Our educational and employment systems are geared towards specialism. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We expect an answer such as ‘an architect’ or ‘a doctor’.
An answer such as
“I’m not really sure what I want to do so I think I’ll invest 10 years of education and training into becoming a doctor. If I find out that I hate it and want to become a full-time writer instead then I’ll switch career at age 30”
is not deemed acceptable.
An uncertain response is received with suspicion and pity. The unsure and flaky won’t find a decent job.
Well, guess what? There is no such thing as a safe and stable career anymore. We can all be laid off with a mysterious looking invitation to meet with HR at 6 pm.
So why not follow your dreams and take the leap? It’s never too late to leap into something new.
From doctor to comedy genius
British doctor turned author and comedian, Adam Kay quit the medical profession when he was 29. Kay quit his job after a caesarean section went horribly wrong on a shift when he was the most senior person on the ward. The patient had an undiagnosed condition called placenta praevia. The baby sadly died. The mother lost 12 litres of blood and ended up having a hysterectomy.
After investing so much of his life into medicine, Kay felt that his life was in limbo after he left. He didn’t open up to his family and friends. No one could understand why he had given up on his dream career.
He found his career pivot when he joined doctors on protest at the Edinburgh Fringe, a comedy festival. He read out an excerpt from the diaries he had kept while working to a rapturous reception. This positive experience encouraged him to publish his diaries in a book entitled ‘This is going to hurt’.
His book is still a hugely popular book in the UK, knocking Michelle Obama’s autobiography into second place throughout 2019 and staying on the number one spot on the Sunday Times bestseller list for over a year.
At the age of 40, Kay has the achievement of his book being turned into a TV series. He continues to do sell-out stand-up comedy.
I’m sure that he will have no fear pivoting again should writing and comedy no longer cut the mustard for him.
From figure skating to fashion empire queen
Fashion designer Vera Wang had one dream at the age of 7. She wanted to become an Olympic figure skater. Little else mattered to her. Wang worked extremely hard throughout her childhood to become one of the top 20 skaters of the US at the age of 19.
She and her partner placed fifth in the 1968 US National Championships. She didn’t make it to the Olympic team.
For Wang, this was the end of her Olympic dream and the end of her skating career. She had to figure out what else to do with her life. She asked her father if she could go to design school. He refused, telling Wang to get a job instead. That summer she worked at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue.
It was while working at the fashion store that she made an impression on the client, Frances Patiky Stein who was one of the two fashion directors at Vogue at the time. Stein hired Wang as a temporary assistant.
After getting her foot in the door, Wang worked her way up the ladder very quickly to become one of the youngest-ever fashion editors at the magazine.
Wang left Vogue in 1987 after 15 years after being turned down for the editor-on chief position. She didn’t know what she wanted to do next with her life.
While planning her wedding 2 years later, she had a revelation. She realised how hard it was for late brides like her to find suitable dresses for her age and sense of style. She recognised a gap in the market and filled it.
Since starting in bridal wear Wang has expanded into everything from stationery to bedding.
From telecommunications to the world’s richest man
Jeff Bezos needs no introduction. He has been the world’s richest man since 2017. The first centi-billionaire. Jeff didn’t start out as an entrepreneur before he created Amazon. I guess he got lucky on his first attempt. Bezos studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. He turned down offers from Intel, Bell Labs and Andersen Consulting upon graduating.
In his 20s, Bezos first joined a fintech telecommunications company before becoming a product manager in the banking industry. He then moved to a newly formed hedge fund, DE Shaw & Co where he became the fund’s fourth senior vice president at age 30.
He stayed in that position for just 4 years before leaving to set up Amazon in 1994. He wrote the business plan on his legendary road trip from New York City to Seattle.
The vast wealth that Bezos has amassed has allowed him to eventually follow his high school dream developing human life in the solar system by founding Blue Origin, a human spaceflight startup company.
Reflecting on his decision to leave his lucrative financial services job to form Amazon, Bezos said,
“When I’m 80, will I regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the internet? Yes”
Bezos is a calculated risk-taker. He warned his early investors that his idea for an online book store had a 70% chance of failing. He believed in his ability to turn his idea a successful business. His investors clearly thought he was worth the risk, even if his major backers at the time were his own parents.
Not many of us have the luxury of having well-off parents to invest in our business idea. Or to support us if we leave a job we simply cannot bear without anything else to go to.
In the examples of Vera Wang and Jeff Bezos, they had de-risked their career change. Bezos put the money of his investors at risk, rather than just his own. If it all failed, he could go back to investment banking.
Vera Wang had built up financial security from her 15 years at Vogue to buy her a little thinking and reflecting time before setting up her bridal wear company.
While you could argue that Wang’s leap from a fashion magazine to fashion designer wasn’t that great, it’s one thing to work in publishing with a comfortable steady income. It’s quite different from understanding the nuts and bolts of setting up your own fashion business.
Dr Adam Kay was 29 years old when he hit the nuclear button on his medical career. He left his job for the sake of his own mental health. He didn’t have a plan in mind when he drifted into stand-up comedy as a form of personal therapy and published his journal.
He didn’t know at the time that it would lead to becoming one of the most well-known British writers.
Which one are you?
Which one of these scenarios best describes you? Are you a Jeff, a Vera or an Adam?
Have you come to the realisation that your childhood dream isn’t going to work out and that you need to find a ‘proper job’?
Are you in a well-paid job that you everyone tells you that you are lucky to have but your soul is aching to do something else with your life?
Or is your current job making you so unhappy that it’s impacting your mental health, but you have no backup plan?
The implications of quitting a job and pivoting to something new are different at each stage of life. If you are in your 20s then you are less likely to have commitments such as mortgage and children compared with your 40s.
Making a leap can still seem completely scary regardless of which life stage you’re in. Especially if it’s away from something that you’ve worked towards for most of your life to this point.
What will your family and friends think if you tell them that you no longer want to work as an airline pilot and instead want to set up your own vegan deli? They might think that you’ve lost your mind.
Ignore them and silence your inner voice of self-doubt. This is your life and as long as you are not intentionally leaving your family destitute then you should put your dream into action.
But you must have a plan. Don’t get to the point that Dr Adam Kay got to where you are forced to quit with no backup plan. With no financial cushion and no idea what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
If you are still reading this and have a job that you enjoy and hope to keep doing forever — assuming the job will continue to exist in the ever-changing world of today — then congratulations, you’ve hit the career jackpot.
If on the other hand, you are wanting to make a switch but don’t know how to start, then here is the best advice I’ve been given.
It’s never too late to leap into something new
Plan before you leave.
Start planning your next move before you quit. Have a direction you want to go in, no matter how vague. If you have a clear business idea like Jeff Bezos then work on that in your spare time.
If you have a hobby or passion that you want to pursue, then commit dedicated time to it each week. Don’t let the day job fill your life at the expense of your side projects. Maybe you are a keen runner and want to turn it into your full-time job somehow?
What is holding you back from dedicating some time to your passion while continuing with your current career? Don’t let the apparent craziness of your dreams or fear of failure prevent you from taking action. What was that saying about failure?
The only failure is the failure to try.
Find people doing what you want to do. Learn from them.
The most action-oriented people have a tendency to seek out others doing what they aspire to do. They want to learn from the best examples of success. They ask for help and advice. What’s the worst that can happen if you ask?
You don’t have to be thinking outside your current employer. Perhaps you are working in a job in sales but you feel you have more to give in product management. Find someone you admire in the product team and invite them for a coffee (or a Zoom call).
Tell them that you want to do what they are doing and ask them how they got there. Most people will be flattered to be asked for advice on their career choices.
Build up a financial cushion
This is sound life advice however secure you are in what you’re doing right now. Putting aside as much as you can afford each month for the future and sticking to a budget is something that we should all be doing.
Financial security of some sort is particularly important if the leap you are planning will involve a reduction in income, for a while at least.
Life should not be full of regrets, just life of lessons that you’ve learned along the way. Jeff Bezos felt he would regret not jumping on the opportunity that the nascent internet offered him more than he would regret leaving his highly paid job.
Adam Kay does not regret leaving his beloved National Health Service to become a writer and comedian.
Vera Wang doesn’t regret leaving the world’s largest fashion magazine when they didn’t believe enough in her to give her the top job.
It’s never too late to leap into something new
My personal experience
I left my dream job at the age of 31. Up to that point, the only thing I could remember wanting to do with my life was to find a cure for cancer.
It’s not a career you enter into lightly and it’s certainly not something to leave without careful consideration.
After investing 10 years of my life pursuing this dream by ticking all the boxes of an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, master’s degree in Toxicology, PhD in Biochemistry, followed by 4 years of postdoctoral research, I quit.
I made a leap of faith to accept an entry-level job in a telecommunications company. I had become disillusioned with the lack of career progression in the world of academic research. I couldn’t see myself sweating away in the laboratory for the rest of my life, struggling to publish in quality scientific journals while hoping to secure an impossibly rare tenure position.
Many of my friends and family thought I had gone mad. Why was I leaving a career that so many people admired me for? It was my decision. I have no regrets.
Making that first leap 17 years ago has made me less fearful of subsequent leaps into the unknown.
I have since had jobs in contract negotiation, product development, strategy and marketing. I’ve learned a lot from each one of them.
I’m always plotting the next thing to do with my life……and so should you.
Turn your dreams into action.
Cheesy but true.
It’s never too late to leap into something new