Is a Career Break Right For You? By Richard Jones

What can you do if your civilian career is unfulfilling? Richard Jones, a former RAF officer, shares his story on how he dealt with being in this situation.

There is a lot of advice and support when you’re leaving the military. It often focuses on finding that important first civilian role, but for me my transition didn’t end there.

Feeling the Pressure
I always had high hopes for a second career after leaving the RAF, following a relatively successful 26 years. I had fulfilled a variety of roles, gaining a mixed bag of skills and qualifications. This helped my job search, but I struggled to move from aerospace and defence to another engineering field.

Worried about paying a mortgage and providing stability for my family, I soon started working again in the aerospace sector. Looking back, I don’t know why I felt pressured to find work quickly, given the lump sum and pension I got to fall back on. Perhaps in part because of other people’s success stories, who had left the Armed Forces to land plum director roles. Also, during transition people often said: “Most people change jobs on average after 18 months after leaving anyway.” I think that encouraged me to settle for less than I wanted.

Working Hard
So I was in my first ‘proper’ civilian job, with high expectations of myself and the career. I worked hard and volunteered for extra projects.

It wasn’t easy adapting to work for a business. I learnt new acronyms; leadership models; approaches to time keeping (or lack of) and meeting etiquette. The list goes on but felt I cracked it after about 18 months. I appeared to be doing well, being promoted twice and moving up the senior management ladder.

However, I felt that I was giving more to work than I was getting back. Some colleagues appeared to be doing equally well but with less effort. Plus I never felt like I quite ‘fitted in’, but I kept putting this down to my transition: “Surely it will take time to break 26 years of conditioning?”

I was wrong. I discovered that my individuality was my strength, and that I should not change to have short term contentment in my working life. In addition, my wife felt she was burning out due to her work, and a close friend of a similar age was diagnosed with a terminal illness. All these factors seemed like it was sending us a clear message: “Life is short so you’d better make damn sure you make the most of it!”

Take a Break
My natural instinct was to find another job, push myself further and work even harder, but I knew this wasn’t the solution.

The answer surprised me as much as anyone: take a sabbatical. But how do you become one of those privileged people who take a ‘gap year’ to exotic places, and then return to their careers? The decision felt risky, non-intuitive and went against having a stable life with a good career. Aside from the huge financial considerations, I had to consider my children’s education.

Then I asked myself: “What’s stopping me?” The answer came easily: “Nothing!” Taking a complete break not only felt right, it would give my wife and I time to think about our next career moves. In addition, when I broke challenges down into smaller chunks and looked for solutions, it started to look achievable.  I felt liberated and I started to think new possibilities.

We would travel the world as a family and do voluntary work along the way. With our overarching strategic direction formed, we just needed the detailed planning and execution! This was fairly exhaustive, made harder when our employers said they were unable to support a 12 month career break. At this point we were too emotionally committed to the plan, so quitting our jobs was the only option. Although this increased the risk factor considerably, it further strengthened our resolve to go through with it. Plus we would have fresh starts to look forward to when we returned.

New Horizons
So here I am, writing this article four months into our trip.  My family and I are sat beside the Tasman Sea at the French Pass, in New Zealand.

Our journey so far has been both challenging (especially home schooling the children) and inspiring. We have never regretted our decision, and I hope it will help other people realise there is a different way to live if you want. It’s not an easy path, but anything worth doing never is.

So what stopped me trying this before? Fear. I worried that slowing down professionally would make me unable – or unwilling – to join the career race at the same pace again. I also didn’t want my peers to think: “He is just giving up.” In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I still need the intellectual challenge I had at work, and my family, friends and colleagues have been very supportive.

A sabbatical has given me the opportunity to re-evaluate my life. I now realise that I was selling short the skills and experiences I gained in the Armed Forces. My core values, developed in the RAF, were in conflict with those I came across in my civilian career – which I bet is a common feeling for former officers. To compromise your values for paid employment is unsustainable. I’m not saying that you’re unemployable outside of the military – actually the opposite is true – but you must choose a career that gives you purpose and fulfilment.

I have long way to go on this journey – both geographically and emotionally. I’ll keep you updated.