THE BLOG
10/01/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Take a Year Off, Find Your Ideal Work

If six months ago you had told me to take a year off so I could find my "dream job" I would have started sweating, breathing heavily and talking really fast about why that is the dumbest idea in the world.

Don't misunderstand me. Being able to get out of bed every day and do work you truly care about is a goal worth pursuing; however, I am nothing if not a seeker of safety when it comes to money. In other areas of my life I can be very free and spontaneous and risky. Not when it comes to money. I like to know that every duck is in a row.

Especially now that I'm 41.

I know what you're thinking -- 41 isn't old. Thank you for that. In fact, I'm going to clink my coffee mug in cheers to you right now for being so wise. It's true that if all goes according to plan, I still have a solid 30 years left of great work in me; however, at this stage of the game and in an economy and job market like ours, the need to figure out what that great work ought to be is fairly urgent.

At least that's what I used to believe. I have started softening up a bit. Whereas I used to think "taking time off" to find your ideal work was idiotic and if you did so you'd wind up with no savings, a big empty hole on your resume and even more displaced workers to compete with when you do get yourself back in the game, now I think if you have the chance you should jump at it.

Here are 5 Ways to Take a Year Off So You Can Find Your Ideal Work

1. Marry Rich

This seems to be the most direct route to blissful work. If your income isn't necessary to pay the mortgage, buy food, book your kids in activities from here to next year or take frequent vacations, then you can pretty much hold out until that dream work comes knocking.

Forbes recently published a survey that shows that 84 percent of working women "aspire" to stay home with kids. The one caveat being that they want to stay home with their kids as long as doing so does not put a dent in their lifestyle. Women aren't going to rush out of the workforce so they can clip coupons, give up vacations, move out of their homes and swear off babysitters and freedom. They want to do it with money to spare, which is probably why 33 percent of working women resent their partner for not making that dream a reality.

I can relate to the desire women have to stay home with their kids. I started my own business seven years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter. I wanted the best of both worlds -- I wanted to do work that I cared about and also have the freedom of working at home and being my own boss so I could spend a lot of time with her.

I knew that I wasn't built to be a stay-at-home mom in the traditional sense, if there is such a thing anymore. I love work too much and when I am doing work I care about I am a better mother and person all around. I know this because when I am not working I simply don't work as a person. It's not pretty and not fair to anyone else in my life.

So, I worked like crazy building my business and I still had the freedom to be with her. Starting my own business was my cure for not marrying rich. Let the record show however that marrying awesome, I did.

However, starting your own business may not interest you or it may just not be a fit for the kind of work you do. If that's the case, marry rich. Then you can stay home with your kids and do great work whenever you want, whether you get paid for it or not.

2. Get Fired

A few years ago I worked with a client who really wanted to do work she cared about but was convinced the only way she was going to make that happen was if she got fired. She thought quitting would be unfair to her new husband and having never quit anything in her life, she thought it too weak and irresponsible a move. At the same time she was so exhausted from trying to do her ideal work on the side that she had to let it go. So, she dreamed about getting fired until eventually she did.

When I spoke with her a month after she had been laid off she said it was the best thing that ever happened to her. Just like the people in the Lemonade Movie, she started seeing herself and what she was capable of in a whole new light. She even came to realize that the work she thought she had wanted to do, and had been trying to keep alive on the side all those months, was not really what she wanted to do. Getting fired gave her the time and freedom to try out other possibilities and test her ideas and today she's doing work she can't get enough of.

Getting fired or laid off opens the door to career exploration without all the guilt that usually comes when you decide to quit a great paying and stable gig just so you can do work you love.

3. Write a Book

Anyone can write and publish a book these days. The barriers to entry are exactly two -- a good editor and about $10k in cash.

Still, if you aren't working or maybe you just quit your terrible job so you can try and replace it with a great job, then telling people you're writing a book gives you a little bit more time to drop into that elusive great work.

Plus, it will make you feel like you're doing something productive, even if you don't really need to write a book in the first place. You'll tell yourself you're doing something important, that you're doing something that will lead to better opportunities and that you're making the world a better place by sharing your ideas. And, if you're lucky, you may actually be doing all of those things.

You may even be taken in by the birthing metaphor people use to describe the process of writing a book. They'll say writing a book is like growing and birthing a baby. That makes it sound all big and important and maybe that's how you'll want it to sound. But beware of grand platitudes. I'm quite certain that the only people who make that analogy are people who have never had a baby.

I was sick daily for 18 weeks with my daughter. My labor was 33 hours of hell, topped off with a giant slit across my stomach that smiles at me to this day. Then I didn't sleep for four years. On the other hand, I wrote my book in less than six weeks and there was no sweating, screaming "where are the f-ing drugs" or crying during any of it.

Still, writing a book will buy you some time and when you're finished you'll not only have something tangible to show for it, you will have learned more about yourself and what you want your next step to be than you ever would have by staying in a job that was sucking the life out of you.

4. Sell Your Stuff

Selling your stuff is cathartic. When you photograph, tag and list your goods on Craig's List you immediately feel lighter. You look at your garage that's piled high with your old life and you can't help but make big plans for the new one that's lurking under the rubble. You'll sell old grad school text books that represent a career path that no longer inspires you, a desk that used to serve as the "at home office" you resented with every fiber of your being, and a couch that no longer fits in your downsized home. The money you get from those sales will feel like the nectar of the Gods. That money will buy you another month of unemployment while you search for your ideal work and when that month runs out you'll strategically pick your next pieces to tag.

I made it through two months of a dry spell by selling my stuff, which gave me more time to focus on getting new business in the door. I'm not sure if I should be thrilled about that or just plain sad that my stuff only garnered me two months of a safety net but in truth the money was secondary to how good and free I felt with all of that clutter out of my life. What they say is true -- when you get rid of meaningless clutter, you make room for the good stuff to come knocking.

5. Get a Returnship

I'm saving the best for last. A "returnship" is an internship for people over 40. They've long been out of school, they often have decades of experience in the workforce, they're in career reinvention mode and they don't need any handholding.

While it's true that most companies are used to hiring college students or recent grads for their internships, with more older people out of work now than ever before, hiring managers are warming up to the idea of bringing in older applicants for internship positions.

Older interns have significant assets to bring to the party -- they are more well-rounded, they have better problem-solving skills, they are better at communicating with people at all levels of an organization, they often have stronger ties to their community and better links to resources and they are fully committed to the work they seek.

Still, it takes some work to get a plum assignment. And even if you do, chances are it won't be paid. As most "returners" will tell you however, the benefits of doing a returnship will pay off eventually and it will be well worth the wait.

Here are some tips for finding a returnship if you're at the point where you need two solid blows to extinguish all of the candles on your birthday cake.

1. Directly Pitch Your Returnship Idea

Most companies who advertise internships are targeting college students or recent grads. That's a hard nut to crack when they already have their ideal candidates in mind. If however you choose a company that excites you and then propose how hiring you as an intern will specifically benefit them, then you'll have a much better chance of being heard.

I really wanted an internship with a company who was on the leading edge of e-learning and instructional design. Naturally I wanted to work with the best. So, I put on my big girl panties, put aside all of my doubts and insecurities and I pitched my idea to the big cheese. He agreed to speak with me and at the end of our conversation he asked me to put together a project. I put it together, he liked it and I got the gig. Had I waited for an opportunity to show up it never would have. Be proactive and pitch the company that's going to be the best fit for you.

2. Make Sure You Want Your Boss's Job

If you're looking to reinvent your career and gain experience in a new industry, make sure that the work you'll be doing or at least watching is the kind of work you'll want to be doing in the future. Get clear on the kind of tasks you'll be responsible for and what you'll spend the majority of your time working on. Naturally you're going to have some grunt work as an intern but if you're going to be spending more than 40-50 percent doing that type of work, look for another opportunity. You don't have unlimited time so make sure you set it up so you get the most out of the time you do invest.

3. Make the Contract Clear and Terminal

The last thing you want to do when you enter into a returnship is leave the terms undefined. You'll get taken advantage of, your time will seem less valuable and you'll end up struggling to end the assignment gracefully.

Propose a specific amount of hours you think you'll need to learn what you want to learn and contribute your best work, usually between 200-500 hours, and exactly how you plan on meeting those terms. Negotiate extra days during busy seasons or days off for holidays and make your schedule and any contingencies you have clear at the outset. For example, if you have a 6-year-old, make it known up front that if she gets sick you will likely have to take a few days off. Most companies are happy to work with you as long as they are made aware of these possibilities up front.

4. Network Like Your Career Depends on It

The company you get a returnship with may or may not offer you a job at the end of your contract. Don't worry too much about that. The most important thing you can do while you're working with them is give them your absolute best work and make as many connections as you can. Like it or not the world of work is governed by who you know and you never know when being in the know is going to land you your dream gig. Take advantage of the experience by putting yourself out there, offering to help others and making sure you don't get lost in the crowd.

Doing work you care about may not happen over night and it may take you marrying rich, getting fired, writing a book, selling your stuff or landing a plum returnship to do it, but no matter which road you choose, the payoff will be more than worth it.