Many of us have experienced that moment when we question our career choice and start considering alternatives. It's natural, and our intuition is often right. When it's time to make a career change, a lot of us will hesitate and muddle ahead doing something we don't enjoy. Why don't we make the jump? Because fear gets in the way and prevents us from making a decision we know is right. How do you get over the fear of making such a big change?
I'm in a good position to talk about this as I've made two very significant career switches so far: I trained (and practised) as a medical doctor, left medicine to become a video game developer (jointly founding BioWare) and most recently retired from gaming to pursue a digital media career focused on beer (at The Beer Diaries). Obviously these are massive life changes, and I can certainly say in retrospect they were big, scary choices. But I wouldn't alter any of them. If I didn't make that first move out of medicine and into video games, I'd regret it today. I was much more scared of being cooped up in a medical office for the rest of my life than exploring the unknown territory of a new career in video games.
Fear is a funny thing -- it's both an impediment and a motivator. We fear the unknown, and we also fear the results of bad decisions, embarrassing ourselves and the loss of things we value. These are the killers when it comes to changing careers. In many ways we're defined by our work. Any radical change can create an immediate loss of all of the value we've created in a prior career. We're afraid of what might happen when we change careers because of the sheer uncertainty -- will we succeed or fail? If you trust your skills and capabilities you really don't need to fear the change.
Getting over your fear requires you to address your concerns directly. You don't want to be in a position where you regret your career choice and refuse to do anything about it because fear is getting in the way. The way I tackled my decision was by considering the worst possible outcome of my switch from medicine to video games and embraced it. I accepted that I was likely to be a dismal failure, and I made the jump. I wasn't expecting to succeed, though success was still my dream. I fully expected that I'd probably have to return to medicine, tail between my legs, and pick up more or less where I left off.
Those initial steps leaving medicine behind were scary. Gone was the reliable income and the comfort of knowing exactly how things would unfold for me (medicine is a very predictable career). I worked only rare weekends and evenings as a doctor and finally left medicine completely after BioWare had been running about four years. This first step will be different for everyone. Some people will maintain a good day job waiting for their moment, like one of my friends from BioWare who pursues a very active music career. Others, like my pal who quit being a lawyer to become a bigwig in the coffee world, will make a huge, dramatic jump similar to mine.
You're probably thinking that it's crazy to leave medicine after training for years and ending up with a respected, lucrative job. Fortunately, at a relatively early age, I realized that life is much too short to do something I didn't truly love. And I didn't love medicine, but I could use it as a stepping stone. By having a stable base career I had a safety net if I totally blew it in video games.
I am a creative person by nature, and I always joked that no one likes a creative doctor, so it wasn't too hard to give video games a shot. At BioWare, my business partners (also doctors) and I would pick up shifts to actually make money as we didn't pay ourselves any salary for four years and instead plowed everything we could back into our business. That's one of the core lessons of changing careers: You need to be willing to accept a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain. If you can't give up your existing income or be willing to restart your career, then you really need to evaluate switching to new career. You also shouldn't make this decision with fear as a guide; address those fears and make the decision in an unemotional, calculated manner.
What really shook me after my latest career change (leaving the video game business after nearly 20 years and starting my beer gig) was just how much of my identity was tied up in my career. When people asked what I did after I left BioWare, I really didn't know what to say. I couldn't say I was a doctor, or a VP at a multinational corporation/founder of well-known video game company. Those lives were gone.
It's emasculating to say you used to be a contender and now are a nobody. In time I accepted that I run a beer website and YouTube channel you've never heard of. This lack of clear identity was a brutal side effect of my most recent career change, and it would have terrified me if I had anticipated its impact. I got over it by accepting it as a challenge; my goal is to make myself relevant and strive to succeed in my new field. I could be wracked by fear of failure and accept a cushy video game industry job, but for me that would be giving up. If you really want to do something, you need to fight for it. Another lesson I've learned is that anything easy isn't really worth pursuing; it's the challenging, hard-fought victories that are always the most rewarding. And, if you're afraid to rise to the challenge, you'll never get those amazing rewards.
The bottom line is that if you want to pursue something new, you need to toss fear of change to the side and choose a career that is truly rewarding, even if it's a little bumpy along the way. We should be afraid of living a life where we compromise and accept a job that makes us unhappy or is unfulfilling; nothing good will come from that. Obviously we also need to be realistic about making a decent living, especially over the short term, and in times of necessity, but over the long term, we shouldn't be afraid of pursuing the goals that make us happy even if it causes us some short-term pain. It'll be worth it in the end. Trust me, I used to be a doctor.