You know how people (John F. Kennedy, most famously) like to talk about how the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are the same characters? Turns out that’s not really a thing. At least, not from a linguistic standpoint. But there’s still some wisdom in this popular misconception.
Painful events like losing a job, a prolonged illness, or shared trauma affecting whole communities prompt us to pause and take stock. Oftentimes, we find that the path we were on no longer feels meaningful. So we use that moment of opportunity to change course. In the months after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, for example, fire departments across the U.S. saw a surge of new recruits, as did Teach For America and other public service programs.
Although we find ourselves in the midst of multiple shared traumas right now, I want to focus on the personal crisis of being out of work and the opportunity it presents. Like the cohort of newly-minted teachers after 9/11 chose a new direction for themselves in a time of adversity, you can choose not to bounce back from a career setback. You can bounce forward instead.
Whether laid off, furloughed, or unemployed “by choice” (emphasis on the scare-quotes) so you can care for a loved one, you have some space to think deeply and holistically about where you’d like to take your career from here. That’s the good news. But you’re also under pressure to get your personal cashflow a-flowin’ once more.
Contrary to what you might assume, shifting careers is possible even when money is tight. All the experience you’ve accumulated thus far is still worth something – a foundation to stand on as you take this leap of faith. Your new direction might lead you to a more fulfilling career or a more sustainable work-life balance. (Or both!) Furthermore, meaningful work and having time to enjoy your personal life both act as buffers against burnout.
To reach career-change nirvana, you’ll first need to determine your timeline, examine your strengths, and figure out your own personal definition of success. Here’s how.
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Calculate your burn rate and your runway
Let’s just get it over with and address the elephant in the room: money. Your ultimate goal may or may not be a bigger salary, but regardless, you still need to eat in the meantime. According to Jenny Blake, co-creator of Google’s Career Guru program and author of “Pivot”, there are three numbers you need to crunch: your minimum monthly expenses, your burn rate, and your runway.
First, tally up your expenses. Looking at what you spent in any given month hides seasonal expenses like gifts around the holidays or back-to-school shopping for the kiddos. A better approach is to look at your expenses from all of the past year, and divide that number by 12 to find your historical monthly average. Now go through the exercise a second time, removing nice-to-haves like vacations and your $4-per-day latte habit, and including only essential expenses like housing, phone, groceries, and utilities. This smaller monthly average represents your minimum average monthly expenses.
Next comes your “burn rate”. (Or, for those not versed in Silicon Valley speak, “how much you spend in excess of your income”.) If you’re receiving unemployment or disability benefits, your burn rate is that income subtracted from your minimum monthly expenses. For example, if your monthly expenses total have $3000 and you’re receiving $1000 in benefits, your burn rate is $2000 per month. If you have no income source at all, your burn rate is equal to your monthly expenses.
Last, calculate your “runway” – the amount of time you can hold on without going into debt. Add up any cash savings you have and assets you could sell off quickly – investments, or that super high-end mountain bike you bought a month before getting furloughed – to find your total available assets. Your runway is simply your total available assets divided by your burn rate. For example, if you have $10,000 in assets and a $2000 burn rate, your runway is five months.
How far are you willing to stretch?
Blake recommends pro-actively identifying your financial make-or-break marker. For example:
Alert level 1: Cash out your savings ($5,000)
Alert level 2: Sell your piano ($3,000)
Alert level 3: Sell your mutual funds ($6,000)
Alert level 4: Dip into your retirement savings ($40,000)
RED ALERT: Sell your home
For most people, the marker should be before you dip into retirement savings. But you do you. The point is to make rational, not panic-driven, decisions.
From here, you can figure out whether you’ll need some kind of bridge income to keep you afloat during this transition. This is just to tide you over, so it might come from a temp job or some kind of side-hustle like tutoring or freelancing. Although bridge income might come from work that is way below your skill level, remember that it gives you power over your career that you wouldn’t have otherwise and lets you make decisions from a place of security instead of desperation.
So, where to?
Finally! Time for the fun stuff.
This is a moment to lean into your strengths, build on your past work experience, and use the skills you already have in new ways – especially if your runway is short. To really bring joy and excitement into this transition, focus on opportunities that align with your values. As I’ve written about in the past, values-based career planning is the key to finding a role that is authentically “you” and fuels your sense of purpose.
Granted, mapping your values to career opportunities isn’t necessarily straightforward. And honestly: when was the last time you thought long and hard about what your values really are? So try this. Download and print this set of values cards, then cut them out. (I know! Printing and cutting. So old school.) Sort the cards into three piles representing “not important”, “important”, and “hell yeah”. Then narrow your “hell yeah” pile down to ten or fewer cards. Boom. You’ve just identified your core values. From there, MyPlan.com offers a free tool to help you match those values with industries and disciplines that would suit you.
As far as leaning into your strengths, this is a great time to tap into the wisdom of friends, family members, and people in your professional network who know you well. In “Pivot”, Blake describes how setting up video calls and coffee dates with people in her circle helped get her out of the navel-gazing phase when she was at a transitional point. These friends-slash-mentors, or “freindtors” as she calls them, can give you the kind of personalized insights and advice that no book or podcast can offer. That said, if you have $49 to spare, the Clifton Strengths assessment is also worthwhile. It’ll ask you questions even your closest friendtors wouldn’t think of.
If, after all that, you’re still feeling adrift on a sea of endless possibilities, work on identifying a specific goal or purpose that can guide your thinking. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change about the world? How could you make it better? Who would you help? What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail? Keep asking yourself questions like these and your new path will reveal itself soon enough.
You’re not in this alone
Whatever energy you’ve invested in networking thus far in your career, you’re about to collect the return on it. Once you’ve figured out your new direction, your network is there to help you set off on the right foot. LinkedIn is literally purpose-built for this. Take advantage! Post updates sharing why you’re excited about the change. Ask questions about the things you’re still uncertain of. Share your struggles on days you’re feeling discouraged.
Likewise, be generous with your time and support others in the same way. Participate in discussions that pop up in your feed, and join at least one of the nearly 2 million discussion groups on LinkedIn focused on topics ranging from software development to solar cooking (not even kidding). Invite others who’ve contributed thoughtfully to the group to connect with you, especially if they appear to be consistently active on the platform. And although there are different schools of thought on accepting connection requests from people you don’t know well, this is probably a time to accept every invitation you receive. The more the merrier.
When life gives you lemons…
At the risk of killing the positive vibes, the reality is that not all career pivots pan out. You might reach the end of your runway before landing that next gig or getting your new entrepreneurial venture off the ground. Or, you might spend a few months in your new role and decide that it’s not the right fit after all.
There’s no shame in bouncing back to where you started from. There’s also a chance that your forward bounce has opened your eyes to other opportunities – a diagonal bounce, if you will. You’ve already done the hard work of identifying your strengths and values, as well as the financial aspect. Making a second go at pivoting requires less ground-work and feels less intimidating than it does the first time.
Throughout the transition, whether it’s your first pivot or your fifth, check in with yourself regularly. Are your energy and stress levels moving in the right directions? Are you gaining confidence? Do you feel positive momentum building underneath you? Don’t be afraid to admit hard truths to yourself. The way to keep your balance is to remain vigilantly self-aware.
Which, when you think about it, is something we should all do. Furloughed, or not.
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