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Everyone has defining moments in their life, and I want to share with you one of mine.

I was just about to finish up my PhD and I was looking for a job. As you know, I was in the Air Force at the time, and while you may be under the impression such decisions are entirely made for you, this is not the case. I found a position as a program manager, which entailed evaluating proposals from scientists around the world and deciding who I would give money to in support of their work.

These kinds of jobs are usually held by senior scientists, but I didn’t know that. Moreover, the program I was applying for wasn’t exactly related to the degree I was finishing. My lab mate John, a dear friend, asked a perfectly reasonable question:

Are you even remotely qualified for that job? Without pause I told him, “Of course!”

I’ll tell you why this story is relevant to career design in just a moment, but first you have to ask yourself–

What Are You Afraid Of?

One of the biggest reasons more people don’t pursue career design is fear.

It reminds me of a story I read about a guy talking to his therapist about his relationship with his girlfriend. Everything was going really well, he was happy, but he was afraid to commit. He said to his therapist: What if it doesn’t work out? And the therapist replied: What if it does?

When you try to make a big change in your life, nearly everyone asks you the first question, when you really should be focused on the second. How would your life change if your job was an integral, sustaining, and fulfilling part of your life? What if the reason it was hard to take vacations was because you didn’t want to stop working?

A book I’ll come back to many times in this post is Chris Guillebeau’s must-read The Art of Nonconformity, where he quotes Thomas Carlyle as saying

The tragedy of life is not so much what we suffer, but what we miss.

Said another way, we are far more likely to regret what we didn’t do than what we did.

How Do I Get There From Here?

Ramit Sethi recently asked his readers a simple question: how many of you make more than $100K per year? While many were enthused about their high-paying salaries, several responses went like this

I’m in a similar position where I earn a big paycheck (though not quite $100k), but have had to make some big sacrifices and compromises to get it. Ultimately, it’s not a sustainable situation, and I want to make the leap to something completely new…but that would mean taking a $25-$40k cut in annual salary based on my outreach to prospective employers. I want to take the leap, but just can’t bring myself to walk away from that much coin. Can you tell us how you broke free of the golden handcuffs and how you got your salary back up to a comfortable level?

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with making money. I’m all for it. But staying in a job you dislike simply because it pays well is not a recipe for a happy life.

Which isn’t to say the choice is rare. But the focus on financial security is a red herring.

Although finances dominate the minds of people wanting to escape their jobs, I suspect the real problem is psychological. Go back and read the responses to Ramit’s question: the vast majority of people who responded said their lifestyles had changed relatively little from when they made far less money. Many are stashing away money hand over fist, because we’re all told again and again that’s what we’re supposed to do. So why, then, does a pay cut prevent so many people from leaving a lousy job?

Here are the 3 essential steps you need to make the leap (and land on your feet).

Step 1: Know yourself

Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Again, Guillebeau says

Life planning begins with an unfortunate fact: many people have no idea what they really want to do or accomplish over the course of their time on earth.  Instead of moving toward a destination, they become mired in “life avoidance” by ambling around without a clear sense of objective or purpose.

I’d go a step further and argue that this is where the drive to earn more money comes from.  Nature abhors a vacuum so society supplies the meaning of life for you. As Marcia Reynolds discusses in this post, some people follow their craving for external affirmation and mistake it for their calling.

Guillebeau suggests a number of exercises in his book to determine your life purpose, or you can do what I did and wade through Nicholas Lore’s more comprehensive book on the subject, The Pathfinder.

Step 2: Have confidence in your abilities

Once you know what you want to do with your life, you need to assess your aptitudes. Let’s go back to my story about applying for a job that on the surface I didn’t appear qualified for.

It turns out my partially related degree was, in some respects, an asset, because the job required you to field proposals on a wide range of topics. It wasn’t possible to be an expert in them all, and coming from the outside gave me a perspective (and independence) others didn’t have. You also needed to have excellent speaking skills in order to defend your program from budget cuts, a skill set I honed as a college chemistry instructor.

So before you rule out a new job, ask yourself what skill sets are really needed to accomplish it and just as important, which of those skills are typically underdeveloped in those that dominate the field. While I couldn’t go head-to-head on science depth with my colleagues, I won nearly every speaking award.

Don’t take your aptitudes on faith either. Test them. Before I decided to pursue a writing career, I started this blog to test my stamina for writing as well as the market response. Even when my blog only had 25 subscribers, I often got as many comments as blogs 10 to 100 times my size.

But beware: as Chip and Dan Heath reveal in their book Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, self-evaluation also tends to be self-serving. Back to Marcia’s calling versus craving idea, it’s a good idea to temper your assessment with independent verification.

Once you have confidence in your abilities, you’re better prepared to follow Guillebeau’s advice and “derive security from your own competence instead of an employer.”

Step 3: Have an epiphany

When I decided to make my own career leap, those who knew me well weren’t surprised. While I had been successful at my various positions, without intending to, I communicated to my friends I wasn’t completely fulfilled.  If it was so obvious to my them, why did it take so long for me to leap? I had to have an epiphany.

Normally epiphanies are the result of an unfortunate event that causes us to reevaluate our mental models of the world. In my case, I suffered two miscarriages in the space of 10 months.  My body and my emotions were wreaked. But in that space, my priorities became crystal clear–life was literally too short to waste it on a job that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I just had to do steps 1 and 2 to figure out what that was.

The good news is that you don’t have to suffer misfortune to have an epiphany. Epiphanies come about because our life circumstances shift our perception of fear. Those who have a near death experience suddenly realize they’re afraid of not living more than they’re afraid of failing.

As Guillebeau points out, the other way to get that kind of clarity is to “decrease the fear of the desired situation.” You can do this internally, by tapping into your emotions and creating a gradual path to change that doesn’t spook that lizard part of your brain (a la the Switch book method). Or you can do it externally, by testing your future career on the side, as I did with the blog, which encourages you to build a business while still working full time.

Surrounding yourself with voices that support change is critical to success. Don’t underestimate the powerful effect of having books like Guillebeau’s to draw strength and inspiration from while you’re going through career design. Even though I had already made the hard decision to leave my job when his book came out, I continue to have smaller epiphanies while reading it even now.

Once I decided to pursue my passion, everything after that was details.  Honestly.  You do have to go through a process of worrying over the financial specifics, as I detailed in Part 2 of this series. But you’ll simply have to believe me that as your resolve to change strengthens, the details become less important, not more so. The dollar figure of “what we need” to live on goes down all the time.

Of course, I’m also pretty confident we’ll never have to test that figure out. Pursuing a fulfilling career is equivalent to Seth Godin’s idea of bringing emotion to your work. And as Guillebeau says, that can change the world–at least your own.

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21 Responses to Conquering Your Fears (And The World)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Career Design, Part 3: Conquering Your Fears (& The World) Everyday Bright -- Topsy.com

    • On
    • October 7, 2010 at 9:11 pm
    • Heather Conroy
    • Said...

    Fabulous post Jen-so much here resonates with me. I have changed careers and am now just finishing off a PhD. I agree that many skills and abilities are totally transferable.

  2. Thanks, Heather. I don’t think I realized you were in the process of getting a PhD right now. What area? What made you decide to pursue a graduate degree? I get almost geeky about career decisions these days!

    Thanks for the kind words, as always.

    • On
    • October 7, 2010 at 11:52 pm
    • Daria
    • Said...

    Really GREAT post, Jen! I have been at the same job for 12 years. I think I am better suited for other work, know I am not fulfilled, and yet have stayed because it’s easy. I was only working 3 days per week and it allowed me to do what I really wanted in my other time – family, side jobs (realtor, blogger, contractor), and just “me” time.

    Now, I’m ready to work full time and it is time to make a switch. It is difficult to gather the courage to make the change though. This job is familiar, is comfortable, I have already proven myself. Do that all over? And expect flexibility to put my kids first?

    Nerve wracking.

    The quote I have taped to my monitor at work is by Mark Twain “You will be more dissappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I am quoting it from memory, so I don’t think it’s quite accurate, but that is the gist. I believe it whole heartedly too and plan to pursue it in 2011… hopefully your blogs and posts will help me get over my fears and do it!

    • Daria,
      I could have written your words not that long ago. Being successful complicates things in the worst way! LOL But just think, if you can make it at something with only half your heart invested, imagine what you can do when fully committed?

      So happy to have connected with you. I hope you’ll continue to share your journey with us. I think just knowing you are not the only one feeling like that helps. It’s so easy to lose your nerve. The friends who encouraged me to stick with my crazy ideas were invaluable (and still are frankly!).

    • On
    • October 8, 2010 at 9:55 am
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    Oh the dreaded unknown. It’s always scary, but I try to look at it as opportunity whenever possible. I’ve lived long enough to know that my life would not be as enriched as it is if I’d not taken a few leaps.

    Thanks for the post Jen!

    • Barbara,
      Of course that’s the real trick, isn’t it? To see the unknown as an exciting opportunity. But I know people struggle with it, as I do. Like anything, it gets easier with practice. Thanks for encouraging us all!

  3. Oddly enough, before reading this blog post, I posted an article on my blog this morning called, “For the Love of the Game”; referring back to the section you wrote starting with, “Who makes $100K per year?” – it’s a great tie in.

    But onto your blog post….

    It has been coincidentally great timing for me to have started reading your career design posts as about 3 months ago I made the decision to passively look into going back to ‘work’ FT. I currently own my own businesses, make more money than I will likely ever make in the corporate world, have more freedom than I know what to do with, and from the ‘outside looking in’ – people think I lead a great life. Certainly I’m not complaining, but similar to you – I had an “epiphany” a few months ago.

    While all the above items listed are “great”, they are not giving me what I want, need, or seek out: My passion is learning, building businesses from the ground up and taking them to millions, being challenged, and working for someone who can mentor me both personally and professionally.

    So, going through this transformation, I have comments on each of the notes above.

    1. What are you afraid of?
    The first lesson you learn in sales is if you can’t force someone to talk about their “pain”, they will never realize the “pleasure” gained from using your product. If you can’t make someone talk about the “fear” associated with major intangible, expensive purposes, they will never “buy into” moving forward to overcome the fear or ‘pain point’. If everyone realized there is no pleasure as sweet as and nothing more motivating than conquering one’s fears – there would be far more motivated and happy people in the world.

    2. Know Thyself – easier said than done, right? I always thought I “knew” myself, and I pretty much DID…but I DID NOT know how to translate that into finding the ‘right job’ and I also did not know how to assess if each of the jobs were right for me. I would be interested in how you were able to do this as well as the process you used. Personally, I hired a very high level ‘career coach’. I had always thought that career coaches were kind of BS / just an easy way to make money if you have a solid personal brand….BOY was I wrong. I was taught far more about the ‘process’ and details of how to organize my thoughts and how to match them and assess how / if different jobs would work for me. I think it would be a huge value ad to your readers if you write out the process you went through to get to “know thyself” in relation to the job world.

    3. Have Confidence in your abilities – I certainly agree with this, but I do think even more importantly is to “know what you don’t know”. I’ve interviewed 100s of managers who are confident, but to find someone who can separate specifically what their exact area of expertise vs. what they need to work on – that’s key for success.

    4. Have an epiphany – I think this will only happen to those who are open to it; which unfortunately is likely a small subset of the population. Most people are comfortable in their jobs and just want a paycheck; they don’t “live to work”, they “work to live”; and it is nearly impossible to change that mindset. That said, for those who do want to constantly better themselves and realize that professional growth leads to personal growth – you will likely experience this ‘epiphany’ at some point…and you can’t ignore it! Revel in it instead!

    • Jamie,
      Great points. I wish I could give you a straightforward process for knowing yourself, you aptitudes, and what to do with life. For me, it was like tacking a sailboat. It certainly wasn’t a direct path!

      Based on your comment, and several others I’ve gotten by email, I’m thinking of opening a private discussion board where I can help people through some exercises. I mean, I could tell you all to go read and do the exercises in Nichola Lore’s book The Pathfinder, but how many would? As my husband said, it’s a daunting book. LOL

      Turns out that the real value in the exercises is talking them through with people, having them challenge your ideas and defending your answers (or changing them). Many people helped me discover myself, but I was ultimately the one pushing things forward. This is where I think most people fail. They don’t stick with the process long enough to see real progress. It took me nearly a year to get to where I am today.

      Keep talking, Jamie. You’ll get there and I’m certainly here to help!

  4. That’s really good stuff and mirrors quite closely what I feel and why i took the path in life that I took.


    Chris G

    • Thanks for the recognition, Chris. When you’re standing on cliff with everyone else, the gap seems huge. After you jump? It’s not clear what everyone is so scared of.

  5. Hey Jen! Thanks so much for your thoughtful post. I’m honored to be here along with Seth, Ramit, and… you. Keep up the excellent work and I hope to see you on the Unconventional Book Tour.

    Yours in World Domination,


    • You bet. And thanks for the inspiration. I can’t think of a greater gift. See you in Birmingham!

    • On
    • October 10, 2010 at 11:57 pm
    • Amy Magnus
    • Said...

    I was wondering how I could work part time the year after my retirement so I could enjoy the family and such. Bonus points if I could forward my research interests. The plan is starting to come together on both counts but, in taking a government position, I feel like I still have training wheels on my bike. When I leave government service to strike out on my own, ah, then I will be brave.

    I love research, I love teaching, I love collaborating especially with artisans. My aspiration is to design digital workspaces… for the scientist in the field, communities, adventurers, children…that are beautiful, evocative and clever.

    • Yes, in some respects, figuring out your life post-government retirement is easier because the finances are less of a concern. On the other hand, the whole wide world is open and that can feel overwhelming. You’re a step ahead because you already have a pretty clear idea of what you like to do with your time. I had to laugh at your “training wheels” analogy. I know exactly what you mean!

      Be brave. Leave the government. It’s so much easier than you think. Just leap.

  6. This is a very good article. I had an “epiphany” when I read your comment about creating a vacuum. Very interesting concept that without a life purpose, we or society create on–earning more money. This is a never ending purpose with no end. Guaranteed to be disappointing and unfulfilled.

    • Chuck,
      Yes, this is why even people aren’t necessarily mainstream thinkers can fall into the trap of focusing on salary and status. It was certainly the case for me. You have to actively insert another goal that’s meaningful in order to escape. The trick is figuring out what that goal really is for you. Takes a lot of introspection and time, but is certainly worth it.

      Nice to “meet” you and I hope we’ll be seeing more of you!

    • On
    • October 17, 2010 at 11:06 pm
    • Lance
    • Said...

    This was wonderful to read! What really grabbed me was this idea of having an epiphany. Really – this is such good material for me to think more deeply about – thanks so much for writing it.

    • Lance,

      You’re most welcome! I haven’t quite figured out how to schedule epiphanies, but I do find that I have them a lot more often since I started making “spunky” a central theme in my life. Most happy this post spoke to you–it’s certainly from the heart.

  7. I am excited about the actual verbage, I am motivated, as I read these exciting blogs, anyone have any advice for me on how to connect to my critical factor desires? Jennifer asked me an honorable question, “What would you do if you had $10,000,000.00?” I said without hesitation, “Move to Hawaii (Oahu i.e Diamond Head) and travel.” So………..now what guys? I would love to travel for a living, yes I said it lol

    • Patience, Elvis, patience! You’re going to have to do a little more introspection than just answer my $10 Million question. First you need to define WHY you think you want to spend your life traveling. What is it, specifically, you’re trying to accomplish? What is it about traveling that makes your heart sing? Travel, in and of itself, is a pretty broad category. And for most, it tends to take money not make it, so you may have to pair it with another activity in order to make it real. It’s important to understand that, because it may involve some trade-offs.

      Then, you need to explore the idea. Is it really right for you? How will you know? Hop over to Karol Gujda’s blog Ridiculously Extraordinary and ask for his help. I met Karol (pronounced Karl) and he is a wonderful mentor and person. You’ll be in good hands to delve into the details of this topic. And tell him I said hello. I miss his company. :)