What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
That catchy question is central to anyone’s decision to take the plunge and change careers. People dissatisfied with their jobs or their career trajectory invariably cast an eye on greener pastures — a secret passion to do something different from what they are currently doing; becoming an artisan, working in art or food, or moving from a high pressure desk job to working outdoors, for example. Owning a business is another intoxicating dream that many frustrated employees have; starting a company to pursue a compelling hobby or to fill the space of an unmet market opportunity, or just the desire to shift from one business sector to another.
These and other motivating factors are strong, but the risks are real and many of those who yearn for a career change are surprised to discover that they are their own biggest obstacles to moving forward.
I have had the pleasure of making five definable career changes, job/industry shifts in my career, so given that experience, here are my recommendations to help guide you through the highs and lows:
Know thy self. It is easy to get swept up in the romantic notion of changing careers — finding that next exciting job in a different industry or creating your own business. It is essential to understand your tolerance for risk because it exists. It is real. Yes, the opportunities for renewed satisfaction and even great financial or personal rewards can be significant, but you must be able to separate the idea of romance from the reality of change and possible failure.
Do your homework. The excitement and romance of change can blur your vision and judgment. First you must do your homework. You need to understand the dynamics of the new industry; what are their business cycles — frequent or long term? What is the history of downturns? The oil industry, for example, is notoriously cyclical. Oil field people can go from riches to lean times in short order so you must understand the business cycle and the risks associated with that, as well as other factors such as regulatory changes.
When it comes to starting your own business, a more common career change, you need to put on your cold and calculating analytic hat. The thought of starting your own business is extraordinarily intoxicating but this career change option requires a great deal of research and a deep understanding for how much financial and emotional pain you can endure. Confidence in forecasting is important to success. Overconfidence based on poor research or planning can be devastating.
Understand your courage quotient. People who fail in a career change, especially those who start their own businesses, frequently give up too soon. You have to have courage. The most successful of the entrepreneur class are those who, when facing what seem to be insurmountable odds, are willing to double down. They are willing to stand in the face of failure and laugh. That said, be brave, not stupid.
Be realistic. You can experience initial success but you must understand that there will be ups and downs. Achieving a critical mass — also known as sustaining momentum — is important, but so many people fail because they pull off the accelerator of intensity and commitment only to experience a “down.” The truth is that people who experience the most successful career changes are those who never take anything for granted. Constant fear is a good motivator.
Have fun. Moving into a new industry or starting your own company is such a rush. It is important to find joy whenever and wherever possible but remember that running a company or working in a new industry present their own pressures, some of which can be more intense that those you were trying to escape. Have fun but be realistic.