Remember the British comedy, “Monty Python's Flying Circus”? Somehow I ignored the Monty Python rage when it was happening. Which is unfortunate, because the sense of having missed something made me vulnerable to a late-night ad promoting the complete set of episodes.
And the other result? I finally get the joke when people say things like, “And now for something completely different.”
That trademark comment came to mind the other day when speaking with a woman who had abandoned one career path for another, seemingly overnight. One minute she's a suit-wearing professional with a bright future and the next? Bar owner, responsible for everything from mixing drinks to washing floors.
And if some of the switches were designed to find more meaningful work, still others stand out for the opposite reason: The individual wanted a simple job.Perhaps the first person I knew who went this route was a super-computer engineer from the 1980s who decided to “retire” into a job as a school janitor where he could be assured of no travel, no late-night phone calls, and a steady shift ending at 2 each day. He was quite happy with his decision, even if I had trouble understanding it at the time. By now he's almost certainly retired for good but when I have a particularly tough day at work I find myself wondering if I could borrow his mop.
In reviewing the abrupt career changes I've seen over the years, I've noticed a few patterns, or prototypes if you will. First, there's the “downshifter” – the individual who wants less of something. Less hassle, less prestige, fewer hours, etc. Then there's the “seeker” who wants more of something – more prestige, more meaning, more pay. The “individualist” wants a shot at doing things his or her own way, while the “change addict” just needs to shake things up every few years.
Sometimes the process is prompted by a layoff or a voluntary exit from a particularly difficult position. For the most part, I've come to respect that these sudden career changes are usually less abrupt than they seem. Often the plan has been brewing awhile, leading to small steps the worker didn't recognize at the time as preparation for change.
But not everything happens at the subconscious level. When asked for advice on intentionally leaping between two unconnected paths, I'll give some version of this very well-tested process: Stabilize your finances, prepare for failure as well as success, test the waters to ensure you like the work, listen to doubts (yours and others') only sparingly, hold your breath and jump.
Ideas for the new career itself can come from almost anywhere, including assessments, conversations with friends, a search through early journals and letters, and even popular culture.
In general, if someone is itching to make a move I'm going to support the idea. My only real caution? Don't choose your next career from a late-night television ad or you could end up with something more costly than a cabinet full of Python tapes.