Steven Rust, a financial services executive from the USA, had been working in investment management for 14 years. But last year, when he and his wife returned to the USA after many years living and working overseas, they decided to take a career break with their three-year-old son.
Making varied use of the time off, Steven has spent time with his family, including caring for his mother and connecting with his young son, as well as taking some courses and weaving in some travel experiences.
In this interview, Steven talks about his reasons for taking a career break, what he’s learned, and what’s in store for the future.
You have spent several years living outside the USA: can you talk through your career path during this time?
In 2005 I joined a large investment management firm in New York, and was very lucky and privileged to spend 11 years working outside the USA for them. I lived in London from September 2008 to August 2014, and in Hong Kong from September 2014 to July 2019.
My role throughout this period was to develop and maintain relationships with institutional investors and their advisors (investment consultants) in the USA, UK, Continental Europe, and Asia-Pacific. In many ways it was my dream job, working with clients and colleagues from around the world in a fast-moving, demanding industry.
Why did you decide to take some time out of your career?
The primary catalyst was my mother having a health scare in the summer of 2018. Her health issues (and the birth of our son the year before) crystallised our thinking that after 11 years overseas the time had come to go home. As we found ourselves in the so-called “sandwich generation” balancing an ageing parent and young child, we felt we were just too far away from our families – mine in New York and my wife’s in Barcelona and Miami.
Although we thought we’d stay in Hong Kong for at least another 3–5 years and continue to push harder on our careers, we decided that returning to the USA was the right move after a few discussions with our families.
When the time came to return to the USA after so much time abroad, it therefore seemed like a natural moment for us as a family to pause and reconsider our goals and priorities. Even if nervously excited, we were ready take advantage of this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to take a break.
What arrangements did you make with your workplace before you left?
As my mother’s health evolved in the fall of 2018, I approached my employer to outline the situation I was facing and discuss moving back to the USA. Even in the best of times, intercontinental moves require careful planning. Trying to expedite a move was therefore far from ideal. Timing is everything!
A suitable role did not materialise, however, after almost six months of searching. Consequently I decided to leave the firm after 14 years. While it was a bittersweet decision to call time out, I concluded that I’d had a good run, and it was now best to focus on other areas of life for a while, especially family commitments. The prior 12–18 months had been mentally exhausting, and avoiding burnout was a key consideration.
Once I made the decision to leave, my boss and I worked out an appropriate departure date and handover plan. I then introduced my successor to my clients. Simultaneously, my wife wound up her import/export business, which she had started in 2014 when we moved to Hong Kong. She also resigned from several committees that she was involved with.
How did you plan and prepare for your career break?
Prior to making the decision to leave, we ran the numbers and determined we could afford to take a career break. My wife and I are both pretty frugal by nature, so fortunately we managed to save a lot over the years. Once we had a handle on our expected expenses vs savings, we realised that an extended break was doable.
Besides wrapping everything up in Hong Kong professionally, we also had to organise the various logistics of moving, packing up our apartment, selling furniture, closing accounts etc. This was reasonably straightforward, although inevitably became a whirlwind of minutiae as the departure date approached.
We also began thinking loosely about how we wanted to spend our time off: exercising more, taking a few courses, reading some books, and spending time with family/ friends. A key piece of advice I received from a mentor before leaving was “You don’t get too many chances in life to look around, rebalance, and consider what drives you most. Don’t overplan.” We really took that to heart.
“I was positively surprised by how much interesting, affordable content is available online from many of the world’s most well-known universities.”
How have you used your time out since returning to the USA?
Although we planned to settle down in the New York area, we decided to spend the break in Miami. We did this for a few reasons – my wife has family there, it is a great bilingual English/Spanish environment for our son, and it has a much lower cost of living compared to New York. Not to mention better weather! Importantly it was also easy to fly back and forth to the New York area to help my mom, who was going through an intense physical therapy routine.
I used some of my time at home to sign up for a handful of online courses, to keep my mind active and learn some new skills. I was positively surprised by how much interesting, affordable content is available online from many of the world’s most well-known universities. My aim was to focus upon subjects that will be important for whatever endeavour I pursue next – including technology, strategy, innovation, management, leadership – and which could complement the skills and knowledge I had developed during the prior 14 years.
I also committed to drive my son to school each morning, and very often found myself being the only dad on the playground with him in the afternoon! Watching him develop during this transition has been priceless.
Have there been any standout travel experiences during your break?
Fortunately we were able to take three trips. First, before leaving Asia we visited Tokyo for a week. We spent our honeymoon in Japan and without a doubt it is our favourite country in all of Asia. Returning one more time before going back to the USA was important to us.
Upon leaving Hong Kong we also booked a one-way ticket to Barcelona (where my wife is from) and spent most of July 2019 there before going back to the USA.
Lastly, during the Christmas/New Year holiday, we took a ‘bucket list’ trip to Argentina. It was not actually planned initially, but in September 2019 the Argentine peso significantly dropped in value by ~50% making it very affordable to go. We had talked about visiting some friends in Argentina for years, so this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
We spent eight days in Buenos Aires, and two and a half weeks in Patagonia: a week in the mountains of Bariloche, three days over the border in Puerto Varas (Chile), and almost a week in Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) admiring both penguin and seal colonies on the Atlantic coast. The nearby city of Trelew is also famous for dinosaur fossils, which was a lot of fun for our son!
Were there any extra logistical challenges of taking a career break as a family with a young child?
Yes, absolutely! Our son’s development and well-being was (and continues to be) front of mind for everything we have done on this break. For example, a big reason for staying in Miami was being able to enrol him in a bilingual nursery school that we really liked and where he responded very well to the teachers.
In addition, when we took the trip to Patagonia, with a toddler we could not quite go as far off the beaten path as we might have liked. We debated trekking near El Chaltén, Argentina into Torres del Paine, Chile or visiting Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and getting as close as we could to Antarctica. Eventually we scrapped both of those options.
What have been the biggest challenges of taking a career break, and how have you overcome them?
Honestly, the biggest barriers were less around logistics (finances/moving etc.), but mostly mindset related.
The biggest challenge was to accept the need to take a break and ‘pull the trigger’ to actually do it. Deciding to move back to the USA and then to leave a company that I loved was not an easy choice, and slowing down has never been my style (in fact just the prior year I had assumed expanded responsibilities), given how goal-oriented I have always been. Now, however, I would be stepping into the unknown. I spent a lot of time weighing every possible scenario (bordering on ‘analysis paralysis’), eventually concluding that moving and subsequently taking a break would be very worthwhile indeed.
Another challenge was to decouple my professional life from my identity and ego. This may sound philosophical but it is true. Much of my self-worth came to be built upon working at and achieving success within a competitive and prestigious organisation. I have always strived to be on top of my game and commit my whole self to a job, so not having to constantly be ‘on’ was quite jarring at the outset.
There were also moments when my competitive instincts would flare up unexpectedly. For example, I could not resist news from former colleagues (many of whom are still good friends) about who was being promoted and assuming bigger jobs. Similarly I often found myself reading the news and wanting to discuss the latest headlines. It sometimes felt like I had never really left my job.
In all cases, I had to remind myself what the goals were for taking the break in the first place, and to focus my energies on the future. And as my wife frequently reminded me – relax!
“There was no moment of instant clarity. It was more akin to unpeeling an onion layer by layer.”
What have been the most positive outcomes?
Firstly, coming back to the USA and reconnecting with many friends from my childhood and from college (some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades) was really energising. Above all, spending a lot of quality time with our families has been important, especially to help stablilise my mother’s situation.
Another positive outcome has been finding the space needed to clearly think through what I wanted to do next, what made me really happy, what I was good at (and not so good at!), things I wanted to improve, and to identify my blind spots. Much to my chagrin, there was no moment of instant clarity. It was more akin to unpeeling an onion layer by layer. This process of introspection and trying to transform old routines and habits was among the most rewarding (and at times uncomfortable!) parts of the break.
I also now better understand the importance of setting boundaries between work and personal life, which I frankly didn’t always do very well beforehand. I could no longer just put my head down, work harder and longer, and simply grind things out. Accomplishing goals, including those for a break (and especially when juggling family obligations), requires real organisation and focus. You must get rid of the time wasters and Turn. That. Phone. Off! Otherwise it’s easy to fritter away your free time.
Lastly, I have realised that neither life nor a career automatically follow a linear progression. I have forced myself to become comfortable with not having everything planned out and accepting that a certain degree of ambiguity exists in virtually everything. Change is good, and it’s okay and sometimes very important to improvise and be flexible as you go along. It may not always be clear what the next step ought to be, but one needs to keep looking forward and be confident it will materialise.
What are your next steps, and your hopes and dreams for your career in future?
The initial plan after leaving Hong Kong was to take the remainder of 2019 off, and following the trip to Patagonia, begin looking in earnest for a job in February 2020. However, shortly after returning, the Covid-19 pandemic kicked off and obviously it became very difficult, if not impossible, to pound the pavement in NYC. Nonetheless we left Miami in early July and forged ahead with our plan to return to the New York City area.
Career-wise, I’m very grateful to have been able to take this break, and have concluded that I don’t need to drastically shake things up – though I will be far more cognisant of balance and boundaries. I am keen to get back into a role where I can help an investment manager grow its businesses domestically and overseas. Although the job search has slowed, I am optimistic about the future and eager to get back to work, while being deliberate and open-minded about next moves.
“Assess your financial situation, and determine the tradeoffs you need to make to follow the path of your choosing.”
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time out of their career?
Listen to the voice in the back of your head and do what is right for your own circumstances. I had a creeping suspicion that a new path was needed and eventually found the courage to pivot my life in a different direction. Leaving a stable job may sound crazy (and more than a few people told me it was), but a break can be really useful to decompress, reflect, deal with family commitments, and/or do some pretty special things that previously you never had the time for.
Once you mentally know that a break is the right choice, the question becomes whether you can pay for it. Fortunately my family was able to, but only because we had saved diligently for years ahead of time. Assess your financial situation, and determine the tradeoffs you need to make to follow the path of your choosing.
Lastly, hindsight is of course 20-20 and if we had known Covid-19 was about to change life as we know it, we would have tried to see more in Latin America while we were there! Climbing Machu Picchu, visiting Lima and Santiago or going to Tierra del Fuego will have to wait for another time. The lesson: don’t put things off for another time – procrastination and indecision are the enemies of opportunity! Take advantage when opportunities arise in your travels, life or career.
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