“Taking time off.” I’ve heard this expression used many times to describe a choice of what to do with a period of one’s life other than graduate school or a highly competitive career-track job. It describes any number of things, from teaching to traveling, from research and working fellowships to a wide range of hourly-wage jobs. It’s used by our parents and our peers- heck I’ve even used the expression to describe my own decision to teach abroad. But I think it’s time we all stopped.
Justifying a choice of how to spend some period of your life as “taking time off” does a disservice to you and to the work that you’re doing. Framing your decision to teach abroad or with a domestic fellowship, or pursue an Americorps fellowship, for example, as “taking a couple of years off to _____” devalues the profession and the community in which you will be working, as well as your own potential contributions. Justifying a decision to live at home and invest in your relationships with friends, family, or significant others as “taking a break” trivializes the value that these relationships bring to your life. Explaining a decision to travel the world as “taking some time off” cheapens the incredible contribution that travel and exploration lend to personal growth and development, as well as the joy and utility that the experience itself provides.
The rhetorical structure of “time off to _____” implies that the activity or experiences filling in that blank are somehow separate from the “real world” or from a person’s “real life”. In actuality there is no “taking time off” from life- there’s only living it. Many of the experiences we qualify and justify with the expression“taking time off” are among the most formidable and important of our lives. They will impact your relationships, self-identity and yes, even your career, for years to come- in both tangible and intangible ways.
We make important decisions on how to spend portions of our lives for all sorts of reasons. Some are professional, some are personal, and some are simply because it’s what we wanted to do. Sometimes the path is linear, and sometimes it takes longer to see the full importance of an experience. But none of this means that the time we spend growing our relationships, our horizons, and ourselves has to be explained as “time off.” Just because a decision doesn’t fit into a common social narrative of what you should do doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable experience in your life.
So pursue the fellowship. Teach. Live at home and work at that coffee shop. Travel. Invest significant time in your relationships. Do all of these things or none of these things…but let’s just please stop “taking time off” to do them.
And because I would be remiss if I didn't send a favorite quote since I collect them...
"People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost."
Durham, NC, USA