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When I was in my late twenties I heard myself saying something along the lines of “We can travel around the world when we retire”. Fortunately, as a consequence of the number of daft things I say, I do make an effort to listen to quite a lot of what comes out of my mouth. This particular inanity seemed to me to be, by several orders of magnitude, more stupid than anything I’d said in a long while.
It was shortly before this that I’d got an SpR post, together with an NTN and, out of the blue, a letter telling me the date on which I’d hopefully get my CCST. At this point I’d, theoretically, fall off the conveyor belt into, again hopefully, a consultant job. In this cynical state of mind the consultant job would be another conveyor belt, this time into retirement. The retirement itself—some 30 years hence—would provide the next opportunity to see a bit of the world.
This state of mind seemed immature, and, over an excellent cup of coffee, Kellie, who later became my wife, and I discussed talking with our respective employers about taking six months of unpaid leave for a career break. Nervously approaching my boss I found once again that I was able to prove one of my favourite things about life and getting older, namely: most of the things that I think I know are in fact wrong. This is a continuing and exciting theme for my life, and one which makes medicine particularly interesting. It would, in fact, be quite alright for me to step outside my rotation for six months and retain my NTN. (I’m afraid that at the time of writing this loophole has been closed with the pressure on postgraduate deans to get SpRs through the programme.)
In the next year or two of preparation—these things take a great deal of time—I augmented my six months with a year of work in Brisbane—the filling, if you like, in a travel sandwich. The Brisbane year grew to two en route, which is why I find myself writing this in a café in Oaxaca, Mexico, nearly 2½12 years after leaving the UK, and on a date which roughly equals my original projected CCST.
I have to ask the same questions of my time spent travelling as I have elsewhere of my time working overseas. Firstly, what are the negatives?
I’d characterise these, chiefly, as expense and CV. The expense part is easy to imagine; six months without pay, at the same time as spending on travel. I used to say that I could think of no one lying on their death bed and saying, “I’m really pleased we had that new kitchen six months sooner”. I’m more inclined these days to upgrade that estimate to at least 18 months, and throw in a bathroom too. But you shouldn’t confuse recognising an economic fact with regret; I’m entirely happy with this and I consider that the number of things I’ll be able to remember on my death bed—and all the times between here and then—were in fact very reasonably priced.
The CV part of it is tricky. I know a lot of folk who took a year off before entering university, and this is rarely criticised. But taking six months in the middle of a career is seen very differently in some quarters. One senior colleague quietly confided to me a similar—but different—adventure in his early career which was sufficient to make an interviewer comment “You don’t have much staying power, do you?”. Similarly I was advised by one senior academic that for any “serious” career I’d do well to disguise what I’ve come to think of as the black hole in my CV. Interestingly most senior colleagues in paediatrics, however, have expressed delight, fascination, and not a little jealousy at my adventure.
The question remains, shall I attempt to disguise my CV black hole? This becomes a bit of a moot point, since this postcard—complete with title—would appear in my CV, and would therefore be a bit of a giveaway. In any case, I don’t intend to hide it—this postcard is almost a way of making sure that I retain the courage of my convictions.
So, why not hide it? I’d need to list some of the positives—and I’m not sure where to begin. I think I’m a better, more rounded person than that twenty-something spouting rubbish. I think that I know more—but see my caveat above about most of what I know being wrong. I’ve spent time as an adult, free from tiredness, work, anxiety, and hassle. To use some clichés: I’ve woken up and smelt the coffee, I’ve stopped and smelt the roses, and I’ve done all this with someone I love.
And now I’m going to have another cappuccino, and this, and the thousand other cappuccinos, sunsets, landscapes, temples, smiles, and sights and smells and experiences should be enough to last me until I retire ...