A Case For The Mid-20s Career Break

Photo: Stefi Primawati/EyeEm.
I was 24 when I decided to quit my job as a journalist and boarded a one-way flight to Australia. It was slap-bang in the middle of the global financial crisis and, naturally, I didn’t have another position lined up for when I got there. But what sounds like the precursor to a story about That Time I Screwed Up My Life, taking the elusive first step on the career ladder only to hop straight back off was the best decision I have ever made – only I didn’t know that at the time.
While outwardly I shrugged off the weight of my decision (aren’t I hilarious! Aren’t I just so fucking reckless!), I was in secret, incomparable turmoil. Quitting my job was flying in the face of everything I had worked towards throughout my entire adult life; my A-levels, my degree, the countless hours of unpaid work I’d cheerfully carried out in order to land my first paid position. While my peers were being made redundant or still fruitlessly searching for something within their chosen sector, I was opting out of a good-on-paper job, with zero other prospects on the horizon.
The job hadn’t exactly landed in my lap, either. I only got an interview through the recommendation of a mutual friend, I got offered the position after a gruelling week-long trial shift, and made it through the three-month probationary period by the skin of my gritted teeth. There were scores of other talented writers lining up to replace me, something I was reminded of daily. But while I knew I was lucky to have it, my job didn’t make me happy. In fact, it made me utterly miserable. And so, after weeks of wrestling with the decision, I handed in my notice.
While most people I told of my half-baked plan egged me on in a way that indicated they were mildly intrigued by how it would pan out but weren’t particularly invested either way ("Amazing! Let me know how it all goes!"), a couple of friends took me to one side to warn me that I was committing career suicide. In fact, they said it so much that I began to believe them, which prompted me to actually beg my boss for my old job back before I boarded my flight (she said no, so I thought I might as well go anyway).
But if I was waiting for the feeling of remorse to catch up with me on Sydney’s golden beaches, it never did. Whereas in the UK I had checked both of my phones on constant rotation, with the kind of nervy anticipation of someone who’s scared to look yet scared not to, it was weeks before I bought myself the most basic, pre-paid mobile I could find. Without the barrage of passive-aggressive voicemails and 24/7 access to emails and social media, I felt myself begin to relax for the first time since I had started my job two years previously.
Which is probably why, despite Sydney being almost comparable to London for opportunities in the media sector, the idea of exploring them never even occurred to me. Instead, I picked up full-time work at a local surf store, where the definitive start and finish time was like a tonic for my frazzled soul. Leaving work for the day meant exactly that – no more thinking about work and certainly no late-night phone calls from my boss wondering whether I had remembered to do X, Y or Z. While I occasionally wondered whether I would ever again have another job opportunity like the one I had passed up, working on a shop floor made me happy. Selling bikinis made me happy. Taking my (obligatory) lunch break on the beach made me happy. I came to the realisation that it didn’t really matter what I did for a living, as long as I was able to squeeze enjoyment out of every day.
It wasn’t until about six months later that I felt ready to dip my toe back into journalism, and was lucky enough to pick up a bit of freelancing. To my great surprise I realised that I had been disenchanted with my old job, not the entire industry. After scoring a great job on a magazine, I never looked back – I poured everything I had into the role. I loved writing, I loved working as part of a team and I loved that I was able to finally do the job I had always dreamed of.
Had I listened to my head and not my heart and attempted to stick it out in my old job, I suspect that I would have ultimately changed careers entirely, and would have missed out on the amazing opportunities that have since come my way. Although it felt more like a quarter-life crisis at the time, I came to realise that my mid-career break was the making of me – both personally and professionally. It allowed me the headspace to realise exactly what I wanted, and gave me the energy to go for it.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series