10 Tips for Changing Careers Without Losing Your Mind

May 16, 2013 -

Changing careers could drive anyone out of their mind.

With all the uncertainty, stress and fear that come with the territory, you might be tempted to stay in a less-than-stellar job. But here’s the good news: you can take the leap to a better gig without having your head explode.

Here are 10 tips and tricks to make a successful career change and keep your cool:

1. Facts: get some

When it comes to a career move, ignorance isn’t bliss—it’s anxiety.

Perform due diligence research before committing to a change and you’ll reduce your fear of the unknown to a dull roar. Get online. Talk with people in the field. Try a job shadow. You want to start a new career with your eyes open to the industry realities. Research is your friend.

You will encounter roadblocks and unforeseen sinkholes. But a solid backbone of data and information puts you in a better (and calmer!) place to deal with the unexpected.

2. Question fear

Fear isn’t all bad. It can help you hone your ideas, find flaws in your thinking and prepare you for your next step. Try this exercise to transform anxiety into a productive tool:

  1. Write down any and all fears you have. For instance, you might be worried that changing careers will be too expensive.
  2. Next, turn each fear into a “how” question. For example, “How am I going to pay for my career change?"

This process turns undefined fears into actionable problems that can be broken down into doable chunks.

3. Avoid getting trapped in the passion puzzle

The desire to find your “perfect” career path can be totally paralyzing. But according to Cal Newport, author of Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You, we can all just calm down:

Research shows that the traits that lead people to love their work are general, and can be found in many different career paths. They include things like autonomy, a sense of impact and mastery, creativity, and respect and recognition for your abilities. Once you recognize that these traits have little to do with following a pre-existing passion and can be cultivated in many different fields, you can safely abandon the myth that there's a single right job waiting for you.

4. Practice persistence (in a smart way)

“Persistence is the number one reason for our success” according to entrepreneur Joe Kraus. Most people wouldn’t disagree, but you don’t want to beat your head against a wall, either.

Reaching for absolutely impossible goals—the ones that no amount of hard work can achieve—will guarantee failure. Develop the savvy to differentiate between a temporary barrier and an immovable wall, and you’ll greatly increase your chances of having a calm career transition.

5. Don’t stick your head in the financial sand

“When you start over in a new career, you need to be in good financial health to help smooth your transition,” says Kerry Hannon, a career change expert. “This allows you to try new things without stressing over the initial salary.”

In other words, don’t ignore the numbers in your bank account! Start by creating a basic budget (try a tool like Mint.com) to get a clear picture of what’s within reach. If you’re going back to school, check out what financial aid offerings and tax breaks might be available to you.

6. Run to the end of the block

Running a 10k doesn’t start with a to-do list that says “#1: Run a 10k.”  It doesn’t even start with “#1: Run one mile.” It starts with “#1: Run to the end of the block.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by long-term plans, focus on small projects instead. What are the steps you can take today, tomorrow and the next day to reach your goals? By taking action each day, you can feel more in control and confident.

7. Sweat it out

Working out is usually the last thing you want to do when you’re stressed. But it pays to prioritize a sweat session. Studies have repeatedly proven that upping your heart rate can do miracles for your mood.

No need to become an exercise junkie; even mild exercise (like a 20-minute walk) can boost your endorphin and serotonin levels. This lowers your stress, increases your ability to concentrate and acts as a natural antidepressant. Consider it time well spent.

8. Build relationships

Relationships are at the heart of happiness. “A lot of research shows that higher satisfaction is achieved when there are friendships at work,” Degrees of Transition founder Lea McLeod points out. In fact, many studies have shown that relationships are one of the only external factors that can significantly improve your happiness quotient.

During a career change, your personal support network will become the cheerleaders who keep you going and keep you sane. Your professional network can also become a huge source of energy and advice when the going gets rough.

9. Call a timeout

Career transitions require a lot of hustle. But running yourself into the ground won’t help anyone. Be sure to make time (at least a little bit) to really switch your brain off. Turn your attention to the other aspects of your life—family, fitness, fun—that help you stay happy and healthy.

10. Carve your own yardstick for success

The most traditional measures of success—money, power, fame—are all well and good. But they aren’t the whole picture.

What do you really want? When you picture yourself as a successful person, what do you see? What parts of your life matter most to your version of success?

If you can determine your personal definition of a successful life, you can then design a career change plan that will get you what you really want. It may take longer to get there, but meeting your own standards—rather than somebody else’s—is a formula for lasting satisfaction.

Annie Favreau works for Inside Jobs, a site that helps people discover strong careers and connect with the right education to achieve their goals. Follow her on Twitter at @InsideJobs!