Abrupt career changes happen for various reasons

Remember the British comedy “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? Somehow I ignored the Monty Python rage when it was happening, even though my friends raved about the show. Which is unfortunate, because the sense of having missed something made me vulnerable to a late-night ad promoting the complete set of episodes.

Net result? A cabinet full of television reruns that acquired critical mass before I had the wit to cancel the weekly mailing.

And the other result? I finally get the joke when people say things like, “And now for something completely different.” That’s the segue used by pseudo-anchorman John Cleese to introduce skits in the show.

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.

Our conversation got me thinking about all the abrupt career changes I’ve witnessed over the years and the sense of unleashed freedom the workers seemed to feel when they simply jettisoned one career for another.

Some of these stories involved the almost-cliched switch from corporate executive to seriously-small business owner, but not all included a leap to self-employment. In fact, a few of these folks exited their own businesses to enter careers as teachers or paramedics.

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, with no pressing decisions or complex learning to overtax the day.

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.

The processes people use also follow some patterns. Some will think about a change for several years before finally taking the leap. Others will simply jump off the career cliff and hope for the best. A very logical middle ground is a steady ramp-up from one career to the next, facilitated by a related side business, or even a training program.

Sometimes the process is prompted by a layoff or a voluntary exit from a particularly difficult position.

Of course, I’ve also spoken with people who regret jumping from one thing to the next like a kid on a pogo stick. Mainly they rue not having a master plan driving the changes, which resulted in leaving situations before making enough effort to succeed.

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 expensive than a cabinet full of Monty Python tapes.

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Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.