Liz Galloway has built a successful and multi-faceted career as an entrepreneur, communications expert and PR strategist. Her work has taken her to many corners of the world, a journey that was kickstarted by a decision to take her first overseas position in the wellness industry in Costa Rica.
This experience fuelled a new passion for travel, and she has since taken two long-term sabbaticals; the first studying Arabic in Morocco for a year, and the second exploring Alaska, Hawaii and the Sea of Cortes on expedition boats for two years.
Liz used the time on her sabbaticals to live adventurously while learning a multitude of skills and gaining new certifications. She has learned two languages, become a qualified yoga teacher and fitness instructor, and is now even learning to fly helicopters.
In this interview, she discusses the incredible opportunities that her sabbaticals have opened up, the travel experiences along the way, and how her son is following in her footsteps by taking a sabbatical of his own.
What was your career and life situation before you first took a sabbatical?
For me, life has two seasons: first life, and then every life after. Of course, I know this is not true, but a woman can keep reinventing herself.
I’ve taken two main career sabbaticals and too many mini-sabbaticals to count. My first was my time in Morocco, a place that had been on my list for years.
This was a couple of years after some adversity and major life changes: stepping away from a major career position due to family matters, and a divorce that turned out to be one of the best decisions in opening up my life!
“I originally went for a year, and spent almost seven.”
I took the time to seek in-depth answers and to embrace my love of learning. I chose Morocco for its culture and the language, immediately enrolling in a local school to learn Arabic.
Why did you first decide to look for work overseas?
I’ve always had a travelling soul, and that was first lit on fire as a European foreign exchange student at the age of 14. I felt there was more to learn, and so I sought opportunities that would make me grow… and by grow, I mean going for sink or swim situations.
My first overseas position was in Costa Rica to work in high-end resorts and train wellness teams. I didn’t speak Spanish at the time and had never been to Central America, so it sounded like a perfect challenge.
Getting uncomfortable and exposing ourselves to vulnerability is a level of strength many people don’t experience. I originally went for a year, and spent almost seven.
I became a Spanish speaker, started a business, helped others start and run theirs, and continued to love the beach, the wildlife and all experiences big and small. Adaptability was key!
How did your experiences in Costa Rica help you to develop professionally?
It taught me interpersonal skills with multi-cultural, multi-lingual teams, leadership, strong problem-solving skills, adaptability, and knowing that my contributions could make a difference.
Plus, it led to plenty of other opportunities. I worked with community leaders there, the national tourism board and film makers, along with conservation and community projects for animals and native indigenous tribes.
I went on to oversee nine luxury properties in Spain in the marketing department, created media events, led and hosted international retreats for my own company (with another sabbatical in there), and ultimately transformed many different skills and experiences into a well-balanced position as a director in the travel sector.
Why did you then decide to take a sabbatical in Morocco?
Timing was right, and I moved those bucket-list spots off the wait list. This was a highly creative time for me after a lot of self-work, learning and reflection, which allowed me to tap into more ideas and seek more of my passions.
I created videos, honed my writing skills and learned to read, write and speak the fascinating Arabic language. I wandered the streets, souks, practiced my photography, taught English to local guides, soaked in the history, the desert sun and explored the country.
“There is more than one way to get things done and experience travel.”
I made new friends, international connections, ate snails, experienced Ramadan, and so much more. I feel most dynamic and connected to my intuition and intelligence when I create, and this was a time that expanded my mind and challenged me in new ways.
What more could you want from a sabbatical?
How did you use your time in Morocco, and what were the biggest take-aways?
I tried to immerse myself in everything. I used every online networking outlet available at that time to connect with locals and expats – expat.com, internations.org, meetup.com, and so on.
I love learning. So much of my time was focused on that, the language, culture, history and writing. A big take-away was a reminder that every expert was once a beginner, and consistency and persistence can change multiple outcomes.
There is more than one way to get things done and experience travel. My passions and interests have always been eclectic. They may not always remain rooted, but develop more fluidly over time.
Be open. You don’t always need to be with people like you. The more diverse the more you learn. If it’s on your bucket list and gives you growing pains, do it!
What were the challenges you faced in returning to your career after this sabbatical?
I took me a bit to get back into the rhythm of ‘corporate America’ again, and I worked both freelance and on teams of local brands in wellness and marketing.
It had been many years since I’d been in the area, so I had to re-establish my expertise with those who didn’t know me. I joined the boards of local non-profits, the chamber of commerce, and presented and spoke at women and business events while I pursued what would be my next adventure.
How did your second sabbatical come about?
My second major career sabbatical was years after my first, and equally as essential in continuing to grow and learn. I spent two years living on small expedition boats as part of the crew in Alaska, Hawaii and the Sea of Cortes.
It’s funny how a certain time in life will introduce you to pieces that may not fit at the time, but if kept open can provide opportunity later. That is the true story behind my second two-year sabbatical and temporary career change.
Almost 20 years ago I was introduced to the company I currently work with, while living and working in Costa Rica. The boutique small boat company led nature-based cruises on a small live-aboard through Costa Rica and Panama. I became friends with the crew and kept in touch.
Years later, I wanted more travel in my life and I needed a break from long hours, office settings and pressured deadlines. But I didn’t want to just take time off. I wanted to learn, to purse a new skill, and do something outside of my norm.
“Will I take another career sabbatical? Most definitely.”
So, through that old contact I applied to join as a crew member myself. Through many processes and certification checks, I was onboard a few months later. I took my new passions and rode them through the sky like a pegasus! Exit director of marketing, enter new on-board certified yoga teacher, fitness instructor and expedition assistant.
I’d have to write a book to share all of the standout experiences from this sabbatical. An unforgettable one was getting caught in the middle of a pod of bubble-net feeding humpback whales in Alaska. We were so close we could smell its breath and see the long-fringed blades of baleen inside its mouth.
We jumped into frigid water next to calving glaciers, and spotted bears from our kayaks on butter-like glacial waters. We moved from northern waters to south following whale migration, swam with gentle whale sharks and sea lions in Baja, and shared the water with graceful manta rays on night swims in Hawaii.
It was adventure day in and day out. Who wouldn’t want this as a sabbatical? Better yet, this was my work.
How have your sabbaticals influenced your career direction since?
My last sabbatical led me in so many different ways and provided me with new skills, but it also introduced me to a company that I’m still with today.
Now I lead the public relations and marketing department of the company, and still have passion for it knowing I’m promoting something I believe in.
I work remote much of the time doing what I love, and can migrate to new places in pursuit of more learning, or ticking off another item on my bucket list. Next month I’m going shark diving in Hawaii.
Over the decades my love of learning has opened up door after door. If the opportunity isn’t there just yet, that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. I feel we are too multi-dimensional to fit moulds others want us to.
My next endeavour? Finalise my helicopter license and create more visual video stories of people and places through their eyes. And of course, continue kite-boarding school and finish my skydive certification.
Will I take another career sabbatical? Most definitely. Those details, I’m still putting together.
Are there any particular skills you have learned on your travels that have been valuable in your work?
Character and values have played a big part in my life from the time of my eager naïve younger self to the current more skeptical and slightly less naïve older self.
While those are more interpersonal skills that I value, I also learned hard skills, like becoming bilingual after years of living and working in Central America.
That went on to open other positions for me, like a contract with a luxury hotel chain in Spain as a marketing manager, and paid travel positions to places like Ireland, Bermuda and the Dominican Republic as a trip director.
I consume skills like my favourite yellow M&Ms, and I’ve never regretted the time dedicated to that. What better education can you get than real-world experience in business, foreign affairs, culture, languages and entrepreneurship? All from career changes or career sabbaticals.
Your son is now following in your footsteps by taking a sabbatical – what is he doing with the break?
He has been practicing this in a sense much of his life, living overseas with me as a child, becoming bilingual and travelling extensively to ‘normalise’ learning about other cultures and people.
Now in his twenties, I feel in many ways he is going back to his roots and taking advantage of so many modern tools to share travel experiences.
“Don’t just take the sabbatical to chill – learn a skill.”
In his latest sabbatical endeavour, he has paired his social media and video skills with outreach to local communities and sharing on-the-ground interviews in places like Guatemala.
He started a vlog focused on sustainable, local and slow travel, and shares his passion through the mediums of art, videos and writing. He is making travel fun for himself and learning along the way, plus he is using his bilingual Spanish skills he learned as a younger traveller for his own entrepreneurial pursuits. Sometimes the pieces just fit together.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking a sabbatical from work?
Life will constantly present us with opportunities to find out who we are. How to create happiness. How to deal with disappointment. How to tune in to our inner child and where to find purpose in this fantastically diverse world we are connected to.
We don’t know what we don’t know, and that is why we should keep exploring. So, here are a few pieces of career sabbatical advice I would give from my own experience.
Don’t just take the sabbatical to chill – learn a skill. When you come back, you’ll be stronger than ever. Do it in a place you’ve done a bit of research on or have laid out a few contacts in to build on.
For example, I wanted to learn Arabic, so I found a local in Morocco by networking online who could introduce me to what happens behind the tourist scene.
I also sent out dozens of emails and introductions before hitting the ground, and then met them on-site for additional opportunities to go on tours, travel to music concerts, teach English to locals, and be invited to local get-togethers I would never have been able to do without making an effort.
It pays to be organised in travel, and have backups and redundancies. The confidence of having a backup if something goes wrong can relieve a lot of stress.
To anyone reading this today, start with finding one little element that confines you, one you are told defines you — and break it. You learn and grow every time whether it’s a full career sabbatical, or a weekend in pursuit of something new!
Inspired by Liz’s story? Read more tales of sabbatical experiences in our career break interview series. Our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break will help you to get started on your own adventure.