Making a career transition is never easy — and it may feel impossible when financial responsibilities get in the way. In this piece, the author outlines four steps you can take to take control of your career journey and reshape your trajectory so that, eventually, you’ll end up exactly where you want to be.
Many professionals dream about shifting into a new role or perhaps an entirely new career. Of course, making the case for yourself in a new industry may be challenging, especially if you lack directly relevant experience. But even beyond the obstacle of convincing others to give you a shot, there’s often a larger conundrum: how to pay for it.
Many midcareer or senior professionals have garnered enough experience and seniority to command substantial salaries. And even if your yearly take-home is more modest, it’s still common — between mortgages, tuition, and more — for many professionals to find themselves locked in “golden handcuffs” that require a certain level of income in order to avoid drastic lifestyle cuts. Yet starting over in a new career often necessitates taking a temporary — or, depending on the field, not-so-temporary — pay cut.
As I describe in my book Reinventing You, if you find yourself seeking a change but can’t countenance a salary decrease, here are four things you can do.
Transfer internally — or reinvent your existing job.
We often assume that if we’re unhappy in our current role, the only alternative is to quit. But increasingly, that’s not the case. Employers have long recognized the enormous costs of employee turnover: up to 2x the employee’s annual salary. Especially as resignations spiked in 2021 to a record 47 million voluntary departures, the desire to retain talent intensified. Instead of assuming you’ll need to leave your company, you could start by exploring internal transfers. That way, you’re far more likely to retain your current salary and seniority, even if you’ve shifted to a role where you lack experience.
Depending on the strength of your relationship, you could begin by gently feeling out the situation with your manager or your HR partner. And even if an internal move isn’t possible, you may find ways to add more compelling elements to your current job. For instance, if you’d like to expand your communication skills, you could broach the topic of taking over more team presentation opportunities or starting to write articles for your internal company newsletter or industry journals.
Validate your interests.
If you’ve been dreaming of making a career shift, you may have a clear vision of your new profession. That was the case for one woman I profiled, who dreamed of giving up her desk job for the beauty and creativity of becoming a flower arranger. Her career coach suggested she jobshadow a florist for a day to validate her interest, but the woman demurred. Why bother? She knew she loved flowers, and this was her dream.
But the career coach insisted, so she contacted a sympathetic florist — and ending up leaving at lunchtime, never to return. Why? For a completely unexpected reason: She didn’t realize that arranging fresh flowers required working in cold temperatures, and that was a dealbreaker for her. It’s easy to generate a fantasy in your mind’s eye about what it’d be like to have a different job. But before you take any steps toward making a change, it’s useful to test — through informational interviews, jobshadowing, or reading memoirs from practitioners — whether it’s actually something you’d enjoy.
Start a conversation with the people you’re closest to.
One of the painful ironies I’ve discovered in my research around professional reinvention is that the people many professionals assume would be most supportive — that is, their family and close friends — actually turn out to be the most critical of their plans. A family member not only has self-interest at stake (if you earn less money, they may need to make direct sacrifices), they may also have a genuine and well-intentioned desire to spare you from harm (“But what if it doesn’t work out?”).
If you want to avoid drama and enmity, it’s important to have an upfront, collaborative conversation with the people closest to you who’ll be affected by your decisions. “You know I’ve been interested in exploring other career options,” you might say. “But if I move forward, it’s likely that I won’t be earning the same income. How do you feel about that? Do you have ideas or suggestions about how we might make it work if it seemed like a good idea to pursue that path?”
You may find ways to compromise (“We’ll sell the house, but only when our kids graduate from high school”). Or you may discover they’re more supportive than you imagined (“You’ve been so miserable, you need to leave that job no matter what.”).
Stretch your time horizon.
Many of us assume that a career transition has to be all-or-nothing. But that neglects a crucial tool in our arsenal: nights and weekends. In Reinventing You, I profiled a hairdresser named Patricia Fripp who — over the course of a full decade — reinvented herself into a successful professional speaker. She avoided the (potentially financially ruinous) temptation to quit her job right away and pursue her dream to be a speaker. Instead, over the course of years, she honed her craft, networked, built a reputation, and invested her hairdressing profits in skills development and creating professional resources like a website and speaker reel.
As a result, she never faced an income shortfall. Once the 10-year lease on her salon was up, she simply shuttered the business and stepped into her new career — from which she had more than replaced her original income from hairdressing. It may feel frustrating for the impatient among us. But stretching out your time horizon allows you to find product-market fit, build up a client base, and grow your new business or career without the immediate cashflow pressure that you’d otherwise face — and that freedom to learn and experiment can be transformative.
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Making a career transition is never easy — and it may feel impossible when financial responsibilities get in the way. But by following these strategies, you can begin to take control of your career journey and reshape your trajectory so that, eventually, you’ll end up exactly where you want to be.