Or maybe it can’t. It’s your choice — That’s the point.
I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they learn I took 12 years off to raise my kids. They say, ‘But you’ve got such a great career in high tech! How’d you do that?’
I’m living proof you can take a break from your career to do something important to you and still have the career you want when you’re ready. For me, that break was to raise my boys — for you, it could be to travel, care for a family member, pursue an interest, give back or just chill.
Own your work-life decisions
I was the first person in my family to go to college. My Cuban-born mother had an eighth-grade education — my father graduated from high school. I earned a scholarship to Columbia University’s School of Engineering, where there were only three women in my electrical engineering class. After graduation, I got married and started my career in the high-tech industry. I loved my work.
A couple of years later, I had my first son. I fully intended to go back to work after my maternity leave, but the moment I held my son, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to work — not yet. There was something else I wanted to do more: raise my children.
This wasn’t an easy decision. I carried the yearnings of generations of women in my family who hadn’t had my opportunities. They couldn’t understand how I could ‘walk away from my career,’ and they couldn’t see a path for me to walk back later. I also loved my work, I was making a lot of money and I had financial independence. Yet, there was a voice inside telling me to embrace parenting. I listened. I knew on some level that taking time out of my career to do something I REALLY wanted to do wouldn’t be the end of my career.
But this post isn’t about whether to stay at home or to have a career; it’s about trusting your intuition, following your heart and having faith in yourself.
How to take time out of your career without ending it
There is no blueprint for making work wait for 12 years. And yet, I’m always asked how I did this. I never had a plan. I made my choices along the way.
Even though work was waiting, learning new things never did. During those 4,380 days, I thought of my children as my most meaningful work—the immovable priorities in every day—and I chose other pursuits that could fit around them. I earned a teaching credential, taught computer classes and taught myself emerging technologies. (My work passion was also my hobby, which I shared with my children, teaching them to program in Basic.) I consulted to small businesses and helped them set up their networks, volunteered at my sons’ schools and always worked part time around their schedules. In my 12th year out of the workforce, I got a full-time offer to build out a college technology center, join the faculty and then become dean of instructional computer technologies. Later, my self-taught Unix sys admin skills landed me at a company that taught Unix classes in Silicon Valley. It was perfect for me.
From that point forward, as I had before, I used my troika loves of emerging technology, applying technology to business problems and serving customers to choose my next move. I went to business school — my boys would post my report cards alongside theirs on our refrigerator. After I earned my MBA, I worked at email marketing company MarketFirst, then went on to content management software company Interwoven. When I realized I had a passion for the consumer online, I went to Yahoo, where I lead a global team of over 400 professionals in more than 20 countries. I followed my interest of ecommerce and women as CHOs (chief household officers) into a role first as CTO and then as CEO at Myshape (personalized online shopping experience) and then became the GM of ecommerce at Sears Holdings. Which brings me to my role today as chief operating officer for Basecamp.
Along the way, I concentrated on the choice that was in front of me. I never tried to calculate how to land at some future state of my career.
4 Tips for making choices and taking chances
Your career is one part of your life — it’s not your whole life. This is what I learned when I reset my life-work balance for 4,380 days:
- It’s personal. There is no blueprint. You have to find your own authentic path and make it work for you.
- Own it. If you don’t believe in your choices, no one else will either.
- Focus on your strengths and passion. I am passionate (maybe it’s the latin blood). I never wavered from my mission of using emerging technology to help businesses and people be better — even when I hit the pause button on full-time work. Do what matters to you.
- Don’t let others define you. When others attempt to put you in a box, they’re merely projecting their own fears on you. Resist the temptation to limit yourself because of someone else’s fixed mindset or because you’re afraid.
I’m a better leader because I did what I was drawn to do. It took courage then, and all these many years later, I find myself working with co-founders who have the courage to say this very thing to all of our employees. So, it turns out work can wait. Now that both of my sons are pursuing their own careers, families and passions, I feel energized to continue pursuing mine, knowing that one of my passions has multiplied my efforts.
Sometimes, work can wait — whether that means thousands of days or just evenings and weekends. If you agree, check out our Work Can Wait pledge, and hit the 💙 button below.