You're ready to make a shift. You're fed up with feeling miserable at work. And you're struggling to know where to start. Natasha explains the art of beginning – and how despite the uncertainty, and even in the midst of COVID-19, you can take practical, positive steps towards a more fulfilling career.
Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
No pressure, right?
It's one thing to know you want to make a career change – it's quite another to actually set the wheels in motion.
This is a life-changing decision you're making. The steps you take will quite literally determine the course of your future; your ability to survive; your reputation; how you feel when you wake up in the morning; how you spend your days.
So where on earth do you begin with something like that?
What do you do first?
If you're supposed to start as you mean to go on, how do you start?
And when the world is so much more chaotic and confusing than usual, is there even any point?
Questions like these can keep you trapped – teetering on the edge of action, chasing your tail in your mind, watching the weeks, months, and years fly by while you nervously dance backward and forward.
So if that's you – you with your toes at the edge of the water, you with the lists of pros and cons, and the fearful lump in the pit of your belly, and the doubts ablaze in your brain – this is for you.
This is how you begin.
1. Begin with the endings
“There's a trick to the 'graceful exit.' It begins with the vision to recognise when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what's over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” – Ellen Goodman
New beginnings are sexy. They're exciting and inspiring (or at least they're supposed to be), and charged with the 'forwards' energy of motivation, drive and effort. Their seductive sense of promise is enchanting, and it's easy to get sucked into their narratives in an all-consuming way.
But there's a side to beginnings that often gets ignored: the endings they represent.
And the endings inherent in the beginnings we choose demand some acknowledgement and release.
In their uncomfortable tugs and clamours for attention (our fears, our sorrows, our uncertainties), they're requesting a conscious letting-go. And even when what we're releasing no longer serves us to the point of hatred (like a career we're beyond done-with, a job we despise), they may also require a period of grief.
At some point, you said 'yes' to your current career. Whether it was joyfully or with a certain reluctance, it was you who brought it into your life. And with that 'yes', it became a part of your daily routine. It swirled into your headspace, took up your time, your energy. Its identity became a part of yours; you said its name almost as much as you said your own.
Careers are relationships; our choices about them define us like our lovers do.
And even bad marriages hurt when they fall apart.
Allow yourself to acknowledge the ending inherent in your new beginning.
- What are you actually letting go of, when you let go of this career?
- What parts of you will you be losing?
- What have you loved about what you've done in this work? What do you need to acknowledge and what can you be grateful for?
- What tiny, insignificant familiarities will you miss?
It's perfectly possible to be miserable at work and still feel a sadness about moving on. It's far more common than you might think.
So give yourself permission and space to grieve the life, the identity, and the future you're leaving behind.
2. Clear the decks
“The first step toward greatness is to be honest.” – Proverb
Dr. James W. Pennebaker is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas.
In 1994, Pennebaker and his team ran a study. They collected a group of people who had been out of work for eight months, and split them into three groups. The first group was asked to write about their unemployment and how they felt about it. The second group was invited to write, but given no subject matter. The third group was given no writing instructions at all.
The participants that wrote about their experience of being out of work were significantly more likely than the other groups to find new jobs after the study.
Pennebaker believed that by writing, they were able to download and declutter the chaos of their minds, and organise their thoughts in a way that allowed them to move forward in a meaningful way.
Career change can be a perfect storm of thoughts and emotions; exhilaration and terror; moments of clarity amidst months of fog; big questions; hundreds of ideas; other people's opinions…
It's hard to create amidst such almighty clutter.
So, what do you need to get out and clean up?
- What fears keep floating around?
- Which beliefs are holding you back?
- What dreams need to be given voice to?
- What secrets need to be told?
- What do you need to forgive yourself for?
It's time to tell the truth.
You may not be a writer – a journal may not be your 'way'.
But whatever your 'way' might be, seek out a safe space that works for you to process and organise.
You might find it through exercise, through meditation, talking to a trusted friend.
You might download your thoughts on a voice recorder each evening before you go to bed.
Get the hard stuff out – the things you don't want to admit, the feelings you wish you didn't feel, the ugly and the angry – and the hopeful and the dreamy, too.
The human mind is always a noisy place, but by finding a routine or a space to say what needs to be said, we can make it less so.
And in those moments of quiet, the way forward will become clearer.
“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of doubt.” – Rollo May
There are few things quite as scary as the unknown.
- What will happen?
- Will I get it right?
- Where will I end up?
- Will it hurt?
- What if I don't make it?
How do you protect yourself against the unseen and the unexpected?
In the face of inevitable uncertainties, you vacillate, dancing one step forward, two steps back.
You dip a toe in and then retreat. You analyse and scrutinise, hoping that by making enough lists and imagining enough possible scenarios, you can safeguard against risk.
And somehow in all of your predictions and preparations, you also safeguard against action and progress.
You begin and then you end again, almost as quickly. Your beginning becomes twenty beginnings, decisions, and endings in rapid succession.
The most powerful beginnings are launched with a commitment.
To commit is to bind yourself wholeheartedly to an outcome (the 'what'), without necessarily knowing the steps to get there (the 'how').
It's to choose where you're headed and accept no other destination, whether it's scary or not, whether you understand it or not.
You choose, and in choosing, you choose not to turn back.
An unequivocal, whatever-it-takes statement: “Life, we’re going THAT way.”
This is what makes a beginning.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.” – Anne Lamott, (from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)
Beginnings make beginners.
And for those of us who are professionals, adults, respected for our knowledge and experience, that can be hard.
We fight against the not-knowing.
We hide our questions, hold back from first attempts, and circle warily around the possibility of failure.
We discard ideas, clues and opportunities at the first sniff of potential imperfection, in a desperate attempt to maintain an illusion of certainty on an uncertain path.
Don't mess up. Don't admit you don't know what you're doing. Don't ask for help, and don't try anything that might not work out.
And then we wonder why we're stuck.
If you're beginning something new, you're going to be a beginner.
You're going to screw up. You're going to trip over. You're going to get it wrong.
That's what beginners do. And that's what beginnings look like.
Zen Buddhism includes a concept known as Shosin, or 'Beginner's Mind'.
It's about actively cultivating the openness and curiosity of a beginner in all things – whether that's your bowl of cereal in the morning or your future career path.
It's about allowing things to show up as they are, and allowing yourself to show up as you are, and seeing what unfolds from there.
Allowing ideas to present themselves – and then to be considered, not immediately cast off as impossible.
Allowing yourself to be where you're at – and then to engage with the world from there, not from behind a mask of pretence, ego and people-pleasing. Allowing people to help you.
Allowing experiences into your life – and then to be moved by them.
Allowing yourself to make mistakes – and then to learn from them.
And by allowing, by cultivating a beginner's mind, you start to have more meaningful experiences.
You’re not fogged up by prejudgements, assumptions, and fantasies about how things are going to be.
You get into action faster, because you're not caught up in worrying about how it might go wrong.
You learn more, because you're doing instead of thinking.
And it's less stressful, in the long run – anxiety is replaced by curiosity and childlike wonder.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Hannah Arendt
You can fire 20 starting pistols, but if nobody runs, the race hasn't begun.
Beginnings require movement, action, a set of behaviours that are distinct from what came before.
And at the start of something like a career change, it's not always clear what movements to make or actions to take.
What if you do the wrong thing? What if the thing you do doesn't bear fruit? What if you have to do a lot of things before you see any results?
Paralysis ensues. The rabbit, bolstered by the best of intentions, inspiration and information, is still frozen and blinking in the headlights.
The good news is that almost any action, almost any movement, will do.
Any new step you take will get you somewhere you haven't been before.
Every new conversation will reveal something you didn't know before.
Any exploration of something different will stretch your fishbowl, and show you something you couldn't see before.
Start with something that's outside of your 'normal'.
A new class. A novel talk. An interesting person. A different route home.
Your movement doesn't have to be dramatic – just small shifts from 'default' to 'different'.
And then follow the cues that ensue – the little light bulbs that will lead you forward.
You’ll bumble through.
You'll hit dead ends, and you'll slide too fast down an unexpected trail and come up out of breath and a bit bruised.
You'll find yourself overexcited, and then disappointed, and then equally confused.
You'll learn to navigate all the ups and downs that a search for fulfilling work requires.
But that all comes later.
To begin, you must move.
“As I thought about the topic, it occurred to me that remembering the grace of who you are in your most innocent state, outside of any personal or professional situation, is the most pure form of success.” – Pamela Slim (from Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Career Together)
Edward Said wrote of 'beginnings' as something distinct from 'origins', and this distinction can be useful when we're faced with a move as (r)evolutionary as career change.
Beginnings are unpredictable and disorienting. They're rootless and slippery. In that sense, they're exciting, but because we can choose them, they also make us 100% responsible for what comes next.
However, most beginnings aren't actually blank slates. Slates are never truly blank to begin with. And, even if what lies ahead feels like a fresh start, we take the memories, knowledge and experience we've accumulated with us and they infuse our thinking, our actions, and ultimately our choices.
Whatever we begin, we bring our 'origins' with us.
Origin stories are stable. They have history and narrative and they're tied onto something at both ends – your ancestry at one end and your current self at the other.
I've worked with so many career changers whose ultimate destination was far closer to home than they thought.
Expecting an earth-shaking bolt from the blue, they instead found a loose thread on their sweater and pulled it, and found at the end something they 'always kind of knew' they wanted to do.
Instead of an explosive surprise, they found their future actually lay with an old familiar friend.
So, while you're casting around for the 'new': new experiences, new ideas, new opportunities, give your continuities a chance to take the spotlight, too.
Your childhood dreams, your 'hobbies', your ongoing enchantments.
The ideas that just won't go away, no matter how much you try to shove them back into their boxes.
If something's asking to be continued, continue it.
See what happens along the way.
7. Keep going
“To begin, begin” – Wordsworth
To begin, begin.
To continue, continue.
To start putting some money aside, start putting some money aside.
To write, write.
To get some support, get some support.
To learn something new, learn something new.
To keep going even when it's tough, keep going even when it's tough.
To find out if people doing your dream job are actually making a good living, find out if people doing your dream job are actually making a good living.
To reach out to someone you admire even though you're terrified they might think you're an idiot, reach out to someone you admire even though you're terrified they might think you're an idiot.
To offer a stripped-down version of your service / product / consultancy on the off-chance that someone would be willing to buy it, offer a stripped-down version of your service / product / consultancy on the off-chance that someone would be willing to buy it.
To see if that company would be willing to take a chance on you even though you think you have nothing but enthusiasm and drive to offer, see if that company would be willing to take a chance on you even though you think you have nothing but enthusiasm and drive to offer.
To keep moving forward even when it feels like it's hopeless, keep moving forward even when it feels like it's hopeless.
To begin, begin.
To make a career change, keep going.
Which of these approaches feels most important for you as you begin your career change? Let me know in the comments below.