The Most Important Lessons From My Career Change (Part 1)

Natasha with one of her horses in Costa Rica

It's been 18 months since our community manager Natasha kick-started her career change. While she's loving where she's reached, it's also been an up-and-down journey to get there. Here, she shares the honest lessons from her shift. 

Dear Careershifters,

I’m writing this to you barefoot on the beach, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. There are reggae tunes drifting down the sand from a bar up the road, and I’m watching surfers and families play in the waves ahead of me. Sitting here, I'm inspired to write to you because today I'm again struck so hard by what I’ve managed to create over the past 18 months.

Ever since starting university, I had worked a string of third sector jobs. I had started out passionate, committed and full of youthful energy. I worked with the homeless, with street-based sex workers, with women fleeing domestic violence. I was changing the world.

But a feeling of not-quite-right drove me from job to job, organisation to organisation. I started taking steps further and further back from the front line work that I had been so excited about, wondering why this good, noble path was leaving me feeling so cold and confused. I spiralled into feeling trapped, heavy. Responsible and answerable to everyone but myself. Every decision I made had the weight of someone else’s opinions or needs strapped onto it – even those of people I’d never met.

I wound up commuting to an office I hated, through traffic I resented, in a car that sucked up money I didn’t enjoy earning. I spent days dealing with problems I didn’t have the energy to care about in order to support someone else’s reputation, and I came home at the end of the day with my soul so small, so shy, that my relationships suffered. I grieved. I daydreamed about a life like this – free and passionate and curious. I read blogs and lost myself in images and articles and poetry. And each time I resurfaced from my reveries I felt worse – less capable, less interesting, less powerful.

Now, I've just spent my morning training horses (my other passion) in bright sunshine on the edge of the jungle. I’m working on the beach, pen in hand, beer wedged in the sand beside me. I’m writing to people whose lives I really, truly care about, and I’m writing about what matters to me most in the world – creating a life that you love. And it blows my mind.

The journey I’ve taken myself on has been tough, but one of incredible growth, and the lessons I’ve learned have been deep-rooted and long-lasting.  I own my life. I chose it, fully and unapologetically. I’m free, and I’m loved, and I’m learning, and I’m close to tears when I think of the young woman I was just a few years ago.

I’m just a person, you see. I had nothing more and nothing less than you do. I had the same senses, fears, obstacles and blockages. I had many of the same responsibilities that you do; a house, a partner, financial uncertainty, the whole shebang. The only difference between where I am and where I could have been are the lessons and choices I want to share with you here, and over the weeks and months to come.

Honest and frank, no holds barred.

Here are my first six lessons.

Commit

A couple of weeks ago, I called my dad. We talked for a while about the usual father-daughter things. Then, at some point, he told me how proud he was of me for having had the courage to commit to a life I love.

"I remember, when you finished university, I asked you what you wanted to do with your life," he said, "and you told me you wanted a job where you could travel the world and work on the beach with your laptop. You wanted to write, and you wanted to help people.

And I said to you: 'Sure, sure. Go get a job and you’ll get over that soon enough.' But you did it. You absolutely committed to it, and you went out there and you did it. Jobs like this didn’t even exist when you told me that was what you wanted. And you created it. I’m so proud of you."

Coming from someone whose idea of a good, secure lifestyle is a million miles from what I’m doing now, those words blew my mind. I spent a good chunk of my career change absolutely terrified of damaging my relationship with my father by shunning the lifestyle he dreamed of for me.

But I committed to doing what I needed to do anyway. And that commitment carried me through everything.

When I set out on the journey that took me to a career I love, I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it right. All I knew was that I had to do it. I committed to it, over and over, even at moments when I had nothing to hold on to but the commitment itself.

Had I not done that – and I have no doubt about this - I would absolutely not be where I am today. And the same is true for every successful career-changer I’ve ever come across.

Once you’ve decided to change career, recognise that decision as a commitment, and honour it.

A commitment is not the same thing as a choice. It’s not the same thing as a promise. You can break a promise. If you ‘break’ a commitment, it wasn’t a commitment in the first place. Once you commit, there is no going back. There is no giving up. There is no trying. There is only doing.

And the only thing there is to do is to get to where you’re committed to getting to.

You don’t have to know how you’re going to get there - you just get there. You can’t help it.

Commitment is action. No excuses. No lengthy debate. No panicking over what others might think, or worrying that you don’t have all the answers yet. Just go. Your actions are led by your commitment – and inside a commitment there is no space for inaction. No room for empty words. It becomes the beacon that guides you, step by step, towards your goal.

When you commit, you can be afraid. You can be back-against-the-wall, shoulders-heaving terrified. You can catastrophise, imagining your whole world convulsing and crumbling beneath your feet. But you keep moving.

You can be uncertain.  You can be so full of confusion and uncertainty that you keep the milk in the tumble dryer and your sheets in the fridge for three days without noticing. But you keep going. You keep breathing, talking, exploring. You have faith in your commitment to lead you through the fog. And if you don’t have faith, you damn well find some.

Natasha with one of her horsesTo commit is to accept all the challenges that will come with your commitment. You don’t necessarily enjoy them, but you begin to see them as lessons rather than punishments. You choose to see them as opportunities to grow, to better understand yourself and your life. Rather than being flattened by your adversaries, you learn to dance with them.

It’s the only way anyone has ever triumphed over the phrase ‘it can’t be done’.

And inevitably, a commitment becomes bigger than you are. It speaks to the realm of possibility – of what could be rather than what is. It engages with the world on a new level. It raises you beyond yourself and your life, to a point where you are standing for something you believe in. And that level of engagement with the world, with your heart, with what matters most to you – it’s ineffably powerful.

Ultimately, to commit is all there is.

So many people talk about how unhappy they are at work, and how they’ll get around to doing something else at some point, but they don’t know how to start…

Let me tell you how you start. You commit. The prospect of this is too much for a lot of people – actually full-on choosing to do something with no excuses – so they choose instead to spend their days moaning about how life just isn’t working for them.

To start, to commit, you have to cut the crap.

Decide if you’re going to do it or not do it. And if you’re not going to do it, stop talking about it.

Prepare for pain  Riding in Costa Rica

Sitting on the beach with a beer in a fascinating, vibrant country, writing something I care about and getting paid to do it is just about the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.

But don’t get me wrong – it hasn’t been easy. It’s still not easy.

When I was changing career, there were nights I sat on the kitchen floor and cried. Broken mirrors. Hideous bank balances. I broke up with the love of my life – twice. I tried to figure out what would be left of me if I gave up the role of ‘noble peacemaker’ that my career bestowed upon me. I fought with my family, left behind friends I adore to move across the world, and negotiated moments of pure, unadulterated lostness.

And now that I’m here, doing work I love in an amazing place, I’m still encountering pain. I miss the people I left behind in the UK. I’m challenging myself at work in ways that highlight my limitations and force me to bend and stretch, sometimes uncomfortably.

But I’ve learned that this kind of pain is simply what it feels like when your comfort zone stretches. It’s deeply attached. It hurts. It feels like a crack and a shatter. But it’s not broken, it’s growing. What you’re feeling are growing pains. And growth is never to be shied away from.

Incidentally, the price I may seem to have paid for a life I love has been refunded tenfold. The relationship I released to travel the world is now stronger and more exciting than ever. My family are proud of me. My mortgage is being paid by a lovely family from Essex, who are raising their four children there and filling it with good energy. I haven’t broken a mirror in months (in fact, I don’t even own any mirrors).

Many career-change and lifestyle-design types will show you the shiny side of chasing a dream and doing what you love. They’ll show you what it would feel like to ‘arrive’ at the destination you’re seeking. Websites show images of people smiling, leaping for joy, living in exotic locations and surrounded by colourful, interesting people. They tell stories of triumph, of achievement, of discovering who they are and what they want.

What they tend to skim over, however, is the toe-curling depths of emotion that a choice like this elicits. If you play the game full-out, it’s a hell of a ride.

Be prepared. It’s worth every second, but be prepared.

Practice

I began my hot yoga practice several years ago. I loved the sweat, the stretch, the rush of exhausted energy at the end of a session. But most of all I loved what it taught me about what I’m capable of. Single-minded persistence against adversity. How to simultaneously combine both grit and tranquillity in the same mental space. Patience. Self-care. Compassion.

I didn’t realise when I started that my yoga practice was also practice for my career change and my life.

I learned the difference between feeling stretched and feeling exhausted. I developed the capacity to know when to push through discomfort and when to take care of myself with rest. I practiced dealing with resistance. I practiced paying attention.

We practice to be ready.

Don’t wait for opportunities to arise before you develop the skills to handle them. By that time, it will be too late. Practice.

Practice striking up conversations with strangers in case you see the CEO of your dream company on the train.

Practice martial arts for mental strength.

Apply for jobs you don’t want to hone your skills in communicating your talents.

Do something new every week, so you are never afraid to step into a new environment or try a new approach.

Ask yourself challenging questions, so you’re not left reeling when someone you respect asks you one, too.

One of the greatest cosmic jokes is that it is never the ‘right time’ for anything. The perfect opportunity will always show up either too early, or too late. Chances are, it’ll be too early. So practice. Be ready.

Detach

Over the course of my career change, I got really good at mentally and emotionally removing myself from the decisions I had to make. I recognised early on that allowing my emotional self to get too involved in decisions inevitably held me back.

Faced with a decision that scared me, I’d shut down, check out, or spiral into a state of panic. The only way to stop myself from checking out was to imagine that the next series of decisions I was making were theoretical questions, rather than choices that would have an impact on my life.

I’d allowed my heart to be deeply involved with the planning and starting parts of the process, but for a lot of decisions I had to put it to one side and focus coldly on the facts.

I learned to ask myself not:

‘Is this going to be comfortable for me?’ or ‘What’s the first thing I want to do when I think about this?’ but instead:

‘What action would be consistent with what I’ve committed to?’; ‘Which decision will be most likely to move me closer to a career I love?’; ‘What would someone who changed career successfully do in this situation?’

Stepping back and approaching my decisions as though they were an on-paper exercise meant that I knew I was acting consistently from a place that honoured my commitment, and helped me to at least be clear about what the right move was. The next step was to gather the cojones to actually make the right move – but that’s another story.

Dare

Natasha on the beach in Costa RicaRecently, I returned to the place in Greece where I had spent three months at the start of my career change. This time, I took my partner with me, and we passed a beautiful three weeks together in the sunshine. He gets an enormous kick out of leaping off things into water, and will do so at every opportunity. Not wanting to miss out on a shared experience, I battled with my fear to join him in pretty much every jump. It took about half an hour for me to gather up the guts to do it, but the process taught me a lot about how to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

The trick to jumping off things, it turns out, is just to make your legs do what they need to do. (The same rule applies to stepping into a cold shower). Focusing all your energy and mental power on the very next, tiny action – forgetting everything that may or may not come next – is the only way to make your body do what needs to be done.

And oh, good Lord, the fun I had once I’d made that first leap…

It’s the same with career change. The most powerful moments of my journey to a career I love happened in the moments, hours, and days after I’d done something daring.

After I’d sent that e-mail to the ten most inspiring people I could think of.

After I’d told a stranger that I was a freelance writer (when I’d never been paid to write a single sentence).

After I’d booked a flight. Asked someone for a favour. Printed out my resignation letter.

And every time I dared myself to do something – every time I pushed myself a little further to do something different – it got easier.

So get daring. Rebel against your own disapproving voice.

Get a little crazy. I mean, why not?

You’ve been doing ‘sane’ your whole life, right? And how’s that working out for you?

Stay humble 

I used to be sure I could predict the outcomes of my actions.

I would look at a job description or person spec and discard it immediately. I told myself there was no point in applying, because I KNEW that if I applied, I’d only be rejected. I knew it.

I wouldn’t contact that person who basically already had my ideal job and fourteen thousand connections that might be useful to me, because I knew they’d snort with laughter if I asked them to meet with me for coffee. I knew it.

I wouldn’t bother offering my services to an organisation that inspired me, because I knew I had nothing of any real value to provide them. I knew that, for sure.

The truth is this: I knew nothing.

There is nobody so arrogant as the person who tells you they know what will happen if you do something. For all our technological developments, scientific discoveries, and development as a species, we still haven’t even got close to mastering the art of predicting the future. Let’s face it, we can hardly even predict the weather.

So who are you to say you know what’s coming next?

Keep that in mind next time your inner voice starts sounding like a smart-ass. And then, whatever you’re considering, try it anyway.

Natasha X

What's the biggest lesson you've learned in your career change so far? Let us know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.