A police officer turned music agent. A Navy captain who became a circus manager. A botanist who traded plants for making chocolate. Those are a few stories of major career changes from the baby boomers and retirees I interviewed for my book, What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job. Each one faced a different set of challenges. But their stories reveal common threads.
Many of these men and women were spurred to discover what really matters to them and transform their work (and, in turn, personal) lives by a crisis or loss that starkly revealed the fleeting nature of life. No one acted impulsively. They paused. They planned. They bypassed helter-skelter approaches and pursued prudent, well-researched moves.
Each person had flexible time horizons for his or her venture to make it. If necessary, these people added the essential skills and degrees before they made the leap. They often apprenticed or volunteered beforehand. They reached out to their networks of social and professional contacts to ask for help and guidance.
They downsized and planned their financial lives in order to be able to afford a cut in pay or the cost of a start-up. Several were fortunate to have a spouse’s steady income or had some outside investments, retirement savings, and pensions in place to ease the transition to their new line of work.
But what really sticks with me is that they all share a clear confidence in the direction they have taken. They collectively work longer hours, but it doesn’t matter. They only wish they had done it sooner.
You might know you want to do something different, but don’t have the courage to do it yet. Take a breath.
Here are my top ten tips:
- Understand what’s behind your desire to make a change. Maybe you are starting to become disillusioned with your work. You’re bogged down. Perhaps you’re no longer on the way up. This is the time to step back and begin to think about life more broadly. But be warned, career changers can go into mourning. All of a sudden, you realize how you miss their old career, and you’re not really open to replacing those things.
The longer time frame you have to plan, the better. Start working at age fifty on a career you might not get around to until age sixty. If you have lots of time, you can try out some ideas and possibilities, role-play, and do a little bit of those things to see if that is the direction you want to go.
- Get your life in order. Get physically and financially fit. Change is stressful. When you’re physically fit, you have more energy and are mentally sharper to face the challenges ahead. Starting a new career later in life takes an incredible amount of strength and energy. And debt will kill your dreams. It limits your choices.
A new career, too, is often a spiritual quest. You want to make a contribution or be connected with your inner desires and goals. Consider reading some of Deepak Chopra’s books on spirituality and mind-body medicine.
- Be practical. If possible, make your move in stages. You may need to upgrade your skills and education, but take one class at a time. If you’d like to go to graduate school, maybe start by taking a night course. You don’t have to enroll in a full-course load. You can add more classes as your direction and motivation become clear.
Overspending in your job search is another big mistake. Why you shell out the big bucks on advanced degrees, when a few courses will suffice, or spend on a pricey resume services before you’ve really thought through your next step. If possible, take some classes while your current employer is still offering tuition reimbursement (though be sure to investigate whether there is a pay-back requirement if you leave the firm). And check out gratis career services from your alma mater.
- Find a mentor. Ask for help. Seek advice from people who have been successful in the field you are interested in switching into from the start. Everyone likes to be asked for counsel.
- Be prepared for setbacks. It’s not all-smooth sailing, but if you’ve laid the proper groundwork, you’ll get through the rough patches. Having your family or partner at your back for support will help tremendously. They don’t have to own your dream, but be supportive.
- Volunteer or moonlight. You might try on several jobs before you find the one that’s right. Anne Nolan, executive director of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest homeless shelter, started as a volunteer. She didn’t know what she wanted to do when she lost her executive-level job. She had a year’s salary and time to think her options through. She decided to volunteer at the shelter–not because she dreamed it would turn into a full-time job. It was an activity to get her out of her rut and doing something besides worrying about what was next. It gradually became her passion. She was asked to join the board and then was hired on as the director.
Check out sites like VocationVacations.com, idealist.org, volunteermatch.org. Look around you. Where might you lend a hand? Opportunity comes from the unexpected. Be open for it.
- Research. Look for jobs that leverage experience. Check out job web sites like encore.org, retiredbrains.com, workforce50.com, to get a flavor for what others are doing and what jobs are out there now. Investigate fields like healthcare, the clergy, eldercare and education that have a growing demand for workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Occupational Outlook Handbook is a good reference.
- Don’t lock yourself into a must-have salary. Money is the biggest roadblock for most career changers. Chances are when you start-over in a new field or move to a nonprofit, you will need to take a salary cut at least initially. If you have an emergency fund to buy you time, you can to do a more thoughtful job search. Pare back your discretionary living expenses to reflect a more realistic view of what you’ll earn. What are the things that are important in your life? What things are actively giving you pleasure that you might have to give up?
- Keep your hand out of the cookie jar. Don’t dip too deep into your core savings. Of all the mistakes older workers make in launching second careers, this is probably the worst. Would-be entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily raiding retirement accounts to launch businesses, but they’re tapping home equity and other savings, and that has obvious implications for retirement security.
- Do something every day to work toward your goal. Changing careers can seem overwhelming. Don’t struggle to find an ideal starting point or perfect path, is great advice I gleaned from Clearways Consulting career coach Beverly Jones, a second-acter herself. Once you have some picture of where you want to go, get things moving by taking small steps toward that vision. What really matters is that you do a little something on a regular basis.
Parting thought: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, as the saying goes.
And before you know it, it’s Godiva chocolate, watch your ganache.
Kerry Hannon is the author of What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job, available here www.kerryhannon.com.