You’ve just quit your job—with nothing on the horizon.
There are plenty of good reasons to leave a job that isn’t furthering your career: The situation is toxic, your mobility is stalled, you’re ready to forge a new career path, just to name a few. But not having a clear idea of what you’re doing next can make the process of leaving feel equal parts liberating, exciting, and, yes, also terrifying.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your next steps, take heart: You are already braver and bolder than you realize. Lean on the gift of time now on your side, and on the lessons learned from those who’ve explored time off before you. Yours will be your own path, but fear not: There are some well-trodden steps to lead you along the way.
Here are five key starting points that helped me in my own transition to a new adventure—may they help you thrive every step of the way, too.
1. Take Stock and Reflect
This is easy to forget while you’re hustling for your next gig, but it’s an important step of the journey. Before you get too deep into your next play, take a beat and reflect. What have you accomplished so far, and what do you want to accomplish next? What goals did you have in your last gig, and which are still left to hit?
When you look at those goals you achieved and those you did not, try to figure out what was missing, be it time, interest, a skill set, or just a change in priorities. Do the same quick audit for those you did accomplish—there will likely be some patterns as to why you focused on certain areas and how much progress you were able to make. If your interests have changed, honor that in your next gig. Think about which projects made you happiest, in and outside of work. Take advantage of this new gift of free time while it lasts, and think.
Remember that the goal is not to overwhelm (careful not to go down the rabbit hole of “Who am I and what am I doing with my life?”), but to stop to pat yourself on the back for everything you’ve accomplished and pause to think about everything you want to do later down the line. Looking back, I realized that the whole of my career path has been one of chasing learning curves and building skill sets, and it was comforting to see this charted out on paper and know that for me, leaving my job was part of a greater cycle of growth. I realized that I’d done this sort of thing before, and it had always worked itself out. That was encouraging as I ventured into the great unknown.
2. Stop Taking Stock
Yes, it may seem contradictory, but hear me out. If you’ve just quit, it should come as no surprise that you will have a lot on your mind. You will be tempted to keep thinking about what’s next (I just quit my job! I have bills to pay! I don’t want to move back home!), but do yourself a favor and take a breath, or a vacation. Visit a new place in town. Shake up your routine. Try to stop thinking about the fact that you just did this enormous, career-changing thing.
Here’s why: Think about how many “a-ha!” moments come to us in the shower, while walking the dog, or some other time when we are not “at work”—a lot! Our brain is always working on things even when we aren’t, so try to calm your inner voice and trust that your brain is still doing some valuable thinking for you. I can’t tell you what your a-ha moment will be or when it will come, but I can say that it’s a crucial step in getting you outside of your head.
I knew I was overdue for a break when I started having dreams about paperwork—how dull and entirely unproductive! Be comfortable taking a mental vacation.
It’s also worth spending some of your post-quitting free time going back to your roots and seeing the people who matter most in your life. Reconnect with both the people who know you best (family, friends, significant others) and the people who you share similar values with or aspire to be (mentors, role models, old colleagues).
Share your struggles, dreams, frustrations, and ambitions with them—and these may or may not be work-related! This is about understanding more about who you are at the core, and about what makes your heart beat faster in good times and bad. Ask trusted confidantes for feedback on how you’ve handled transitions in the past, and when they’ve seen you happiest, personally or professionally. See if they can pinpoint when and why you’ve thrived.
Keep in mind that everyone will offer different advice for how to approach finding your next gig, depending on his or her own personal history, which is why gleaning specific advice on what to do next may be less useful than getting feedback on how you as a person have handled previous life transitions and adapted to change in the past.
This is useful, because outside perspectives can often provide valuable nuggets of information that are obvious to others but that you never would have seen. In my case, the friend who has known me longest told me she had seen me happiest when things moved fast and were constantly new, and when I had autonomy to make things happen. And it was true. I thrive where there is less structure; I see opportunity in chaos; learning on the job is a major priority for me. So I looked for companies in the midst of great change, transition, and accelerated growth where I would have the opportunity to make an impact.
Thinking about running a business? Curious as to whether anyone besides mom will pay for your graphic design skills? Self-taught and not sure if you’re ready for a full-time gig? Worried about filling that “unemployed” gap on your resume? Freelancing can help answer all of these questions and concerns and more. For me, freelancing was a way of expanding my portfolio and taking on small projects that allowed me to explore an area I’d always been interested in: UX design. I’d been offering product and UX advice to startup friends gratis during my last job, and at a certain point realized I could be even more helpful to them if I dedicated more than just a coffee catch up’s worth of thinking time to their questions. In a sense, I was already acting as a consultant—I just hadn’t formalized it yet.
Freelancing is also a great chance to learn more about yourself. When you freelance, you learn how to manage the full project life cycle, from sourcing clients to producing final deliverables, and it becomes clear which part of that cycle you enjoy most (and which you would rather do without). In my case, I learned that I disliked sourcing projects—it felt like I was spending more time talking about potential projects than actually executing on them, and that was frustrating to me. That confirmed what I already suspected: a role that centered around business development would not be the right fit for me. (Other people, of course, love that part of the process, and they would be great in BD.)
As you take on side gigs, pay close attention to where you hit your stride—and where you stumble—which can provide important insight into what you should be looking to do next.
5. Wrap Up That Side Project
You know which project I’m talking about. The half-finished website you started coding on your own six months ago. The speaker series you’ve been meaning to organize since forever. The novel you promised yourself you’d write before you turned 30. Time is a luxury that few of us have—and you now have enough time to turn that side project into a full-time project. Honor it. Finish it. Learn the skills you need to get it done, and get after it.
If you’re worried that your side project is taking up too much time from applying for jobs or networking, just remember that you never know where that side project might take you. In fact, it may very well become the most valuable part of your resume, or could even surprise you by turning into a full-time job itself.
My side project? Learning enough front-end to throw up a portfolio page, then taking the time to write about all the things I was learning in my free time. They showed I had been thinking in earnest about the types of challenges and changes my industry is undergoing, and they became just as valuable on my resume as the freelance projects I was delivering.
So there you have it: some first steps for navigating the great, great unknown. Be patient if it doesn’t happen overnight—landing softly is a process. But with a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, and a healthy dose of introspection, you’ll find your place. Trust in yourself and in the process. Find what works for you. When the time is right, you will land exactly where you need to be.