I Took a Career Break. Here's What Happened.

Michelle Feeney lived the dream: A year off from work. She realizes she was lucky to be able to do it, but there are things you can learn from employment experiment.

By Didi Gluck
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Why Michelle needed a break

Michelle Feeney knows stress. Twenty-six years ago, she launched the hair-care brand Bumble and Bumble a week before giving birth to her son. She was a single mom at the time, living away from home (London), with no family or work mentors around to help her. “Not as many women in the workplace had kids at that time, and if they did, they certainly didn’t talk about them,” she says. 

She had her second child, a daughter, when she was 41. By then, she had launched MAC Cosmetics in 40 countries for its parent company, Estée Lauder, left Lauder, moved back to London, and married. Never one to slow down, Feeney mastered the world of private equity in the intervening years and invested in the self-tanning giant St. Tropez all while commuting to work each day and raising her then 18-month-old second born. Tired yet?

Taking a year off work

Following a health scare, Feeney considered taking some time off at that point but couldn’t afford it financially, she felt, or career-wise. “I still wanted to be plugged in at work,” she says. So she kept at it for almost another decade. For all those years, she says, she was always able to find new reserves of energy within herself. But eventually she just couldn’t dig any deeper. So she sold her stake in St. Tropez and became a “millionaire in my own right,” she says, which gave her the financial freedom to step off the treadmill and take “a proper gap year.” For the uninitiated, that means a year off from the responsibilities of school (or in this case work) for the purposes of self-discovery. “Nobody believed that I could do nothing, but I think that if I hadn’t, I would’ve gotten really sick,” she says.

Feeney knows that not everyone has the ability to take a year off. “It was a gift that I earned for myself.” But at 63 — and having just launched a new business, Floral Street fragrances, which she founded on her own terms (more on that later) — she’s the “happiest I’ve ever been.” Did she quit wine or renounce all of her material possessions? Heck no, but there are elements of her journey she feels can benefit all of us working moms who have been toiling away for upwards of 25 years. 

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Career break ideas: How to make the most of your time away from work

Unplug, but not completely. Feeney stopped using her electronic calendar on her year off and didn’t follow a schedule of any sort. “I didn’t need it to function anymore.” She also went on a social media diet, and when she did use her phone it was for researching things related to personal growth rather than work. 

Edit your relationships. “Old friends aren’t necessarily the best friends,” Feeney says, who took her time off to cut some people out of her life, let new people into her life, and evolve some relationships with family members. “We live a long time,” she says. “You need to be at peace with the people in your life.”

Do not make goals. “I’d had those for the last 40 years,” says Feeney. The antidote? Live in the moment. “I learned to sit still. I planted an orchard. I cherished nature. I went for walks. I cooked. I took short vacations without my children or husband. I noticed who I was when I wasn’t being a mum, partner, daughter, or employee.” 

Let go of guilt. “We are in uncharted waters. The message we grew up with was that we could do it all, but we bloody well can’t,” says Feeney, referring to the “frenzy of doing” most of us fall prey to in our 40s and 50s. It’s not so much that she stopped doing things entirely, but she reclaimed the reins. “I chose what stayed and went from my routine,” she says. “I realized that you don’t have to do most things, you choose to.” 

Invest in yourself. Feeney reinvested her newfound time and money in “lots of therapy” and yoga. She didn’t go out to any work-related events or buy any magazines. She didn’t even read pop culture novels. “I read about emotions and teachings from different religions. I even visited church again.” 

Get back in touch with the essence of you. “I started to become the person I wasn’t at six,” Feeney says. After a year of giving herself space to observe who she was and what mattered to her (which involved considering a run for political office and sitting on the board of a women’s charity), she realized that the beauty industry was, in fact, her home. “It’s a way of conversing with the wider world,” she says. So rather than pivoting 180 degrees, she got back into the game mindfully.

While walking in Covent Garden (in London) one day during her gap year, Feeney was drawn to a sign that said Floral Street. She trademarked the name thinking it could be a good company name someday — when she could run a company on her own terms. Which is where her next chapter begins. Feeney’s latest venture, Floral Street, was largely informed by her gap year. “I’ve discovered that less is more for everything.” The collection of nine vegan-friendly scents is packed in plant-able pulp-derived cartons. All based on floral notes with a twist (for example, Neon Rose, which features a bite of Sichuan pepper), they’re simply intended to “bring scent connoisseurship to a wide and curious audience at an attainable price point — not to sell sex,” Feeney says. Under Feeney’s leadership, employees at Floral Street are encouraged to be flexible and collaborative. Needless to say, they’re diverse in age.

So what does success smell like to this reformed workaholic? “Caramel popcorn. It’s good — and good for sharing.” 

 

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