Everyone has heard motivational speeches that exclaim "You can do it!" and "Follow your dreams!" Abandoning one job or career for another is much easier to say than do. Especially when you are, by any measure, a "winner" in life and the place you're in is pretty good. In spite of speeches that make it sound easy, changing our lives is tough. We may fail. People may laugh at us. In the words of one of my clients, "Even my mother will think that I am crazy if I give up this job!"
Many of us grapple with these issues. My friend Maria is a gifted engineer who has invested years in making a significant contribution to her firm. But her burning passion for her work is starting to cool down. When I asked her to describe her concerns, she grimaced and said, "I just don't feel like I'm learning that much. I know I'm doing a great job, but I feel like, 'Been there, done that.' It's not the company's fault. I love my company and feel like they deserve my best. It's just hard for me to generate the enthusiasm that I know I should."
"What job sounds fun and exciting to you?" I asked.
Her face lit up as she replied, "I think that I could do a great job managing a project team and eventually leading a larger part of our business. I have seen other managers. I know that I can do what they do. In fact, some of the ones I respect the most have encouraged me to go for it."
"Why don't you try for a career in management?"
"I'm afraid of giving up what I have," she added. "If I go into management, I'm definitely going to lose my technical edge after a few years. Nobody is going to want to hire me as an engineer anymore. I have friends who've been in middle management and been laid off. It can be tough for them to get another job. Besides, I'm great at what I do. I make a nice salary, and I don't have as many headaches. Why should I take the risk?" She became animated as she defended her present position.
I laughed and replied, "Maria, it's not my life. We're talking about your life. Being an engineer is fine; being in management is fine. I'm just a friend who wants you to be happy. Who are you arguing with?"
"I guess that I'm arguing with myself," she said, smiling. "I just don't know what to do."
A client, Bill, is also very good at what he does. In some ways he seems to have it all. He's 50, in great shape, has an MBA from Wharton, and is an investment banker with a net worth of millions of dollars. He has a great wife and nice kids. But his burning passion for his work is also beginning to wane. He wants to teach. I asked him why he loved teaching, and he said, "It's really fun. Every night when I come home from teaching an MBA course at the local university, my wife notices how great I feel and how positive I am. I really believe I'm making a difference in some of my students' lives!"
But when I asked, "Why don't you become a teacher?" Bill talked himself out of his newfound passion.
"Compared to being an investment banker, college professors don't make any money. To make it worse, none of the real professors seem to respect me that much. I don't have a PhD; in some ways, they kind of think that they are better than I am. Why should I put up with their crap? Many of them don't know anything about the real world like I do. Why should I give up a great job with lots of money, status, and respect to be a second-class citizen?"
"To begin with, why do you care about money?" I laughed. "You already have more than you can spend. By the way, who are you arguing with?"
It's very easy to talk with our friends about "going to the next level." How many times have you heard people talk about the job that they "would love to have someday"? How many of these people actually end up doing the work they dream about?
The next time you hear yourself talking about "that job I would really like to have," look in the mirror. How willing are you to lose what you have? All opportunity involves risk. How willing are you to face the possibility of failure or diminished success?
If you have been having the same long-standing debate — either with friends or just in your head — it's time to make a decision. If you want to go for it, don't kid yourself about the risk. You have to be willing to accept the possibility of failure and get started. If you decide you don't want to give up what you have, make peace with it. Quit wasting time debating with yourself about a future that will never happen. Who are you arguing with?
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and a cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.