What if stepping back could push you forward?

This year (2019), I turned 40. I started planning for the celebration when I was 36, and set some goals that many might consider superficial: getting into the best physical shape of my life, finding the ideal place for the celebration as well as taking a sabbatical from work to expand my horizons culturally and geographically.

When I first started working for EY back in 2016, most of my colleagues already knew about my 40thbirthday goals. This may sound frivolous to some, but gaining mass and getting a six-pack requires lots of discipline and hard work. That said, it is a goal I can control: it’s up to me alone to turn my vision into reality. Unlike requesting for a sabbatical: having worked less than five years at the company, it felt almost too much to ask.

So, I initiated a discussion with the head of my department and my team leader about one year ahead of my desired sabbatical. By then, I had concrete plans of visiting Laos, Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh), Cambodia, Bangkok for my birthday celebration and lastly Singapore to visit family and friends, so I knew that I would need about six weeks without feeling stressed out. My idea was to take one month of unpaid leave plus another month of annual vacation. I was also confident that any resource shortage over the summer period can be relieved by hiring an intern.

Equipped with this strategy, I approached my head of department and team leader. Luckily, my request was very well received, so we started to advertise for an intern six months prior to my sabbatical and were fortunate to find a motivated and competent candidate almost immediately. The long lead time also meant that we were able to train her well in advance. When I left, she was able to handle most of the routine jobs, ensuring a smooth business continuation.

Just before my sabbatical, I was managing an event – Mindfulness in the workplace – that influenced my choice of holiday reading: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, Joy on Demand by Chade-Meng Tanand The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. Combined with new cultural experiences, these books gave me new insights about myself as I travelled throughout former French Indochina.

My partner and I set out on our journey toward Bangkok after a short transit in Singapore. Somewhat of a tradition before I go on any vacation, I treat myself to a massage at the beginning to “force” myself to relax. After 48 hours in Bangkok, I was well rested, had my fill of fresh coconut water and was positively relaxed for the next phase: Luang Prabang in Laos.

What a contrast it was to Bangkok! Luang Prabang is a small, slow-paced and very tranquil place. As a practicing Buddhist, my personal highlight was the daily almsgiving ceremony for the monks in the morning. I felt so humbled by the whole experience, and it triggered a need in me to do more to help the poor and those less fortunate than me. After all, I have been blessed with so much. Next stop: Vietnam – Hanoi (Halong Bay and Sapa) and Ho Chi Minh.

We hired a local guide at Hanoi, who enthusiastically explained the history of the various tourist attractions, such as Hỏa-Lò prison and Ho Chi Minh-Mausoleum. He spoke with such pride about Vietnam that we felt a little culturally challenged, especially when he spoke of how the French had invaded and robbed them of their resources. However, he was often quick to add that Vietnamese are friendly and future-oriented people, so we should all learn from history to make friends instead of war. From the hustling and bustling night life of the city to the cooler mountainous region around Sapa, Vietnam left an unforgettable impression on us.

The cultural cultivation continued with a visit to Siem Reap. Sadly, my lasting memory was not of the impressive temples, but rather of the water shortages in the floating villages. Global warming has caused a shift in monsoon areas, which has brought decreasing rainfall. This poor country has endured so much hardship, as was made patently clear to us during a visit to one of the killing fields in Phnom Penh. How can fellow human beings do such horrifying, inhumane acts to each other? Haven’t we learnt enough from the World Wars? I strongly believe that education can change lives, which is why I asked my friends and family to donate to the Cambodian Children’s Fund, instead of getting me anything for my birthday.

So, did I manage to fulfil my goal of getting into the best physical shape of my life? To document my personal achievement, I engaged a professional photographer and had my first-ever gym photoshoot. Check! Birthday celebration on a rooftop in Bangkok? Check! Expand my horizons culturally and geographically? Check! I’m now back at work with a fresh perspective on life – my sabbatical has indeed pushed me forward, emotionally and mentally as a human being.

So it’s definitely worth taking a step back, and taking a longer break from our daily routines, in order to return with greater awareness – to actually become more present at work. Who would have thought that the best career move for me was simply to take a sabbatical?