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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How Taking a Step Back in My Career Helped Propel it Forward

Jaclyn Westlake

I’d spent most of my career working toward becoming an HR Director, and I was well on my way to achieving that goal. But, man, was I unhappy.

And I know—we’ve all found ourselves in jobs that aren’t very fulfilling, but this was something more. I was downright miserable. I struggled to get out of bed, I was grumpy all the time, and it took every ounce of energy I had to get through a day at the office. After months of muddling through, I had to face up to a radical idea: Maybe this wasn’t the right path for me.

But how would I figure out what was without quitting my job and having space to think?

Along those same lines, how could I quit my job when I had bills to pay, a dog to feed, and a husband who was supportive of my decision to explore a new career path, but rightfully concerned about how we’d manage financially.

Knowing that I couldn’t last in my role much longer, we sat down and took a hard look at our budget and our savings. What could we do without? How much of our modest savings could we use to supplement my unemployment? We decided that we had enough saved up to cover about three months of time off. And, just to be safe, I lined up a part-time remote role that would supplement my income while allowing space for me to job search. I also made a timeline for myself. If I hadn’t figured things out within three months, I would go back to human resources.

I don’t want to downplay how scary or financially risky this choice was. I gave it a lot of thought, and it took some serious planning. It’s not something that everyone can do. I know that I was lucky to be in the situation I was in. And there’s no way I could’ve done it without a supportive partner (and I do mean that both emotionally and financially), as well as a savings account.

Not to mention, quitting my job and essentially walking away from the career I’d spent a decade building was really disorienting. How could I now not want something I’d spent so long working toward?

Even harder than wrapping my head around that was explaining this choice to my friends and family. Some of the people I was closest to just didn’t understand, and I struggled with feeling like I’d made a huge mistake. I kept wondering, was I crazy to do this?

This is all to say that leaning into my career pause took a little time—both to explain to others, but also to justify to myself. But eventually, I started pushing myself to try new things and make the most of my time off. I started practicing yoga. I took up bike riding. I read inspiring books about people pursuing their passions.

But I didn’t stop there. I made a list of the things I loved to do and thought a lot about how I could use my existing skills in new ways.

I put myself out there, offering resume writing and career consulting services to my network and seeking out contract recruiting gigs. Before I knew it, I was a freelance recruiter and had started a small resume writing business. My side hustles were doing well enough that three months away from the HR world turned into a year. I began to wonder what else I could do.

With each new experience, I became braver. I found myself saying yes to crazy things that I would never have done before. Like skydiving, a 40-mile charity bike ride, trekking through Patagonia, and selling almost all my worldly belongings to move onto a boat

I can’t stress enough how out of character these choices would’ve been for me just a year or two ago. Before quitting my job, I was not a risk taker. Now, I’m kind of in love with embracing things that scare me.

The facts are that the most interesting and exciting things that I’ve experienced since taking a step back from my career are all a direct result of embracing change.

I’ve learned that life can be an adventure, but only if you stop playing it safe all the time. You don’t need to quit your job to change the trajectory of your life. Just try making one change, then another and another. Maybe you self-publish an opinion piece on LinkedIn or start volunteering at a nonprofit that supports a cause you’re passionate about. Even something as simple as challenging yourself to speak up more at work or offering to plan your next department gathering can begin to shift your mindset.

Every time you experience yourself trying something new, you’ll get a little braver. And who knows where that will take you?