Like all major changes, career changes are challenging. While there are obvious challenges such as how to market yourself and how to acquire the necessary skills, there is also a huge emotional cost involved in transitions of any kind. Since most people rely on their jobs as a livelihood, and many more as a main source of identity, changing career direction can be downright scary. Over the course of making my own radical career transitions (teacher in AmeriCorps to manager at a hedge fund, for example), I’ve learned some lessons in how to lessen the emotional burden of making a big change. While I’m talking specifically about career transitions here, I think these ideas could easily apply to other areas of life.
1) Think about your current reality, rather than the possibilities
One of the things I see clients doing the most is getting stuck in the possibilities. I don’t discourage exploration or dreaming — I think that it’s great and it’s a necessary place to start. However, dreaming about potential jobs endlessly, without a dose of reality, usually leads to more confusion than direction. I often hear people say something to the extent of, “There are so many things I want to do that I don’t know where to start.” One strategy I propose is to start narrowing the list down. Start broad, but limit the amount of time you allow yourself to stay in the mindset of “the world is my oyster.” Start to whittle things down by learning about the realities. There are probably practical considerations to help you narrow down the list. These could be things like work-life balance or salary considerations. Perhaps there are aspects of the job you haven’t thought about, such as, who knew the fashion industry really involves a lot of math and finance? By starting to ask real questions about yourself (what you like and what you don’t like, as well as your natural strengths) and your reality, you should be able to narrow your dream list down and move it one step closer to a realistic plan.
2) Get over the Idea that there is one perfect job for you
Another emotional hurdle is thinking that whatever you choose to transition to has to be “it.” I always tell my clients to start by taking away the expectation that they have to choose the “right” thing. Think about some of the most successful people you know and admire. Did their careers take one straight line, or were there many turns and pivots along the way? I’m guessing it’s the latter, and yet when we think of ourselves we tend to put enormous pressure on “figuring it out.” Rather than focusing on making one choice and tying ourselves to it indefinitely, I encourage people to think about it as an option. Perhaps it is an option you will enjoy and spend ten years in. On the other hand, you may realize once you get into the day to day that it’s not the best fit. That’s ok too. Give yourself permission to see your next move as a stage of your career and life, rather than an endpoint, and you will be much happier.
3) Use the Scientific Method
Now that you’ve accepted you need to narrow down the infinite possibilities, the question becomes: what to do with your short list? I suggest thinking of it like the scientific method, where you develop a hypothesis and then go out and test it. You develop this hypothesis of what you might excel at by self exploration and research, and then go out there and test it by getting involved. The only way to know for sure is to experience it in some way, whether that way is working in the role full-time, volunteering, or shadowing. If your hypothesis turns out to be wrong, that is not a reason to panic. It is not a failure. As long as you learn from it, reflect on the new knowledge you have gained, and continue to move forward, it was progress. Big progress.
4) Ask yourself what it would mean if you don’t make a change
I used to ask myself, “What if I make the wrong choice?” That would send me down a spiral of doubt and anxiety. I see the same thing happening to clients all the time. The shift that helped me make some of the most radical changes in my life (e.g. quitting my lucrative job in finance and moving to DC to pursue graduate school) was changing the question. Instead of asking, “Is this the right decision?” I started asking myself, “How will you feel in one year, two years, five years, if you make no change at all?” For me, that was the motivation I needed. I knew that logically, if I stayed, I would only get unhappier. If I left, there was at least a chance I would find something I loved. When you look at it that way, it’s hard to deny the logic of taking action.
5) Get Support
No doubt about it, making changes and taking risks is hard. Really, really hard. Even with all the above work you can do internally, it is incredibly valuable to have outside support. For me, this was difficult because I had to tell people what I was going through. I also had to learn not to be upset when other people didn’t agree with the choices I made. What helped me was being clear about what I needed from people. Those who are close to you want to help, so let them know what would help. Want support without their input on your choice? Make that clear. Want a friend to work through the logic with you and be brutally honest? Make it easier for both of you and say that up front. This can be hard to do, but the only thing harder is trying to do it all yourself.