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Maybe You Can Afford a Gap Year, After All

ReBoot Your Life


By: Marci Alboher

My colleague Marc Freedman has been talking up the idea of midlife gap years – a time to take stock, take a step back, and figure out next steps. It needn’t be a full year, though there is something about a full cycle of seasons that seems consistent with beginning a move into a new life stage. We allow young people lots of time for wandering and experimenting, why not the same for those in their encore years?

Gap years appeal to people of all ages, but the most common response I get is, “Sounds great, but not gonna happen in my life,” followed by a litany of obstacles – financial pressure, a boss who would never approve a sabbatical, a partner who is opposed.

Rita Foley has been an advocate for making sabbaticals, which she calls “reboot breaks,” a regular part of a satisfying career. She’s taken four of them and, in each case, she says she has returned to her life better personally and professionally.

ReBoot Your Life, a book by Foley and three co-authors (all high-powered execs who have rebooted a few times themselves), is a blueprint on how to create your own gap year. I spoke with Foley about how reboot breaks can help jumpstart an encore career. The following is an edited summary of our conversation.

Most people think sabbaticals are only for those with fancy jobs or people who can easily afford time off with no pay, yet you say people from all walks of life have successfully created reboot breaks. How do they do it?

Sabbaticals don’t have to cost a lot of money. In fact there are ways to self-fund them. For two of my sabbaticals, I chose to stay close to home, and I had totally rewarding and wonderful reboot breaks and spent a lot less money then when I was working. I took free yoga classes at a local community center; started to play tennis again, which I hadn't done since my childhood; went to museums and places in my city that I hadn't had the time to visit in years if ever (there is usually one day or evening a week for free entrance); reconnected with friends and got very involved volunteering with local community organizations.

We recommend starting a sabbatical savings fund. Ask family and friends to contribute to it in lieu of birthday or holiday gifts. Approach your employers some period of time ahead of your break and ask if they could pay you at a reduced rate now, 75% for example, so that they pay you the other 25% when you’re on your sabbatical.

We’ve heard about people who self-funded their breaks by renting out a home or apartment, house swapping, going on Craig's List to find someone who needs a car driven one way across the country, being a guest lecturer, or being the tech wiz on a cruise ship.

You recommend advance planning for reboot breaks. Why is planning so important and what are the key things to figure out ahead of time?

In our 300 interviews, we probed for negative feedback about sabbaticals. We couldn't find any. However, the one regret voiced by almost everyone we talked to was a wish that they had planned more in advance. For many, the planning stage, sometimes a year or two in advance, was as much fun as taking the sabbatical itself.

You don’t want to over-plan – you want a bit of spontaneity – but conscious thinking about how you want to spend your time off and what your goals are is the critical first step in planning. We interviewed a couple whose dream was to go to Italy and to take a cooking class there. They assumed they could just sign up once they were in country. But when they tried to do that, the class was already full. If you’re traveling or planning on spending time away, there are a lot of details to manage before you leave -- renting your home, setting up ways to pay bills, suspending gym memberships and more.

People who are self-employed often have the hardest time getting time away from their work. How do you advise these folks to reboot without losing their livelihoods?

We deliberately interviewed solo practitioners – doctors, lawyers, self-employed and small company entrepreneurs – to show that you, too, can take well-deserved time off. In our book, we profiled a physician who took a year off and arranged for a new doctor who was moving to the area to take her clients while she was away. It helped the new doctor establish himself in the area, and when the doctor who took the sabbatical returned, she had no trouble picking up some old patients as well as new ones that kept her practice thriving. Many sabbatical takers were surprised with how supportive their clients and customers were.

For entrepreneurs who don't believe they have someone on staff who could run the whole business without them for a couple of months, start by naming someone to oversee day-to-day operations. Then ask a friend who is a business person to serve as a mentor, almost like a company director, checking in on the team once a week. Good business people are experts in asking the right questions and don't need to be experts in your particular industry or business. You can offer to do the same for them when they take their sabbatical.

And if you don't have someone who can handle the day to day, then start now by planning to get one or more employees ready a year from now. You and your business will be that much better off. Several entrepreneurs told us that they returned to work seeing that their employees rose to the occasion and handled the day-to-day operations well, thus allowing them time to focus on strategy, clients and growing the business.

Surely people have said to you, "My boss (or my organization) would never approve a request for a sabbatical." What's the best way to make the case for a reboot break when you're the first person in an organization to take one?

The key is to have a plan. Be prepared with ideas about how your work could be handled while you’re out and who could cover for you. We even recommend writing the announcement about your break for your boss. Make his or her job easy. Here’s a cheat sheet (http://bit.ly/qDibnd) for some of the arguments you can use when pitching the idea to your manager.

How do you suggest someone get support from a spouse, partner or other family member who might be uncomfortable with the sabbatical idea?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. It is important to include those close to you in your plans. At first they may be upset that you want to take time off away from them. They may be concerned about you stepping off the ladder at the apex of your career. They may be concerned about finances or safety, or they may be jealous that they can't take time off with you. You can walk them through each of these concerns by sharing stories and examples from our book. There is a chapter, "Living with Someone on Sabbatical," which has helpful ideas for both the sabbatical taker and the loved one left behind.

For more information, go to http://rebootbreak.com/about/.