The Most Important Step Before Making a Drastic Career Change

We‘ve seen people who seemingly changed their careers overnight. The doctor who became a full-time photographer over the summer, or the engineer who left his job and suddenly made tons of money flipping houses.

From an outsider’s perspective who sporadically glances at the career development of other people, or incidentally catches on to the news of someone’s envying career change on facebook, it’s tempting to believe that successful career changes happen easily and swiftly. But they don’t. It is only when we spend some more time interrogating the blissful career changer, that we find out that it was far from an instant ‘switch’. Rather, the career change was a long and tedious process involving an extensive time of experimenting, soul searching, second-guessing, and smoothing out hiccups.

I roughly divide the phases of career change into initial interest, immersion phase, and investment phase. During the initial interest phase, you feel a strong interest in a certain career along with an intense desire to start it as soon as possible, which may also be accompanied by some dissatisfaction about your current one. The investment phase is the phase where you would make a significant investment in form of time, money, or effort, which would be difficult to reverse, or if reversed would incur a considerable loss.

Let’s take for example an accountant who works for a large corporation and is considering to leave his job to become a café owner. In the initial phase, he often imagines owning a café, thinking about how enjoyable it would be to own a business, tinkers with menu ideas, and spends some time running numbers through his head. He feels a very strong desire to leave his current job and start this business if possible next month or even tomorrow. Before setting this in stone, he would ideally go through an immersion phase, which is a long and intensive phase during which he turns this scenario inside out, experiments with it, and let it marinate, all while still keeping his day job. Throughout this immersion phase, he gets more and more familiar with the realities of his endeavor, and gets more clarity about whether he really wants to proceed with it, or let it go (sometimes letting go can be the right answer).

However, things can get messier when this process is skipped and the person immediately jumps to the last phase, which is the investment phase. Here the accountant would quit his job and immediately rent a space for his café and hire staff. Two drastic steps are made at once: His original income source is cut off, and valuable resources are invested into a business in an area he is not familiar with. A crucial chunk, the immersion phase, is left out. If all the stars were aligned, i.e. the accountant was equipped with formidable business skills, extremely hardworking, fast-learning, resilient, and in addition to that had a substantial emergency fund and sufficient passive income, he might well be on a fast track to success. However, as career changers rarely find themselves in such an ideal position, diving directly into the investment phase is extremely risky. And spending a longer time in the immersion phase can reduce this risk significantly.

During the immersion phase, you familiarize yourself with as many aspects of the new career as possible. This will help you clarify your goal, construct a feasible path towards your new career, and reduce the risk involved. The immersion phase includes things such as joining a community or a group of people who are already doing what you want to do, as well as talking to people who have the relevant experience and are willing to share with you about the beginnings and the ups and downs of their process. Reading and researching anything related to your dream career, including what training you need, what the financial prospects, risks, and career outlook are. Soul searching is an important part of crystallizing your intention to change your career, but the most important thing is to actually get your hands dirty and spend some time doing the work you think you want to do. Or at least a part of it. If you want to be a full-time wedding photographer, try to offer your services to a wedding couple. If you want to become an event planner, actually plan an event for a friend (if he lets you), and so forth. Rather than imagining how it would be, test the waters and see for yourself.

While going through the immersion phase, you will gradually gain a new perspective on your career plans. You will find stronger reasons for going after what you intended, but at the same time may also find many things, risks, obstacles, disadvantages, dislikes, that can make you become averse to the idea. You might even end up not pursuing the career change at all and save yourself a lot of trouble. This process is not to keep you from going after it, but rather to solidify your intentions so that you proceed despite all the risks and dislikes, and not because you are ignorant of them. Even if you decide to go ahead and make the final leap, you will likely still encounter some degree of chaos, but at least it will be easier to pull through because you’re prepared for the upcoming challenge.

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