10 Reasons Every Executive Should Take A Gap Year


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I got my first job as a Babysitter when I was 12 years old and was fired on the first day. When I fell asleep on the couch after calling my mom to come over to help me with the toddler I was looking after, I knew I wouldn’t be asked to come back another Friday night. Since then I learnt a few things about integrity and responsibility in the jobs I’ve had. That’s why when I decided to resign from my position as a VP of Operations in my last company, taking a year off from my career was a very difficult decision for me.

For the first three months I woke up every day at 3am certain I had made the biggest mistake of my life. It was a career derailer. Plus I was going through a divorce and now becoming a single mother. My darkest thoughts took me to living with my kids in a tent under a city bridge in Vancouver. Fast forward, I am now 8 months into my gap year, and I believe confidently this was the single most, best decision I have ever made in my life!

As an executive leader, you have probably been working for 20-25 years since university. If you were like me I went straight through from high school to university to my first “in-training” job. Whoosh! Minus a few weeks in Hawaii along the way, you really can start to burn out. Nevermind if you have experienced some sort of trauma like a life-changing illness, divorce or death of a family member. For me it was my marriage ending and how I was going to adjust to being a single mother raising two amazing daughters.

Upon mindful reflection, I am grateful I had the support of my family and friends this past year to help me through a challenging time. I have learned so much about myself that I wanted to share why I believe every executive leader should take a gap year:

  1. You’ll have time to think
    When I decided to go on my gap year last fall, my kids were still in school. This meant I could have time between 8:30am-2:45pm every day to think about my relationships, my impact, my inspirations, my low points, my mistakes, and my learnings. It was a wonderful time to cry, laugh and ponder what I had stacked up to be as a leader, mother, daughter, wife...soon to be ex-wife, friend and future love.

  2. You’ll make new friends
    I am most grateful to this learning. I have connected with so many great women. Women that I knew years ago all of a sudden I can say are a dear friends now. I began mentoring some younger women who have been inspired by my decision to take pause on my life. As I started to come out of my controlled, “have it all together” shell, I was bolder in my initial interactions with people. I started to hug more. Laugh more. Smile and giggle more.

  3. You can volunteer for a humanitarian project
    You’ll be time rich and you can help as many people as you want. I chose to go to Ethiopia in February and fundraised $23K CDN to help build a school with Imagine1Day and WE. It was an incredible experience and I was able to share it with 15 people I really only knew over ZOOM. I am so grateful for the opportunity to contribute my leadership and my love for such a worthwhile cause. I am now committed that I will contribute to an annual trip to Africa or another continent in need and this time bring my girls so they can gain the perspective of new cultures and people from around the world.

  4. You can adapt to new places
    So the whole point of going on a gap year is to travel and explore new places. Ethiopia blew my mind and really put my “issues” into a more balanced playing field. When you go to northern Ethiopia and you experience children learning from a dusty, dark school room, your problems in North America seem trivial. And when you land in Addis Ababa where the population is 10M people, our traffic or bike lane problems in Vancouver seem like a joke. You really adopt the phrase “get over yourself” quickly when you experience Africa. And that’s exactly what I needed.

  5. You’ll have something real to talk about
    This is precious. Up until my gap year, if you saw me at an event or on the street and asked me how I was...the response would have been a stoic “fine”. I committed to a new language when I was in Ethiopia. I was no longer going to be fine. “Fine” is like cancer. Its deep and roots itself in you. I wanted to be incredible, spectacular, memorable. I wanted to be adventurous with adjectives when describing my day to others so that my words lifted myself up.

  6. You can be inspired
    What’s more inspiring that walking along cobbled streets in Lisbon, savouring wine and burrata in San Giminango, or walking through the Borghese Gallery in Rome and assessing the marble textures of a Bernini statue? Putting aside spreadsheets, KPI’s and shareholder reports for a year allows you to soak in the wonders of nature, art, music, food and the people you care about. New thoughts started to populate my mind and I am so clear on where I will be in 10 years.

  7. You can get healthy
    I’ve lost 15 pounds by taking the time to exercise, hike, get outside, sleep better and switch to an 80% vegan diet (I like the occasional steak). By the time I reached my last weeks on my last job I was exhausted. Exhausted of trying to hold it altogether. My body ached. I was living off junk food and lattes. I was not living my best self and feared I would attract a life-ending illness.

  8. You can live life to the fullest
    I put goals and strategies aside for a year and just lived. I bought a new home, decorated it to reflect my style and my daughters’. I am going to India this fall with 3 of my girlfriends from university so we can all celebrate turning 50 over the next 12-18 months together. And I’m planning on being in Paris over the holidays with the people I love most in my life.

  9. You can take on fun work as a consultant
    I found reading books and blogs wasn’t challenging my brain, so I decided to take on a few short term projects with clients in need of my expertise. It’s a great opportunity to practice some of the tasks you like to do, meanwhile not dealing with the day to day organizational challenges that come with leading full time. I have found it kept my head in the game and helped me identify what I want to do next. And earning a few extra bucks when you don’t have a steady pay cheque coming in always helps to pay for that next plane ticket.

  10. You have the money to do it properly
    Let’s face it, taking a gap year in your 20’s is very different than in your 50’s. You can trade up from a hostel to an AirBnB. You can decide to splurge on a 2-star Michelin restaurant or indulge your cravings with tapas in a local eatery. You don’t need to worry about executive suits and high heels. I typically wore my Vans, Birks, Kit and Ace pants and a favorite v-neck tee when I first was off in the winter months. You also learn to budget really well and realize you actually don’t need that much to live off once you strip off the food court lunches and Starbucks stops.

Taking a gap year has been life-affirming for me. It’s helped me appreciate what I have and what I am capable of building in my next stage of life. It gave me the time I needed to push through some difficult times and enabled me to become stronger leader.

Written by: Brenda Rigney, Guest writer Contributor, Talent Lab

Brenda Rigney is a disruptive operations executive with experience in retail apparel, video gaming, cooperative banking, hospitality and home care services. A leader of corporate operations teams of specialists in Digital Marketing, Retail & Franchise Operations, Human Resources, Sales, Information Technology, Communications, and Call Centres. Brendas business impacts are eliminating redundancy, automating antiquated systems and concentrating efforts on business solutions that accelerate organizational growth. Brenda works with purpose-led companies who want to align communities with business so that we leave the world and people in a better place.

Read more from Brenda on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brendarigney/

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