When it comes to your career, there’s no foolproof, success-guaranteed option. The smart choices can prove to be dead ends, and supposedly safe jobs can disappear in an economic crisis. Choices that appear risky to friends and make parents worry can prove to be winners, but the only way to know for sure is to take a chance.
I made my own stupid career decision and heard these worried reactions a decade ago. The result: I now have my dream position.
Looking back, here’s what I wish I’d known before I just up and quit my job with no solid plan:
1. Everyone Will Have an Opinion
Your parents will try to find a diplomatic way to ask if you’ve lost your mind—followed by inquiring just how you’re going to pay your bills. You could hear questions like, “Don’t you think it’s 15 years early for a mid-life crisis?” (I know, I did.) Co-workers might say how they admire your courage to your face, but whisper to each other that it’s a seriously foolish move.
Listen to everyone, but remember that you own your career. If you wake up in several years, wondering “What if?” you are the only person you’ll be able to hold accountable for the decisions you did—or didn’t—make. Fear of judgment is real, but that doesn’t mean you should let it hold you back.
2. Job Security Is an Illusion
Two years after I left a job at a top-20 bank, Lehman went bankrupt (followed by General Motors!). Remember, there’s no such thing as a “permanent job” and no such thing as a “safe company.” Working for a reputable organization is one factor to weigh into your decision—not the only factor.
Job security doesn’t come from a performance rating or the size and past history of an organization. Security comes from continuous efforts to develop your marketable skills and your passion to deliver results. A strong skill set will help you land on your feet—wherever you are.
3. Job Satisfaction Hinges on Making a Difference
It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. In a New York Times’ article entitled Rethinking Work, professor Barry Schwartz cites numerous examples of people finding fulfillment because of what they’re doing each day—not how much they’re getting paid. And this applies to everyone. Schwartz explains that it’s not just “…lawyers [who] leave white-shoe firms to work with the underclass and underserved.” A study following hospital janitors showed that they identified the small things they do to make a patient feel better as the best part of their jobs (even if these weren’t tasks they’d be paid for).
No matter the other perks of your job, if you crave responsibilities that will have a broader or different outcome, you won’t be happy until you find a way to make a difference.
Sure, you can see just how long you can wait it out at a job where you’re not doing meaningful work. However, it’s not sustainable in the long run. Moreover, it’s not worth it. By comparison, I love my current position because I’m set up for success and supported by my colleagues every day. When you’re debating whether to say yes to a new opportunity, don’t just look at title and compensation—consider impact, too.
4. Be Open to the Unexpected
My breakthrough came 11 months after I left my job, in the form of an email from a former co-worker, who reached out completely out of the blue. (OK, technically, he was my boss’ boss’ boss at my previous employer.) He sent me a note after hearing I was on the market. One conversation led to another, leading to a freelance consulting project and then an unexpected dream job in venture capital.
You might think, “I’ll make a change when something better comes along.” But playing it safe can also hold you back. If you stay in a job that makes you unhappy—and keep your desire to make a change to yourself—you may be passed over for potential opportunities because no one knows you’re looking. Sometimes you have to leap first. If that’s impossible, at the very least, be open to people you trust about your hope to make a change.
5. Careers Are Like a Road Trip
It’s great to have a specific destination in mind (e.g., “Seattle,”) or maybe just a direction, (think: “Northwest”). However, you don’t need every road, intersection, and traffic light mapped out in advance. Stopping at roadside attractions is part of the fun—and part of your purpose. By banishing the notion of a wrong turn, you open yourself up to more experiences than if everything had to follow a specific plan.
Almost everyone likes to have his or her career mapped out (Five-year plan, anyone?). But if you go into a change with an inflexible idea of what you’re going to achieve, you’ll miss opportunities to learn along the way, and you may skip over something that would be an even better fit. Be open to the journey, and you may find something you hadn’t anticipated.
The bottom line is this: Your life and your career is likely to be a winding road with switchbacks and blind turns that other people—a.k.a., “sensible” people—might choose to avoid. But sticking with a soul-sucking job will be like driving circles in a cul-de-sac: It leads nowhere and you’ll eventually run out of gas.
So, if you’re feeling stuck in an unhappy job, be daring and take a risk. It’s not about whether other people will “get it.” It’s about all the great things that lie ahead.