Current Issue
This Month's Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

6 minute read

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

[Image: Flickr user Jeffrey]

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.