Three years ago, with no job lined up and no plan, I left an engineering job in Trinidad which paid me more than $300,000 a year. What I did have was one year to figure it out before the balance in my savings account went to zero.
For the first few months after leaving my job, I spent a lot of time reading, watching TV, thinking and panicking. Back then, I thought I was wasting time when, in fact, I was transitioning.
In his 1991 book Managing Transitions, William Bridges describes three stages of transition that people go through after a change:
- Ending, Losing and Letting Go
- The Neutral Zone
- The New Beginning
According to Bridges, change is situational and can be fast, while transition is psychological and tends to be slow. I certainly found this to be true as I moved from engineering to freelance writing.
Here are five more things I learned as I switched careers:
1. Change can be scary
The first stage of the Bridges’ model is the stage I like to think of as the stage of emotional upheaval. After leaving my job, I felt fear, sadness and loss, but mostly, I felt confused. Did leaving engineering mean that all the years, effort and money spent at university was wasted? After seven years working in the field, could I start over from scratch? What if I went broke?
Fear can be paralysing, so challenging troubling thoughts is crucial to moving forward. What worked for me was disputing any doubts that came up. What if I go broke? Well then, I’ll go back to engineering. Talking to yourself may sound like a crazy idea, but the next time you are in a spiral of negative thoughts, try coming up with some logical rebuttals (maybe not out-loud, though).
2. Take time to get to know yourself
The Neutral Zone described in the model is a time of uncertainty. It lies in that murky space between feelings of loss in the first stage and feelings of optimism in the third. I still had anxiety about my choice, but I also started to feel excitement at the opportunity to design a career and life that would be meaningful to me.
It was during this stage that I began to take stock of my likes and dislikes, my strengths and my weaknesses, intending to use what I learned about myself to help generate income.
If you are thinking about switching careers, consider the things you do well, that you enjoy and that your friends and coworkers are always asking you to help with. You may also want to consider how what you did and learned in your old career can set you apart in your next one.
3. Take advantage of periods of high energy
The final stage of the model is The New Beginning. For me, this meant experiencing a time of high energy, learning and commitment. I was now fully focused on starting my new career and set out to learn as much as I could about my new field. I took online writing courses, devoured marketing blogs and read books on freelancing, even contacting the authors to ask questions. (Some even responded!)
Energy tends to come and go, so when you’re feeling motivated and enthusiastic, this is the time to develop your goals and do the things needed to achieve them.
4. Have a nest egg
Building a cushion of funds to cover expenses for a year was the smartest thing that I could have done in lieu of an actual plan. From the moment I began thinking that I might want to leave my job, I opened a new account — call it my “Freedom Fund.”
Saving a full year’s worth of expenses sounds daunting at first, but there are a couple of steps I took that made it easier. First, I set up an automatic transfer that would move money to the Freedom Fund as soon as my pay cheque hit my primary savings account. This helped me not be tempted to spend the money, because I didn’t see it.
Next, I slashed expenses. When you’re saving for a goal, it’s amazing the things you realise you can live without. Learning to live on less had the dual benefit of building my Freedom Fund faster and preparing me for the lean early years of growing my freelance business.
5. Ask for help
If having a Freedom Fund was the smartest thing I did for myself during that time, hiring a business coach ranks a close second. My coach was a thoughtful, sharp woman who helped me clarify my vision for the type of career I wanted, and to identify the steps needed to get there.
Of course, help does not need to come from a coach. Friends or family who will encourage you when your faith is wavering are essential to surviving such transitions.
Each person’s transition after a career change is different. By the time I got my first client, nine months had passed. It might take you more or less time to fully adapt to your new circumstances. What’s important is that you support yourself through the process, and allow yourself to experience the emotions that come up without judging yourself.