Stories of people who leave soul-sucking corporate careers and make a radical change–getting rid of all of their stuff, leaving city life for an ashram, quitting journalism to scoop ice cream on a Caribbean island –are everywhere.
“There are so many people who are disillusioned about the organizations they work for or their careers, just don’t feel like they are fulfilling their potential, or they lack purpose and they feel like they’re just cogs in machines,” says Skye Robertson, who heads The Escape School, based in London, which offers courses to help people make career changes.
Yet, many people feel stuck. They may be unhappy, but they are achieving what they were supposed to – advancing in a career in business, law, or academia, for instance – and are at a loss for what else to do. And well-intentioned platitudes, like “following your bliss” and “live your best life,” do little to assuage the very legitimate doubts people have about change – small things like paying the rent or a mortgage, supporting a family, affording healthcare, and saving for retirement.
To get more honest and realistic advice, I asked people who’ve actually made these kinds of big life changes – leaving successful careers in finance and fashion, becoming a tea sommelier or a food truck owner, or turning a school bus into a family home – how they would advise others to find a career and a life that is truer to themselves. Here are a few steps gleaned from their stories that anyone – even the most “normal” among us – can follow.
Trust your unhappiness, then figure out why you’re unhappy
Tiffany Dyba did not understand why she was crying on her nightly walk home from work. She led the recruitment team at Burberry and had recently been promoted after years of hard work in New York City’s competitive fashion industry. But something was not right. She sought the help of a career coach, and through that work, began to realize that fashion was no longer for her.
Through her work with the coach, she realized she wanted to help other mid-career women going through the same thing she was. Last September Dyba left Burberry to begin her coaching business full-time.
In March of this year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience that has made her even more grateful for her recent change. “There’s no way I would have been able to soldier through if I was working for a company where I felt like I was always valuing other people’s feelings, priorities, or projects,” she says. “Starting my own business helped me realize that I’m the priority.”
Find a like-minded community
In individualistic societies like the United States, stories of change tend to focus on the triumphs of one person, which glosses over the influence of those with whom we surround ourselves. At a time when psychology was focusing on people’s inner motivations, Kurt Lewin, considered the “father of social psychology,” put forth a theory in the 1940s that individual behavior could not be understood without understanding a person’s social environment.
In this view, change is hard, writes NYU social psychologist John Jost:
“We value the groups to which we belong, and therefore changing our attitudes or behavior is tantamount to leaving the comfortable embrace of a social reality of which we are a part – a social reality that is largely shared by friends and family members.”
This is why finding a like-minded group is so important. We need the affirmation and support of others to make change. In fact, even our own sense of reality is a social process, according to psychologists Curtis D. Hardin and E. Tory Higgins, who have found that our experiences go from “mere capricious subjectivity” to “objective reality” once shared with and acknowledged by others.
Rachael Arthur, who left a 10-year career as a public school teacher in Texas to move to New York City to become a performer, decided to start the website The Free Fall Project to let people share their stories of leaving unsatisfying careers and pursuing their dreams.
“I feel like you’re going against the current of society often,” she says. “A lot of people who mean very well, the first thing they ask is, ‘How are you going to support yourself? How are you going to live? How much money are you going to make?’ These questions can put doubt into your mind, versus if you’re in a tribe of people who are like ‘that’s awesome, when are you going to start?'”
Don’t worry about needing a passion – experiment instead
Many people believe they need a passion in order to leave unsatisfying careers, but in fact, that is putting the cart before the horse, say experts and career changers alike. It turns out, the vast majority of people – around 80%, do not have a singular passion, according to Stanford professors William Burnett and David John Evans.
In their classes and book Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-lived, Joyful Life, Burnett and Evans suggest investigating different career options by interviewing people with jobs that interest you or volunteering in that area.
“The majority of us have many things that we’re interested in. So the kind of conventional advice of ‘go follow your passion or find your passion,’ like it’s just going to hit us in the head when we’re in the shower, doesn’t really work for most people. It actively harms people’s abilities to get themselves unstuck,” says Skye Robertson. At the Escape School, where she is director, students can take online or in-person classes in which they do a “career and life audit” and figure out how to test different career paths. “We’re waiting for this thing to come and hit us when actually we have to be cultivating a lot of things to find our passions,” Robertson adds.
Save money & downsize
Whether it means spending less, downsizing, or staying in a job you dislike a little longer than you want to save money, the overwhelming consensus is that being financially secure helps ease the stress of change.
“There is no shame in working a day job, whether it’s waiting tables or being a doctor if it helps you create financial support to pursue whatever it is you really want to be doing. Don’t burden yourself with the stress of having to pay your bills with a skill you’re just beginning to develop,” says Mel Hattie, who diverted from pursuing a career in law to become a travel writer and tea sommelier.
If your job demands nights or weekends and leaves you with little time or energy to try other activities, it might be worth finding a position in the same field that is less demanding, cutting back your hours, or becoming a consultant or independent contractor.
Nicole Robertson found that consulting gave her the time and flexibility she had lacked when she held demanding jobs in the beauty industry and at a bioplastics company to work on her business Swap Society, a clothes trading company that aims to reduce the environmental impact of the apparel industry.
Reframe ideas of risk and failure
Many people fear the risk of leaving their job and the prospect of failing at what they embark on. But the real risk may be staying in an unhappy situation.
First there are physical and mental health risks. People who reported low job satisfaction early in their career, in their 20s and 30s, reported higher levels of depression, sleep problems, and excessive worry in their 40s, according to a 2016 study from sociologists at the Ohio State University. (Fortunately, those whose job satisfaction began low but got better over their career did not have the same health problems).
There’s also the risk of regret. One of the top five regrets of people who are dying, as chronicled by an Australian palliative care nurse, was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Lauren Chu, who lives in Toronto, works for hiking travel company Live Out Loud Adventures doing communications, researching and organizing trips, and leading tours, while also managing her own website, the Ridgeline Report, to encourage people to get outside. It’s a different world from the job she left as a production supervisor at PepsiCo, where she regularly worked the overnight shift. “The change from a Fortune 500 company to independent and self-directed work has been a bit overwhelming, terrifying, crazy, and overall incredible,” she says. It has led her to a particular definition of success: “Even if after a few years I have to return to a job that gives a steady pay – although to be clear, I don’t plan or anticipate this happening – I will have done what I can and invested in myself to pursue my passion, and there is both emotional and financial success in that.”
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