Thursday, July 07, 2011

What do you do if you want to change careers?

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
I took this photo one night of a New Yorker pulling a suitcase who seemed to be in a major hurry.  When I got home and saw it on my computer I thought it was a lot like a self-portrait of what I had gone through in my professional life when things seemed terribly unclear, rushed, confusing and in a complete blur. 

Four years ago this week I went to work in my office on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan on what would be my last day as a practicing attorney.  This is a topic that I haven't discussed much here since as I'm sure you've guessed if you've been here before this blog focuses on my new career.  It's odd really because I wouldn't be here unless I had been there.  And there was something completely different.  But, even so, my old career informs my new one and it shaped me into the person I am today.

I'm always getting emails from my readers asking for advice on how to change careers.  I wish there were clear cut answers but the truth is that there aren't.  I'm a pretty resilient person and I have always been somewhat aggressive when it comes to my professional life but even so I just don't think it's possible to change careers without stress, some tears (or in my case, a lot) or constant second-guessing.   Now that I'm on the other side of it, things are definitely easier to see but at the time nothing was clear to me except the fact that I needed to pack up my notions of what I thought I wanted and try something new.

So how did I go from corporate attorney-working woman to professional emerging photographer?

The answer to that question is one part craziness, one part desire, one part self-doubt, one part complete anxiety and one part scariness.  Throw in the fact that I was hungry for a challenge and something better for myself and that was that.  My job as a lawyer was incredibly challenging -- the work itself was a challenge but so were the people and the personalities - my colleagues and our clients were intense and brilliant and sometimes scary and nuts.  The paycheck was amazing and the work challenged me and pushed me to think harder than I ever thought possible but I felt completely unfulfilled.   I hated the insane round-the-clock hours and ultimately that's what pushed me over the edge.  Still, I learned so much about myself in the short time that I practiced law - most importantly that I could find within myself the guts to leave and try something that I knew I could do.  I could have stayed on that path and had known exactly where I was going or I could jump and take an enormous risk and hope for the best.  We all know that change is never, ever easy, even if it's change that you know would be better for you.

When I was in the middle of the madness, feeling like I was sinking without any way out and trapped because I was afraid to leave, and trying to decide what to do with my life, I knew I was going to need more than the basic cliched list of pros and cons.  I'm lucky that I had the support of my husband and family but here are a few thoughts/questions that really helped me.  There aren't any black and white answers but there are ways to talk yourself through it if you are looking to leave your career to start something new.

1.  A change in your career is a change in your life and that's okay.

I put so much pressure on myself that I was having an anxiety attack every other day.  I wish I was exaggerating.  I wish I understood then that it was okay to not know how things were going to turn out.  It's not as though I knew where I would end up when I decided to go to law school in the first place but I simply could not get my mind to go back to that place where I just lived, worked toward a goal and let things happen.  It's okay if you don't know what your goal is right away, the important thing is to recognize that it's possible to achieve it once you figure out what "it" is.

Learning to embrace the unknown was a lot of work.  Learning to accept that it would be uncomfortable and scary and difficult seemed impossible and was a major exercise in patience and self-trust  My life was going to be different and I had to learn to be excited about that instead of frightened by it.

2.  Your job is not your career.

If you hate what you do, keep reminding yourself that there are other possibilities.  I didn't hate my job.  Okay, some days I did.  But, there is so much that I could have tried instead and it's something that you have to figure out for yourself.  Granted in this environment things are a lot tougher and finding A job, let alone the right one for you, is much more difficult than ever before, but don't stop realizing that you do have options.  And, just because the job market is dismal doesn't mean that you can't try to educate yourself on whatever else is out there in terms of a possible career change.  Take advantage and take the time to read about other potential careers.  I was in such a rut that I wasn't able to see this.  You have to think about your lifestyle, what you like, what motivates you and what makes you tick to get closer to figuring out what is best for you. 

3.  Just because something is good and comfortable does not mean that there isn't something better.

In my case, while I felt challenged by what I was doing, there was something that was missing.  An important lesson that I learned, and that maybe I knew all along but it was buried deep inside of me with the rest of my common sense, is that things that make us uncomfortable are often what motivate and inspire us most.  Things were good because of the money but the long hours left little to no time for me to do anything but work and sleep (sometimes).  It was not for me.  There was something better but I just had to take the time to realize it.  This was an honest conversation that I had to have with myself.  I wondered how my personal life could be so great but my professional life so unsatisfactory and I realized that if I was so unhappy in my job eventually it would affect other areas of my life.

3.  What are you good at?  What inspires you?  What were you doing at a time in your life that you felt happy and fulfilled?

Think about these questions and make a list of your answers.  They are very general questions but you can get into as much detail as you want or need.

I've always loved the arts.  In high school I was a painter (oils, mostly) and I loved to draw.  I was a dancer and I've always been a photographer.  I can go to a museum for hours and just roam around.  When I started practicing law photography was a hobby and not a real job but it was what I loved to do in my spare time (when I had it).  When I was thinking about making the switch there was no Twitter and people had just really started to use Facebook.  "Social networking" was not a defined term.  I think it would have been easier for me to jump if I had to do it now just because there are so many more resources at our fingertips and random people who can give you 140 characters or less at that.  But you have to start by asking yourself the questions.  Once I realized that photography was all I thought about and I realized that I was actually good at it, it became easier for me to start visualizing myself making the change.  Once I actually became a "corporate dropout" I met so many other people who were like me and who made a change in careers and left a lucrative, comfortable job to try something else.

4.  Be realistic.

I was a lawyer who was looking for a creative outlet.  I started to pick up my camera more and more to get back to the hobby I loved.  But just because I had a camera and knew how to use it didn't mean I was a photographer.  I had no false expectations about what I could do because I had no clue what I could do.  I still have no false expectations - especially since now I'm also a full-time stay-at-home-mommy to a twelve-month-old baby girl.

I just knew that I needed to leave the job that I was in.  I did a lot of research by reading photography blogs, reading great books like this and talking to people who have changed careers before.  I educated myself as much as I could and it made me feel more confident and less afraid.  I also knew that the change was not going to happen overnight.  I am still learning!  I approached switching careers and learning about switching careers as a job in and of itself.

If you're starting from scratch, which I did, then take some time to save money.  You can either do this by staying in your current job a bit longer or taking some freelance jobs in the new field you're interested in between your old job and the new one you wish to have.  I tend to be risk averse (which made this whole process even more difficult for me) so I chose to stay in my old job a bit longer in order to create a larger nest egg that would make me feel more comfortable.

Plus, I just told myself that if it didn't work out it did not mean that I was a failure.  I could always go back to being a lawyer but I had to try to do the something else that I was craving.

5.  Think of a plan and write it down.

It doesn't have to be a business plan or anything too formal at first.  I started by making a simple spreadsheet and a raw timeline for myself.  Items on my spreadsheet included a projected budget, ideas for a website, hiring a designer, researching jobs.  Some things were in granular detail, others were more general.  The spreadsheet went through several drafts and it made me think harder about what I wanted to/could do.  Once I saw it all written down it helped me to visualize it more.  My ideas were no longer just in my mind and it started to seem more real and possible that I could make a change in careers.  If a spreadsheet is not for you, make a flowchart or just start a list that is more a stream of consciousness than anything else.  The point is just to start!

This assumes that you know what you want to do.  If you have no clue other than to know that you want out of your current situation, making a plan is still helpful.  You can build a plan out based on your answers to the questions I posed in number 3.  Write down what inspires you and what your interests are and go from there.

6.  Use what you have to get what you want.

I took a part-time job working in my family's real estate management company in order to make some extra money while I was making the transition.  As a licensed attorney in New York I was able to obtain my real estate broker's license and working in an office a few days a week helped me feel like I still had my foot in the corporate door while giving me more time that I needed to properly research the career that I really wanted as a photographer.

Leverage your current position to help you into the next one.  I am a lawyer and I use those skills every day in my new career.  I have certain skills that I gained in school and also in my old career so I negotiate my own contracts for freelancing and licensing of my work.  I've always had a very intense attention to detail and this helps me as much when I am out taking photos and working with clients as it did when I was learning to draft agreements and negotiate with counter-parties.

Whatever it is that you're doing now is not a waste.  It's a learning experience!  As soon as I started to see my situation as an advantage to get me to where I wanted to be, I felt more positive and sure of myself. 

We all wear many different hats a day.  I often joke that my title is "Professional Juggler" and as a stay-at-home mother who works from home this is definitely the case.  Look, I'm not an expert; I'm just someone who has gone through this before and I'm learning every day how to get better and be better.  There are a lot of people like me!  My mother was a secretary for an immigration lawyer before she started her real estate business.  My brother-in-law studied engineering before he began his career in his family's commercial bakery.  My uncle in Argentina was a veterinarian before he became CEO of a company that imports office supplies.  I even went to law school with a guy who was an anesthesiologist interested in medical malpractice law!  If you start to ask around and really talk to people, you will see that changing careers is actually very common.  And, you might also find that many people who have gone through this are actually quite receptive to questions and are willing to offer whatever advice they have.

I have some days that are better than others.  I definitely have those days where I feel insecure and unsure of myself.  The type-A person in me has learned to accept rejection and has learned to tolerate that scary feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next.  It's not as scary anymore.  Most days I feel excited and inspired and yes, I feel proud. 

These are things that worked for me but everyone's experience is unique!  And, like I said before, there are simply no clear cut, easy answers.  I wish there were but as with anything else, you just have to see where life will lead you.

If you want to read more about my experience, you can check out this interview I gave over at  Imprint Magazine.

Have you changed careers before?  Do you have any advice or tips?

If you want an amazing resource, I strongly recommend Life's a Bitch and then You Change Careers.  My husband bought me this book and it was fantastic.  Corporette also has some great tips.

Bookmark and Share