Sarah quit her advertising job and became an organic farmer. Tom quit banking and became a biker. Kat left a career in PR and became a horticulturist.
This famous site and countless books on bestseller lists are full of stories like this. So ubiquitous is the trend that two friends of mine recently decided to write a spoof titled “How to Quit Your Job and Start a Vegan Bakery.”
To be sure these are inspiring stories. They make us hope and dream. And I support anyone who is dissatisfied with desk jobs and corporate gigs and is now thinking of other options. But my advice is to take the time to understand your specific situation before you do anything purely because “it feels right” or because “it’s a childhood dream.”
And don’t do it because everyone else is. Don’t do it because the neighbour’s second cousin and Aunt Maggie’s daughter are doing it, and it sounds so easy. Even people who are relatively happy in their jobs think something is wrong with them because everywhere they go they are bombarded with “How I quit my day job and started a million-dollar leaf-raking business.”
It just makes people feel bad that they are not able to open their own magazine-cover-worthy high-end coffee shop or yoga studio tomorrow, when the truth is it’s simply unrealistic because they have a mortgage, a baby, an unemployed partner, a need for health insurance, or all of the above.
Check Your Motivations
The first question to ask and answer, with meticulous honesty, is, Why do you want to do this, and why now? Do you want to leave a long-term career to pursue what you know to be a real passion of yours? Do you plan to do something you already do in your spare time, something you know for a fact you are skilled at? There is nothing worse than chucking it all in to launch a food blog (because you love food! and you know so much about food!), but then discovering that you don’t have the patience or the discipline to sit still and actually write for eight hours a day, or take endless photographs of food, or go to events and network like crazy to generate revenue for your business.
Most people daydream about other careers because they are simply unhappy in their lives, and “anything is better than this discontent.” People visualise running a bed and breakfast in Bali as an escape from the dreary tasks at hand today. They don’t see that there will be many more dreary tasks involved in running that B&B in Bali.
Fantasy as an escape from pain is common. Sometimes I think there is no worse pain in this world than the slow, monotonous, daily kind—I am guessing that’s why they call it the “daily grind.” It is an unpleasant feeling and an entirely valid one to have. But it is best to deal with this angst through other means than a wild career swing that just might take you down a worse dead-end road than the one you think you are on right now.
Are You Really Serious? Test Yourself!
Here are some quick tests that I have used with clients in the “Should I quit my stable but uninspiring law/banking/corporate job to pursue X,Y, Z?” bucket. These held true across a diverse cross-section of ages, jobs, and aspirations.
Test 1. When you think of quitting your job, do you think of many colourful and fun passions that you could pursue, or one serious thing that you see yourself dedicated to for some consistent period of time, with a clear exit strategy? In my experience, people who make a successful switch are focused on one thing. They know what they want, and their seriousness is evident in their actions. Consider the difference in these two examples:
Take Jane: 20-something, smart, successful—at least on the outside, as evidenced by her prestigious career at an international bank. She is creative and dreams alternatively of being a photographer, an event planner, or a pastry chef. She googles these career paths, among other things, during work time, but does not take any action in her spare time toward them. At work, she is understandably unmotivated. Therefore, she procrastinates and often misses deadlines.
Now take Sarah—30-something, street smart, and currently a lawyer, a job that pays her bills. She has been doing theatre and standup comedy for many years, a passion that has stood the test of time. Over the last year, while keeping her day job, she’s been using her evenings and weekends to work on a project that is grabbing her heart and mind: creating an online platform for scouting talent in the performing artist business so that people like her can get discovered.
Do you see the difference? My take is that more is going on with Jane than the career angst that is appearing on the surface. She is nowhere close to knowing what she really wants from her life, let alone making a wild jump into any of the things that she believes will solve her problem. Sarah, on the other hand, is already working on one clear thing that she is demonstrating is her true passion.
Test 2. What is your primary direction of movement? Are you mostly moving away from or toward something? The factor that should be driving your decision is not unhappiness over the old job, but happiness for the new endeavour. While there are usually elements of both, the primary motion should be one where you are moving toward a defined thing you love, while feeling neutral toward what you are leaving. Contrast this to where the primary motion is moving away from a thing you hate, while fumbling toward something undefined.
And the Biggest Test of All…
If you are really serious about the vegan bakery, or the online community marketplace, or the latest great idea for a startup, then you will likely do it under whatever circumstances you are currently in. You’ll keep the job and do it outside of work hours. You’ll do it evenings and weekends. You’ll make it work.
Virtually everyone I know who was dead serious about their business or non-profit idea first did it while keeping their day jobs. They did it working evenings and weekends until they got to a point where it made sense to take that leap of faith. The day job and paycheck are seen as resources to bootstrap the new venture in the most optimal, steady, and sustainable way.
Think of it like this: It is like a parent with a child—you do whatever it takes, with love, and you tolerate anything to make it happen. You grow it and take care of it.
Anyone who has started his or her own business and has been successful at it for more than one year will tell you that it is very hard work. It requires fortitude, perseverance, and a steely determination. It means sticking with it, and having sufficient confidence to not be swayed by others’ opinions. If you don’t have these qualities now, then you won’t suddenly get them by osmosis once you’ve quit your job. So, if you are serious, develop them now. Develop them while you are on the job and can still take some risks.
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