Taking a Year Off
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First he climbed Island Peak in the Himalayas, where he got some generous counsel from famed Everest climber Wally Berg. He traveled to Africa and climbed a difficult route on Kilimanjaro. And a little more than a year after his failed attempt, he found himself back at the foot of Aconcagua. This time, Magenau kicked the mountain's ass.

"You can accomplish a lot with a year off, things that would be far out of your reach otherwise," says Magenau, who now works as an executive at an education company. "For those who don't take the year off, the time that passes is a blink of an eye. I asked a friend to tell me what happened while I was away and all he could remember about the year was who won the Super Bowl."

Men who work hard in their careers often make the mistake of thinking they would be happy if they had a year just to kick back. After working long hours at an Internet start-up, Alex Sheshunoff's first notion for his year off was to collect 40 books (20 recommended by his smartest friends and 20 classics that he was embarrassed not to have read in college), haul them to an underpopulated Pacific island, situate himself under a palm tree, and pour great literature into his head like so many margaritas. His master plan barely survived the first 150 pages of 'War and Peace.'

Time for plan B. "I learned that you don't just exist in paradise," he says. "Paradise is of your own making." He e-mailed friends who were also itching for a new venture, negotiated a 20-year lease on a plot of land on an island near Palau, and set about building their island dream house. From the beginning, the project was pushing the edge of his skill set – a goal worthy of a year off. Sheshunoff and his team are currently finishing the construction, working harder then they ever have at their day jobs.

"I don't mean to sound like Tony Robbins, but the ideal life is something you create for yourself, not something you drift into," he says. "Momentum is a powerful force in your life, and sometimes it can only be overcome with the sort of hope and arrogance it takes to quit your job and buy a one-way ticket to another country."

A year off can allow you to take an idea to an extreme. At 45, Al Hamlin quit his computer programming job in Cypress, California, to move to Boston and become the ultimate sports fan. He bought just-steps-from-the-hardwood season tickets to the Celtics (around $9,000), face-against-the-glass season tickets to the Bruins ($6,500), and between-home-and-first-base season tickets at Fenway ($11,000). Including living expenses, the year cost him nearly $100,000. "If you are going to take a year off to dive into something you love, you should make it as special as you can," he says.

John Pollack was grinding out speeches for former House Democratic whip David Bonior when he realized he needed a break. Since childhood he had collected wine corks, and at some point he reasoned that because corks float, he should build a boat with them. So he did. Pollack constructed a 22-foot-long cross between Kon-Tiki and a Viking longboat consisting of 165,321 corks held together by approximately 15,000 rubber bands. "If you take a year off you should ask yourself: What would I do if there was no one to stop me from following my individual passion?" says Pollack, who chronicled the experience in his book, 'Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built'. "The cork boat wasn't reasonable, it wasn't practical, and in terms of its chances of success it wasn't even likely. To take a year away from your career or your life requires that you think big." His final triumph was sailing his 2,100-pound obsession down the Douro River in Portugal, the world's leading cork producer.

Scott Mandrell knows something about being obsessed. "Life is short, and a year off is even shorter, so if you've got an idea, you've got to go with it," he says. The 39-year-old history buff did exactly that. Mandrell is currently taking time off from his job as a middle school teacher in suburban St. Louis to play the role of Meriwether Lewis while painstakingly recreating Lewis and Clark's journey across the continent. Mandrell's crazy quest, in short, is to recreate another man's crazy quest. "We used to be a nation of men with harebrained ideas who would then go make them happen," he says. "Take a year off for your nation. We've got to fight against becoming meek."

It pays to plan ahead, but a year off rarely goes as planned. According to sabbatical coach Clive Prout, it's important to hit a balance between having a goal for your year off and not sticking too rigidly to any preconceived notions. "On one of my own breaks I met a guy who was taking a sabbatical while hiking through India," Prout says. "He knew exactly where he was going to travel and exactly what he was going to do at the end of his year. I thought, what's the point of taking a year off if you know exactly where it's going to lead you?" Like any other adventure, the potential benefits come in direct proportion to the risk it entails.

"At some point you'll be faced with an opportunity that will challenge your plans," says Ted Rheingold, founder of dogster.com (an online community for dogs and the people who love them). At 28, he stepped away from a fast-track Web development job to travel through Asia and the Middle East. "There's a boat that goes upriver to someplace you've never heard of, and it only leaves once a month, and you have an hour to decide. You should get on that boat."