I’m grateful, over the past couple years, to have been able to significantly grow the exposure of this blog. From time to time readers will reach out to me via email or social media and thank me for my efforts. It means a lot to know that what I write has the capacity to help people find meaning in their lives, set and achieve new goals, and overcome fears.
I’ve had a couple people over the past year email me asking, “how do you get unstuck?”. In other words, they find themselves (like I once did) in a job or career that they don’t particularly like, and they want to find a way out of it, but they aren’t quite sure how, or where to start.
A form of this question was emailed to me on Christmas eve by a reader who was literally stuck at his job at the time of writing. His email inspired this post.
So I wanted to share some thoughts from my own experience that helped me to make changes in my life – leaving the practice of law to pursue being an entrepreneur.
Here are some tips and ideas for anyone who is feeling “stuck” in their job and wanting to make a change but not sure where to start:
1. What Else Do You Want To Do?
There are annoying and frustrating days associated with any job or business. Don’t hypnotize yourself to think that once you make a change that everything will be smooth sailing. Not even close. In fact you may find that what you embark on is actually much harder than you realized, and even harder (in some ways) to your previous job. If you don’t plan carefully, you may find yourself in a new job that is only slightly better than the previous one, and looking for a change again.
So where do you start? You start by answering simple questions: What do you value? What is a path worth sacrificing and struggling for? What is something that you are WILLING, voluntarily, to fight for to get off the ground?
In my opinion if you don’t nail these questions down, and determine what it is you actually want out of your life, you will just bounce between unfulfilling jobs. I bounced in 5 years between four different law firm settings: Toronto international firm, Calgary international firm, small independent association and small partnership. It wasn’t until I figured out what I actually wanted out of life (entrepreneurial freedom, passive income, the ability to write and positively influence people) that I stopped believing that the grass was greener with a new job.
Pursuing a unique dream is really, really, really, hard. It is scary. It is uncertain. Don’t for a minute think that you will achieve quick success without some struggle. It is likely to be harder,and you will struggle more, and doubt yourself more, than you even realize. However, when you love the struggle because what you are doing is intrinsically valuable, you aren’t looking to bounce the moment things get tough. You stick.
2. Don’t Tie Yourself Financially To The Job You Dislike. Build a Couple “Months” Security
I believe that the most common mental barrier to making a change is fear. When it comes to making career changes, fear often manifests itself in the form of financial worry. For example, questions like “what will I do to make money if I quit this job?”, and “how will I survive, I don’t know what else to do?” ran through my mind when I first got the idea that I wanted to quit being a lawyer. These questions, and variations of them, are very common for anyone who makes a significant career change, especially if the change is from a stable career.
In reality, a change is often the product of several months, even years, of planning and deliberation. At least that was the case for me. I knew I wanted out of law literally several years before I actually stopped practising. A powerful habit, that I developed during the planning and deliberation stage, was to live frugally. Don’t go buy a new car or new house. Don’t buy the most expensive clothes. Literally put money away. Put as much away as you can. I used to count the “months” that I could live without a job. The more months I had, the more courage I had to make the change.
2. Even If You Have A Couple “Months” Saved, You Still May Need An Income Before You Launch Your Dream Full Time
Unless you have independent wealth, it is probable that you’ll have to continue to work for a while, even if you have a couple months saved, before you can do what you want to do full time.
That was exactly the case with us. After we started our home based business, I still worked in law to pay the bills for another almost two years so that we could save up enough money, and grow our business to the point that I could leave law. We set a very specific income target for our business, and when we hit it, we stuck to our resolve, and I left law. However it took quite a while to hit that income target, and during this time I still had to work in a job I didn’t love to pay the bills.
If this is the case for you, then you should also ask yourself whether your current job allows you time to be able to take actionable steps towards what you really want to be doing. Whether it is another business, going back to school, or any creative endeavour, does your current job provide you with flexibility? Are you working 60 hours a week? If so, you may need to take a “transition” job, where your previously developed skills are marketable (even if you don’t enjoy using them) but you now have time to pursue a different path. This idea was the primary motivator for me leaving a big law firm to practice law in a small, self directed setting: I would have much more flexibility to build another business.
3. It Is A Waste Of Time To Feel Sorry For Yourself. But The Temptation Will Be There Anyway. Avoid It.
When I realized that I wanted to leave law I also started, for a time, to feel sorry for myself. I starting being mad at myself for wasting all that time and money going to school for something that I didn’t want to use. I really felt like a failure. It hurt my self-confidence big time.
Happily I snapped out of it. I read a passage from Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance that helped me out a lot (amazing that this was written in the 1800s, as it seems to exactly relate to today):
If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get over it. Who cares if you went to school for something that you don’t want to do. Who said you had to be perfect when you were 21 and making educational decisions. It is silly. Move on.
4. Put Your Butt Where Your Heart Wants To Be
I would argue that this is the most powerful lesson I’ve ever encountered in my life. I credit the author Steven Pressfield and his amazing book “The War Of Art” for teaching it to me. The application of this lesson has done more to eliminate fear, self doubt, and anxiety than anything else in my life. It also tests whether I really want what I think that I want.
Think about this for a second. If you say your dream is to own a business, why haven’t you started a business yet? If you want to be a writer, where is your work? If you want to go back to school, why haven’t you enrolled?
Just take one action. One step. Place yourself literally where you think you want to end up. When we decided as a couple we wanted to build a business then we started building. When I decided I wanted to write, I started writing.
Results come only after a significant investment of time to develop skill. So no matter where you are, at the present moment, no matter what your current circumstances are, you can start doing what you want to do. If you think that you can’t then you don’t want it bad enough and you will stay stuck. If you want it bad enough you will start. You will get creative. You will find a way to do what it is that you think you want to do.
6. Embrace Failure. Give Yourself Time.
Ok lets get this one out of the way. You are likely going to fail, at least a couple of times, so get over it. That doesn’t mean that you will ultimately fail. You can only ultimately fail if you quit. But you will have setbacks that others around you (particularly those who aren’t doing brave things) will look at as failure. They may even tell you such. No matter what you want to do, your exact plan of how it is going to come to fruition isn’t going to materialize as you see it. You will end up taking a different route, but that is ok. The most important thing is that you keep your eyes on the destination.
Thicken your skin. Going from where you are to where you want to be will take time. That’s ok. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, not people who drag you down, and not people who will criticize, at any chance, what you are trying to do. Odds are they are just insecure because they are living an inauthentic life anyway. It’s the tall poppy syndrome. They just want to pull you down. Avoid them.
7. Find A Way To Keep Yourself Inspired Because The Road Is Lonely
This is important. You won’t have a coach to cheer you along. You’re going to have to self-motivate. I like books and podcasts for this. Here are some of my favourite writers (that keep me motivated and inspired): Steven Pressfield, Emerson, Thoreau, Aristotle, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, Og Mandino, Darren Hardy, Tom Peters, Ayn Rand, Seth Godin, Alan Watts, Eugen Herrigel, James Allen, and many more. Find an inspirational reservoir because you will need to tap into it in those many moments where you doubt yourself and your ability to pull it off.
8. When The Appropriate Time Comes, Burn The Ships
At some point you’re going to have to go all in. You’ve got some money saved. You’ve got your new business flowing cash flow. Whatever is the case, at some point you’re going to have to jump. Again (as always) fear will kick in.
I distinctly remember how I felt when I walked away from my office on the last day that I practiced law (about 18 months ago). It was both incredibly liberating and terrifying all at once. I also remember how I felt when I chose to go on the inactive list with the law society, again a liberating but terrifying venture.
But I tell you what: if you struggle for motivation, burn your own ship. You’ll work with more tenacity and drive than you have ever worked in your life. Trust me, and frankly you’ll need that type of drive to get what you are trying to launch off the ground. Burn your ship. When the time comes, make the jump.