Taking a Year Off
Credit: Franz Marc Frei / Getty Images

When Brooks Mar, a 26-year-old associate at Lehman Brothers, took a year off, he did it to prove that his life was not run by money or the expectations of anyone other than the guy he met each morning in the mirror. Mar began by traveling the world. He learned to scuba dive in Southeast Asia and hiked through the Thai jungles near Chiang Mai. For fly-fishing and glacier-trekking, he headed to Argentina. But three months into his journey, while learning to surf in Florianópolis, Brazil, inspiration struck.

Florianópolis is a paradise, with beaches, amazing surfing, and thriving nightlife overflowing with beautiful women. As Mar looked at all the cheap space for rent near the beach, a longtime dream of opening a bar suddenly seemed within reach. He IM'd three buddies back home, convincing them that for $15,000 each they could own shares in his tropical fantasy. Nine months later, with his new Brazilian girlfriend at his side, Mar and 300 guests celebrated the opening of his hot new club, dubbed Molokai. He had transformed himself from an ordinary young banker into a minor celebrity – the enterprising young American in Florianópolis. His new full-time job was to be the life of the party, and he discovered he had a natural talent for that role.

"Taking that time off made my life infinitely better," says Mar, who is now back in the States working in finance while one of his partners takes his turn operating the club. "After you challenge yourself in that way, you have a different outlook on the problems you face and the people you deal with," he says. "You carry a confidence with you that you can apply to any career and any challenge in your future. You can't put a price on that sort of experience."

Men across the country have begun to embrace the notion that stepping out of their day-to-day routines for a year is not only a fantasy worth fulfilling, but an essential part of their professional and personal growth. There's even a growing industry of life coaches, adventure schools, and financial planners all catering to the trend. Major companies, which in boom years offered sabbaticals to retain sought-after employees, are using minimally subsidized break periods as both a kind of temporary layoff during lean years and a way to keep top people during boom times. According to one survey, 18 percent of Gen X employees have either taken an extended break or have one planned in the future.

Although it's becoming more common, a year off is still definitely not for the timid. Men who have had the courage to take an extended break advise that it isn't an introspective retreat from the world. It's a complicated endeavor that, handled badly, can jeopardize your job and your relationships back home.

Given the risks, the payoff should be equally high: Don't make a list of what would be "fun"; make a list of the toughest challenges you'd dare to take on. Don't think "trip"; think "quest." No one else gives you permission to take a year off – and no one else signs off on your plans or goals. A year off proves that a man is in control of his own destiny.

We talked to dozens of men who were up to the challenge. Their stories serve less as specific roadmaps than as profiles in "going for it." Taking a year off can mean sailing the world or starting a nonprofit. One man ended up on a remote island building a house with his buddies, while another decided to travel the world and hook up with as many beautiful women as possible. For Al Hamlin the perfect year meant becoming the ultimate sports fan. Robert Tassi's year took him from a six-figure music-industry job in Nashville to becoming the lowliest deckhand on a Maine coast schooner. No one's year off is the same, and no year off ever goes exactly as planned. Some men emerge re-energized and recommitted to the world they left; others use it as a launching pad and never return to their previously scheduled lives. But all the men we spoke to had one thing in common: Not one regretted his decision.

A year off is not a vacation. At age 35, Dana Magenau learned this lesson the hard way. His original goal was just to take a few weeks off to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. But he wasn't a climber – he was an international vice president of the sports marketing firm IMG. So he decided to take night classes to learn techniques for climbing in ice and snow at high altitude. He trained hard at the gym and read every book on mountaineering he could find. At his desk, he visualized the challenge. He figured the whole thing would take less than a month.

In reality, the 22,834-foot-high mountain kicked his ass. Twelve days into the trip, unaccustomed to Aconcagua's altitudes, Magenau was concerned that his massive headache was a sign of acute mountain sickness. He tried one more summit push in the middle of the night, and then retreated downhill. "Turns out I was fine," Magenau says. "I went back to work thinking, Well, that was just miserable. I'll never try that again."

Back home, he remembered the mountaineer's maxim: "Attitude gets you altitude." You can be in great shape, but if you don't have the mental fortitude to ignore the pain that comes with climbing and take the next step uphill, you're cooked. So Magenau made a plan for an epic year off built around becoming a real climber, a year that would take him across four continents, then back to an emboldened life and more successful career in America.