Making Dramatic Career Changes


toughdecisionsI read an article recently entitled “Thinking about making a dramatic (and scary) career change? Here’s what to consider,” by Sylvia Lafair, (July 6, 2015), on The Business Journals website.

The article got me thinking about the three dramatic career changes I’ve made in my life:

  • taking my first job as an attorney in a corporate legal department in a strange city rather than starting at a law firm (as everyone expected)
  • leaving the legal practice to move into a series of Human Resources assignments
  • leaving the corporate world completely to turn to mediating, consulting and writing

Each of these moves set off the emotions similar to those that Ms. Lafair described. Specifically, for me, the emotions were

     1.  Fear of the unknown and leaving what seemed safe

I knew I could do well if I followed the expected path. That even seemed true of the expected path right out of law school. I didn’t really doubt that I could do what others in my law school class were intending to do—work at major law firms near our school. But setting out halfway across country, and working in a corporate law department? Would I get adequate experience to move into other legal assignments in the future? Would I have the same respect from other attorneys and judges? These were my unknowns.

When I decided to leave the legal department for a Human Resources assignment, I knew the learning curve would be steep. I was jumping into a senior HR position with no HR experience. I thought I knew about half of what I would need to know, and that turned out to be correct.

Then, when I left corporate work altogether, I left a good salary and benefits, not knowing for sure if I could earn what I needed to as a consultant and mediator. It turns out my family has done fine financially, but the worry was there for the first couple of years.

     2.  Excitement at the possibilities a move could bring

The strong camaraderie I felt with the people in the corporate legal department ultimately outweighed the doubts about the work. I made my decision based on who I wanted to work with, and that was the right decision for me. One of the law firms I could have joined right out of law school folded within five years, so it would not have been more secure than the job I took.

And I moved into HR largely because I was bored at the repetitiveness of the law practice I had. I needed something new to interest me, and I knew I needed to move to another job to find it. The choice was to leave the law or leave the company, and I chose to leave the law, because a new field of expertise would give me more opportunities to learn.

And finally, I knew I wanted to spend my time doing many things that a demanding full-time job would not permit. That’s why I switched to consulting, mediating, and writing, which has let me set my own schedule.

   3.  Indecisiveness, while I wrestled with the decision

It took weeks for me to make the first decision, months to make the second, and years to make the third.

   4.  Guilt in leaving expectations of family and friends behind and choosing my own path

Choosing the path less seldom taken is always stressful. Why should I move halfway across the country to take a risky job? Why should I leave a field where I was successful? Why should I leave a financially rewarding career?

I got many questions from family members and friends, who essentially wanted to know why I was “dropping out” as they saw it. However, over the years, I’ve seen many friends and colleagues make similar decisions. I guess I was just an early adopter.

* * * * *

In the end, at each of these periods of indecisiveness, the pain I felt at following the expected path became greater than the fear of the unknown. For others (perhaps those with a healthier mindset), excitement about the future may come to outweigh the fear.

If you are faced with a difficult career decision, take a look at Ms. Lafair’s article and see if her suggestions help.

When have you made a change in your career, and what emotions did you experience?

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