A few days ago, I had a long conversation with an old friend about a difficult career decision he was facing. He needed to decide whether or not to take a sizeable career risk, but he also had a family at home.
I essentially advocated for him not to take the risk, mostly because I didn’t feel that his family would handle the potential downside of that risk very well.
In other words, if that career risk failed, he didn’t have a safety net to land on. He would be without a job and without a significant amount of money in the bank, which is a sticky place for someone to be in particularly if they have a family.
There are times where people need to take some career risk. Without some level of career risk, you can never advance. You can never bolster your resume. You’ll likely never be able to significantly increase your income level. He recognized this, but he also recognized his other responsibilities in life.
This conversation left me thinking deeply about the challenge of balancing the need for taking some career risks against the need to maintain a secure family life.
I faced this challenge once before in my life. I took a rather large career risk in leaping to full-time writing, and in doing so, I did some things quite right and I did other things wrong.
What did I learn from that experience? What would I do differently if I were to take that kind of leap all over again?
First, recognize that opportunities for career change can strike out of the clear blue sky. I had long given up on the idea that writing could be a viable career path for me and mostly had resorted to writing as a hobby until The Simple Dollar exploded in popularity almost out of nowhere. My previous career path was the result of someone I hadn’t seen in a while knocking on my door and telling me I should meet with a friend of theirs.
These things happen out of the blue. You can’t expect them. You can’t plan for them with some sort of firm date for serendipity. It just doesn’t work that way.
Because you don’t know when or what these kinds of opportunities will look like, you should plan as though that opportunity is going to happen tomorrow. What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning and someone offered you a path straight to your dream job, but it meant a few years of much lower pay? What would you do if Monday morning brought you a potential promotion to manage a very challenging project, but you knew that if you failed, you’d probably wind up lower on the totem pole than where you started? Would you be ready?
Probably not, unfortunately, which means that you need to start preparing for those things today.
The first real step you can take is to always keep a healthy emergency fund around. This is money you can rely on if your job falls apart or if you find yourself taking a lower rate of pay.
You should also focus on complete debt freedom. This should be a key priority for anyone who wants to be able to successfully take on career risk. The lower your monthly required expenses, the easier it is to stomach a choice that can introduce significant income risk.
The next thing you should do is treat your spare time as prep time for your dream job. Whatever it is you’d love to be doing with your time, do it in your spare time.
Want to be a football coach? Volunteer as an assistant for your local high school football team. Want to be a broadcaster? Take classes in broadcasting, then volunteer and take internships at places where you can ply your skills. Want to be a writer? Write. Every day.
No matter what your dream job is, there’s something you can be doing each and every day to hone the skills you’ll need for that job. If you want to be prepared to take a leap into a dream career path should that opportunity happen, spend your time making sure your skills are ready for that leap.
A final step: work on your transferable skills in your current workplace. Get well practiced at project management, time management, information management, and communication skills. Take leadership opportunities where you’ll be building skills that would be useful in lots of career paths. Almost every “dream job” out there requires people to be good at managing projects, managing time, managing information, and communicating clearly and effectively.
If you take care of those four things, you’ll be ready to take on career risk when the time comes. Not only will your personal finances be secure and be prepared for the leap, you’ll personally be ready to handle that new opportunity with drastically reduced risk.