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Local View: Dropping out has become in -- so go do it

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Margo Brown was 42 in 1986, and her job at a Fortune 500 Big Pharma firm just wasn't satisfying. So with a little research and a lot of wanderlust, she decided to travel around Asia for a year. She didn't have tons of money, so she decided to stay in hostels and take the cheapest transportation she could.

John FreivaldsJohn, her father, was a respected lifer and successful trader at Cargill, raised in Aurora on the Iron Range, where you got one job and stayed with it for the rest of your life. He didn't get his daughter at all. He, like many of Margo's naysaying friends, told her she was throwing her career away.

Margo told him she had to get out so she could get in. She needed time to think — and not about the next PowerPoint presentation. Her father didn't believe her.

For reflection, in those days, you went to corporate retreats in Sedona, Ariz., along the Gunflint Trail, or to other such places to supposedly do team-building; but really it was an exercise in delusional groupthink that, in the end, killed many businesses: Kodak, Pillsbury, Control Data, Blockbuster, Sears, and, soon perhaps, Cadillac. This was still the era of the "Organization Man" in the U.S. or the "Salaryman" in Japan. You put in your dutiful loyalty years to get ahead and maybe you would get an office with a window.

Au contraire. After going to 11 countries, enduring $5-a-night bungalows in Ko Samui,Thailand, staying a week at Annie's Soapy Massage in Bangkok, agonizing through rural bus rides in India, and organizing a one-person week-long trek through the Himalayas in Nepal, Margo was ready to start over. She went back to her Big Pharma firm and said, "I'm back. Do you have anything for me?" Impressed by her risk-taking and ability to survive in different cultures, she got an executive-level job in international development at the Big Pharma firm. Not only that, she went back to many of the countries where she had backpacked and had stayed in hostels, but now she flew first class and stayed in five-star hotels.

Today, dropping out to figure out who you are is no longer anathema. Nowadays, graduates from the University of Minnesota Duluth and elsewhere look forward to lifetimes with two careers and 10 different jobs. You don't have to figure out how to repackage your resume for the time you dropped out. Personal sabbaticals are now in and a few companies are even funding them.

The term "sabbatical" dates back to biblical times. In the book of Leviticus is a commandment to desist from working the fields during the seventh year. Universities hijacked the idea to offer professors paid absences to do "something."

Now some companies are catching on. Fortune magazine noted that more than 20 companies offer sabbaticals. General Mills offers sabbaticals lasting a minimum of four weeks and maxing out at 12 weeks. To qualify, employees must have served seven years with the company.

An architect with General Mills recounted to Fortune: "We realized our dream to camp and canoe in Northern Minnesota. After being at General Mills for 25 years and being a hardcore developer, it wears on you. It was nice to disconnect. ... By the end I felt I could do anything."

Some people like Margo can't wait years to "disconnect" and have a corporate paycheck fund their dropping out.

So, "Just do it," Margo told me. "Travel while your knees still work and your back doesn't hurt."

Magdalena is another example of this. "Off the grid" is the address on her business cards. She produced TV shows for the Discovery and Travel channels. While working out of an office in Denver, she fell in love with Alaska and its small city of McCarthy, population 28, while on a shoot there. She now lives in a house with no electricity or running water. In spite of not living in a leafy suburb, she was able to convince a respected production house to let her design her own work environment; during winter months, she travels the globe producing travel features.

Ryan Martens is yet another example. He started Rally Software and encourages sabbaticals. Avoid naysayers, he says. Build trust, not loyalty, he says. Loyalty is an outdated management concept.

With a changing marketplace you can't be loyal to old ideas.

John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minn., is the author of six books. His latest is "Ramblin' Man." His website is