How to make a big leap at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


How to make a big leap at work

The project

If your job’s dull or unfulfilling, if you can’t bear your boss, or if you’ve always dreamed of starting a business or going back to university, the answer’s obvious, at least in theory: it’s time for a major break with the past.

But ‘obvious’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’. The prospect of radical change induces paralysing fear, which keeps you stuck – and makes whatever’s unbearable in your situation more unbearable still. So how do you make yourself ready for a big change? The surprising answer is you can’t – and you don’t need to, either.

The aim

Before taking a leap, it’s vital to check you’re not deceiving yourself about the real problem: if you hate working in, say, banking, a better-paying bank job won’t solve things; if your marriage is bringing you down, an exciting new home business won’t fix it. (Therapy and journalling can both be a huge help in figuring out the real source of your dissatisfaction.)

But once you’ve sincerely concluded you need a work-related change, it’s time to realise a powerful, liberating truth: you’re never going to feel ready.

The theory

The crucial point about any major life change – work or otherwise – is that it alters who you are: it’s what philosopher Laurie Paul calls a ‘transformative experience’. Hopefully, your future self will love whatever unfolds. But your present self will always feel unready, by definition, as it’s the very self you’re going to transform.

So you’ll need to be courageous – and we mistakenly think that means not feeling fear, when in fact it means acting while feeling afraid. Those around you won’t be ready for the ‘new you’ either, as it threatens their assumptions. So if you wait to make a change until you’re sure your boss won’t be angry, or your friends or family won’t judge you harshly, you’ll wait forever.

Try it out

  • Begin with values in mind. Start by clarifying the values you’d like your work life to embody. Is it most important to be creative, help society, support your family, see the world…? A values-first approach may make it instantly clear you’ve got to switch jobs – or reveal ways you could find that fulfilment in your current one.
  • Find a confidant. Choose someone – ideally neither a spouse nor a colleague – with whom you can talk freely about your ideal future. In the first instance, don’t ask for advice; ask them to listen. The biggest surprise might be in what you hear yourself saying.
  • Beware ‘analysis paralysis’. You’ll need to research any major change, of course. But research all too quickly becomes a comforting substitute for progress – making you feel like you’re doing something constructive, when really it’s time to act.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: Corbis