Seven Lessons I’ve Learned From Making Unconventional Career Choices

It took me nearly 18-months to land my first full-time job…and less than two-months to quit it.

I knew how silly my decision seemed to the people who cared about me. But I also knew that not only was I miserable, I wasn’t moving closer to my goals. My dream was to be a journalist, and this position was marketing, not media.

That was 12 years ago, and I’ve been freelancing ever since.

Most of that time has been wonderful. I’ve met fascinating people, learned endlessly, and been able to share what I’ve learned. But somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, I fell into a rut. It was a comfortable rut… but I no longer felt excited about my work. I wasn’t telling the stories I was passionate about.

I knew I had to make changes.

I’m always meeting the most amazing and quirky people in the most unlikely places— I wanted to tell their stories. Now I am. But to do that, I’ve had to make some unconventional choices for someone in their mid-30s.

Here are the seven most invaluable lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. Make choices based on your own values, not other peoples

We all have different priorities. For me, flexibility and creative control take precedence over security. For other people stability and a consistent, reliable income may be worth sacrificing some autonomy for. Being an extrovert, I like to talk through my choices. But it’s important to remember that even the most well-meaning friends tend to advise according to their own values.

2. Be careful who you vent to or seek advice from

It’s good to get different perspectives, but often the people who care about you most will encourage fear-based decisions. A dear friend of mine often mentions retirement issues and reminds me that I should be earning and saving more for later. She may be right, and I know she genuinely cares about my wellbeing. But worrying about that will not help me achieve my current goals.

3. Put yourself in a supportive environment

You don’t have to sequester yourself off from everyone who doesn’t think you’re making the right choice, but try to counteract negativity with positive voices. When I transitioned from a combo of part-time work and freelancing to full-time freelance work, I wrote a story on that very topic for a national newspaper. Interviewing people who had successfully made the same transition provided me with a more balanced perspective, lots of encouragement, and the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes.

Making a big career change can be stressful, and it’s easy to become down if the process moves more gradually than you’d like. Don’t give up your social life.  Surround yourself with people who will encourage you to press on. Find online communities.

4. Accept help

Making changes requires support. This year I decided to reduce my paying work load so I could devote more time and energy to creative projects. To do that, I rented out my flat and moved in with close friends in another state who have four young kids under the age of 6. That has been the most humbling help I’ve accepted… Other friends have helped with networking, brainstorming and editing…You can’t do everything on your own. Be grateful and look for ways to give back, but don’t be afraid to accept help.

5. Don’t close yourself off from opportunities

Sometimes a request seems so unlikely to be granted that we are too afraid to ask. Do it anyway. Be confident. Be polite. But ask. I’ve won scholarships and awards I didn’t think I was qualified for. I’ve gained entrance to conferences that were sold out for months and been granted media passes that I was 99% sure I would be denied. If the worst potential outcome is a bruised ego or a simple no, you’ll cope.

6. Give yourself time

I struggle the most with this one, and it’s getting harder as I get older. I feel self-conscious that I should have my career sorted by now. Sometimes I just get impatient or find myself responding in a prickly manner when someone innocently asks how it’s all going. But it’s my issue, not theirs. Big changes take time…sometimes a long time.

7. Let yourself be uncomfortable

It can be stressful taking creative or other types of risks and not knowing whether you’ll get the outcome you hope for.

Learn to see uncertainty as opportunity…even if it is uncomfortable at times!

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