It was 3:30 a.m. when I got the call.
“This is Seamless. Did you order Szechuan Gourmet?”
Finally, I thought, my lunch is here.
I had been working at a major news network in New York City for almost 3 years, and I had just landed a coveted role—or so I thought—as a Broadcast Associate for the morning show. The catch? I was assigned a position on the graveyard shift, an unglamorous yet necessary rung on the News Business Career Ladder. I reported in for work around 5 p.m., chased breaking news (when available) until dawn, and crawled into bed around the time most people hit the snooze button before their traditional nine-to-five. My meals consisted of Chinese takeout and pizza, my laundry never got done, and frivolities like exercise or dating were simply out of the question. A lot of this had to do with my odd hours, but some of it was due to the fact that I was paid barely enough to cover NYC rent.
Six months, five pounds, and two under-eye concealer wands into my overnight shift, I decided to pick up the phone and dial my mentor to pick his brain. Taking his advice, I took a good, hard look at the lives of my superiors, the senior producers—particularly the women. Were these people I wanted to end up like someday? Let’s see…most of them were frustrated with a male-dominated system, generally unhappy, married to the news, and divorced from their husbands. At one point, one of the female senior producers actually sat a group of us Broadcast Associates down and told us if we ever wanted to be married or have some semblance of a life, we should seek out another career path ASAP. Enter my quarter-life crisis.
Back in my apartment, another call came in from an unknown number.
“Yes, sorry, I’ll be right outside to pick up the Chinese food.”
This time, the response was in jumbled Spanish that I couldn’t decode. Turns out it wasn’t the delivery guy, but someone with the wrong number.
As I pushed through the revolving doors to retrieve my General Tso chicken, I wondered, Why couldn’t I understand what the Spanish caller was saying?I had been a Spanish major in college, hadn’t I? Granted, I missed out on the whole study abroad experience—but my mind began to race. What if…What if I took some time off to pursue a lifelong goal: achieving Spanish fluency? At 26, had I missed my “living abroad” window? What would the consequences be if I took a career gap-year? After 3 years of fetching coffee and answering phones, I was finally climbing the news biz ladder, finally producing mini-segments for air. The doubts set in. What if I took this career hiatus, came back, and had to start all over at the bottom of the ladder?
I addressed all of those important questions, and soon enough I took a long, hard look in the mirror (literally), attempted to straighten my wrinkled blouse, and marched into my boss’s office to break the news. To say that he was shocked would be an understatement. Here I was, his former assistant whom he had graciously offered a position on the broadcast team, and I wanted to move to Spain? What? He politely wished me well, encouraged me to keep in touch, and asked me to come see him when I returned. I was terrified. Had I made the right decision? The next thing I knew, I was living in a three-bedroom piso down the block from a parliament of peacocks living in Parque del Retiro, teaching 10-year-old Spanish students how to give directions to the bank in English. Again: what? In the blink of an eye, my whole life had changed. And here are the three main reasons why it all turned out OK:
1. You won’t fall behind.
There is a well-established, socially acceptable path from high school to college to climbing the corporate ladder, and most people stick to the norm. It’s a risk to stray from the path, sure, but in the end, you will be perceived as confident and fearless. You’ve identified what you care about, and you’ve taken the initiative to pursue your goals. You’re not afraid of a challenge, and you know that sometimes the biggest risks create the biggest rewards. Through teaching Spanish children ages 7 to 14 in Madrid, I developed skills and abilities that seamlessly transferred back to my chosen career path. Developing lesson plans, I fostered my creativity and improved my organizational skills. I took initiative on a daily basis, meeting native Spanish speakers for coffee during my breaks; and with perseverance, I eventually achieved Spanish fluency. I read the Spanish noticias daily, increasing my understanding of global, economic, and political matters. I navigated and adapted to a new environment, and I learned an entirely new culture with its own distinct customs. (If I only had a Euro for every time I tried to run errands during siesta, when everything in the city shuts down for a few hours!) All of these attributes only served to increase my marketability in the end. Why hire the cookie cutter corporate suit who hasn’t left her desk in years, when you could hire someone with the confidence to temporarily step away from the grind to acquire invaluable skills and life experiences that she will use to enhance her position on the job?
2. You will gain perspective.
Whether you’re teaching at a bilingual primary school in Madrid or working behind the desk at LA Fitness, time away from your day-to-day routine will allow you to look at things differently. The first time I arrived at a restaurant for tapas in Madrid, I approached the table of 15 Spaniards and immediately sat down in my seat. The dinner went well—or so I thought. To my surprise, my Spanish friend Lucía pulled me aside after the dinner and asked me why I had been so rude to her friends. Horrified, I assured her that I meant no offense, and I asked her where I had gone wrong. It seems I had committed a serious cultural faux pas; it is customary in Spain to say hello and dar besos to every single person at the table before taking your seat. What’s more, texting on your cell phone at mealtime—a behavior that was nearly second nature to me, unfortunately—was a big no-no. This experience really opened my eyes to the social norms and etiquette of the Spanish culture. Living and witnessing things outside your usual norm will bring you a fresh outlook on people, situations, experiences, and…well, pretty much everything.
3. You’ll do a double take.
Not only will living outside your comfort zone bring you a fresh perspective on life in general, it will also give you the opportunity to reflect upon your chosen career path and reevaluate whether you are on the right track. For me, I returned to New York City and decided that the thrill of breaking news was not worth spending a few years on the overnight shift and eventually becoming a senior producer. My time away helped me realize that I hadn’t been feeling as fulfilled as I had originally hoped. However, you may return from your work sabbatical feeling totally refreshed and ready to take on your job with a new set of skills and a fresh new perspective! Either way, it’s healthy to take a step back and go over what brought you to this path in the first place.
The number one response I get from telling people I took a break from my career path? “I wish I could do that.” Well the truth is, you can.
Photo: Tom Merton / Getty Images