4 Steps to Making a Successful Career Change

Most of us dream of making changes in our lives, of reinventing ourselves and our careers. But financial considerations, the anxiety of the unknown, and fear of failure often prevent us from going for it.

Change is hard—and it’s scary. But it’s also well within our grasp.

Author Joanne Lipman spoke to hundreds of people who have made successful career pivots, and interviewed researchers and scientists who have studied big transitions and transformations. To her surprise, she discovered that most career changes follow a similar pattern that can be broken down into steps, which she maps out in her new book “Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work.”

Photo by: Gannett

Lipman’s also walked the walk. In her own career, she transitioned from being editor-in-chief of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal Weekend Journal into a bestselling author and speaker.

I spoke to her for the podcast Write About Now about the steps, what she calls the 4 S’s — search, struggle, stop, and solution.

Related: Considering Entrepreneurship After a Successful Corporate Career? Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know.

1. The search

All career changes begin with a search to do something different.

“This is when you start collecting information about where you’re actually going to end up,” Lipman says. “The cool thing about this search phase is that almost everybody I interviewed didn’t realize they were searching. It was totally unintentional.”

She cites the example of a telephone repairman, Chris Donovan, who sketched pictures of women’s shoes in his spare time. He drew these designs for years (for fun) until his husband discovered them and encouraged Donovan to pursue his love of shoe design as a new career. The result was Chris Donovan Footwear, a successful woman’s luxury fashion shoe brand.

When determining your career change, take stock of your interests and passions and try not to overthink them by weighing every pro and con. Instead, trust your gut, Lipman says.

“People who successfully switch careers,” she says, “often cite the power of gut instinct.”

And research backs that up. In one study, British and Turkish students were asked to predict the winner of a British soccer match. The Turks, who knew nothing about the teams, were just as accurate in their predictions as the Brits. Why? Because they didn’t overanalyze all the factors —such as injuries, previous scores, and player stats — they just went with their instincts.

Lipman suggests shadowing someone who does what you’d like to do and take notes. Write down your goals and thoughts. Research shows that taking simple actions will help execute your vision.

2. The struggle

This is the toughest stage of any career change and can last an uncomfortably long time.

“It’s when you’re disconnecting yourself from your previous identity, but you haven’t quite figured out the identity where you are going to land,” says Lipman.

But this struggle is also the most critical phase of your transformation. You’ve made the transition but are not seeing success soon enough—maybe ever.

Lipman says one way to manage the stress of the struggle phase is to remain nimble.

“People who turn failure into success do it in increments. Instead of throwing up their hands and throwing it out, they actually iterate and iterate and iterate,” she says. “They tweak, adjust, and fiddle after every flameout.”

3. The stop

The struggle leads you to the third phase of change—the stop.

Lipman describes this as “either something that you may choose, like, “I’m quitting my job.” Or it might be something thrust on you, like, “I got laid off from my job,” or there was an illness or a divorce in my family.”

Lipman tells the story of Marla Ginsburg, a former TV producer whose career and investments were wiped out after the 2007 television writer’s strike and the 2008 recession. She began a second career as a fashion designer, which was going fine until her son was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This was her stop.

“She was in Amsterdam, only focused on her son and his treatments,” Lipman explains. “It was the weirdest thing she said because of the change in scenery plus the absolute stopping in her tracks. She suddenly had this creative spurt. She came up with this idea for her brand, which is called MarlaWynne.”

It’s one of the top brands on QVC and HSN, with revenues topping $60 million, according to Forbes.

4. The solution

The final chapter of your career change journey marks the beginning of a whole new chapter in your life.

The solution is when everything leading up to this point—the search, the struggle, the stop— coalesces, and you know what you have to do.

The solution is the answer.

Lipman talks about mega-writer James Patterson (Along Came a Spider), who worked in the advertising industry until he was 50. But Patterson always harbored fantasies of being a full-time novelist (the search). He published a few books and mostly got terrible reviews (the struggle), but he was honing his craft and hesitant to quit his day job.

Then he had an “aha moment.” He was stopped (literally) in terrible traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, returning home from his beach house on a Sunday night.

“He’s looking on the other side of the road, and it’s “whoosh, whoosh”— all these other cars going back to the beach,” Lipman explains. And he said, ‘I’m on the wrong side of the road. I gotta get to the other side.’ He returned to New York, quit his job, and that was when he said, “I’m a writer.”

That solution earns him $60 million a year.

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