Everyone has transitions in life, and current work and learning trends may now allow people to get the most out of new directions. But how do you make the most of a transition? If sixty years is the new normal span for a career, we’ll have more opportunity to experiment, make some mistakes and recover. In The 100-Year Life, professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott predict that our lives will see many breaks for reskilling, work-life balance, or just broadening our horizons. Work now goes from becoming a marathon to shorter sprints or tours of duty that aggregate to gain skills and make up your career narrative.
Transitions are the New Normal
People are increasingly taking sabbaticals between jobs—a standard in academia or journalism that’s now showing up in the corporate realm. There are also opportunities to do so while sticking in the same job. Companies such as Intel, Deloitte, and Bain & Company allow employees sabbaticals to work on passion projects or professional development. Today, some companies set aside time for people to do everything from working on interesting new projects to take unlimited vacation days, where employees can structure their time to have a month off in the middle of a work year. Workers can take time away to recharge, bounce back from burnout, or help juggle conflicting priorities. People take time off to help a loved one, volunteer in a local soup kitchen, bicycle around Europe, or work on their yoga training.
Maximizing Transitions as the New Career Super Power
Using transitions to enhance your resilience and agility and investing for the future can be a secret super power in mastering the modern economy.
In the future of work, great freedom comes with great responsibility.
Time off will be a growing part of a work life and it pays to invest in getting better at maximizing them to give you:
- Opportunity to be creative
- Space to try new skills and ideas
- A different perspective
- Time to reflect, recuperate and indulge
- Space to prioritize needs and goals
Part of this is taking advantage of this longer life to live a little but also investing to future-proof your skills and agility for a longer working life.
Time Off for Creativity
Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister’s approach to refresh and renew, as seen in his TED talk on The Power of Time Off, is to take five of the fifteen years at the end of his life he might otherwise have used for retirement and intersperse it throughout the usual span of a 40 year career. Like the proverbial “seven year itch” he takes a sabbatical after each seven years of work. As he puts it, “That’s clearly enjoyable for myself. But probably even more important is that the work that comes out of these years flows back into the company and into society at large, rather than just benefiting a grandchild or two.”
Building New Skills and Networks
Elaine Cheung’s first “reinvention sabbatical” came after a restructuring eliminated her job as CFO. She felt vulnerable but had enough time away to realize her skills could be applied more broadly, and then confidently moved into a completely new industry. The trouble was, she realized in retrospect, she hadn’t really maximized her time off for the next stage in her career.
Roughly a decade later, corporate restructuring triggered another sabbatical. Despite being the breadwinner with three children under three years of age, she decided to turn the situation into a positive experience. With a goal to explore whether she could combine meaningful purpose within work and career, she leveraged her experience and seniority to volunteer for an NGO that focused on women on boards. This was an opportunity for her to meet people in the community, broaden her network, and advocate for women in leadership. When she dug into her values and contributions beyond her job, she realized she be a role model and in a position to impact women coming up the pipeline. She could teach them about leadership and how to be a boss. She also got her next job through those contacts, as well as several board seats, including on the audit committee of United Nations’ World Food Program. She’s now a CFO for an aquaculture company, a spin off from the owners of her old company whose restructuring triggered her first ever sabbatical. She is currently investing in her public speaking skills to take her advocacy to the next level.
A Pause for Reflection
Ex-Googler Mohammed Sam Soushi, had always wanted to walk across the Camino de Santiago, but he was unsure how to ask for three weeks off at his new job at a coaching company, even though he was already a valued employee. He was surprised to find that his firm was happy to comply.
No one wants to work all their lives and then finally have time to walk for three weeks when they’re seventy-five. They want enriching experiences throughout their lives and taking time away from work to have them is increasingly considered something that adds to your work as opposed to detracting from it.
Tiernan Erickson, an analyst at the US census bureau, likewise decided that using his full allotment of holiday for longer trips would allow him to travel in a way he never thought would balance with work. Putting his house up for Airbnb rental during a big annual convention in his town allowed him to travel from the US to New Zealand and Thailand for long holidays that are basically break-even. He has figured out that these opportunities for time off allow him to do what he wants by thinking differently about time, money and leveraging assets creatively.
Gaining New Perspective
Years ago, faced with career burn-out, Todd Miller, a movie-studio executive, took a sabbatical to bicycle across the United States and figure out his focus. He saw that many of his friends hated their jobs but were just hanging on by a thread because they had set themselves up with an expensive lifestyle. This was his wake-up call to rethink his own next steps and reorient from planning for his next job to crafting the rest of his life. He realized that he did love his work and set about creating a plan to invest further in his career in a way that allowed him to do his work on his terms. He reviewed his costs and began to research investments that would allow him to be less reliant on just income, developed a retirement plan far in advance that included a great bungalow by the beach, and started developing the relationships and board seats that will ultimately provide interesting intellectual stimulation and ongoing work as he shifts into more of a portfolio career.
How Do You Make the Most from Your Transition?
Despite our professed love for flexibility, the anxiety of leaving a known routine means that we waste the opportunity transitions give us to explore other passions and interests, learn new skills and take time to be with our friends and family. As you consider how to approach a transition or prepare for one ahead, there are some helpful tips.
Make a sabbatical list
Have a list of all of the things you might like to accomplish with a few months off
Make a list of all the things you might like to do if you had three months, six months, or twelve months off. Get your diving certification, learn project management, hike Machu Picchu? This list can become a fantastic fallback and inspiration for you, and one that most people only make six months before retirement. It also takes the anxiety away of having dreams deferred, as David Allen of Getting Things Done noted when he introduced the idea of a “someday maybe list” to his famous productivity process. You know what these dreams are and you are ready to be opportunistic should the time arise.
Take it further. Consider making plans to take time off to pursue one of your sabbatical ideas. If you can’t afford an extended break, can any of your ideas be cut into smaller pieces and done over time—say, one week every quarter? Small, consistent efforts over time yield big results. Even nights and weekends alongside of work can be used to launch big dreams.
Focus on discrete accomplishment
Once you have your list, it is easier to figure out what might make your time off feel like it was worth the usual loss of routine, income, identify or safety that comes along with being off of work. Regardless of done on your terms or not, transitions are hard. Approaching them with a mindset that you can pursue a long-held dream will give you positive energy to make the most of your time rather. No matter how long you have, focus on accomplishing something discrete. It can boost your confidence in speaking to others, give you a focus and make the time count.
Projects might include progressing your learning. Take your passion for yoga and go get your first certification in teaching it. Start a big project – writing a book, getting back in shape, looking for a board seat – that you’ve thinking about now that you have enough time to really focus and invest. Take a manageable chunk and commit to getting it done in the time you have.
Take a big trip. I went to the Altai mountains in Mongolia during one of my sabbaticals and the change of perspective from busy, professional Hong Kong to staying with a nomadic tribe and racing across the plains on horseback reminded me that there was more to me than my ability to manage a P&L.
Start a volunteer job that puts you into a new network of people and keeps you engaged. Multiple people I have spoken to benefited either in finding new work or in discovering new interests via their work for an organization desperate for help.
Schedule in the important things first
It’s easy to fritter away your days during a transition waking up late, catching up on social media and having coffees. Give yourself some time to do that with no judgement but consider that this is an opportunity for you to be a bit more intentional with your one wild and precious life. Reflect on what time of day or activities make you the most creative, happy, productive, tired, distracted, focused or energized. A transition can be an opportunity to design your life and find a new groove.
How you spend your days is how you spend your life.
Does waking up to the sun and going for a walk in the morning mean it’s a good day no matter how hard the work? Having a routine is especially important if you aren’t required to go into an office.
The most useful piece of advice I received on my first sabbatical was to schedule all my most important work before noon to ensure it got done. For me that was exercise, writing and family time (breakfast and taking the kids to the bus stop). It seems pretty simple and I did it in fits and starts during work. The first three months of committing to that schedule every day gave me an anchor and a surprising amount of progress.
Experiment with what allows you to protect and create space for your priorities. Some people block out several hours a day for “maker time” or creative time to do deep work without interruption. Others have booking forms that block out time to chat and take away the time otherwise spent scheduling. Sometimes setting up regular meetings with an accountability partner can keep you on track. One important aspect is to keep in touch with the people who give you energy. Transitions can be a time of too much self obsession and it’s important to take some time to invest in your network of friends, peers and community.
Journal to track progress and keep your sanity
Transitions can be a time of growth and change if well maximized. Writing things down is a good way to clear the mental cobwebs in the morning and can be a good field guide for future transitions. Consider it research into what works for you and what doesn’t.
Keep a journal to get a better sense of changes and preferences. Use the time for reflection, to mark progress and keep your spirits up. A few ideas:
- Mark what makes you feel grateful and what you appreciate about yourself to keep you in a positive frame of mind.
- Reflect on what you accomplished each day, however small. This allows you to see progress over time and the inputs that make it happen.
- Ask, “Who am I? What do I want? What do I need to make this happen?”
Writing has always been a way to learn, mark the progress of time and ask ourselves Socratic questions to propel life forward.
Sabbaticals, transitions, extended leaves have all become a more prevalent prop in building a career in a 100-year life. They give us opportunity to pause and focus some energy in other important areas of our lives. Taking full advantage of the ebbs and flows of work can rejuvenate you and propel your career and life forward. Reflect on what makes you tick and use continue your practices when back at work or in crafting a portfolio life of multiple income streams and engagements.