Five Things Not to Do When You're Making a Really Big Change

I'm planning to make a major change in my life but I'm afraid I'm going to make mistakes that will leave me unhappy. How can I increase my chances of getting it right and feel more secure about my fresh start?
Several months into my life change I realize there are some things I wish I had seen before I made my leap. Read on for five suggestions for what not to do and lessons from what I got right.

I left my job as a community college counselor in May of this year. I resigned on Leap Day, following a difficult series of events in my life which left me feeling that this was the sanest, best option.

I'd returned to work three years prior after a leave of absence to finish a journalism master's and, with every semester, things got worse. My environment and I were more at odds every day. The bad looked worse and the good was mostly invisible. I was using my paycheck to fund my writing and photography efforts, a side career to which I couldn't devote the appropriate time and focus because, besides the minimum 40-hour weekly commitment to my job? There was the extra chunk of hours devoted to recovering from, complaining about, and psyching myself up to go back to it every Monday. My health started to suffer, and so did my relationships.

Out out, damned job. Out. In in with this new life, in the new media world that I wanted to go for like I never had before. But how? I just didn't know. It seemed impossible and also stupid to walk away from the stability, but when I made my list of pros and cons, that was the only pro.

It turns out that things have to get pretty bad for me to make the jump, and in February, that is what they got. So I quit, after weeks of agonizing and cashing in listening favors with the people who love me the most that I’ll be paying off until I die.

It is now the start of the first shiny new academic year in a very long time in which I will be neither a student nor a teacher. I have had three months to let the first layer of dust settle on my decision, and I honestly don't know a whole lot more than when I started. But what I can share are a few hints from the very early exits on this road of career change, early, anecdotal knowledge that I've gained mostly by screwing up royally.

I promise you that it’s more helpful than it sounds. Call it counterintuition, or a cautionary tale: these are absolutely the things I know now that I should have done that I didn't, that would have set me up for more success in even the short run of a brand new start.

Laurie White taking photographs

Image Credit:By GoonSquadSarah via Flickr (used with permission)

1. Do not wait until things totally fall apart to make a decision about major life change.

It took me way too long to do what I did, and by the time I did it, I was fried. You? Are probably smarter. I mean it. I’m smart, too, and also fairly intuitive, but I often like to ignore my brain and my gut. I could yell about not seeing a burning bush that told me what to do, but let's face it: there are tiny shrubs on fire at our feet that we step around in our most challenging situations, so we can keep plugging away on our underwhelming path just one more day.

Dear, sweet little creatures of habit, aren't we?

When you start to feel rumbles of discontent? Listen to them. You know you. Sow your seeds. Do your research. Go to therapy. Take some leave. Learn to trust yourself. Act. Do what you can with the resources you have.

My job was my safety net in my mind even more strongly than it was in reality, even though I knew better. A trusted colleague said to me when I returned from my graduate program that he had really hoped I'd find a way to get out and stay out. Hello? I should have heeded that message, because it turns out the people around me were a lot more clear on what needed to happen then I was. Pay attention. Leaves and twigs are on fire all over the place, and it's a lot easier to deal with them before things get really bad.

2. Educate yourself about your worst fears before you leap, especially if it involves your rent and food. I don't know what brings you the most anxiety, but for me it's money. It's a sticky subject that makes me really nervous and talk faster than normal and avert my eyes. Unfortunately it's also rather important and necessary to live. It has come to my attention, in fact, that most establishments will not accept bartering in the form of Yelp reviews, retweets, or beads, to name a few things that I think are perfectly valuable and good.

I made my leap with not nearly the information I needed about my financial situation -- budget, what? Taxes, huh? -- which is partially to blame on my own anxieties, and the final gravity of the situation that I described in #1. I couldn't plan adequately because I was essentially in crisis when the time came to get out or…get out, and I can talk myself into anything when my goal is avoiding immediate pain.

There are things I could have been doing for the past few years to set myself up for better results, but I was afraid of the topic and embarrassed by my situation, so I dragged my feet. This is as much of a drag to research and put into motion as it sounds like. It is confusing and there are lots of people on the other side of many complicated telephone menus who may not make it much easier. I should have done it anyway. I'm doing it now, but it's a lot more difficult. Do it.

3. When you quit, quit. Really. Just stop. I was really enthusiastic about all that lay on the other side of quitting my job, until the first day I didn't have to go to work. I slept late for a few days, and woke up to a raging case of existential panic.

I had nowhere to go. I had all of this time to fill. What in the world was I thinking?

No one tells you the big secret: that you can miss the structure of something, along with its old expectations and anesthetizing comforts, even if you don't miss the contents at all. We are creatures of habit and assumed identities, for real. If not a dissatisfied teacher with a five-minute commute, what was I? I had no idea. So instead of doing what I said I was going to do -- driving south to my happy place on a beach with a book for a week, specifically, to mark the time and clear my head -- I decided that I needed to get busy, right away.

So I took on task after task with no central theme, things I thought I ought to do either because they had financial or networking benefits, or because they sounded fun. It wasn't terrible. Some of the projects went really well, and some of them went...not so well. (It happens.)

There is nothing wrong with trying new things, or with working, obviously. It was simply too much too soon, for me. When I woke up to this a few weeks ago, I realized that I'd burned my way through the summer, through all of the time since my last day, in fact, without a true period of reflection on the 11 years in my job, then focused thinking and active planning of what needed to happen next. I was repeating years-old patterns, already, with a particular nod to self-sabotage that made me very unhappy to recognize.

So I slowed down. I'm getting serious about the infrastructure. I'm revisiting my initial plans and what excited me about this in the first place. It's more difficult, but it's less panic-inducing, for sure.

4. If you want things to change, you have to do things differently. I said I was busy, but mostly in familiar territory. I generally surf the same websites, obsess over the same grocery lists, and wonder about similar things in the same time frame every day. Quitting my job didn't guarantee new opportunities were going to come my way. I know that I need to use my newfound control over my time to cultivate new connections and build new habits.

I cannot sit in the same spot and expect change to come to me, which doesn't mean that I want to move. Comfort is...comforting, but it doesn't serve growth or change. It turns out that the idea that we only use ten percent of our brains may not be so true, but I need to use my hundred percent just a little bit differently than I have since May. Shaking it up to a different tempo is turning out to be crucial, so I'm trying to reach out to people in different industries and different places, with new ideas and offers. So far, so good. I'm still working on this one. Change is hard! (But necessary. Do something new today. I will if you do.)

5. Seriously? Give yourself a break. Kicking yourself around for doing any of the dumb things I just told you I did will not serve you. It hasn’t served me, which is why I’m going to stop right now. No one embarks upon major, voluntary life change without a certain measure of discomfort, because it is hard. Objects in mirrors are indeed larger than they appear, but they don't have to loom over your shoulder and freak you out, either. Remind yourself of the good stuff and what you do right, too. It helps.

So what have I done right?

I have gotten out of the house every day, pretty much. I have admitted when I've been wrong, and immediately tried to correct my course. I've tried several new things, already, with varying results. I have worked really hard. I've surrounded myself with positive risk takers, people who, even though they may have thought I was crazy to do what I've done, have been willing to hang out with me and talk me through some of the more difficult parts of what is really just the beginning. I am learning to ask for help, because I need it.

We all make mistakes and we all do astoundingly correct things, too. Do -- or don't do, I love free will! -- these things I’ve suggested in good health, and let me know how it works out.

Just know that if you're staring into the fluorescent light of a really tough decision related to changing your work and your life? I get it. Don't wait. Plan. Make space for your brain to work better, change for good, and, yes -- try, try again.

What fresh start do you want to make? What do you need to do the most to make sure it's successful?

Laurie White is a writer, editor, and photographer -- and probably also always a teacher, like it or not. Find her online at LaurieWrites, and on Twitter @lauriewrites.

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