Diary of a mid-career retiree: Why it’s best to take a break during your most productive years

Pateel is still teaching at the American University of Beirut after leaving her directorship position.
Pateel is still teaching at the American University of Beirut after leaving her directorship position.
Image: Getty Images / Kaveh Kazemi
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Quartz received lots of feedback to Ideas contributor Donald Fitzmaurice’s Nov. 24 piece headlined “Don’t wait until 65: The key to a happy creative work force is to retire early and often.” Pateel H. Papazian of Beirut told us she’s taking precisely this type of mid-career break. We asked her to elaborate. 

Monday, Oct. 1, 2012: DAY 1

6:10 a.m. The alarm rings. I wake up with a smirk on my face. This is the first day of my three-month career break. It took a lot of courage to decide to leave my highly paid job as director of financial reporting and compliance at the American University of Beirut, but it felt right.

6:30 a.m. After doing my daily stretches and washing my face, I wake up my 14-year-old son who has to get ready for school. I am looking forward to greeting him when he comes back home at 3 p.m., something I have not done for ages.

8:00 a.m.  I have my morning coffee while reading my emails. My coffee tastes much better this morning, and my emails look much more amusing than usual.

9:00 a.m. My husband leaves for work, and here I am thinking what to do next. I am a morning person by nature, so I am fully dressed and ready to do things, but where do I start? I have a very long “to do” list that I keep track of through my favorite mobile app, “Do it (tomorrow).” I love it, because as the name implies, I get to move most of my tasks to tomorrow.

10:30 a.m. I pack my laptop and gym bag and head to my favorite coffee shop, Gloria Jean’s.

While sipping my coffee, I browse through the websites of training companies worldwide. Throughout most of my career, spanning around 30 years so far, I have taught courses in accounting standards at universities and with different training companies (in addition to holding full-time jobs as an external auditor, chief financial officer and director of compliance). I am now contemplating the possibility of training and teaching full time, maybe even start my own company. I feel ready for such a venture.

12:30 p.m. I work out at the gym for an hour or so. I usually go to the gym either before or after work but never around noon. This is a first for me, and feels odd and good at the same time.

2:30 p.m. I get home, have a snack, take a shower, and wait for my son.

3:00 p.m. My son rings the door bell and is very happy to see me at home. He says to me, “Mom,  you look relaxed. This is great. You don’t have that tense look on your face. You should do this more often. I love it.” I decide to act like a housewife, and make scrambled eggs for him. I don’t even ask him if he’s hungry, it just feels good to act the part.

5:00 p.m. After finishing his homework, my son and I head to my parents’ house for more quality time with family members. We drink tea, play Scrabble and chat. My mom is kind of confused, since she is used to seeing me always on the run, but she’s very happy. So is my dad.

8:00 p.m. My son and I are back home ready to have dinner and watch TV. My husband gets home 30 minutes later. He looks exhausted. I feel lucky.

The next days are not much different than Day 1, except for additional activities, such as lunches with ex-colleagues and friends, taking my son to soccer practice, going shopping, and running small errands here and there.  I am also teaching an accounting course at the American University of Beirut twice a week, to keep up with the accounting standards that change frequently these days. My to-do list is as long as before, but the turnover of tasks is higher. I’m deferring fewer things till tomorrow.

During the last couple of months I have also taken two business (and pleasure) trips to set the stepping stones for the rest of my career, which I plan to resume in January 2013. The first one was a career fair in Belgium involving development companies; the second one, a seminar in Chicago relating to an accounting certificate that I plan to carry over to the Middle East. I am also holding weekly Skype chats with a company in Canada, planning the launching of another educational venture in Lebanon and the Middle East.

It all sounds easy and enjoyable, I know; however, it involves a lot of hard work, research (to keep up to date with new standards and technologies), perseverance and most of all self-confidence. It also requires financial planning ahead of time, to make sure the risks are calculated.

I would not and could not have taken this step before. I’m 53 years old. I just reached a point in my career where I felt I could take the risk and start anew. Other people might reach this point at different stages in their lives. Mine is now.