Unhappy With Being “Locked In”? Here’s a Strategy for Building a New Career Path

Recently, one of my family members gave me a copy of the wonderful book The Nighttime Novelist. It was a little more than an obvious hint – this family member really believes that I have some interesting novels inside of me and she wants to read them.

While the book has a lot of good writing tactics, the part that really made it stand out for me was the overall sense of career encouragement. After all, many of the people who would read a book like this one are people who dream of becoming writers but find it difficult to make room for it in their busy life. The Nighttime Novelist focuses quite a bit on that problem – I mean, the title itself is a big hint – but the advice goes way beyond merely being a novelist.

Let’s start by looking at the core problem and then move on to solving it.

The Dream of a Different Career or Business

The problem is deeply related to the idea of “lock in.” As was discussed a few days ago in the discussion of Jacob Lund Fisker’s book Early Retirement Extreme, many people reach a sense of “lock-in” after a certain point in their professional lives.

Typically, people go to college after high school and complete a degree in some area of study, usually accumulating student loans along the way. At such a young age, it’s often hard to really know what you should be studying, but you have to choose an area of study, so you’re “locked in.”

At that point, you have training for a career path that offers better pay than what you could get otherwise and you’re burdened with student loan debt (and maybe credit card debt), so you go into that career path.

You then find yourself a few years later working in a career path you find that you don’t really like (because you were forced to choose it when you were too young to make a good choice). You’re still facing debt. The only strong professional contacts you have are in your current career path. Your resume mostly only has value in your current career path.

Basically, you’re “locked in.” It is quite hard at that point to change gears and go elsewhere (unless a job loss or something forces that to happen).

Still, people have dreams. They dream of a different career. They dream of having a side business – or a full-time business – doing whatever it is they’re truly excited about doing.

This almost perfectly describes me several years ago. It also almost perfectly describes quite a few people I know ranging from folks in their mid-twenties to people in their fifties.

Making It Happen

How do you go from that state of “lock-in” to building a side business or a path to a new career? There are three ingredients you really need above all else: time, focus, and a plan.

You Have to Give Up Something (Time)

For most people, time seems like the real obstacle. Where can that time possibly come from? Let me just throw two facts your way.

The average American watches five hours of television a day.

The average American spends more than three hours online a day.

Add those together and you have eight hours per day that’s used just surfing the web or watching television.

I’m going to argue that most people only need two hours a day to start building a side business or a second career, so the average American would only need to lose a quarter of their television and internet time.

My solution to this problem, back when I fully committed to the dream of writing full time, was to basically eliminate television from my diet. The only television I watched was commercial-free television series and movies watched with Sarah. Honestly, since then, television has never really returned to the picture in a large way.

That simple change has given me plenty of time for all kinds of personal projects. I generally spend my evenings working on personal projects rather than watching television and I don’t really feel like I miss a thing.

Alternately, you can try waking up two hours earlier than before and then spend those two hours in the early morning working on your project. This will likely force you into an earlier bedtime in the evenings, which can work just fine for some people.

You Have to Build an Environment (Focus)

So, you’ve found space for two hours a day. For those two hours to be useful, you need to use those hours in a focused way.

I have a “working” desk at home that, when I’m there, I’m working. I usually turn off all distractions such as my cell phone and my internet connection and I close the door leading to that room. I don’t want distractions during that time.

During that period, my goal is to slip into a “zone” where I lose track of time because I’m so engrossed in what I’m doing and, if that happens, I stay in that “zone” for as long as it lasts. If I find that I’m not quite clicking today for some reason, I’ll stop and vigorously exercise for about five minutes. It seems to work wonders for my focus.

But what am I focusing on?

You Have to Be Headed in a Positive Direction (A Plan)

When I’ve decided on a project – say, writing a novel – I’ll usually spend several evenings working on a plan for that project. I don’t just sit down and start writing. I create an outline, some character sketches, and so on.

This is true for almost any project. What exactly do you need to do to reach the goal you have before you?

The first step is research. Spend some time figuring out what actually needs to be done to achieve your goal. What’s involved in writing a novel? What’s involved in making wooden rocking chairs? What’s involved in training to become a nurse? What’s involved in becoming a contract-based computer programmer?

What skills do you need? What education do you need? What things do you need to accomplish? What are the milestones you’ll need to reach along the way?

Once you know those things, assemble them into a plan. Figure out the steps you need to follow and list them in a sensible order. If a step seems really big and kind of overwhelming, chop it down into smaller pieces – a list of smaller steps that result in the completion of that bigger step.

That list is your checklist. It’s always telling you what to do with those two hours of focus.

Don’t Worry About Profit – Worry About Skill

If you focus on building your skills and creating good stuff, profit will eventually be a natural side effect. People will always pay for skill and talent and quality.

Generally, you build skill that people want by doing. That means, as soon as you can, you should be applying the skills you’re learning to real projects that produce some sort of product – a blog, a book, videos, whatever.

Another useful strategy is to start sharing the products of your skill once you start producing quality results. If you make an excellent drawing, share it. If you make an amazing web app, share it. If you make a beautiful rocking chair, share pictures of it.

Similarly, share your own skills as they grow. Use your new skills for a volunteer project. What you’ll find is that not only do those skills help out that project and the project helps you exercise your skills, this experience becomes the first lines on your resume for your next career.

In my experience, if profit isn’t coming easily, then you just need to keep honing your skills, work on projects of your own design, and volunteer your skills for good causes. When your skills reach a high level, people will start coming to you in a trickle and, when that happens, you’re ready to turn this into a real business.

Final Thoughts

It’s simple. The best path out of a “lock in” situation is to build your skills in a new area and use those skills to launch a side business. Sometimes, that side business will blossom into a new full-time career; at other times, it’ll just be a new income stream which complements what you’re doing.

In either case, it helps knock away many of the shackles that are around you. You’re no longer solely reliant on your current job or even on your current career path. You’re also earning more than you were before, making it easier to eliminate debt.

All it takes is time, focus, and a plan. Are you ready?

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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