Carly Campbell is 32 and from South London. We were gobsmacked when she got in touch with us - because she's the first person to come to us with a story of how her career break went wrong.
She bravely agreed to be interviewed for our blog, and told us it was because she wanted to help other career breakers avoid the same experience. This turned out to be one of our favourite ever interviews, not because we like hearing of others' misfortunes, but, as you will see, because of how Carly managed to regain her positivity and optimism.
Hi Carly. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed by us.
Can we start by asking what were you doing before your career break?
I was single and working as a project manager for a North American software company, so I was already doing a lot of travel, but business travel.
Actually, give us a bit of background on your working life first!
I didn't go to uni and started working at 16. At 19, I joined the public sector and was in a front-line role for just over 7 years. I left the public sector to go and work in financial services. I fell into project management by chance and loved working within the privatesector – the travel appealed to me.
I've always loved travelling and always had itchy feet. Going into corporate was about finding opportunities that allowed me to travel.
So why did you take a career break?
I was getting sick quite a lot in my job and I attributed it to working very long hours, working with people in different time zones, so there was never really an end to the day. I worked with people in Canada, America, New Zealand, Dubai...
There was also a lot of restructuring going on at work, so my role within the company was precarious – therefore I thought taking a career break to regenerate would be a good move at this point.
I was also thinking I was at a nice age to take a career break as I had no responsibilities or commitments, and I had savings. I also wanted to give my life a bit of a "makeover".
A lot of my friends are settling down and having babies – but I am just not at that stage yet.
What kind of illnesses were you getting?
Ear infections, colds, coughs, kidney infections – and it was all stress related – that's my opinion and my doctor's!
Because I kept going back, I had blood tests and stuff that came back fine, and she was of the opinion:” Carly, I think you're really really stressed out and I think you need to change something.”
So what did you do?
So, following that, I then took my first mini break to Bali for an R & R retreat [rest and relaxation], and that was around March time [this year]. It was 10 days.
It was one of the most fantastic trips I've ever taken solo, and it came at such a good time, you know, with all the stress at work.
The first seven days I spent in North Bali. It wasn't a yoga retreat, it was more like a spa break retreat I would say – heavily focused around a lot of treatments and relaxation. It was bliss.
During that trip I started meeting people who were actually travelling.
[Laughs] I distinguish between being on holiday, which I was, and actually travelling!
They were pretty nomadic as well, and I really liked that whole lifestyle, it really appealed to me.
During the trip, I realised how short life is. It was also really important that I met more travellers, long-term travellers, people who had taken “self-discovery” trips – their words! And I bonded with them – the last 2 days in Bali, we were inseparable – and it inspired me to take the trip [her career break].
So what happened when you came back?
So that was, OK, the trip from Bali finished, I came back to the UK as it was just a holiday, went back to my job and things just weren't falling into place at work.
I wasn't sick once while I was away but I started to get sick again, and just pretty much had reached saturation point with the job, the rat race – I was living in London at the time.
So around about end of April I gave my notice in at my job to leave at the end of May.
They were upset, but because I said I was leaving on the grounds that I wanted to travel, they accepted it after a couple of days, so that was quite good.
My family wanted me to leave the job but didn't think I'd necessarily go travelling – they thought I would just take a couple of weeks out and find another job!
You mentioned you were single at the time
I had been single for some time after an on/off relationship.
This is an interesting one. Before I went travelling [to Bali], I was really, unhappy about being single, especially in my 30s. When I went to Bali, I was absolutely in my element and I absolutely loved being single – it was the freedom, the being the master of your own itinerary, being able to be agile, and I felt that I had met so many more people travelling solo than I would have if I'd travelled with a partner.
And what I found is that I was welcomed into groups, welcomed into groups of boys and groups of girls. The place was also a resort and there was a couple of groups from America, and they welcomed me in.
When I came back I was definitely happy single and was refusing to actively date because I knew I was going away.
Tell us about your career break inspiration
I got wooed by Instagram, in the fact that I ended up joining Instagram to plan my travels and get some inspiration.
I believe now I got very much swept up in the Instagram travel / travelly blogs – all the pages I looked at said going on sabbatical is the best thing that you could ever do and all these pictures of these far-flung places – I thought, yeah, I want to go there!
We do that too!
It was more Instagram, it wasn't the websites, a lot of them were more realistic with it. Instagram gave this idealistic, you know, approach to travelling – for example, wonderful pictures of Bali but actually Bali can be full of plastic and quite dirty! But the pictures were all awe-inspiring.
Also, there's that whole digital nomad movement, people can work from anywhere, this whole laptop lifestyle, and I think I got swept up in that too. I kind of was interested in it, I was interested in learning more about it on my travels, maybe in the future to sustain the longer-term travel.
So you started packing...
Lots of packing, got the insurance, booked a one-way ticket back to Bali.
Yeah. I went back to where I went on holiday – and that was the big mistake. It was a massive lesson learnt for me. Massive.
So how did your career break start?
So the day comes, I fly out, I treated myself to a business class ticket, and then, I don't know, the red flags started the minute I got to Heathrow. Unbeknown to me and nothing I can find on the FCO website or any of the websites I looked at – you can't book one-way tickets to Indonesia.
What do you mean?
I was informed that you have to have proof of onward travel otherwise Indonesian immigration can be rather strict. I have friends in Australia who fly there on one-way tickets all the time [Bali is a very popular destination for Australians] and I have a friend [in the UK] who went to Bali on a one-way ticket.
I since found out the rule is airline-specific. What happens if you go in and immigration is a problem, the airline is responsible for you so it's in their best interests for you to have an onward ticket – I found this out via some Trip Advisor Forums, other people were reporting the similar experiences.
Yep, so I ended up booking a ticket to Phuket in Thailand – I already had plans to go to Thailand but I wanted to book it in Bali, but I had to do it at the check-in desk. It was fine, and I was allowed to check in.
I'm gonna say, at this point, this is when I kind of felt that the trip wasn't going to be what I had hoped it would be.
I started having the fear of what am I doing, am I too old for this, I haven't got a job, I haven't got enough money, etc.
How much money did you have?
I had £6,000 for a six-month trip, £1,000 for each month.
Can we put that in?
Yes, I think it's important to put in financial information – it's important to have a budget and manage people's expectations. For example, how expensive Australia is. £1,000 a month in South-East Asia can go very far, even for a flashpacker.
I place myself at the flashpack end [of the budget spectrum] – not a backpacker, over 30, bit more disposable income, and would rather stay in comfort rather than a dorm or anything.
So, back to your trip
Got to Bali and the excitement had just – it wasn't there. It just was not there. Especially when I compare it to how I felt when I was in March.
I ended up leaving Bali earlier than planned because I had to book that ticket to Thailand. I originally planned to stay four weeks – I was glad to leave though. I couldn't wait. I – do you know what, I am going to say this – it was like hell!
So, this time around, I found it hard to meet other travellers.
Also, I did venture out, I saw parts of Bali I never wish to see again – it was the party side, there was a lot of drugs going on. It was just partying to another level – the country gives the death penalty for drugs and they were everywhere!
I just saw a whole different side – I'd seen the spiritual hub before and this time I was in the thick of it. It just wasn't the island of the gods that I had experienced the first time.
What did you do?
So, then I went off to Thailand, couldn't wait to get out of Bali. Even from getting on that flight I felt better, I sat next to two other solo female travellers on the flight, and I bonded with them. Even when you're travelling solo, it's so nice to have that company.
I went to Phuket – and the first few nights I stayed in Patong beach. I booked myself into this hostel slash hotel for the first four nights and that was fantastic, and that was absolutely – I fell in love with Thailand.
So, the four nights, five days, it was one of these hostels that is out of this world, I ended up meeting a ton more solo travellers in their 30s, all on self-discovery trips again. And it was brilliant, had a little foursome to do dinners with, party with.
Was it all platonic?
[Laughs] Er... no!
Well, um, I met a guy called Jack from Australia and we “bonded” from the outset. And it was actually a bond that then attracted the wider group, it was fantastic, he had taken 2 months out himself to travel, and was able to secure his job when he got back.
That was the first night I got to Thailand, and subsequent from there I met the wider group and we were a great foursome. I approached that with “it's just going to be casual” but we've actually been able to maintain contact!
I wasn't really... We agreed that we'd bonded very well but we knew we didn't want to join up [to travel together], but just to have our trips ourselves.
And then you went somewhere else in Thailand, didn't you?
Yes, after that I booked myself onto a yoga retreat in Koh Yao Noi and that was paradise. Simply paradise. I also took some time out to finish some online courses, to try and accelerate my career. I always struggled to fit in study around a full-time job but, this time out gave me the opportunity to “upskill in paradise”.
And I think what made the experience was that I had a purpose. I was travelling with purpose, finally.
What was your purpose at this point?
Really it was to go to that yoga retreat – after having a blow-out in Thailand, it was nice to go and have R & R – in my 30s I just can't keep up! But I was going somewhere, I had structure.
After the yoga retreat, I went back to Phuket, spent another few nights there, again met some wonderful people and then I decided to fly to Australia.
Had you planned to?
No, I saw a cheap flight to Sydney from Phuket and that's why I went. I managed to get my electronic visa about 48 hours before – no plans before that!
Flew to Sydney on a one-way ticket, got no hassle whatsoever [laughs], even though they're usually really strict! I'd printed off bank statements and everything, but there was no hassle – 3 and a half minutes it took!
You timed it!
So then what?
I booked into an Airbnb for the week outside the city, as at that point I was craving home comforts. I thought that I was a bit tired now.
Again, the first week in Sydney I didn't do much other than... I was really exhausted, all the flying in a short space of time, so it was really a chill-out place, my Airbnb host was from the UK as well so we had an immediate bond.
You talk about bonding a lot
Because I'm such a people-oriented person if I click with someone I feel like I bond with them. People were surprised that I travelled solo but you can pick and choose the bonds you form with people when you travel solo. As opposed to when you're in a four, a group, or with a friend travelling, or you're with a partner. And that's what I like about solo travel.
Interestingly enough, he [the Airbnb host] said maybe you should explore work opportunities in Australia, your skills are really sought after and was asking me what my long-term plans are and at that point it was to see Australia then continue travelling in South-East Asia. I did have some preliminary plans to "stick" in Australia for a bit and scope the job market. I felt I was in a good position to find work and possibly settle for a it. But I really lost my oomph, I lost my mojo in Australia.
I was really underwhelmed with Sydney. And I'm not I'm trying to pinpoint – I think I was really really exhausted at that point.
I wonder if all the work stress and being ill so much was part of the reason
I did attribute it to my previous illnesses and the stress of my job. The first four weeks were supposed to be detoxing from my stressful life because I left the job on Friday and flew out on a Monday – it was that quick. And I was in multiple accommodations all the time – it was the packing, the unpacking, the flight here, the flight there.
Because I found in Thailand I had so much energy, I had found somewhere the energy was good, the vibe was good and then I got to Australia and it just dived. And so after that week in the Airbnb I decided to move into more central Sydney. That was an experience I wouldn't want to repeat!
I ended up booking myself into a backpacker's hostel just because I wanted to experience meeting other people, and there seemed to be a lot more social nights in backpacker hostels than in hotels. But it was at that point I realised “I am 32!”
I am not 22. And a lot of the people were way under 30. I think it was just, you are at different life stages, they are on a gap year, they've just left uni, I had come from a 16-year career.
I think that's what it was, as much as I've got younger friends or whatever – I really felt my age then. I was ready go to to bed at 10pm, they were ready to start their evening!
So yeah, spent the weekend in Central Sydney, booked myself onto a Blue Mountains tour, was a small group and I could connect with people throughout the day but all the time there was this underlying sense of “I don't really want to be here”.
And I was burning through cash like anything – Australia is sooo expensive – but I then decided to get a flight to Perth and see the west coast of Australia, as I heard It was way more laid back.
How was it?
Um, things improved – my mood slightly improved in Western Australia – it's also more beachy, there's a lot more space, I saw a bit of the outback, the people were friendlier. But it was still not working for me.
I think I said to you in my email, this whole travel experience was like a relationship that you're trying to make work but really you know it isn't. I was still duped by Instagram – I was still booking myself onto tours, not sitting around feeling sorry for myself but even so...
I was regretting coming to Australia because of how much I was spending – my age came up a lot. And things just felt off kilter.
I met a few people in Perth – I did my best to get out there and meet people. And it was interesting and a lot of them were local and they were saying Australia isn't the kind of place you end up meeting other travellers because it's not that kind of place. It attracts people on the working holiday visa but not people in the nomadic community or "wanderlusters", like you find in South-East Asia.
So, it just wasn't easy to walk into a coffee shop and say hi to people, in South-East Asia it's much easier because so many people are doing the same thing as you.
I know what you mean! So you were in Western Australia at this point...
We're in Western Australia now and this is where I've reached crisis point. I needed to leave Australia but I didn't know where to go next. I didn't want to go home, I didn't want to be defeated.
So what did you do?
I decided to get the map out and really really think where I wanted to go to next and I really wanted to go to Cambodia. And having spoken to a few people who I'd met along the way they said that Cambodia was a fantastic place to go to and there are a lot of expats, solo travellers, backpackers, etc.
But I didn't go!
So what happened was that one of the travellers I'd met in March in Bali – we'd worked out we were in the same place – it was all quite fortuitous!
We were still in touch and it was just coincidence we were travelling in the same place at the same time.
He said, should we do a couple of weeks together, that might get your mojo back, he saw I was quite despondent. I had such high expectations that it would be this life changer and it just hadn't been. And he saw that and said let's do something about it. He said what about doing some other Indonesian islands, it's only a 3-hour flight, and he suggested going to Cambodia afterward.
We – me and this guy – went to Nusa Lembongan [in Indonesia]. It's 30 minutes from Bali but it's an island on its own. And the reason for going there, I'd met up with someone, they were nomadic and were already going someplace out of Australia and I wanted to spend a couple of weeks having some company, I thought it would be a good idea.
[Laughs] But it was a disaster!
Oh no, why?
So, um, I thought it would be a good idea because we got on when we had met in Bali, with the rest of the group, but it was just a disaster.
But at that point I must have subconsciously just given up on the trip completely and I believe he was picking up on that. He was trying to make it work for me and I just wasn't open to doing anything at that point.
And it was just – you know, it was just really strange because I'd never been someone to suffer with low mood or depression or anything like that, but on this trip, I think I had a really bad bout of melancholy.
It was, honestly, I couldn't put my finger on it. Why things weren't falling into place.
It was just small things which goes to show that I will struggle to travel with someone in close proximity. We had different timetables, he liked to go to sleep early, I liked to go out some nights, he was a surfer, I wasn't. Just completely different people. And it was a very platonic relationship, it was purely friendship but just completely opposite people.
He made me realise just how much I missed my routine back in London!
He was like I said, he was nomadic so he would go and find work in the Australian mines then go to South-East Asia – 3 months on, 3 months off, he was carefree, didn't have a home just a bag and a surfboard. As much as that lifestyle intrigued me, the trip made me realise I'm not someone who can live out of a bag and not know what I'm doing one day to the next.
We didn't have a bust up, I said this isn't working for me, I don't even think I should go to Cambodia, I'm just trying to make something of this trip that it cannot be and I can't salvage it.
So I flew home.
How did that feel?
Awful. Absolutely awful.
It was the longest 17-hour flight ever. It was a mix of complete and utter failure. I had – did I have too many expectations? Was I swept up in this whole Instagram movement? Just complete and utter defeat.
What happened when you came home?
I went probably into a two-week – I'm not going to say depression but you know when you go into such a lull. I didn't want to speak to anybody, I was so embarrassed, I didn't want anyone to be inquisitive as to why the trip failed... I went MIA.
Did it feel like you were grieving?
Do you know what, I'm going to say yes! I was grieving for the life I thought I was going to have. I thought that trip would be the game changer.
[Carly stumbled over her words here] I just can't even describe how disappointing it was. It was so hyped to start with, and before I went I sold up almost everything – got rid of this, that, my car.
Just to come back and – nothing. No job, not even a great experience to talk about – other than Thailand.
When was this?
I've just realised, it was 4 weeks ago today. On a Tuesday.
The first 2 weeks I was just, everything was going through my head and I didn't want to do anything and I got out of my funk and I just decided to put my CV back out, to find work, and that's been more successful than my trip! I've been inundated with offers and not one recruiter has looked at my career break unfavourably – they look at me as I'm refreshed, reset and ready to hit the ground running.
That's the only thing your experience has in common with the rest of the career breakers we talk to!
There hasn't been one negative question or anything, they're like, that's fantastic, you're ready go to now.
They say you were brave enough to go to the other side of the world solo – I think that speaks volumes to employers, that you're adaptable, you've experienced other cultures etc.
So pretty much, the market's my oyster at the moment, I've been offered 7 jobs and have just accepted a fantastic opportunity with a great employer for a very lucrative rate.
Rate not salary?
Yes – although I have been offered permanent roles, I've put myself back on the market only as a contract employee – because I want to go travelling again!
Oh wow, really? That is interesting.
So interesting – I think a lot of people didn't think I wanted to travel again but it's just in me. I have wanderlust syndrome!
What will you do?
So, there's been a ton of lessons learnt and the contracts are 7 to 8 months – so that would take me into March next year and I would be looking at a volunteer programme this time – going with purpose. I have re-thought my work-life balance and I think contracting might be the best way forward for me as I can work then spend a few months travelling.
I would probably set aside 3 months this time instead of the 6 months I had in my head last time.
I think I would like to use my skills – my industry skills, project managing, on a conservation project or something where you're helping build homes for people in rural communities. I think that would attract people like myself to it – so you're with people you can connect with.
The average age is older with skilled volunteer projects
Yeah, I'd be absolutely fine! That's handy to know! That is something I would seek out.
So, despite your experience, you are still pro-career breaks?
It was disappointing and maybe it wasn't the right time, but I still recommend it. It's something that everyone should do it at least once in their life, but you've got to do it differently from how I did it! [laughs]
Not spend so much time on Instagram?
I deleted Instagram, I had enough of it!
I think it's the whole travelling with purpose – I learnt a lot about myself and I can't just rock up and be nomadic. It's just not me, it can be for other people but it's not me. And that was a lesson learnt – when I first went to Bali I went with purpose – it was something that I was going to. As opposed to just wandering.
I'm glad it hasn't put you off
I thought it would put me off – on the journey home I never wanted to see another plane or airport! Already this year, including work, I've taken 26 flights and I was flying a lot during the time I was away, I got to Heathrow and I was like, never, ever again.
When I eventually did meet up with friends who I was ignoring, I was telling them of the experience, but they pointed out that there was still a glow in my face when I was talking. Not just about where I'd been but like the whole travel experience in general. And they said:
“Yep. You're going to do it again.”
We'd like to thank Carly for taking so much time to talk to us, and for sharing her story with such honesty. We're going to stay in touch with her and see how she gets on! If you'd like to ask Carly anything, or if you want to respond to her story, you can do it via us and we'll pass it on.