Why I Took A Professional Sabbatical

I was embarrassed to tell my parents that I was moving on after five years of working for one company. Both my parents spent decades in the same roles and would never dream of switching for fear of struggling to find a new job in a poor economy. Job security was everything.

Careers are different now. People change jobs every three to five years for a multitude of reasons including more job satisfaction, a higher salary, better growth potential, to build their reputation, or better understand an industry.

For me, it was because my learning had stalled. After five years at a software startup where I progressed as high up the ladder as I could possibly go, I no longer felt challenged or that I was developing new skills. I had become too used to the daily grind, and was not as engaged as I once was.

I got to know the job so well that a part of my brain went to sleep — the part of my brain that handles curiosity and learning.

In this post, I’ll share my experience of taking a radical leap forward in my career and give my advice to anyone who is starting to feel like their professional development has slowed down.

Craving More

I realized I was too deep inside my comfort zone. Every problem that came around was a problem I had seen before, and I went through the motions to solve it. I wanted a new environment where I could use my skills to build and support something different — something foreign to me.

I want to join a company with a high learning curve and bust my ass to rise to the top of that curve. That’s the feeling I had for the first four and a half years of my job, but lost towards the end. And I miss that feeling.

In response to my stagnation, I threw myself completely out of my comfort zone and committed to an extended trip around Latin America, spending eight months visiting 14 countries. Taking this break from professional life was the best thing for me, because I developed new skills and returned to normal life feeling renewed and ready to work.

Whatever a career break looks like to you (world travel, a staycation, going back to school, volunteering, freelancing ), taking that time to work on your personal development will invariably help further your professional development too.

Appreciating The Journey So Far

I’m grateful for my five-year tenure because it’s where I learned everything I know about building communities online. Not only did I manage every method a company adopts to interact with its users (social media, customer support, content, email marketing, live events, moderation…), I also worked heavily on strategy to engage, retain, and grow an audience.

I know I was hugely valuable to the company’s success, and I wrestled with the decision to leave. In the end, it was easy handing over my job because I had taken the department to the point of running like a well-oiled machine. In some ways I think that’s the sign of a good community manager — if you can build up a community in such a way that it can survive and thrive without you.

This applies to all industries. As you start out in a new job, your pace of learning is put into overdrive as you strive to make a great first impression. You prove your value, learn a lot and then move on to your next role and do the same thing. It takes courage to move on (regardless of whether you’re moving internally or to another company), but hopefully you’re leaving things better than they were when you arrived.

Taking Control Of Your Career

Does this mean five years is the maximum amount of time you should spend at a company? Definitely not. It could be five years. It could be one year. It could be twenty. It doesn’t matter how long you stay at a company, it’s about the impact you make while you’re there.

If you can relate to the situation I was in, talk to your manager about where you’re at and what you want to achieve in your career. The results of that conversation could reignite the fire under you to advance in your role at the company. Or you could decide the best thing for you to do is to move elsewhere. Whatever the outcome, the most important thing is that you never stop learning new skills, developing relationships, and rising to challenges along the way.

Every Day I’m Hustlin’

After being in charge of hiring for several years, it’s strange being on the other side of the interview table. My interviewing muscles are weak: I’ve been doing my job for so long that I’ve forgotten how to talk about how I do my job. I don’t recommend that anyone goes five years without doing some kind of interview. Take one up every now and again — if only for the practice.

I want to prove myself again at another company. I want to use my skills to support a mission I care about. I want to connect with new people and work with different teams and personalities. I’m searching for community-focused roles and freelancing until I find the right fit. I’m enjoying the process, strengthening those muscles and better appreciating the value of my skills.

I’m so glad I took this career break. I’m back and more motivated than ever.

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