I’ve been reading an interesting book, The Gift of Adversity by Norman E. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and researcher. The book’s title is a little misleading because he doesn’t address the concept of adversity directly in most of the chapters.
At one point, Rosenthal refers to the business maxim, “Make decisions slowly if the consequences will be difficult to reverse; make decisions quickly if it’s easy to reverse the consequences.”
That may be true. However, you have to assume that most career decisions are irreversible. In fact, I can’t think of any decisions that can be reversed easily. You rarely get to go home again.
When you contemplate a career change or a big step, many people will assure you, “If it doesn’t work out, you can always to back.” People who give you this advice usually are clueless,
Let’s say you’re in a field where demand is high. You have your choice of jobs and employers. You quit your job to start a business, go on sabbatical or take another job that’s risky.
And now a year later you realize you made a mistake, the opportunity dissolved or you just miss your former career. The world will be a year older and so will you. You will need to catch up on the new technology, rebuild your network, and generally re-create your assets of a year ago.
More importantly, you’re different. You’ll be changed after a year of trying to start your own business or traveling on sabbatical. Often these changes will be subtle. You’ll react differently to the same assignments.
And that’s assuming your former career remains in place. Unless you’re working for a dinosaur industry (another topic for another post), your job will be different. It may be a lot better – that happens! – but you will need to adapt and accommodate.
The same principle applies when you return to a place you lived before.
Your old friends will have moved on. The city will be different. You’ll be different, too.
When I moved back to Philadelphia two years ago, I thought I’d do the same things I did when i lived here 15 years ago and when I’d visited in the interim. But I don’t. I now spend most of my free time taking classes in improv and ceramics. I go to networking meetings. I’m a volunteer tour guide. And I walk the dog.
The city’s changed too. My favorite coffee shop is gone. My neighborhood was a scary dangerous place fifteen years ago; now it’s a trendy area with boutiques and galleries.
Careers don’t have sunk costs.
For a career, another accounting rule – “Ignore sunk costs” – rarely holds. Let’s say you spent 5 years going after a doctorate in a challenging field. You realize you don’t want an academic career. Should you abandon your doctorate?
From an accounting perspective, it’s a sunk cost. It’s an investment you made and you should ignore it.
From a career perspective, you will be influenced by your experience for a long time, maybe for life. When I work with clients, I encourage them to embrace their experiences and integrate their experiences into their current career choices.
Solopreneurs often find they have to explain how they got into a particular field. How did a ballet dancer become a home stager? I call these stories “connect the dots” stories. Your prospective clients won’t connect the dots on their own; you have to do it for them.
An anthropology major has to explain how she now works with empowering women through personal strength development. She points out that anthropology taught her to look carefully at scenes and pay attention to hidden signals of communication. She teaches her clients, “On a city street, be vigilant as you look for signs of danger.”
A religious studies major explains how she became a marketing professional. “Religious studies teach you to understand how people experience the world through their own perspective. Marketing is all about understanding your customer’s world view.”
So if you’ve made a significant investment in your doctorate, often you can find ways to finish your degree and still forge ahead with your new career.
I’m a big believer in getting to the finish line. You never know when a doctorate will come in handy. But once you walk away, you can’t go back.
You can leap without a net and survive.
You will meet people who took a huge gamble and won. One of my friends was an unhappy lawyer on the US east coast. I met her when she moved to a large west coast city without a job. She decided to take a step back in both salary and prestige. She found a job as a paralegal. She made new friends.
To be honest, I was skeptical. She took money from her retirement fund to pay her bills…something financial advisors say you should never do.
Fast forward ten years later. She’d bought a home and paid it off. She was promoted in her job and encouraged to take the bar exam – at their expense – to be a lawyer instead of a paralegal. (She did and she hated it.) She found another job at even higher pay. She eventually moved to another west coast city where she could work remotely and spend time on the beach.
I’ve met other people who quit their jobs and ended up cleaning houses and serving in restaurants. Some loved their new work. Others were miserable.
The truth is, career decisions can be unforgiving. with planning, you can take risks and not only survive but thrive.
(1) Can you be comfortable taking a step that many will regard as a big step backward/ I met a former trial attorney working as a bartender. She knew she didn’t want to return to the law and was comfortable working in the bar while she worked out her future.
(2) Do you have a stash of cash or another source of income so you can take time to plan your next move? I encourage clients to work with a money coach or financial advisor; it’s hard to evaluate your own finances objectively.
(3) Can you plan a series of actions so you’re crossing a bridge instead of leaping without a net?
I’ve worked with clients who wanted to take a sabbatical but didn’t want to end up broke and desperate. You can set up a blog, develop expertise in a new area, or find a project that opens new doors.
If you’d like to talk further about your own career choices, I invite you to join me in a Career Strategy Session. Clients tell me it’s more helpful than a few months of coaching. Learn more here.
What do you think? Please leave a comment.
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