Not too long ago, I jumped ship from an office job and career path that was great, but not my passion. I took a huge risk to follow my dream, and learned a lot of lessons along the way. If you’re thinking about following your dream or doing what you love, here are some tips to keep in mind before you do it, and some of my mistakes to learn from.
I used to be a project manager in a healthy, growing company. The commute wasn’t bad, I was good at what I did, I had room to grow, and I had great coworkers. Of course, the money was good too.
The trouble with this whole setup was that while I was happy with my work, I wasn’t happy doing it. What I really wanted to do was write. On nights and on weekends, I had been freelancing on the side, and building my own portfolio of work. It was nice — I had some spare cash on the side as well as a full-time salary.
When changes came to my regular job and I had to ride it out, find another job doing project management, or take the risk of my life and try to write full-time, I naturally chose to leave everything I knew behind, take a significant pay cut, and do what I always wanted to do. Naturally.
Here are some of the lessons I learned, and some of the things I wish I knew beforehand. If you’re thinking about quitting your job to follow your passion, hopefully you’ll be well prepared.
Is Following Your Dream Realistic?
I’m not going to romanticise this. Giving up security for your dream — especially if you give up money to do it — is difficult. I made it work, but it took sweat, sleepless nights, and a lot of luck and privilege. It’s not right for everyone. There are some people for whom taking a leap like this will work, others who’ll need to do more planning than I did, and still others for whom this just won’t work ever, and I realise that.
A couple of things to keep in mind when you’re even considering quitting your day job to do something you love:
- Do you have responsibilities that keep you from taking a risk? This is the number one consideration for most people. Do you have children? Are you rooted in a specific place? Do you have a lot of debt that makes a change — or a pay cut — impossible? I was lucky; I’m young, I don’t have kids. I’m mobile, and my new job is flexible geographically. I don’t have debt that took options off the table. I’m not saying you have to be like me here, but I acknowledge I came from a good starting position, one a lot of people don’t enjoy.
- Are you willing to take a pay cut? Switching careers, or just taking your dream job, almost always comes with sacrifices. Often, this means a pay cut, which will take some changes to a life you’re comfortable with. If your lifestyle demands a dollar amount and you can’t earn it, even if you’d love what you do, it’s probably not a good idea. You have to be willing to make sacrifices.
- Are you OK turning your dream into work? They call it work for a reason. When I was writing in my spare time and at nights, I loved every minute of it — every article I wrote was fun. When you have to do that for work, it becomes something else; something necessary, whether you’re feeling creative or not. You have to get up and go to work even if you don’t want to. Work comes with other baggage that can suck the fun out and distract you from the thing you love. You have to be prepared for that — and if you’re worried that any of them will ruin your dream job for you, you either need to be ready to roll with the punches, or reconsider.
- How well do you handle stress and risk? Turning your dream into your day job, especially taking a pay cut to do it, is going to wreck you. You’ll be in love with your work, but taking a pay cut will keep you up some nights. You’ll miss your old lifestyle sometimes. You’ll think about what you could afford if you made that old money. You’ll freak out about lower bank account balances than you’re used to. Eventually, you’ll settle into things and relax, if it works out. Be ready for that stress, and make sure you have coping mechanisms to handle it.
- Will you have the support of people you love? No one makes a huge change like this in a vacuum. If you have a spouse, partner, children or extended family, make sure they’re on board, or at least supportive of your choice. If they’re not, that’s not a reason to give up, but it is a reason to hear them out and make sure you’re not missing something. Besides, you’ll need their moral support (hopefully not financial support) later if it all goes to hell.
- Can you actually make this work, or are you just rationalising? It’s easy to speculate that “well, if I do this, and then if that happens, and this goes there, I can make this all work out”, but we all know reality is more complicated. When you start thinking about whether you can handle a pay cut, or whether your new career will suck the life out of your passion, make sure you’re thinking in realities and not self-justification. Don’t be blinded by optimism bias; bounce your thoughts off of someone else you trust to be objective, even if it means telling you what you don’t want to hear.
- What’s the worst that can happen? Seriously. It’s often a flippant question, but you need to think about the absolute worst-case scenario, and plan backwards from there. If “following your dream” full time is going to put your out on the street, break up your relationship, hurt your family, send you bankrupt, and make you hate that passion, maybe you should consider embracing your passion in a different way. Be realistic — you’ll have plenty of time to be optimistic later. Right now, you need to make sure you’re not planning your eventual ruin.
I strongly recommend you write all of this down so you can return to it later. Your answers may change with time, and what’s a bad idea now may be a good idea later after talking to your spouse or family — what you can’t make work may be flexible with the help of someone else, and your loved ones may be willing to help you embrace your dream. Then again, you may think everything makes sense, and then return to your answers only to realise you’ve been too optimistic. Once you’ve finished giving yourself the third degree, it’s time to plan your next move.
Plan, Plan And Plan Some More
A lot of people will tell you that you should “follow your gut” or obey your instincts. If a pay cut is involved, and your dream is on the line, that’s the last thing you should do. I’m not saying you should distrust your judgement, but don’t act blindly if you don’t have to. Foresight and planning are your best friends.
Don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis either — you don’t want to be so stuck trying to figure things out that opportunity passes you by. Just don’t use “opportunity knocking” as an excuse to jump without looking. No one who’s ever taken a calculated risk and made it work ever kicked themselves for planning too much.
Prep Yourself for Lifestyle Changes
Run the numbers, consider the changes you’ll need to make, then run the numbers again. We’re talking about a pay cut, so make sure you can work with whatever income you’ll have. If you’re planning to be a freelancer, this is even more complicated. You need to make sure you have a stable of clients paying regularly so your bills get paid, or savings to cover you when the checks are "in the mail." If it's a full-time gig, make sure you'll be able to get the bills paid without resorting to subsidising your lifestyle with credit, or giving up on important things like saving for the future. If I could do it over again, I would have socked away way more money in retirement savings when I had the opportunity.
If you need to make changes, like downsizing to a smaller home, trimming back services, or giving things up, be ready mentally and emotionally (and make sure everyone else in your household is too). Also be ready for the costs that come with those changes. If you have to move, moving costs money. Too much stuff? You can either sell it, trash it, or store it — which costs money. Don’t overlook the other costs that are just as important — entertainment, incidentals, emergency funds, debt repayment. Remember, you’re working to live. Don’t give up that life. Make sure your budget can handle everything and do whatever you can to trim your monthly expenses.
Get Ready For New, Different Expenses
Your new job will likely come with its own expenses. Switching from project management — which in my case didn’t really cost me anything beyond software, membership in the PMI, and my certification — to writing meant I had to invest in things I hadn’t really bothered with before. I needed to set up a home office. I needed communication tools like a decent webcam and microphone, portable batteries so I could work on the go, back up and mobile internet access, luggage to travel with — and I needed it all on less money than I was making before.
In my case, I was lucky that many of my expenses dropped too, but you should budget for those new expenses (especially if your job won’t pay for them). Living on less means you have to get creative about where you get those things, too — buying refurbished gear, used office supplies, and DIY-ing your own solutions are all money savers. Look around for ways you can save now — before you make your jump — so you’re prepared. Find local discount stores, charity shops, online retailers that sell used gear, surplus stores, discount office supply stores, and so on. Get your DIY hands dirty. Even if you’re not taking a big pay cut to follow your dream, you’ll appreciate the extra money in your pocket.
Plan for Balance, And Get New Hobbies
The problem with turning your passion into a job is that you’ll wind up doing it every day. If your passion was something you did in your spare time — like it was for me — you’ll find yourself sinking more time into your work than you probably intend to. Remember, even if you love your work, you’re still working to live, not living to work. Enforce your boundaries and pull yourself away, or else your passion will turn to poison. Make sure you recharge your batteries, spend time with family, and actually enjoy the life you’ve risked it all to have.
Similarly, get yourself some new hobbies and interests. Use the time you now don’t spend on your job to find new side gigs or interests. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a language, or you finally have time to hit the gym every day. Maybe your dream job is more demanding than expected, and you need a new hobby just to take the edge off. Whatever it is, find it. Otherwise your dream job will start eating up the rest of your life, and while you may enjoy the work, you won’t enjoy working all the time.
Make Your Move
If you’ve made sure that following your dream is realistic, and you’ve done all of your homework, it’s time to execute. You’ve done all of your planning, you’ve run the numbers, you’ve made the lifestyle changes required, and you’re ready for more if they should come down the line. The rest is a matter of doing — that’s not to say it will be easy, but at this point it’s all in the details. You’ll have to adapt to changes and roll with the punches, but here are some things to keep in mind.
Commit Yourself, But Don’t Limit Yourself
Commit yourself to your decision. Don’t doubt yourself — this is your dream, and you’ve planned for it. Give it your all — but don’t burn any bridges on your way. Your old coworkers and managers may not be in your new field, but they’re still important people in your history, great references to your skills and character, and your work with them is likely on your resume.
Keep in touch with the people who helped you along the way, or worked with you when your dream job was just a side gig. See where you can help them if they need it, and make yourself available to them. Keep looking for more side gigs, just to keep your professional network strong. You’re starting out in a new career — possibly at the bottom of an industry — you’ll need all the help and contacts you can get. You should also take every opportunity to build your personal empire. Promote yourself and make a name for yourself in your new position. Remember, every job is temporary, even your dream job. Make sure all of your options are open — forward and back.
Be Ready To Go Back If The Party Ends
Your dream job may be just that — a job, not a career. Maybe it won’t be all it’s made out to be and it will lose its lustre. Maybe you’ll love every minute of it, but circumstances will change. Whatever it is, be ready to fall back on your old skills if you have to. Don’t feel bad — you did something that very few people ever do in their lives. Don’t fear failure. The ride has just run its course and it’s time to get off.
The nice thing about making a career change is that, as long as you keep your skills sharp from your old job and stay up to date on what’s happening in that industry, you can jump back at any time. If you have professional certifications or are a member of a professional society, that’s even better. Keep your ear to the ground in your old job, and make sure you’re familiar with changes in your old field. You never know when you’ll need to fall back on those skills. Hopefully you never will, but if you do, you’ll be glad you’re well versed in your old language.
Enjoy It, But Keep Your Eyes Forward
Few people ever say they’re glad they never took risks; that they’re happy they never got a chance to do what they wanted to do. In my case, it took a lot of planning, some significant changes, and a lot of sleepless nights. Even so, I managed to make it work. If you think — even remotely — that you can manage to make it work, go through the motions. Set up your hypothesis, and gather the evidence required to support — or refute — it. Test it, examine it, see if it would work. Try to live on less, plan out how you could make the transition, ease into it by building up a little secondary income, and then cut the safety cable and fly free.
Keep your eyes forward though. Landing your dream job is great! As much as I take issue with Scott Adams’ “advice” to not follow your dream, he does have one point — reaching your goal can leave you feeling empty. Don’t stop dreaming — think about what you want to do after your dream job. What’s your next goal or aspiration? What do you want to do after you’re “living the dream?” Don’t worry that it might not last forever, or that you may eventually need to get off the ride and go back to what you’re familiar with. It’s better to have done it for a while, made it work, and then returned to your comfort zone when you needed to than never having done any of it at all. It very well may be the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done.