Life Skills

Are you about to make a drastic life-changing decision? Before you quit your job, buy a bed-and-breakfast, or otherwise turn your life upside down, consider the following questions:

Are you financially secure?

Making a career change normally takes three to six months, and even under the best of circumstances, it’s a stressful process. The last thing you need during that time is to worry about paying the bills. Before you take a drastic step, figure out your monthly debts and expenses and multiply by six. If you’ve got that much money stashed away, great. You can devote yourself to the process of creating change with 100 percent attention.

If you’re short of funds, you need to proceed with caution. If you’re unemployed, you might want to take a part-time job while you’re looking for something more permanent. Otherwise, the financial anxiety you’re likely to feel will warp the process, and you may end up jumping at the first job you’re offered, whether it’s right for you or not.

Are your family and friends behind you?

Once it becomes known that you’re looking for something new, you want to surround yourself with people who will cheer you on. Equally important, you want to avoid people who aren’t supportive — and there may be more of them than you expect. Among those killjoys could be your parents, who were probably raised in the Depression and may never have recovered; a few so-called friends and colleagues who will condescend, making you feel even worse; one or two people who will take pleasure in the thought that you fumbled the ball in some way; and the occasional jerk who will wonder, to your face or to your back, whether you’ve lost your edge.

Most dangerous of all, there are those who will appear to commiserate and yet will somehow manage to project all their own anxieties on you. It’s tough, they’ll say, for someone in your field. No one wants to hire anyone over fifty. You’re the wrong gender. You’re the wrong color. The economy is a wreck. You don’t stand a chance.

Who needs that? Stay away from those nay-sayers and pessimists if you can. If you’re lucky, your family and close friends will be supportive. If they’re not, contact the people you know who have made similar changes; try to forge a connection with younger friends and colleagues, who may be less intimidated by the implications of change; or step up to the plate and seek advice from a therapist or career coach. Better to pay for support than not to have it at all.

Do you have a direction?

Change for its own sake is pointless. You need to know where you’re heading. But the reality is that early in the game, you may feel at sea. You can determine a general direction, if not a specific goal, through three simple steps — but only if you are completely honest with yourself:

1) Identify Your Guiding Principle:

What one or two aspects of work mean the most to you? It could be money, travel, power, security, creativity, independence, exercising leadership, and so on. These big concepts are the first elements you want to identify because if your work life lacks them, it doesn’t matter what else it may have, you won’t feel content.

2) Name Your Preferences:

Focus on some smaller concerns by answering the following questions:

  • Are you attracted to multi-national corporations with thousands of employees or small, independently run enterprises?
  • Do you like to work alone or in groups?
  • Do you enjoy working in an office or away from an office?
  • And if you prefer an office setting, is it important to have all the trappings or can you work in a cubicle?
  • Are you comfortable in an open, free-wheeling environment where all ideas can be discussed no matter how bizarre — or do you prefer a more structured situation?
  • Do you prefer to work on salary or on commission?

Because issues like these can determine your day-to-day happiness, it’s important to decide what really matters to you and what you can give up if you must. For instance, many corporations have rules about how you decorate your office. Some companies will only allow employees to hang a single picture on their wall. That kind of rigidity bothers almost everyone, a least a little. But many people are willing to accept the corporate controls because they appreciate other aspects of the job, including the security they feel working for an established corporation. Other people have zero tolerance for regulations like that. They value self-expression more than they value security and they’re not willing to compromise. Only you know which group you fall into.

3) List the Industries You Find Appealing:

Do you like education? Health care? The defense industry? Finance? Non-profits? What about travel and leisure, restaurants, fashion, or real estate? Are you interested in antiques, wine, or books? Do you have a secret desire to go into politics? If you’re lucky, the industry you’re in is the industry that most interests you. But maybe you’re bored with that world. Perhaps you took a wrong step twenty or thirty years ago, and now you find yourself marooned on an island you never really wanted to visit in the first place. Well, just because you’ve worked in pharmaceuticals or banking or insurance for most of your life doesn’t mean you’re stuck there forever. Plan your escape by making a list of the industries that appeal to you — and do it with a spirit of optimism and possibility. This exercise may sound hokey. I have found it to be remarkably revealing and effective, for it encourages you to imagine. And imagination is the precursor to change.

But is this exercise useful? Is it realistic to think that a person over fifty might change industries? The answer is it’s realistic only if you’re passionate about it — and if you prepare. That means gaining a thorough knowledge of the industry you want to get into; establishing a set of contacts within that industry; and finding a way to communicate within that industry that will distinguish you from others who are also trying to get in the door. It may also mean making a lateral move, taking a job that’s a step or two below what you’re doing now, or establishing yourself as a free agent. Is it worth it? If you care about the quality of life for the rest of your days, it is.

A multitude of jobs:

There came a time in my own life when I knew I had to leave Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm where I’d been working for twenty years, and strike out on my own. I needed a clean break. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

So I started to fantasize. I thought, I could be a scriptwriter – and there I was, in my imagination, wheeling down Sunset Strip in a convertible, ready to take a meeting. I could work in a foreign embassy — and I saw myself dressed to the nines at the Court of Saint James, sipping a cordial after a state dinner. I could be a teacher, underpaid but gratified by the work I was doing. I pictured myself lecturing a group of students who would follow me with their eyes, rapt at my every word. In my fantasies, each of these occupations offered major satisfactions. But when I considered the pros and cons of those jobs, I grew indecisive.

Fortunately, someone helped me out of my muddle: none other than Gerry Roche, the Senior Chairman of the Board of the search firm Heidrick & Struggles International, Inc. He’s a high­ level headhunter who is so well respected that his colleagues voted him “Headhunter of the Century.” Lucky for me, he’s a friend.

Gerry and I went to breakfast one morning at the Sky Club. I sat at one end of the table and Gerry sat at the other. Then he opened his briefcase and began pulling out job descriptions for searches he was conducting. He must have had forty or fifty job descriptions, and he forced me to consider each one as if it were being offered to me. Did I want to be a salesman? A banker? An airline executive? How about a social worker or a veterinarian? Gerry ran through a long series of possibilities. In the process, he helped me realize what I should have known instinctively — that I love public relations and wanted to stay in that business. Only this time, I wanted to be my own boss.

Everybody can’t have Gerry Roche for a friend. But everybody can perform the same kind of exercise that Gerry put me through.

I highly recommend it. You can do this exercise by checking out the jobs listed in professional journals, in the want ads, and on the internet. I’m not talking about a job search here. Far from it. I’m talking about an exercise in the imagination. It can make you appreciate the benefits of the field you are already in, and at the same time, open your eyes to fields that you might not normally have considered.

Author: Robert L. Dilenschneider is the founder and Chairman of The Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations and communications consulting firm headquartered in New York City. He is the author of many books, including the best-selling Power and Influence.

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