels. Maybe we’d build a system that doesn’t require folk to work so hard just to get by. One that doesn’t expect us to sacrifice our health and well-being for the sake of a job.

I wish everybody could afford to take several months off every 5-10 years. I think we’d all be healthier and happier. Sometimes we need time. For professional and career health, for personal and mental health. Sometimes we need more time than just a vacation to deal with life.

Take time if you need it, if you can afford it, and don’t let anyone shame you for that. It’ll be good for you.

 

* The best thing I ever did was ask my wife to marry me.

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