9 Steps To Quitting Your "Have To Have" Job And Pursuing Your Dream

Fast Company wants you to have your best year yet in 2012; click for more advice and tips on how to work smarter, manage your career, and lead a more meaningful life.

How many of us have dreamed of leaving our current jobs to do what we really want to do? And yet, not many of us have actually left the safety of what we do daily unless forced out by layoffs and downsizing.

Why is that? I would argue it’s due to one or more of these reasons:

  • We haven’t taken the time to identify a vocation that would serve our passion.
  • We lack a plan to make a successful exit.
  • We are paralyzed by a combination of our workload, fear of leaving the world we know, and concern about how we will do financially. 

I’d like to share the concrete steps you need to take before you make your move. It’s based on my personal experience moving from an executive position in a multi-billion-dollar technology company into academia. In my new role as a business school lecturer at the MBA@UNC program, I have more control over my work, I’ve expanded my network to meet new and interesting people, I have more time to learn about things that interest me, and I have more free time to pursue outside interests and hobbies. Plus less stress.

1) Make time for your passion.

I have always enjoyed learning and its flip side, sharing what I know with others. So a number of years ago I took the time and effort to get an MBA while working at IBM. It was an enriching experience to be back in the classroom. Once that was completed, I took the discipline I’d learned from two years of schoolwork and applied it to writing my first book, which I was fortunate enough to get published by Oxford University Press. Those two extra efforts, in addition to my day job, positioned me to take advantage of the opportunity to become a lecturer at a top business school six years ago. While this was added workload to my already busy corporate job, because it was my passion it was a lot of fun as well. I "did what I had to do in order to do what I had to do." And each milestone led to another opportunity.

If you don’t know your passion, a book such as Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Laurence G. Boldt is a good place to start. Part motivational tome, part workbook, it’s a great book that provides a roadmap to guide you to your new path.

2) Expand your network outside your company.

Many of us do a great job networking within our companies. That’s fine...if you want to move up in your company. But if you seek a new path, you need to find others that will help you get on that path. I was able to join academia because of a contact I had through a company advisory board. While at a board meeting I took the opportunity to ask a professor if there were opportunities to become an adjunct faculty member. It just so happened that a position was available in my area of expertise and I was able to take advantage of the opportunity. Without taking the time to build relationships outside your firm and look there for opportunities, it’s unrealistic to expect they will come your way.

3) Get your financial house in order.

If money were no object, then each of us would pursue our passions. But the great pay and benefits at large companies have made us used to a certain lifestyle. Some of us may have even leveraged ourselves beyond what our paychecks can safely support. If you are serious about taking your own path, you need to also get serious about your finances. Look at your finances as you would a company’s. Can you reduce the fixed expenses? Can you build in a steady income stream? Have you lowered your debt to equity ratio?

You can do these things by reducing your expenses and liabilities by paying down or off debt, especially credit card debt. You can build up your cash reserves so you have enough to cover at least six months of expenses. If possible, find a way to get a steady, dependable income stream, perhaps via your spouse’s job or a pension. I am lucky enough to have the latter, which ensures some income. In addition, my wife went back to work, which not only provides another income stream but also diversifies our sources of income. That, and the income I receive from my new academic position, is sufficient to meet our needs and also put some money away for a rainy day.

4) Seek support—both emotional and financial—from your spouse or significant other. 

Obviously, leaving your current job to do something new may entail significant financial and emotional challenges. It will likely also impact not only you but your spouse/significant other and your family. So it needs to be discussed to ensure you can get their support on both fronts. On the emotional side, it will be a lot easier to overcome your fears and insecurities if you have people close to you cheering you on and encouraging you. And on the financial side, you need their help to trim expenses and/or provide additional sources of income. Happily in my case, my wife was instrumental in both supporting my move and well as moving back into the workplace to bring in another salary.

5) Don’t worry what others will think. 

For many of us, it’s very important what our friends and coworkers think of us. And making a major change that may affect our status in the eyes of others (and ourselves) may be concerning. But you can’t let others decide how you will live and which path you will follow. First, it’s unlikely many people are really thinking that much about you. They are thinking about themselves. And, those who are your friends will support you. Those who are not are not worth listening to. In my case my friends were very happy for me and we’ve stayed in touch since my departure. 

6) Plan ahead. 

Once you’ve made the decision to move forward, put an action plan in place. Put down dates by which you will accomplish things that will lead you to your goal. Be specific and all-encompassing. Include a budget based on projected income and expenses, so you know you can survive and then thrive financially. And get started early. I had a one-year plan. In the beginning, everything was not all laid out but, over time, the pieces started falling into place.

7) Forget the golden handcuffs and the money left on the table. 

As you begin to plan, it may hit you that you might be leaving yearly bonuses, stock options, and other corporate perks on the table when you leave. Get over it. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win. The one who lives life to the fullest wins. 

8) Get the timing right. 

That said, make sure you look at the timing of your exit. See if it’s possible to exit after either the annual bonus payout or when options are vested. 

9) Stay motivated. 

As you move toward your transition it will be normal and natural to have doubts and fears. So it’s crucial to stay motivated. One way is to lay out your vision of how your life will be and what your new mission is. Then review that on a daily basis. Subscribe to sites that either help you learn more about your passion or help you think positive thoughts. Go to these regularly. Personally, I often reflect on the Optimist Creed, which provides a great outlook on life.

Now it's time to execute your plan. As I got closer to my transition I did a calendar countdown, marking off each day that passed and brought me closer to my goal. This made the plan more real and motivated me to ensure I made the best use of the time remaining to make a successful move.

Will taking concrete action to pursue your passion lead to success and happiness? Perhaps so. Perhaps not. As T.S. Eliot said, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."

Got any advice for fellow dreamers looking to make the leap? Add it in the comments below. 

For more leadership coverage, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Jeffrey]

Add New Comment


  • Lindsey Farrell

    Although Mark wasn't a professor of mine at UNC, I am grateful not only for the education I received in Kenan Flagler's undergraduate program, but also for the independence and fortitude it instilled in me.  I am excited to say that I am finally making the leap from the corporate cog world to follow my passion in 35 days time.  I am counting them down and have never felt more inspired or motivated in my life. 

    I graduated in 2004 and it's taken eight years to finally be in a place where I actually know what my passions are and have the means to follow them, but the road was worthwhile. My advice to others out there: don't let yourself become complacent.  Keep searching for knowledge and passion all through your life, and be determined to make room for them in your world.  I've been working two side jobs out of passion for the last year, and although they've left me with little free time, they created the path that allowed me to make the big move now. The worthwhile roads are never easy, but that's what makes them worthwhile.

    Here's to using what we've got to get where we want! 

  • Sandra Cain

    Great article - very similar to the path I took. A couple other tips: take a close look at what it costs you to work for that company...clothing, lunch out, transportation, etc.  You may not have those costs in your new line of work. Also, get a clear picture of how much minimum you need to make to keep your house, eat, etc...the low end scenario. That relieved lots of my stress, and now, 7 years later I make a lot more than I did in corporate, but more importantly, my lifestyle is so much more flexible, free and interesting.

    About the support system, I'm a coach, so of course, I recommend having a coach or coach-like person to cheer you on and hold you accountable. I chose to NOT tell my parents and other why-would-you-ever-leave-such-a-great-company people in my life until I was stable enough to take their criticism. No need to test yourself when you're still vulnerable...only talk to people you know will be on your side.

    One last note: while you are still working for a big company, volunteer for assignments, committees, projects that will build skills that you will need on your own. Find ways to build sales experience, project management, public speaking or others on someone else's dime. Most large companies have opportunities to do this, even if over lunch, like employee network meetings or something similar. Soak up all the experience you can while you are there. It also helps keep you engaged while you work towards your next big thing.

  • Mandy Gresh

    Realize not everyone is going to support you. Unfortunately, there will be some folks in your circle that don't understand your leaving the "traditional path". That negativity can cause second guessing and insecurity you don't need during this exciting time. I recommend putting those relationships on the shelf while you explore your options so you can be truly open to "non-corporate" opportunities around you.

  • Mark McNeilly

    Mandy, good point. It's tough enough to make the move, so you do need to keep positive folks around you.

  • Allan Holender

    A great article and very timely. I wrote about the fusion of one's personal vision with one's professional mission five years ago. I predicted that combined with a holistic  philosophy, it will hallmark the next one hundred years. You can read excerpts from the book called "Zentrepreneurism- A 21st Century Guide To the New World of Business. Forgive the shameless promotion but it has real relevance for all who wish to pursue their passion with purpose and create profits with integrity.  I also have a "Ten and Zen " theory, that whatever you liked to do when you were ten years old is your true love. I've created a ZenBiz Blueprint for Life to make that a reality. Hope to hear from you all www.zentrepreneurism.com
    My e-mail address is allanmholender@gmail.com

  • Michael Martel

    Love the article. I coach many people who want to break out of the corporate routine.  This is a great map to how to do so.  I would only add, just get started.  Too many people worry about getting it perfect and never end up executing. You don't have to get it perfect.  Just get it going.

  • Mark McNeilly

    Michael, glad you found it useful! Good point on getting started. I agree it's one of the hardest things to do.

  • Adam Claydon-Platt

    Hi Mark,

    This is an awesome article!  Thanks for giving such a detailed real-world example of how to follow your dream - it's not only inspirational to hear what you've achieved, but also great advice for anyone keen to do the same!  Thanks a lot for sharing, and Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to all! :)

  • Nathaniel Tice

    This book is another that I found of great assistance in understanding what it is that I should be doing. Great read and well written. Looking forward to reading the other recommended text. 

    Wonderful article, still leaves enough room to pen my vision in and start the hunt for venture capialists for funding.

  • Julia Lawrence

    Thanks for a very sensible and timely article! I'm now on my second entrepreneurial venture and would add the following points.

    First, it helps to live in the UK and some parts of Europe, where health insurance is unnecessary.  For those of you not in the UK, sorry about this, but if you have special skills emigration is sometimes possible.  Alternatively, you could pressure your politicians to provide nationalised health care.

    On a more practical note, my advice is to focus on sales and marketing - but especially sales.  You need skills that you may never have needed in your paid jobs, and selling your own products and services is in any case fundamentally different from selling for someone else on salary plus commission, with a training programme and other support materials.  If you can, work on sales in some way or other before you go solo.

    Next, if there is any way you can do it, overlap your new business with your old.  I knew of someone who set up a private equity company by working on it at weekends, and only left his job when he had a reliable income stream.  It meant a fairly complete sacrifice of family life for about a year, but it worked out.  Plenty of people hardly see their families all year (think oil industry, armed forces).  This needs to be done with your family's understanding and genuine buy-in, otherwise find another way.

    Third, set dates for reality checks.   If it's not working out, don't carry on in the hope that it will somehow work out.  You need to change tack when it's clear that Plan A is not going to plan.  You need specific target achievements and dates, and you should tell your mentor (as described in the article) what they are.  Be honest with yourself if you're not achieving them.   Be clear from the start about what constitutes your Plan B.

  • Gabriel Mott Colors

    A friend of mine from elementary school (I'm almost 40) wrote me on facebook the other day and asked me what I thought about her daughter's (turning 18) desire to go to art school. Mom is nervous, wants her kid to get a "real degree". I got a real degree from Berkeley in '95, got on board with the internet, doubled my salary four years in a row loving the ride until the 2001 crash when the fun was gone and most of my colleagues lived out of fear for losing their jobs. I would go home and paint. When I quit my job, I was asked to be in an art show and sold three pieces of art. I was an artist. (ha!) I took classes, went to Burning Man, broke off an engagement and moved into an art space in Oakland. One year later I was in Maui. The money was gone, but I quickly met the largest art community I had ever known and soon helped found an arts festival that is now on its fifth year. The financial struggle comes and goes and I will admit I have sometimes looked at colleagues from the dot com days who stayed this entire time in the industry and I think how much money and financial stability I would have. But I know I really didn't have a choice. Comparisons are odious. I really do not know how I have continued to make this work.
    Four years ago I met a color teacher who changed my life by opening up my visual perception. Since then I have passionately pursued a project that to me is groundbreaking. Something inside me refuses to let this dream die. Perhaps it is stupidity or stubbornness. I wrote back to my friend knowing that I am hardly a model of financial success. It has to be a personal choice and the risks are real. But I have to believe the cliche of 'do what you love the money will follow' because as far as I know this is the one life I have to live. And then there are the facts. When I quit my job I quickly realized that I couldn't just find a job that would take up half my time and make half my income. My experience of the corporate world was extravagant, but it occupied my headspace 24/7. The jobs available that don't "OCCUPY you" pay a fraction in comparison. Granted, Maui is very rural and the economy is tourism based. Of my friends (aside from the very rich who own valuable real estate) the mechanics, waiters and carpenters make the most money. My point is we don't know the future, especially now. With the drastic shifts in our economy, what a shame it would be to invest your time in money in a school learning something that wasn't a passion if that training didn't pay off. When I graduated college, I had a meeting with the artist Brett Cook Dizney who told me "You are only as dynamic as your experience." I decided that I wanted to be dynamic, I wanted to be an old wise man some day. So I have sought out experiences. Don't get me wrong, I still want great financial abundance in my life but for me this is the only way I know. A couple of pieces of advice once you have taken the leap (if you so choose):1. Find a teacher and mentor. Keep looking. Don't expect to find one right away and don't expect them to fit a preconceived mold. Bring them good food and treats. 2. Take classes. Art classes, writing classes, new sports or dance, business... anything. Not just for the learning but for the rhythm of a "real" week and the discipline. 3. Volunteer. Aside from the altruistic benefits, I have never found a better way to grow my network and it has solidified my community.4. Ask for advice. In one of my sculpture classes, a student quoted Lincoln "If you want to make a friend, ask him for advice."5. Help people. Another quote I love is that we find our path when we discover how we are useful to others. 6. Daily ritual. Whether it's spirituality, 10 minutes of Mind yoga in the morning, or a brisk walk. Find something you do roughly at the same time every day. And don't beat yourself up if you miss a day. Just go back to it. 7. Be grateful.It's funny, in writing this, all I can feel is deep gratitude for the many people who have supported me on this path in so many ways-- financially by buying art and contributing to projects, emotionally, spiritually, as teachers and guides, and as friends, lovers and family. No matter what you choose to do, the same things are important. That doesn't change. Take care of yourself and your heart, and cultivate relationships. 
    "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
    -Howard Thurman

    With Aloha,

  • The CXO

    Excellent post! I would also recommend The War of Art (Pressfield: 2003) for some extra motivation. Now, how does a management consultant turn a passion for writing and humor into a payable job?

    www.intheexitrow.com - is that a start?

  • Jana Fuelberth

    Thanks for sharing!  I really appreciate the advice on finding your passion; I wholeheartedly agree.  How would you augment your advice for young professionals?  Being only 15 months out of college, I find it hard to pinpoint my passion!  

  • Mark McNeilly

    I would point you to the book I mentioned in the blog, Zen and Art of Making a Living by Laurence Boldt. It provides both a philosophy about life as well as a workbook portion that helps you find out what things you may be passionate about pursuing.

  • andy_mcf

    Great post.  Especially like the optimistic tone despite what one reads/hears about in media these days.  If unemployment is 9% or even 18%, then the employment rate is 82-91%.  When we use our strengths on a daily basis we are energized, engaged, and contribute at our highest level. Stay optimistic, then Believe, Change, and Achieve!  More here: http://bit.ly/mDde82

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Great article, and good comments, particularly regarding health insurance. To the above, and below, I would add that it can be very helpful to have someone to hold you accountable to yourself. Your boss makes sure you get stuff done at work. You need someone to help you at home, otherwise your grand dreams may always find themselves at the bottom of the priority list. For some people, this may be a coach, for others, an accountability buddy (I recommend that it not be a spouse or family member, they can be either too harsh or too lenient, neither is helpful). 

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach & CEO

  • Mark McNeilly

    David, good point and it rings true with me. I have a writing partner that I do progress calls with every other week. If I didn't have that I know my writing would go on the back burner.