A job has meant many things over the course of Zhalisa Clarke’s life. Growing up, her mother’s mosaic of employment meant the family’s survival. From an early age, Zhalisa (MBA 2008) pursued jobs that were high paying rather than passion-filled because she knew she was the emergency cushion for her family.

But work was never her identity—until it was. After college in New York, Zhalisa felt for the first time that work was how people defined her—“what do you do?” was the next question after “what’s your name?” Over the next decade, this feeling only increased as Zhalisa worked in banking, went to Harvard Business School. Her experience at HBS enabled Zhalisa to step back, reflect, and strategize on what career path and location she felt was a better fit. After graduation, she set off to San Francisco to work in tech. Though she was moving up the ladder towards her goal of becoming a V.P., she didn’t feel particularly successful compared to her classmates, and was increasingly overloaded with stress. Zhalisa consistently worked on weekends and struggled to balance work and personal life.

At the same time, a couple of her friends embarked on sabbaticals. For the first time, Zhalisa had an example that taking time off at this point in life was possible—and wouldn’t ruin her career. A career coach helped Zhalisa envision what a more authentic next step in her life would look like. Zhalisa decided to take the plunge; she’d always wanted to do yoga teacher training, a meditation retreat, and to invest more time with her family.

Zhalisa’s sabbatical started with an exploratory road trip from San Francisco through the southwest to Colorado. An avid rock climber, she’d always wanted to see what it would feel like to live closer to the mountains. Traveling alone for an extended time for the first time in her life, Zhalisa felt moments of extreme joy—sunrises in Utah—and deep sadness—a friend’s death—along with spiritual experiences on meditation retreat, and glimpses of what a very different future career and life could look like.

Her next stop was healing (and learning to be a healer) in India and Peru. True to her nature, Zhalisa found herself putting on her business hat to bring the holistic health insights she’d learned in India back to the States. Next, Zhalisa planned trips with each of her parents and attended her Harvard Business School reunion. While she feared feeling judged by her classmates back on campus, Zhalisa instead felt admired by her peers, even those who she’d assumed were happier and more successful than she. Soon after, Zhalisa decided to return to work and to fulfill her dream of moving to Colorado.

Zhalisa credits her sabbatical for catalyzing major changes in her identity and her life. As she put it: “The things I learned and how I’ve changed wouldn’t have happened without the sabbatical. I was in the rat race so much that I didn’t even know there were other options—it took a major life disruption to get me to quit.”

Among the most important lessons she learned were the ability to live on much less, the benefits of focusing on one’s personal development, and how to have a healthier relationship between herself and her job. She learned that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself—she relishes the fact that there are people in the world that think of her only as a healer.

Several years after her sabbatical, Zhalisa is still reaping the benefits of her time off. She has recently launched a company fully aligned with her calling: her business Reclaiming Flow teaches mindfulness to people of color to heal from the challenges they face in the workplace. Without the extended time away from work, Zhalisa wouldn’t have been able to learn the skills needed to bring such timely and important tools to the black and brown community in the United States.

The Sabbatical Project Blog Series

This article is part of a series on Sabbaticals, authored by Dennis (DJ) DiDonna (HBS 2010). DiDonna has dedicated his career to commercializing social science research to create organizations which positively impact the world. DiDonna founded The Sabbatical Project to explore when and why sabbaticals lead to positive outcomes for working professionals. Along with collaborator Professor Matt Bloom, The Sabbatical Project is now exploring the role and effects of companies in making sabbatical policies mainstream. DJ received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2010.