Listen to this article
We have learnt to think of life as three stages: learning at school; being productive at work; and then a period of rest. But, like it or not, the linear three-stage life is a thing of the past.
As we prepare to work for a growing number of years, some people are trying to figure out how to manoeuvre their professional lives back and forward between learning, working and resting.
In their 2016 book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott write that the prospect of living longer means we will have to change the way we think about career trajectories.
They argue that there are stages in life when people want to accumulate as much money as possible, and might be happier to work longer hours. At other times, more leisure or time to focus on, for instance, family, entrepreneurship or education will be more important, requiring a career break.
But how do we know when it is time to try something new?
In 2013, Danielle Wyss was a 34-year-old architect being prepared for a partner-level role at a practice in Palo Alto, California. That was when she decided to leave. “It was very scary,” says Ms Wyss. She had just called off her engagement to her partner and had arrived at a crossroads where one path was largely unknown.
“As soon as we split up I knew three things: I’m applying to grad school, I’m freezing my eggs, and I’m going to Burning Man,” she says, explaining how her subsequent experiences at the Nevada desert festival based on controlled chaos made her trust her instinct to try something new. “I came back with a mantra for myself, which was to allow for surprise and delight.”
Ms Wyss took a masters in business management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, a course that today costs roughly $188,000. She had saved up a bit of money and had been given the opportunity to keep working for her old firm on a freelance basis, but a scholarship she received from the school made all the difference, she says.
She would advise others against postponing a career break “for too long”. If the delay is because of financial worries, she recommends applying for student loans or scholarships.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she says.
Alison McArthur was working at BNP Paribas in London as a capital markets solicitor when she started thinking about taking a break from work to study and “explore what other careers are out there”.
She has no regrets about training as a lawyer, but adds: “I don’t think that at 21 I was necessarily in the position to make a decision about what career I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Now aged 28, she is pursuing an MBA at Oxford university’s Saïd Business School, and says her studies have surrounded her with inspiring women. “It provides the role model that working in the City and other places is harder to find, because of the notable absence of women in senior management positions.”
In Ms Wyss’s case, her new-found self-confidence was another reason behind her decision to go back to school. “It probably took me until my mid-thirties to say to myself: ‘I know I am good at this, and I can trust that I will be able to get hired again if I need to come back’,” she says.
Although she considered working in a new sector after her studies, Ms Wyss ended up back in architecture, but this time as head of her own practice. She founded the business, Shift Collaborative, at Stanford with friends and former colleagues, most of whom were also looking for flexible work.
What is her advice for other women thinking of taking a career break? “If you believe you can’t, ask who told you that. You might think it’s you, but it’s probably tied to some social narrative,” she says.
It is particularly difficult for women, she adds, who are told they have to change their lives at an earlier age if they want children. According to those beliefs, Ms Wyss says: “At that age  I was supposed to be a mum, and I was already getting old.”
Six years later, Ms Wyss says she has retained the belief in her mantra to allow for surprise and delight. She now has a daughter. “And I got pregnant naturally,” she says.
“But it’s nice to know I have those eggs sitting there. You never know.”
Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published