It was a bright, dry summer day in the high desert in June. The morning of my 51st birthday. It was the day that changed my life.
I was in a 4-day workshop among the tall pines in a small hotel — a sort of personal retreat — where I had taken a week of vacation to attend a workshop unrelated to my full-time Fortune 50 job at the time. It was an opportunity to spend 4 days in the sun, stay with a friend on the river, and break away from the drudgery of the battleship gray corporate cubicle.
I went to check my phone during a break and got the news I’d been waiting for. I was accepted to a graduate program that started the following September. Just 3 months away. This day and moment changed my outlook on life immediately.
The arc of that moment was etched forever in my memory, a chrysalis that would slowly open roads on a forward journey toward the life I envisioned. The sun was hot on my face and a perma-smile grew ear-to-ear. I felt free. I was going to change my life, and my career. It was like a heavy weight had been lifted. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to navigate it all specifically, or financially, and I had less than 60 days to figure it out.
The following Monday I quit my six-figure job to enter a full-time graduate program to become a clinical nutritionist. It was a bold move leaving a coveted senior position in portfolio management at the time (and especially at my age) that had been my identity and family for over 18 years. There were moments I thought I might be crazy.
I wasn’t — and I was finally ok with leaving behind a lucrative salary for a personally rewarding role that would earn me less than half of that current salary. It wasn’t about the money — it was about my happiness, balance and ultimately my sanity.
Becoming burned out in midlife is a signal that should not be ignored. Burnout typically hides and festers until the stress turns inward, and you start to experience physical symptoms — headaches, insomnia, irritability with your family, and even panic attacks. It’s a calling to pay attention. It can also be a catalyst for the ultimate life transition.
Burnout can have several different definitions, depending on who you ask, and studies have been done to discriminate between burnout as a psychological construct, and burnout as a clinical entity. In fact, burnout is so pervasive that researchers are still trying to assess whether there is a clinically usable physiological biomarker that is specific to burnout.
When you are living in burnout, you feel it. You deal with it of course, because you are a professional. You have a job to do. You may have invested your identity in your role for years. But when there is dread and resentment, consider instead there is opportunity for reflection and change.
Scientific terminology notwithstanding, burnout is essentially chronic stress and when it is job-related, it can entrap you. But given some time and considerable reflection (and a bit of self care) your options just may present themselves sooner than you think.
Transitioning your career takes 3 things:
I call it the transition trifecta: mindset, money and perseverance.
I’m not going to lie. The money part is the reality that it takes some amount of savings or support to toggle your life. I would suggest as least six months and maybe a year depending on the level of change you are seeking. I did a full 180-degree switch and saved a year’s salary. In reality it can be done with less, and student loans, if graduate school or an advanced degree is required. Most times a graduate education is not required, if you have a strong mindset and perseverance.
Mindset is the foundation for lasting change, and it should be the first place where you dedicate time to figuring out how to get the life you want. If you find yourself saying “I’m not going to live this way anymore”, you don’t have to know how — but you can make the decision to stop the story in your head that says I’m 50 (or insert your age) and it’s over. No one should spend time working in a job that instigates a depressive state on Sunday nights or resolute dread on Monday mornings.
Start by honoring yourself and giving yourself the permission to attain the life you want. When you nurture yourself in this way, you will be more successful and motivated to accomplish what you want. Start with a fresh journal or diary. Create a space where you feel focused and have the free time to tap into your streaming consciousness to write out the life you want. Just try this. Create your own career transition roadmap if the world were perfect. Go deep and get specific about how it will impact your physical health, love life, family and future. Dream big, the sky’s the limit when it comes to journaling about the life you envision for yourself. It’s really fun to look back at what you wrote a year or two later.
Now for the money part. Yes, it takes some investment in yourself, and/or savings to support yourself while you are in transition. It doesn’t have to be a lot depending on how you intend you leverage your current skill set. A good rule of thumb is six months to a year of savings, or a partner that can support you financially while you are transitioning. If neither of those options exist, loans from family or academic institutions can support you while you earn the education to make the switch. The good news is no matter what your age, the options for exploring — and successfully navigating a career transition are very real and attainable. If you cannot leave your current position while transitioning, then make a plan for working on your goal after work hours. No longer does switching careers have to mean a new degree and a lot of debt.
It may seem trite to discuss perseverance — why sticking with your plan no matter what is so important. But when you decide that change is necessary, the transition process could be short or long — weeks to years, depending on whether you decide to merely shift jobs, or take on an entirely new vocation. The latter is attainable for anyone. But it takes true perseverance. You will question yourself often, but you will succeed if you tap into it. Revisit the roadmap you set for yourself and anticipate any roadblocks. Reward yourself when milestones on your career transition path have been reached. Treat yourself to a retreat or conference where you can surround yourself with like-minded peers in your new vocation. Spend time researching your new vocation. Search for people on LinkedIn who are in your new line of work and check where they are employed, what their background is, and what groups they belong to. Research online certificates or degrees to understand what education may be needed to support you. Join Facebook groups that are created to support your new line of work. Leverage the free Ivy League college courses (from MIT, Harvard, Cornell and others) and search for career-specific curated workshops in your line of work. There are many offerings in technology, computer science, entrepreneurship, digital marketing and social media, finance, accounting, management, marketing and profitability.
Peer-to-peer mentoring concepts like mastermind groups have been wildly successful and immense sources of knowledge for deep information sharing, often in a socially safe and open format. Napoleon Hill coined the term in his 1937 book, Think And Grow Rich. Hill described the Mastermind principle as “The coordination of knowledge and effort between two or more people who work towards a definite purpose in a spirit of harmony…no two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible intangible force, likened to a third mind, also known as the Mastermind.”
Topic-focused mastermind groups and curated live experiences might look like a series of online weekly meetings, online workshops, or in-person retreats that are created by experts in their respective fields who are willing to share the secrets that helped them reach their income goals. They often share e-books and free downloadable content with their own time-tested processes for success (in exchange for an email address).
I have found mastermind groups to be an invaluable resource to supporting my new path. I’ve also met some wonderful new friends, potential collaborators and supporters in the process. Find mastermind groups, or create a learning meetup with others in your chosen field that are like-minded career changers — preferably smarter than you, that will support you in your path to your goal.
Changing your career can be an emotionally elevated period that requires nurturing, sensitivity, self-awareness — and a personal plan to get through it productively. When you have adequately given time to what you want to do in life (mindset) and figured out how you will monetarily support the transition process (savings, loans, or working on your plan while staying at your current job), stay the course. The path may shift along the way, the roads may change, but your perseverance and curiosity along the way will see through to success.
Three important things to consider before you cut the cord with your current job
First, are you just bored or burned out? Give yourself adequate space to analyze why you may be unhappy with your work. What will make you excited about work again? Take a personal day or a week off where you can fully unplug and put pen to paper to list the pros and cons of your current situation. Go on a self-imposed sabbatical, retreat, or take a workshop in a field related to what you really want to do. Consider carefully if you really want to quit your current job or company. Many businesses provide opportunities to stay on while taking on a new role. Consider perhaps if what you need is an opportunity to learn a different skill set, work on a new project, or change roles altogether — while staying at your current employer. Be open and honest with yourself when reflecting on your readiness to make a change. Assess if your situation is a psychological drive to do something new, or simply a need to change your surroundings. More and more employers understand the need for flexible schedules, telecommute time, pleasant surroundings, sit/stand desks and healthful options for movement at work.
Ask for what you want if change is needed. Many employers will honor telecommute days, 4-day workweeks, and some offer unlimited vacation (which may mean your available to answer calls during vacation). Honestly assess with yourself whether a full career transition aligns with your current values and interests. If you are thinking about it every day, or it is keeping you up at night, its likely time for a focused change.
Second, consider hiring a career or executive transition coach in addition to a mastermind group. One to two sessions can be enough to provide a fresh perspective that can open new thought processes. Two things to consider: one, be sure to work with an accredited coach with credentials from an esteemed institution like the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or do a Google search for coaches in your chosen industry that have solid references. Second, get a referral for coach from someone you trust. Remember, coaches are not experts at telling you how to change your career. Coaches are more like partners, a professionally trained guide to help you through a process to map out your own plan to get to your goals. A recent trend in coaching is to employ design-thinking principles — mapping out a vision plan to articulate where you see yourself in 5, 10, 15 years. If you are >40 years old this process can be a very telling one. It can help you understand what stage of change you are in and what capacity for change you are ready to tackle (your self-efficacy).
Coaches will help you plan action strategies and create time-bound, action-based goals that are measurable, including approaches to tackle emerging challenges as you go about accomplishing your goal. Another approach is to partner with a coach to build your mental agility and coping skills (i.e. your resilience) so you can better master the challenges and emotional stressors that you may not have had to face in a long-standing or reticent career. There is a great podcast here that walks through a scenario of hiring a coach or starting a mastermind.
Third and maybe most important — get support of your family, partner and even friends. This may seem like a given, but your decision may mean a lack of income for a period of time, or maybe time away from family to cultivate new credentials related to your new role. These changes can cause undesirable rifts with spouses/partners/children if it means they are directly affected. Collaborate with them in advance on how you will spend your time, financial resources and timelines to get back to contribution phase. Stay connected with peers and ex-coworkers. Schedule coffee and lunches to maintain those connections. I like to try out my new-career elevator pitch on ex-coworkers and new connections at these meetings to generate feedback and hear their perspective.
An Ending Makes a Beginning Possible
William Bridges, PhD and best-selling author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (sold over 1 million copies) was the authority on change and transition until he passed in 2013 from Parkinson’s. In 1979 he published a book outlining the difference between mere situational change versus the psychological process of a transition. A transition, as he describes it, is the inner psychological process that we go through as we internalize and come to terms with a new situation that a change brings about. He wrote concisely on the three stages of change. According to Bridges, every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between this psychological purgatory is an anxiety-ridden “neutral zone” that is essential to go through, since it elicits personal growth at the other end. Bridges asserts that transition is a 3-phase process where people gradually accept the details of the new situation and the changes that come with it.
Bridges’ model highlights three stages of transition that people go through when they experience change:
The process of illumination during the stages of transition can allow us to see where we are, calm ourselves, step outside of our experience and hold it sacred so we can learn from it, and better steer ourselves toward an inspirational path. It can lead to emotional intelligence and awareness that will inform how we respond to career stress and can lead to real and lasting change.
Pretend it’s one year from today and you are living the best year of your life
Write out what that feels like and get detailed about what your life roadmap might look like. Now consider what it will take, specifically to get you there.
You will likely do hours of research on Google.
Who are the people in your chosen industry that you can reach out to that would be willing to share their path? Who do you need to network with? What kind of people would you want in a mastermind group? What classes would you take to get you closer to your goals? Do you need specific credentials?
Get smart on social media and seek out others whom you admire that are successfully achieving similar goals. Then create your vision (or one-page business plan) outlining the direction you need to go.
The key is we all have the opportunity to carve a life we want, if we’re focused, dedicated and willing to work hard to get it. The resources are out there for us to learn — now more than ever.
Not in his goals, but in his transitions man is great.— Ralph Waldo Emerson