Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career

Things are good, but nothing is changing, and it’s hard to see how anything ever will

This is a more insidious life problem. It’s hard to let go of good things for great things. Plenty of people have this idea that they want to achieve some mystical, ultimate success and glory. (I was once in a diner with my vegan boyfriend, who was placing all kinds of special orders. The Japanese waitress said, in an unidiomatic way that I’ve remembered since: “Oh! You are vegetarian to the limit!”) If you have this idea that you want to take your career “to the limit,” but you’ve chosen a job (say, Human Resources manager) that can only be performed within the constraints of a fairly large company – and where glory is simply never awarded – then you’re going to have to rethink.

How many people have you known who had moderately comfortable lives, talked about breaking free and doing something riskier and more difficult but infinitely more awesome – and then they got engaged, and all you ever heard from them after that was stuff about different kinds of dresses and dishes?

So, don’t let that happen to you. (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE). For courage, think back to those last days of high school when everyone was really emotional and talked about staying in touch forever and how the best days of your lives were ending and blah blah blah and the senior class is giving this memorial object to the high school so its legacy will remain forever and it seemed so terribly painful to some people to move on. So … how did that work out? Does anyone want to go back to high school? (Dear god, I hope not.)

So, how many times since graduating from high school have you made a leap of the same magnitude? Is it time for one?

When my company was failing, I was paralyzed by fear. I woke up every morning terrified. I really did lose weight from stress (that’s not just a celeb excuse!), but I couldn’t afford new clothes, so I probably looked like I was going through chemo. I was constantly nauseated. I avoided everyone who might suggest that I do something I didn’t want to do, which was everyone with any common sense.

And then finally, one day, sitting in the beat-up car I couldn’t afford to repair (it had been hit by someone and I’d received insurance money, which I’d used to pay rent instead of fixing the hole in the bumper), with a stack of collections notices on the passenger seat, I had this fantasy of shaving my head and walking away barefoot – literally walking, right down the street of my neighborhood, and then into infinity – and I realized, “Seriously, what is the worst thing that’s going to happen here? I am not going to die, and I am not going to go to jail.” If you’re not going to die or go to jail, what are you worried about? In my case, embarrassment. That’s it. I was worried about a feeling.

If you are in either of the situations I’ve described above – everything sucks, or everything is just-okay with no upward movement – then try a little experiment. How about a mind map? (See last week’s Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for more on the retro benefits of paper). Start with where you are now. Plot two paths: incremental improvement (i.e., fixing your current situation), and radical, shocking, temporarily painful life change towards something better. Plot what is likely to happen as a result of each path in six months, one year, five years, ten years. Add a little side-arrow for the worst-case scenario for each path.

You’ll probably find that the worst-case scenarios for both paths are about the same. I mean, you could die in Moldova, or you could die being hit by a car on your way home from a data-processing job in Albany. But seriously, worst-case scenarios are often, well … feelings, or else very remote risks that look silly when you write them down.

Is the chance of a worst-case scenario greater when you take a riskier path? Probably. (Although people get laid off from “safe,” boring jobs all the time.) But is there any chance at all that that safer path will lead to the awesome results that you want? Can you honestly plot that career progression on paper? Can you make a circle for what you’re doing right now, and one for the life you want, and connect them through any number of arrows? (For instance, if you want your own television show, and you currently work in marketing, can you draw some arrows and bubbles getting you from one place to the other? What’s in the bubbles?)

If not, what you’re doing isn’t “safe” at all. If there is no path from your current job or situation to where you want to be, you are doing the least safe thing there is: wasting years that you can never get back.

In retrospect, I’m glad my company failed, because even if it had succeeded, my life would not be as awesome as it is now. I’d still be in Virginia, for instance, and I wouldn’t be writing for TheGloss, and I probably would’ve tried hard to convince myself that a bunch of mediocre aspects of my life were just as good as the real thing in New York (did you ever know anyone who tried to tell you she was the “Carrie Bradshaw of Poughkeepsie”?) Not that I’m implying that everyone needs to move to New York. I’m sure there’s someone out there who wants to live on a ranch (the cowboy/cowgirl kind) and is trying to convince herself that caring for a dog, a bird, and two gerbils in her apartment is basically the same thing, because after all, who lives on a ranch? There’s no path on the mind map from here to there, unless you are willing to undergo temporary emotional pain, to risk embarrassment, and to feel very, very alone while you do things others regard as crazy.

I do like to giggle at the idea of being “ballsy,” but I think the real key to building the life and career you want is to be very unlike the most wobbly of male body parts: to be comfortable with the pain of dislocating yourself from the familiar. If you feel safe all the damn time, you’re going to get the same results as the average people all around you. Get cozy later, when you have grandchildren. For now, ruthlessly break away from futureless jobs, and cities, and people (repeat: do not abandon your children), and accept that momentary discomfort is the currency you must pay in order to move forward to untold levels of awesomeness.

Share This Post:
    • Lisa M.

      I love reading articles like this. Almost a year ago, I moved away from a very safe (but stressful) job in a town where I had no friends. I moved somewhere where I have a bunch of friends but didn’t have a job. Amazingly, it worked out, even when I was hit with mysterious medical issues and really wanted my mom, who was back in my hometown. Am I a bit in debt now? Yes, and I’m steadily working it off with a job I got. Is it my dream job? Nope. Do I need everything in my life to be my dream whatever? Nope.

    • andrea dunlop

      I had the first big moment like this in my life when I moved to New York after college, the second came when I finally left New York to move to Seattle. It’s tough to switch everything up but so worth it. And naturally I can also vouch for the restorative benefits of spending some time abroad. Good advice as always Jen.

    • Rachel

      Getting ready to make a big life change for myself: applying to the Ph.D program at school rather than just finish my master’s and go find a real job..definitely a life-changing decision since it would tack 4 more years on of schooling, more debt, and would mean me working a crap job, living at home with the parents, and having no life whatsoever for a few more years…but…for some reason it just feels like it is the right time!!! Sometimes you just gotta go for it and make that change!

    • Divya

      I love this. Just simple-pimple love. Here on out, risk taking is my mantra.

      • Divya

        I mean, she expresses such a simple message–if you’re unhappy or even just content in your current place, most of us are lucky enough to have the resources at hand to do something to change that.

    • Danica

      I think the universe is trying to tell me something tonight. I am 3 weeks away from graduating with a BS in biology, and tonight, I finally talked to a friend about how I don’t want a career in biology. I’ve always been more artistically than academically inclined, but I tried to convince myself all throughout college that I should get a science/math degree and have a science/math career. But as graduation approaches and the job search intensifies, I realize that I want to work in something I’m interested in, something I’m passionate about. I haven’t been passionate about anything in ages, not since I gave up my first passion (ballet). I decided to check the gloss before going to bed, and I saw this article. I know my parents will be disappointed and skeptical, but I know I need to be bullish about this and pursue what I want, not what my parents think will be good for me. It’ll all work out in the end. So thank you Jen Dziura, for writing this article. I am sure future me will repeatedly thank you too.

      • Lisa M.

        My mom and dad both have biology degrees. My mom worked as a draftswoman for years and loved that; my dad worked for UPS (first as a delivery guy, and then, by the time he retired, as some type of suit-wearing-person). Currently, my mom is a lunch lady, and she loves that because it’s low stress and leaves her plenty of time to do volunteer work. Neither of them worked in biology.

        My mom did pursue Medical Illustration for a while, so if you’re into that type of art, it’s an option that ties back into the biology aspect.

        (I am not much help since my degree is in English and I now work in sales).

      • Susan

        I graduated with a B.S. in biology. I too decided I wasn’t interested in a career in science or academia. Instead, I pursued a master’s degree and career in Occupational Therapy. With a degree in biology you already have some of the prerequisites for the program – chemistry and physics – and just need a few psychology courses. I found that this career is just the right blend of medicine and social work. I have the human interaction I wanted in a career and can apply the scientific knowledge I learned during my bachelor’s degree.

        You can find something else that will be meaningful to you! Don’t worry if you’re not sure what you want to do right at this moment.

    • Emma

      YOU MUST KNOW ME. Really, this article couldn’t have come out at a better time. Thank you.

    • M

      A family friend of mine got her degree in engineering and had a fantastic, high-paying job with a fantastic, renowned company. She hated it with all her heart and soul. She hadn’t know what she wanted to do in college and she’s Asian and both her siblings and parents went into engineering and loved it so she followed suit. It was incredibly wrong for her. So at the age of 28 she quit her fantastic, high-paying job and moved back in with her parents and went back to college to pursue her Master’s in psychology [which involves her first needing to get a Bachelor's in psychology]. She is incredibly happy. Her parents were kind of disappointed for about two weeks until they saw just how incredibly happy and fulfilled it made her to finally pursue what she wants to do. Sometimes a perfectly legitimate career path just isn’t the right thing for a person and there is no shame in that.

      On the other hand, my aunt is in her mid-60′s and is an accountant with a major company. She has always been an accountant and has been with the same company for a long time, and she also hates her job with a fiery passion. She makes decent money, but since the cost of living is high here in the California bay area and she’s had multiple bouts with cancer in the past, her savings are small enough that she will probably never be able to retire. She is, in all likelihood, stuck in her soul-destroying job for the rest of her life. Before the bottom dropped out of the market I was considering going into real estate [I worked in condo sales for a couple years], but when I looked at her and thought about what it would really mean for my future, I couldn’t imagine doing something that would almost inevitably end up with me facing her situation in forty years. So instead I went to trade school. And it is definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life.

    • Ava

      What a good article to hear. I am getting my social work degree in two weeks and am planning to move to new york to work. People think I’m joking, but the jobs are there and I have just enough money to make the move. If I don’t do it I’ll never forgive myself…

    • isadora


      I’m a Chemical Engineer and have been working as such for the last seven years. Although I don’t hate it, I must say I haven’t found the job I love/mostly like. Way much time invested for little to none results.

      I always wanted to be a writer and my only passion as a child was ballet (as Danica, above) and now I’m just trying lear how to play guitar.

      As you can see, I’m all over the place. It’s hard to admit we might not have an inherent talent or latent talent for that matter. Most of the time I just feel I’m very average, very. And it kills me.

      I’m single and childless so the “children abandonment” is not problem, but I’m 29, oh! 29. Too close to the dreadful age on which people imagine you being all mature, settled and procreating non-stop.

      Thanks for writing this. It came in at the right moment.

    • Taylor

      Your column is my favorite part of the week.

    • Hannah Beth

      I wonder if there’s an age limit sometimes. My good friend’s mother thinks she is too old for a divorce because she doesn’t have a lucrative job. She’s only 50. I wonder if the two factors conflict when making career changes.
      For me, I think I’m at an age where my only major career change is changing majors (still in college), but I sometimes have to remind myself that it’s not a big deal that I keep changing my mind because I’m not even out there yet.
      Great article.

    • sarahk

      This was so inspiring to me. I’m about to do this and people think I’m nuts. I started planning a year ago to leave my job and move across the country to California. Just because. I’ve got a good life but I want more. I want adventure. I want to get out of Arkansas. And I kept letting my debt and my anxiety tie me down. It’s been a hard road, but my savings are padded and my debt is being paid down and I got a second job to finance everything. Almost ready to go.

    • Cristal P.

      Thank you so much for posting this. I’m def in the spot of being comfortable and not wanting to give up a decent paycheck. But when it comes down to it, I’m very unhappy and feel like I’m wasting this one life that I have. Time to get ballsy!!!!

    • HT

      Thank you for the great post! I’m battling the blues over career angst at age 40. I landed on this page after googling “being ballsy”. As old as I feel, not too old to make a big change. I really liked your advice about A to B- and if you can’t draw it, then really is a wasted spot to be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rentalartist Felicia S Plumley

      I just have to say that this is terrible. I’ve been following my heart all my stupid life and where has it gotten me? Unemployable. I am flat broke, nobody will hire me for anything, even though I have a lot of skills I’ve developed entirely on my own. In fact, that’s the problem because I’m not “certified” to do anything. I wanted to pursue my artistic goals, so I left a job that offended my soul, but made ends meet. I’m entirely stuck because I followed my heart and not my head. Congratulations to those of you that made it work, but for some of us down here on earth, following your heart is the dumbest thing you’ll ever do.

    • Kate P.

      I live in new york and wish I lived on a working ranch. So your assumptions are correct.