As someone who’s gone through a major career change, people often ask me whether it was scary. To be honest, it was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. What’s scary is getting to the moment when you make the leap and realize that most important thing: “I can do this.”
I thought a lot about that experience while talking to Melanie Fisher, Connections Manager at Escape the City, about how they help people find more meaningful careers. I heard how others go through the same process I did: by gradually building confidence, taking the leap, and ultimately feeling liberated and fulfilled. But it starts with overcoming those first emotions.
“They’re paralyzed with indecision”
“One of the biggest reasons that people don’t make a career change, is that they imagine there is only one destination, and because they aren’t sure what that is. And so, they don’t make any changes.”
Melanie put is succinctly there. I’ve seen this tendency a lot in students I’ve worked with over the years, but people of any age can fall into the same trap. It’s a kind of linear thinking, “I am at point A and am trying to get to point B.” This is as opposed to “I am at point A and will use my best judgement to figure out where I should go next.” This indecision has serious consequences for people who are unhappy in their current career:
“It is easy to become paralyzed with indecision: putting off making a choice or a change for a week, a month, a year, two years, three years, and suddenly you’ve lost time, because of this idea of, ‘I can’t start until I know where I’m going.’”
This gets back to that feeling you get when you commit to discovering your next career and making the change. “The beauty of a career change is that, it’s not just about your job, it’s about your whole life. And, the sooner you can feel like you have control over your freedom to choose a new path, a different journey, even if you don’t have all the answers, the more likely it is you’ll be able to start making small changes.” I know personally, I’ve never felt more liberated than the moment I decided not just to change careers, but to allow myself the time and space to explore and discover what new careers might be out there for myself. Getting to that point was next in our discussion.
How to take the first step
“One way in which people combat that paralysis is thinking: ‘Where are my interests, where are my curiosities, where are all the small things that pull me on a day-to-day basis, where do I feel alive?’ And then, to take one to two small steps towards those things.” In other words, much like with most goals, the key is beginning with small realistic steps.
“If you can inject a little bit more joy into your day-to-day, you’ll naturally start doing more of it. And, as soon as you do more of that thing, you’ll get better at it, and then, one day, someone will offer you money for it… start small, find what interests you, and create projects around it, and test a new opportunity. As one of our team members calls it, dating a direction.”
The beauty of this approach is also that it allows you to, to pick up on the analogy Melanie brought up, date several interests at once. If you’re devoting only a bit of time to each, you can really explore where each one goes, how each makes you feel. I know this is what I’ve done for the past several years and I’ve been amazed at the opportunities it’s brought.
For me, this meant trying podcasting as a way to engage with my passion for history instead of doing a PhD. That led to doing some voice acting, which led to working on scripts, which led to writing a screenplay for a documentary that won several awards at a NYC film festival. At the same time, working as a writer for various startups got me familiar with that world and eventually brought me to Kenya to help build an online course for African entrepreneurs. I dated each direction and saw them take me in unpredictable and rewarding directions.
None of those opportunities would have come about if I had picked a single career trajectory the moment I turned down a PhD and not spent years exploring options. But even if you’re going to date a few interests, you still have to choose them.
From Academic to Writer/Marketer/Voice Actor/Podcaster
- What do I enjoy about my current role? (environment, people, tasks).
- Could I drop down to three days a week in my current role?Can I ask for a raise/more responsibility/to move teams?
- What do I want to do less of?
- What was a career highlight for me and why was it so remarkable?
- What areas of my skill set do I wish to grow – both professionally and personally?
- What would I do with my life if I knew I couldn’t fail?
Taking that control back
Melanie pointed out that much of what she and her company are encouraging people to do goes against what they’ve been taught. In other words, “you’re taught to wait for permission to succeed in something. It’s, ‘Here’s the formula, here’s the work, learn this, here’s the task, now you’re qualified.’ Rather than, ‘Okay, what do I really want to develop within myself, and how can I do about doing that in an environment, in which really speaks to me?’ It’s, like you said, it’s taking that control back, and throwing it against the system, which feels quite uncomfortable.”
There’s no denying that there are uncomfortable feelings involved. It’s taken me a long time to get used to this less structured work in many fields and even longer for my family to understand and appreciate it. But the result has been a wide set of skills that leaves me open to grab interesting opportunities and feeling comfortable in my ability to adapt to a shifting job market. I wouldn’t trade the excitement and peace of mind that comes with those lessons for any PhD in the world.
Ultimately, both myself and Melanie can say that the results of making this mindset shift and finding a new career are life-changing.
If you have your own lessons from changing careers or have a question, leave us a comment.