Sometimes Climbing a Mountain Instead of a Corporate Ladder Can Help Career

Steven Ginsberg writes for the Washington Post

Jack Kerouac, CEO.

That role would be a little hard to imagine of the literary lion of the Beat Generation.

But the experiences--frenetic cross-country trips, a summer in the Cascades as a fire watcher, cargo ship voyages--that he chronicled in novels such as "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums" now would be valued if he wanted to climb a corporate ladder instead of a mountain, career experts say.

What once was rebellion is now a resume builder, thanks largely to a fundamental shift in employee and employer attitudes, experts say. Today's employee tends to consider his job part of life, not the sum of it. People are making life decisions as readily as career ones, and sometimes this means they'll leave a good job to go rock climbing in the Alps.

And many employers don't mind. A well-rounded background and an ability to think unconventionally, "outside the box," rank high on employers' wish lists, and some believe these attributes are best cultivated outside the office. It's an attitude that is shaking the old mind-set that careers start directly after graduation and continue unwaveringly until retirement.

"Traditional career progression is less important" than it used to be, said Kerri Folmer, a workplace consultant with Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a management consulting firm based in Bethesda, Md. "Anything that differentiates employees in a nontraditional way shows creativity and helps separate them from the pack."

Most people set themselves apart with a long trip, though others write books, delve into hobbies or do whatever else they've always wanted to do, experts say.


Although companies are indeed looking for free-thinkers willing to take risks, there's another reason they don't mind these kinds of resume gaps, experts say: a tight labor market that doesn't allow them the luxury of turning away someone qualified just because that person has taken a lengthy leave.

"Companies are focusing on a set of competencies for recruiting" rather on than the career stops job applicants have made, Folmer said.

Then there's the global rationale. Many companies are expanding overseas and need employees who have the experience to help. Someone who has, say, backpacked through Southeast Asia may possess the cultural tolerance and sophistication that companies are looking for.

Duval Hopkins is one of those who took the plunge. A year ago, the 27-year-old left her public relations position at Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart in Washington for what she thought would be her dream job at Time Warner Inc.'s Dreamshop in New York. But when that online business went under nine months later, she didn't rush to another job; instead, she packed her bags.

"I kept thinking I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," said Hopkins, who wandered through Asia, Australia and Europe for four months. "I planned on figuring out my life and job while I was away."

Since returning to New York in early January, Hopkins has taken a part-time job with the New York-based public relations firm Maloney & Fox. And she feels no pressure to immerse herself in the career race just yet.

"It would be so easy to find full-time work that I almost don't want to try," Hopkins said. "I'm enjoying my free time immensely, and I don't want to give it up unless I love, love, love the work."

To workers who might be having similar dreams, experts warn that they had better consider a few things before taking off, including the practical matters of saving money and making arrangements for non-work responsibilities. But they say the most important question to ask is: Why?

"The guiding principle is that you have to do it for positive reasons," said Tom Morris, president of Washington-based Morris Associates Inc., a workplace consulting firm. "If you want to backpack or go write a novel, go do it, but if you're just going to sit at home and watch soaps, that's no good."

"Travel and global worldliness make job candidates well-rounded," said Dana Ellis, director of recruiting for Chicago-based management consultants Arthur Andersen, which employs 3,000 people in the Washington area. "But not if it's just frivolous. Then we start to wonder."


A long leave has to build career momentum, not sidestep it, Morris said. For many people, taking the time to accomplish something they've always wanted to do will make them better workers and more valuable to companies, he said.

David Broderson did. After college, Broderson worked as a supervisor for an insurance company in Seattle. But he soon realized he was in the wrong field, so he quit. After a short stint as a bartender, he traveled for eight months throughout the South Pacific, Australia, Southeast Asia and Europe.

"For me, I didn't feel any pressure" to get a job, said Broderson, now 27. "I felt it was something that would prepare me for the rest of my life. I thought it would increase my skills and abilities and make me more marketable when I got back."

And it has. Upon returning, Broderson joined the Seattle-based architecture firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca to test out that field. It's turned out to be the career Broderson wants; he now works in Zimmer's Bethesda office and attends the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, where he's applying his experience.


Steven Ginsberg writes for the Washington Post.

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