Manisha Singh had moved to one of the busiest cities in the world for a job she didn’t enjoy and a relationship that ended soon afterwards. Reaching an extreme low point, she decided it was time to make a drastic change. She quit her job at one of the ‘big four’ consulting firms, and travelled as far away from her known world as possible.
After spending a year traversing Latin America, Manisha returned to India where she has built a new fulfilling career path in the diversity and inclusion space, inspired by her travel experiences.
In this interview, she discusses the challenges she faced as a woman in India going against societal expectations, how the distance from worklife pressures gave her space to reflect, and how the career break experience has empowered her to find happiness on her own terms.
Manisha documented her journey on The Sole Speaks.
What was your career and life situation before you decided to take a break to travel?
I had been working as an HR-IT consultant with one of the big four consulting firms in Mumbai for a little over a year. This meant that most of my day was spent either at work or commuting. I wasn’t unhappy with my job, but I wasn’t the happiest person going to work either.
What motivated your decision to take a long travel break from work?
My mental health was at its worst during that time. I struggled with it for months, and nothing seemed to be working. When I found myself at a point which felt like the absolute bottom, I decided I could do the wildest thing possible in my quest to find happiness again because it couldn’t get any worse.
That’s how I quit my job, because that was the wildest thing I could ever imagine doing, taking all my money and spending it on myself.
How did the people in your life react to your decision to take a career break?
My parents were happy to see me happy, at least in the beginning. Everyone else got to know of my decision when my flight tickets were already booked and it was my last week at work. So there wasn’t much anyone’s reaction could have done to change my mind.
Nevertheless, as I had anticipated some of my friends wouldn’t be happy with the decision, and they told me I would regret this career-limiting move – but there were also some who were equally excited for my new journey.
How did your colleagues react, and how did you prepare for your departure from work?
As a consultant I didn’t work in a standard team structure. I had only worked with the team for a few months, and they were all really happy for me. Some people were happy that I was quitting the workplace they wanted to quit as well, and others were happy that I would be using the time to do something I love.
The colleague I worked with on an everyday basis even covered for me when I would get delayed in my embassy runs.
I did keep a gap between my last working day and my flight so I had enough time to prepare for the big journey. This way I was not anxious at work, and could close things in a more orderly fashion.
Is it common for people to take time out of work in India to travel, and were there any particular challenges you faced in preparing for it?
People taking a career break to prepare for an entrance exam for higher studies or women taking a break to raise a child are not unheard of in India, but taking a break to travel is not common. Definitely not as common as one would expect from a country of 1.3 billion people.
The biggest challenge in preparing for the journey was getting all my visas in place. Indian passports make it really difficult to travel outside Asia, especially for an unplanned trip.
To give you an example, I needed to get six visas for the journey that couldn’t be applied for before 90 days of departure date or within seven days prior to departure. Each visa took between five and ten working days, during the course of which you didn’t have your passport to start visa processes for another country.
Thankfully, things have changed quite a lot in the last three years, mostly for good.
“The most important change that I brought about in my life is to take a stand for my happiness and peace of mind.”
Where did you go on your journey, and are there any standout memories?
I was undecided until the very end, but eventually decided to visit Latin America. There are so many good memories from that time; just thinking about it makes me smile.
I was staying with a family in Argentina early on my journey. I didn’t speak much Spanish, and except my host nobody in the family spoke any English. My only forms of communication with them were a good morning and good night kiss, yet as I prepared to leave after three days, my host’s mother started tearing up, and soon her daughters were crying too. It was an early lesson in kindness and a reminder that while language is important, connections can be made without it too.
Seeing places that I had only read about and had never imagined visiting was quite special, like the first view of Machu Picchu after a five-day hike through the rain and biting cold weather, seeing the sunrise over the salt flats of Bolivia, swimming in the sink holes of Mexico, and napping on the Caribbean beaches. It’s been about three years since I returned, but it still feels so surreal.
Overall what stands out is how liberated I felt every single minute of my journey.
What did you learn from your travel career break that you would never have learned without doing it?
Without taking this break I would have never done the kind of self-reflection that I was able to during that time. The distance that I was able to create from my usual life back in India helped me unlearn things I had been conditioned to believe for 29 years. For example, I needed to be fair to be desired or considered beautiful, I needed to get married by a certain age and have kids soon after, all the material things I believed I needed in life. There just aren’t enough examples around us to consider an alternative path.
It helped me understand what kind of life I wanted to create for myself.
How did you approach the challenge of resuming your career after your travel break?
It wasn’t the easiest to get callbacks after I returned, but I was determined to not settle for anything that didn’t excite me. I decided to take up short-term gigs while looking for the right opportunity. This helped me not succumb to the financial pressure.
But for anyone seeking advice, there were enough opportunities when I returned; it’s just that I had become more mindful of what I wanted to invest my time and energy into.
“The reason I was so interested in the diversity and inclusion space is that I believed my exposure through travels gave me a unique advantage to work in this field.”
You have embarked on a new career direction in the diversity and inclusion space. What inspired this, and how has it been going?
I recently completed a year-long project with an Indian conglomerate working in their diversity and inclusion team. It was exactly the kind of opportunity I was seeking and it all worked out beautifully.
The reason I was so interested in the diversity and inclusion space is that I believed my exposure through travels gave me a unique advantage to work in this field. Not only did I get to experience some starkly diverse cultures, I also got to make friends with people from the LGBT+ community, a community that had been fighting for legal recognition back in India.
This made me question my role as an ally because in nearly 29 years of my life in India, I had no friends from the LGBT+ community. Surely I was missing something.
There was also one particular incident that strengthened my resolve to work in this space. Upon returning to India, I had taken up a fixed-term project where I was the only woman in the team or the extended team. The staff’s inability to work with a woman became apparent from the time they came on ground, and the leadership’s shortcomings in taking appropriate action on my multiple complaints was quite disappointing. It opened my eyes to discrimination in the workplace.
Have you made any other big lifestyle changes as a result of your career break?
Oh, many. Like a lot of travellers I turned into a minimalist. It’s the most practical and environment-friendly thing to do.
The most important change that I brought about in my life is to take a stand for my happiness and peace of mind. I have decided to remain child-free and marry only if I ever find someone I really want to get married to. These might seem like very obvious things to someone from a different culture, but in India a woman is seen as an outcast for choosing herself over her family’s wishes. And the family generally wishes for the woman to follow the timeline they have set for her.
How did your friends and family react to this changed version of you?
As with most long-term travellers, a lot of my friends dropped out of my life naturally. It’s harder to keep in touch when in a different time zone and you start to question the value people are adding to your life.
As my return date kept getting extended, my family started losing patience with me. We don’t share the best relationship any more, like most Indian women who choose themselves. I have made my peace with it because I have learned the hard way that nobody else knows you better than you know yourself.
Do you think more people in India would benefit from taking time out of work to travel?
A definite yes. I’m encouraging all my friends with kids and the ones who want to have kids to create a travel fund for the child(ren) that they can use to take a year off to travel after completing high school.
Indians put in an average of ten more hours at work per week compared to the global average. The intense competition in practically any profession makes work more like a race than an endeavour to use our knowledge and skills to the best of our abilities.
What advice would you give to other people who are considering taking time out of work to travel?
Do it. Don’t wait for the savings to reach an unreasonable level because the enthusiasm fades, responsibilities keep adding up in life, and we get used to the luxuries in life.
The cost of travelling keeps increasing the more you delay, by which I mean one would be giving up a bigger paycheck, more important promotions and bigger bonuses the later they leave their jobs. Earlier on in the career we’re not giving up as much to take a break.
To a friend who had commented that I should have never quit my job when I was looking for work, I had replied: “even if I remain jobless for the rest of my life, it would still be the best decision I ever took”. Three years later, I still mean it.
If you enjoyed Manisha’s inspiring story, you can read more tales of transformation in our career break interview series. You may also be interested to read Susan’s article on how travel helps you value differences in the workplace.
Start planning your career break with our ebook, How to Take a Year Off Work.
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