5 unexpected lessons from taking a career break at 40


Last year, this Type A perpetual workaholic made the unexpected and uncharacteristically bold decision to step away from my nearly two-decade professional career with one company. After years of feeling burnt out from juggling a stressful job while raising a young family, I decided that I was done attempting to outmaneuver this nagging feeling of unfulfillment and overwhelm. 

I tried plenty of other options before taking this huge leap: looking for a new role internally, going to another company, and numerous long weekends and vacations in search of some much-needed rest. Unfortunately, none of these “fixes” provided what I truly needed — the time and space to tackle the hard work of self-reflection. The only way I felt I could feasibly process what I was looking for in my career and my personal life was to start with a (relatively) blank slate — by walking away and taking a career break at 40.

Lessons Career Break 1 | Woman writing notes on a couch

Now, please don’t misinterpret this decision as your permission to bail on your own career (even if you hate it) and spend six months watching soap operas on the couch. Even after careful planning and with the support of my family and friends, this past year has been one of the most trying periods of my life. (And this is coming from someone who’s had their fair share of personal obstacles over the past decade.)

Instead, my dear friend and reader, please heed these breakthroughs for the profound lessons they provide. No matter what struggles you are facing in your own career and life at this moment, I hope you can learn from these hard-won realizations.

Interested in how this journey started? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Lessons Career Break 2 | Desktop calendar and planner

1. There will never be enough time

The first big lesson that I quickly realized when taking a career break at 40 was this: no matter your employment status, family situation, and personal commitments —  there will never be enough time.

When I decided to leave my corporate job, I fantasized about all the abundant spare time I was about to gain. I could pick up my kids every day after school and help them with homework. I’d have more time to go on lunch dates with my husband or visit my parents on a random Tuesday. I could spend an hour or two a day at the gym or taking a long walk. I’d be able to read so many more books, start writing again, do home renovation projects, and cook dinner every night.

I am sorry to say that while my sabbatical did provide more time to do many of these activities, I had nowhere near enough time to do everything I wanted to do. That’s the tricky thing about time — it always boils down to choosing how you want to spend it.

If I spent more time with my favorite people, then it meant less “me time” for things like reading or exercising. The more time I used to learn new things and work on my passion projects (like this blog and starting my consulting business), the less time I could dedicate to projects around the house. With every fun new thing I wanted to try during this “free time,” the less time I actually found myself having.

To have to prioritize your time is a blessing

The truth is you will always have to prioritize your time, and it will still feel like you never have enough minutes in the day. And as frustrating as this is, you must also acknowledge what a wonderful blessing this is. It is an extraordinary privilege to live a life you love so much that you have to be selective of what and whom you spend your time with.

2. Things change (but so do you)

When I began taking a career break at 40, I left my former career feeling betrayed and disappointed in the company and leadership in so many ways. Sure, the company, the culture, and my job expectations have changed over the years. Change is inevitable. But it was only after leaving that I realized how much I had changed, too.

The fact is, I had outgrown my former self. I was no longer a 24-year-old, unmarried and kid-free, ambitious woman looking to make a professional mark on the world. My work doesn’t trump my personal life anymore (and thank goodness!). Now, I crave purpose and inspiration as my professional legacy, which no amount of money or artificial recognition can provide. 

As much as I wanted to blame the company for changing in ways I wasn’t aligned with, I have to admit that I had also grown to be a different person who was no longer aligned with that world. And it was 100% time for both of us to move on.

Lessons Career Break 3 | Woman laying her head on her desk

3. Productivity requires taking a break sometimes

Rest as a form of productivity seems backward, right? Until I reached that extreme level of mental and emotional exhaustion, I was 100% in the “rest isn’t productive” camp. (Which, let’s be honest, is exactly how I achieved that state of toxic burnout.)

Your mind and body need rest in order to function at its best. Yes, sleep is a necessary form of rest, but we’re specifically talking about active rest. Time spent practicing self-care — relaxing, reflecting, and just enjoying and experiencing the world around you. Periods of active rest will result in better creativity and increase productivity.

This past year, since taking a career break at 40, it has become abundantly clear how crucial it is to choose rest over work when things get overwhelming. If you choose to push through your frustration and hunker down to get things done, you are definitely not happy about it and, therefore, not performing your best. But after taking a 15-minute walk or getting a good night’s sleep, you’ll always be more effective in tackling that next challenge.

So the next time you feel like you’re drowning in work or your kids and/or your spouse is really getting on your last nerve — take a break. You don’t have to take a career gap year in order to reap the benefits of rest. By practicing self-care daily (even if just for 20 minutes!) to mentally and physically reset, you’ll be more productive and feel better overall.

Laptop, mouse & glass of water

4. It’s never too late to try something new

We’ve all heard you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I am going to have to wholeheartedly disagree with this philosophy. In many ways, I actually think midlife is the BEST time for anyone (woman, man, or dog) to learn and try new things.

Yes, it will be difficult for a mid-lifer who has spent 15 to 20 years building a life to give it all up to try their hand at a new profession or hobby. Why? Because you have to go outside your comfort zone and be willing to fail in order to succeed at something new. (And nobody likes to fail.)

Despite the wrinkles and joints that just don’t work the same anymore, growing older equips you with the wisdom and resilience that can only be found through years of experience. And it is these earned qualities that allow us to more easily adapt and learn new skills — especially when you are passionate about the work you are doing.

Case in point? Twelve months ago, I knew nothing about content marketing, search engine optimization, or website design; now, I use these new skills in my business on a daily basis. Do I consider myself an expert after a year? Of course not. But do I believe I’ve cultivated a significant amount of new skills a whole heck of a lot faster than I would have in my twenties? Abso-frickin-lutely. Combining the passion for what I’m doing and the 40 years of life experience makes it a lot easier for this old dog (ahem, middle-aged young lady) to learn things quickly.

Consider this your encouragement (and permission) to try something new. Just follow your heart and give that scary new thing a shot — you might amaze yourself with all the incredible new tricks you can do.

5. Leaving doesn’t fix everything; you still have work to do

I wish I could tell you that leaving a bad situation in your rearview mirror will instantly alleviate all the challenges you associate with it — but it won’t. While you know that moving on is the best decision given the circumstances, it will not smear a magic eraser across all the wounds and bad habits you’ve accumulated over time.

A few months into my post-corporate-breakup healing, it became painstakingly clear that so many of the bad habits I had been blaming on my former job were actually caused by my emotional baggage. And, unfortunately, that trunk full of emotional junk was a lot harder to unpack than I had anticipated.

My urge to help everyone until I take on too much and feel overwhelmed? Yep, I still have a tendency to do that. My tendency to work (or think about work) around the clock? Something I continue to focus on as I set more boundaries for myself. Pretty much everything I resented having to do in the name of my former job were things I tend to do regardless. *Facepalm* And so the self-reflection and personal development continues.

Making a drastic life change will never be the one-stop solution to setting your life on the right track. Sure, it’s a start … but the real change lies within you. 

If you desire something better for yourself, you have to be willing to put in the work on yourself. You will need time to heal, reflect, and grow before you are fully able to move on and find what you’re looking for.

Lessons Career Break 5 | Woman writing notes on a couch

Making the best of it

I won’t sugarcoat it — this past year since taking a career break at 40 has been one of the most difficult periods of my life. The lessons I’ve uncovered have been the most enlightening, excruciating, and often surprising realizations that I wasn’t expecting. But after a solid year of grieving, healing, and unanticipated breakthroughs, I now feel ready for this new path I’ve mapped out.

To conclude this personal reflection, I want to share a quote from my very first post, which was written just a few short days into my career break. Even now, after all that has happened in this past year, this sentiment resonates just as true in my soul and inspires me to keep going. 

I hope these words serve as a friendly reminder to you to make the best of this one precious life.

Life is short.  We only get one chance.  Let’s challenge the status quo and make it count.

Have you ever made a drastic life change, such as a career break? What surprising lessons did you uncover during your healing period? We’d love to hear about your experience and advice in the comments below.

Lessons Career Break Pin 2

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  1. Thank you for this Tara! This is great information for me and I am not that far behind you in a similar situation. I think #5 is what resonates the most with me and realizing I need to not take the bad habits with me on my new journey. I am constantly working to better myself and learn from previous ‘me’ and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. This helps me be more authentic to who I am and what my ultimate goals are. Thank you for your authenticity and openness with your story!

    1. I agree that #5 is definitely the hardest lesson to come to terms with. I still struggle every day to leave behind these old bad habits. The fact that you recognize this tendency in yourself and want to do better is the biggest step to progress.

      Wishing you all the best in your new chapter, Anne!

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