Five ways to make career change easier

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Most of us will change careers at least three times in our lives. And most of us will be nervous at one point or another in the process.

Invariably, you’re giving up the known to pursue the unknown. So, even if you hate your current career, it’s still scary to give it up.

Five Steps to a New Life

I have a lot of experience in this arena. I’ve changed careers a lot, going from professional beach volleyball player to software marketer to entrepreneur to freelance writer. While I was doing that, my husband changed careers three times in five years.

Each change was different and difficult in its own way for both of us. But I’ve learned some tricks along the way to make career changes easier.

Here are five ideas to consider in your own career change:

1. Test things out before you make the leap.

You don’t need to quit your current job to get started in a new career. Give yourself a chance to test things out. Try it on vacation or on the weekend. Try an internship — there’s no rule that says an intern has to be 19 years old.

It’s very hard to predict what you’ll like. Once you admit this and really try things out, you’re much more likely to be accurate about what you’re well-suited to do next.

The most effective way to make the very serious move of changing careers is to try out that career in a not-so-serious way. I’ve done this in the past, and I once discovered that I didn’t end up liking the new career. This tactic can save you a lot of large missteps.

2. Talk about your change in a way that will make it happen.

When people ask you what you do — or, even better, what you want to do — you need an effective answer. Tell people what you’re aiming to do and why it makes sense. This little speech is what will allow people to help you make that career change.

Laura Allen, co-founder of 15 Second Pitch, helps people figure out what to say when they want to make a career change. The key to answering the question “what do you do” is knowing yourself and knowing why you want to change. Once you know that, the pitch will come more easily.

3. Keep your significant other in the loop.

A career change is so emotionally and financially profound that it’s practically a joint decision if you’re living with a significant other. I learned this the hard way, when my husband changed careers.

As a career advisor, I had a lot of opinions about what he should be doing, but I didn’t want to step on his toes so I tried to leave him alone to make the decisions himself. But I started getting nervous about the instability his choices might create.

There’s a definite balance you need to strike between wanting to support your partner in chasing his or her career dreams, and wanting to maintain sanity in the relationship while the chase is on. Keeping your partner in the loop, not just about what you’re doing but also what you’re thinking, can go a long way toward creating a team feeling.

4. Make the change before you go nuts.

Most people hold out in a career until it’s clear that it’s not for them. All change is hard. We like to be stimulated and interested, but most of us don’t like constant change. It’s too stressful, so we find ways to avoid it.

The problem is that if you put off change for too long you compromise your ability to orchestrate it. I spent a lot of my career with the bad habit of letting myself bottom out before I made a big change, so take it from me — the change is much harder to manage when you’re operating from a place of desperation and exhaustion.

5. Downplay financial issues.

I write a lot about how you don’t need a lot of money to be happy. In fact, research shows that you only need $40,000 to be happy, and that the rest of the money you earn has little impact on your happiness.

But Tim Ferriss takes this one step further. In his book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” he starts with the idea that time and flexibility are worth more in life than money. So when you think about if you can afford to make the change, think in terms of your net gain in time and flexibility rather than in money.

Anticipating the Risk

Career change is always risky. But if you have a good understanding of why you’re leaving your current career and choosing the new one, the clarity can give you the strength to endure instability and uncertainty.

At some point, your self-awareness will make the career change your only viable alternative. Then it’ll seem like a relatively low-risk move.

7 replies
  1. Mary
    Mary says:

    I read the article and it did bring up a point I’ve been wondering, (since I’ve read it in the advance copy of your book–which is really excellent and if people don’t buy immediately when it’s finally for sale they are really missing out and my opinion is so unbiased) and I think others will be too. The figure of $40K being the amount that will make you happy and anything beyond is just gravy. To quote the blog post where you elaborate on this: “To someone who just spent four years in college living off nine-thousand-dollar loan stipends, an increase to forty thousand means a lot – €“ moving from poverty to middle class. But it's a one-time rush. After you hit the forty-thousand-dollar-range money never gives you that surge in happiness again.”

    In this quote, its about basically going from $0 to $40,000. Of course there will be a rush. But, even if you don’t get a SURGE of happiness, I think a reasonable increase will bring you happiness. Not the same roller-coaster feeling, but happy satisfaction. I know I felt that way when I hit $75,000.

    Could you provide the link to where the figure of $40K is given? I really feel skeptical that $40K works for a family of four. If it’s from the book you cite, “Ruminations on a TwentySomething Life”, I think the sequel, “Ruminations on a ThirtySomething Life with a Mortgage and Saving for my Kid’s College” will offer a higher figure.

    However, I could be wrong–the Economist just cited that of people in Udaipur India living on a dollar a day, which for the math impaired is $365 a year, only 9% of people say their life makes them generally unhappy.

  2. Chris Angelli
    Chris Angelli says:

    Penelope, I’d suggest a possible 6th step:

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Before you rush to a “career change” think about how you got to your current job. What are things the drew you there in the first place? Is there a way to make a shift that would allow you to do more of what you like and less of what you hate? Is it the career you hate or just the current incarnation?

    I speak from experience – as a Computer Science major, I got a “great” job when I graduated. Good pay. Good company. Blah blah blah. But I was MISERABLE. Had a horrible boss who publicly reprimanded me if I was 15 minutes late for work. The work was mindnumbing. There was no one there to mentor me. And I had to DRESS UP. So I quit, travelled for awhile, and became a teacher. But that sucked too. Eventually, I went back to software engineering, but this time in a company with flexible work hours, smart, experienced developers who taught me plenty, and work in a field that was interesting to me. Oh, and I could wear whatever I wanted. I ended up being the first to arrive and the last to leave, because I was challenged and excited about the work. Seriously.

  3. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I think you make some very good points. I can completely relate to your significant other advice, as well, since my boyfriend is currently working two part-time jobs and going back to school to make a career change.

    My question relates to that situation, though. A career change that requires extra schooling brings the stress and trepidation to a whole new level. With school schedules changing every 10 weeks, there’s no guarantee that the same money you’re able to make this quarter will be there next quarter, but you have to keep pushing through to justify the enormous financial investment you’ve already made.

    What suggestions do you have for that situation?

    * * * * * * * *

    Think very hard before going to graduate school. So many people think they need to go to meet their goals, but they don’t. Or, worse, they go to make a change, but they don’t know what change they  are going to make. Both situations are not good times to go to graduate school. I’ve posted about this here:


  4. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Another hard thing I found about changing careers is dis-associating your personal identity and sense of self from your career/job.

    I was “a grad student” then an adjunct professor of history. Next I was a website content manager — all these “titles” somewhat summed up what I do.

    And then was a year+ of looking for a new career — and it was tough as I also felt like I’d lost some of my identity.

    That’s the tough part. The only useful advice I ever found (might have been from Penelope, I can’t remember) was to create a mission statement for yourself. What defines you and what you like to do, and hang on to this.

  5. Laura Vanderkam
    Laura Vanderkam says:

    Penelope: Some people have enjoyed testing the waters on career changes by trying the new job over a vacation (Vocation Vacations, an Oregon-based company, offers this service for all sorts of “dream jobs” but it’s possible to do on your own, too). I interviewed some people for a magazine who decided to go from real estate and law to chocolate making after working with a master chocolatier over vacation. At the time they were in the process of opening their store and were thrilled with the career change — but had no illusions about what running a store entails. Something to chew on :)

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