This post is really belated as I’ve been procrastinating to post this up for months! Exactly a year ago, I featured an exclusive interview with my close girlfriend, Kristin, on her decision to walk the less trodden path by taking a sabbatical when she was at the start of her working career. Read about the pre-sabbatical interview here.
Today, armed with an experience of a lifetime, Kristin shares with me her unforgettable experience, as well as her take on making a relatively career-risky decision. Taking a gap year to travel & do things I love remains as a dream but meeting inspirational people like Kristin definitely gives me the motivation to steer towards that direction. 🙂
Why did you decide to take a sabbatical of 4 months and what have you done during these past 4 months?
Before the sabbatical, I was working at People’s Association as a Constituency Manager, handling grassroots organizations, liaising with the media and organizing events among other matters. It was my first full time job out of university, and when you immerse yourself in the working world for the first time (internships aside), I find that you start learning so much about yourself – about your priorities, your dreams, your boundaries and more.
As time passed, and although there are definitely perks in this job, it became clear to me that I didn’t feel fulfilled with what I was doing and where this path would have led me. However, I also wasn’t sure where I really wanted to go. I once had a conversation with my grandma, and I lamented about why I didn’t seem to like doing anything, unlike people passionate about engineering, computing and science. She studied me for a while, and then replied that it was not because I didn’t like anything, but because I liked doing everything. So what I really needed to do is focus on a few key areas rather than trying out everything and burning out my time and energy.
With that, I decided that if I stayed on in my first job, I would only entrench myself deeper in a job which could not make me happy, both in what I was doing and where I was heading towards. While I am still at an age where it easier for me to change my line of work and while opportunity cost (in terms of job responsibility and compensation) is still relatively lower, this is the best time to kick myself into action by leaving so that it would force me to look for something that would give me greater fulfillment in the rest of my career-life.
At the same time, it was perfect that there were a lot of travel opportunities coming in. Suddenly I felt so free after making my decision, unbounded by the routine of work and time seemed like a plentiful resource. Time was lost over work instead of it being spent on loved ones, but now, I could spend it on them once again. So we made plans to spend it, not just together at home, but on holidays so that we could experience each other’s companies over a wonderful trip. I had my apprehension about not being able to find a job if I took the time to travel. However, it made sense not to rush into a job but to use this time to explore my interests and find myself so that I could come back from my travels knowing what I wanted to do.
Over the four months of my break, I became a serial traveller, exploring the dense jungles and majestic hidden temples of Cambodia, flying all the way to the other end to Peru eating the strangest but really delicious delicacies, walking spiritual routes up the mountains, admiring the breathtaking views of Machu Picchu, hitting my bucket list visiting the Galapagos Islands, taking a romantic trip down south to Brisbane and a crazy shopping trip in California.
I also think it is important to keep on learning and improving. So I continued on with my basic interior design certification from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), finally got my driving license, took on personal Photoshop projects, took on a 2-day event management crash course and ran my half marathon. In between, my close friends have been extremely supportive as well. When I was back home in Singapore, I met up with those I have been losing touch with, exchanged ideas and talking about our futures, having conversations that can impact some huge decisions.
Just those 4 months alone have really been one of the best experiences I ever had, and it will be something I will remember for life.
What are some of the most memorable times that you have had during the career break?
The place I wanted to go for since almost a decade ago! To get to come here was insanely awesome. I used to read books on dinosaurs, animals, evolution and the like when I was a child, and this topic was always something that interested me. So to find out that Charles Darwin was inspired to come up with the Theory of Evolution from these islands made me want to come and see this place for myself.
I was elated to set foot to this place. The simple airport was surrounded by a desert-like landscape – sandy, yellow and filled with cacti. Yet, it actually grew some sort of hay-like grass everywhere. Beautifully strange!
The first sign of any animals were the lazy sealions (my first time seeing seeing sealions in the wild!!) all lying languidly on the horizontal beams of the port where we waited for our dingies to bring us to our ferry. Sometime in the evening, our ferry was trailed by a flock of frigate birds, which looked like a group of huge batman signs soaring in formation behind us. What followed as the days went by were awesome sightings of punk-looking swimming marine iguanas, land iguanas the size of your average dogs, giant sea turtles, diving birds with the most queer sky-blue feet, baby penguins which we surprised to see just living at the equator and short -winged flightless cormorants. My brother even had a baby sealion follow him all the way up a little hill. Really cute!!
The Galapagos is made up of a few islands. So every island also came with its own scenery, all diversifying in its own way to adapt to the different tides and temperatures. One looked like we landed on the moon, with the whole island black and cracked with crevasses with a gigantic volcano in the middle. Another had a martian landscape, with red sand and light lava rocks the size of a basketball. The giant turtles lived in the one which was overgrown with mangroves, swimming about a metre deep and munching on the moss growing on the mangrove roots.
When you ask people where are the types of places they love travelling to, some may answer places with a rich culture, a great view, yummy food, much shopping options.. For me, my answer’s a place with wild animals. Absolutely loved Galapagos. My next bucketlist place is the safaris in Africa. But since I need to save up, perhaps I’ll go see the orangutans in Borneo first.
We took a spiritual tour to Cuzco, a gorgeous and ancient city atop the Peru mountains, led by the local hispanic (half-Spanish half-Peruvian) guides and shaman. They were extremely friendly (and the guides were hot!), bringing us around to all the sacred Incan sites and teaching us how the Incans used to carry out their rituals. Although we cannot share the exact details, I am impressed with all their spiritual wisdom. Many of the old Incan structures still remained in Cuzco, including their houses, drainage systems, fields of corn and huge religious monuments.
Do share some of the interesting experiences that you had encountered during your trips?
1) Swimming next to a sealion
2) Trapped in a Cambodian cinema
3) Nazca Lines
4) The night on the island in the lake
5) The 2 Travelling Girls
What do you think are the biggest challenges/hardest times for you during the career break?
The biggest challenge for me was facing people. After I came back from my trip and started officially looking for another job, 4 months had already passed. There were people who began to question what I was doing, telling me straight to my face that it was “very bad” that I couldn’t find a job, asking why I couldn’t find a job after so long and wondered out loud if it was because I wasn’t of good calibre.
People in general, especially the older generation, tend to think that at this age, doing anything that isn’t work means that you are lazy, useless, irresponsible, lousy, unfocused, and the list goes on. The more they say or imply it, it really can get quite damaging for the morale. So, the more I had to be stronger, because I knew that I had something bigger that I want to achieve by doing this.
Although many people were helpful and we kept talking about our future career goals, what follows is really choice overload. Everybody throws out so many suggestions, which is great because it is always good to know more. However, every possible next career has it’s pros and cons which everybody discusses as well, making every choice seem good and bad at the same time. I found it extremely difficult at first, because I realized that all my thoughts on all my options came from everybody so, how could I possibly sieve out the thoughts that truly belonged to me to make a decision that not everybody wants me to make, but rather, the decision that mattered the most to me?
This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever had a negative cashflow on my bank account. I’ve been taught from young to always save, and from there, I somehow developed some sort of synesthesia perhaps? Having money constantly depleting feels so painful, like a dagger stabbing my chest. Yes, drama, I know, but I do feel that! I have now completely stopped shopping for anything and only spend on meals when meeting friends.
Without a routine, matters like how can you effectively make use of your time start to eat you up. It is just too easy to slip into Facebooking, chatting with my family members, doing useful but unimportant matters like packing my room and simply unimportant matters like watching television. Plus these are things that I would have still been able to accomplish even if I were working. So I wondered where my productive hours flew. When I did use up my time in my day like that, I really felt useless and unproductive – time slipped away just too fast, and I would feel angry with myself at the end of the day.
It didn’t help that I intended to use the time to practice a skill like Photoshop/video making/app programming, but I would start feeling guilty when I did not use the time to apply for jobs. And when I did use the time to apply for jobs, I would get annoyed with myself for not using the time to hone my skills.
Many people would love to embark on the amazing journey that you have recently did but they would come up with an endless list of reasons not to, e.g. I wish I could take a break like you but I have no money/no time/etc. What are some pieces of advice that you would give them?
1) Don’t jump into it until you know you can take the consequences
2) Have a backup financial plan
3) Cost of staying put is greater than cost of change
4) Understand what is a day well spent to you
What have you learnt at the end of the day?
1) There is so much beauty in this world waiting to be discovered. So knowing that our time is limited here as well, time must always be set aside to get out and discover (not just overseas but even within where we are).
2) (Over the spiritual tour in Cuzco) To love is to nurture, grow, give attention to and protect. It is a combination of action, care and effort. In life, we need to be conscious of the things we love, and that is a great way of deciding where our paths should lead and where our effort should be placed.
3) Knowing what is important is so important. Days can be lost so quickly in the midst of distractions. And days were so unsatisfying-ly spent when I lost track of what I had to do, which made me feel unproductive the whole day. I also reflected on work, and realized that if the work you are doing is something that you don’t really like, you have lost a day wasting it over something that didn’t help in appreciating life.
4) I’ve learnt to be stronger because all the challenges faced are matters which I once couldn’t handle. Especially not if they all came together. However, I’ve learnt how to strategize and do quick pick-me-ups so at least even if I am beaten by these challenges, I won’t stay down for too long.
5) My personal learning for my direction is that I wanted to do something creative, get some achievements in my career, and yet have enough time for my family and friends. This was after having a good think with so much beautiful scenery, over conversations with friends and over the courses that I attended. So it’s now looking like a marketing job with a good work-life balance.
How are things getting along for you now that you are back “to reality” and in the job hunt?
At the moment, things are a fine balance. All the challenges mentioned earlier are still looming, though handled slightly better now. However, I’m glad that things are moving for me too.
I realize that it isn’t easy to get a job again because for one, taking a career break doesn’t look too good on my resume. Grades are not really on my side either, so I’m banking on my one year’s experience plus CCA experience in event management to land me another position. Most of my free time now is taken up by job-hunting (and my new found addiction, pinterest).
At the same time, I decided to take the time to do some volunteer work and hone my marketing skills. I was very happy to find Halogen Foundation, a voluntary body that aims to instill leadership qualities in youth. I liked their cause and all the exciting events that they have been coming up with. So I approached them to ask how I could volunteer. After a while, they offered me a flexi-time internship with them, so now I feel like I’m really learning quite a bit doing social media content and campaigns, and researching on interesting fundraising techniques.
* Note: Kristin is now working as a marketing executive at a local company.
From this break, I really could take the time to concentrate in Interior Design (I passed!) and driving (also passed!!). Other than that, I went for a few courses to pick up more skills including a two day crash course on “How to Plan Any Event” and a quick course on “How to Find Work you’re Passionate About”. Been back at Singapore, I have also been following a stricter exercise routine with more time in the evening (as opposed to being back at 10pm on some nights due to my earlier shift-work).
I have also all along wanted to be good at Photoshop, so this free time worked out well for me. At times, I’ll try out small design projects for myself, drowning myself in Photoshop youtube videos to suss out techniques to complete what I wanted to do. From a complete noob, I am no expert yet, but I feel more confident of using Photoshop to at least do out a decent piece of work. This 2012, I also finally gathered the courage to join Toastmasters. I have already participated in my first round of Spontaneous Speech (better known by Toastmasters as Table Topics), and won my first speech along with two others! I’m hoping that this would develop my communication skills for my hopefully-future stint in a marketing career.
People: Family and Social Circles
Things are actually going pretty well with my family. It’s great that I get to see everyone so often now as compared to when I was working/schooling previously. My grandmother is always especially happy to have me around at home, and we’d always have longer and better chats now. A more morbid fact, but I know that time is against her as well. So, to be able to spend more time with her is really time that is very precious to me.
It is going two ways with this. I am both meeting up more and meeting up less with friends. Now, given more time, it seems so much easier to meet up with people, especially since I can look for them over lunch. However, much as I try to handle my emotions over this somewhat-trying period, I still get into my “I am not good enough” mood at times. It feels like, to have a job, you’re wanted by a company, and to not have a job means that you’re unwanted. Of course, that isn’t necessarily true but thoughts like these do play in your head. As such, when I meet friends and these thoughts well up inside, I always have to fight an internal battle and give myself internal prep talks to be able to quit comparing and just enjoy their company.