Why I Took a Mid-Career Break

5 minute read. Cover image by Trang Tran.

Last year in August 2021 I decided to leave my job and take a break in my career. I felt burnt out, even though I didn’t recognize it as burnout at the time.

All I knew was: I needed to change something about how I was spending my time. So I talked about it with my fiancée and laid out my reasons why I needed to take a sabbatical.

Burnout

When I shared how I felt with others, many suggested that I could keep my job, but just take more vacation, or try to find something outside of work that I found gratifying.

The problem was, that’s what I had been trying for a full year already! It felt like I had been treating the symptoms and not addressing the cause.

It wasn’t solving the fundamental issue which was: I was unhappy with my job.

The next line of thought was, “okay, I should start interviewing.” I tried this for about a month, and found that I didn’t feel particularly excited about any of the companies that I was applying for.

That’s when I realized that I needed to completely disconnect from my career, and that I needed to recharge from 0%.

Emergency Savings

Taking unpaid leave from my career was definitely not the most financially savvy thing to do.

And it was only possible because I had enough liquid savings to pay rent and credit cards bills for at least 6 months. Not to mention a supportive fiancée who would put me on her health insurance.

I could stand to lose on a few months of earning potential if it meant I was paying to take care of myself and my mental health.

While deciding how much time I should take time off, one question I kept asking myself was, “How much would I pay to feel better?”

My answer to that comes down to my fundamental belief that the most important resources we have are our time and our health – in other words, I’d pay any amount for that.

Coding Skills are in High Demand

Part of the reason why my opinion of coding bootcamps has improved over time is because:

  • I recognize that their students are learning marketable skills that companies are willing to pay for, and that
  • ultimately, everyone involved is trying to improve their quality of life.

And as of today, there are way more software engineering openings than people to fill them.

This translates to simple economics: low supply and high demand.

Which means that engineers who are unsatisfied with their current roles can pick up and take their skills elsewhere, explaining the highly competitive landscape in terms of recruiting.

For me personally, with just under a decade of professional experience under my belt, I felt like I could go into just about any software engineering interview and get a job immediately.

Embracing “Retiring For Now”

If you’re familiar with the term FIRE, you know that it represents a financial movement with the goal of achieving financial independence and early retirement (as early as one’s 30s or 40s).

While I was burnt out, I poured over tons of FIRE blogs, reading many personal stories about how people maximized their income streams and slashed their expenses to finally say goodbye to their careers.

But I didn’t like the idea of “retiring early”. It had a sense of permanence. Like once I’m done with work, I should have a nest egg and be set up once and for all.

Instead, “retiring for now” seemed much more achievable and had a few advantages:

Smaller Financial Requirements

I would only need enough runway for a few months. If I wanted to retire permanently, I’d need to build a lot more wealth and wait a much longer time. But with a short few-months break, I could do it with my emergency savings.

Natural Pause In-Between Jobs

Another pro to “retiring for now” is that I could afford to do it in between jobs, and it would give me something to look forward to! I’d also be able to invest all of my time and energy into finding a role that was the perfect fit for me, instead of balancing work and interviewing simultaneously.

Emphasis on Living Life

Lastly, it meant that I would always be thinking about taking care of myself. It would remind me, YES, I should take more days off. YES, I should keep my eyes open for signs of burnout. Keeping in mind that no matter what: I’m working to live, not living to work.

Looking Back

A friend asked me if I would make the same choice if I could do it all over again, and I immediately said yes.

It felt like freedom, if I had to put the feeling into one word.

The first few months felt like a world had been lifted off my shoulders, and every day felt light and exciting. I had a daily routine planned out to keep my days focused (gym, groceries, lunch, etc.).

Shortly after taking time off, I was able to host my parents and sister for a few weeks and it was great after not seeing them for so long.

I also did some traveling during this time and when I came back in December, I felt hyper re-energized and ready to pursue the next stage in my career. It was great because I could invest all of my time and attention to each company that I spoke with.

I was even having fun interviewing – something I never thought I’d say.

My friend told me, “that’s how you know you had a good break,” and I’d have to agree.