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Two years after her divorce, Emily was 46 years old and working in a state-government job that was too bureaucratic for her. She decided to make a change. "I decided to follow my passion for the outdoors and become a naturalist," says the Richmond, Virginia, native. After going back to college for field biology courses, an internship at an environmental-education center, and many odd jobs to pay bills, she got a job as an outdoor recreation manager at a county parks department. "It was worth all the turmoil. My life has been so much richer for it and led me on many future adventures," says Emily.
If you've ever stared out of your cubicle wondering if there's a better life for you somewhere out there, you're probably in a career rut. "When you find yourself emotionally disengaged -- when you're just going through the motions and stop caring -- then you want to start thinking about new options," says Leslie Evans, a New York City career coach, who says that these apathetic feelings usually start about 18 months before most people actually make a change.
Andrea, 30, from New York City, actually became physically ill from the 14-hour days she spent as a credit-card customer service representative, talking to disgruntled bank customers. Finally, she had enough. "I quit my job and decided to follow my dream to be in the music business. I took a job that paid $8 an hour as a temp at a record label -- much less than what I was making at the bank. Now I'm and agent and represent some of the biggest names in music."
So how do you make your new-career dreams a reality? Here are some suggestions for plotting a new path.
1. Fantasize. Allow yourself to be outrageous and make a list of all your dream jobs. Evans asks her clients what their plans were when they were in college. "Ninety-nine percent of my clients already know what they want to do. Everyone nurtures a dream but they think it's unrealistic," she says.
Justine Reichman, founder and president of the Career Change Network, says that many people leap blindly into a new field based on some pipe dream they've had about being a veterinarian or a master chef, without having a real sense of what the position entails. "I've seen numerous people who thought they wanted to be architects. They get their master's degrees and then realize it's not what they want. So be willing to invest some time before you waste your time," she says. Reichman recommends talking to people who are already in the field that interests you, and her Web site (www.careerchangenetwork.com) offers a place where career changers can swap information and advice.
Another great resource is Vocation Vacations (www.vocationvacations.com), which offers the chance to try out your dream job for a few days -- everything from chocolatier to horse trainer.
2. Transfer your strengths. Can a banker become a documentary filmmaker? That might sound unrealistic, but Evans worked with a man who did just that. "He leveraged the skills he already had -- finance and negotiation -- and was able to raise the financing to make his film," says Evans. So take stock of your strengths. Are you super organized? Highly creative? What if you're a great communicator? "We all have skills that we don't list on our resume. For example, I'm good at putting people together. So don't overlook what you do best in your personal life," says Reichman. Once you've created your dream-job list, ask yourself how those talents will help you in your new venture.
3. Acquire new skills. Once you've pinpointed a new pursuit, figure out the holes in your resume or skill set. Will you need to go back to school to fill them? Can you go part-time or in the evening? Or do you simply need some contacts and business cards to get started? Carve out the time you need to plot your path and then stick to your plan. Otherwise, the demands of your present job will get in the way. "The future work is what usually gets bumped," says Evans. Even taking one hour a day will help get you closer to your dream.
4. Evaluate your financial situation. Begin your process while you still have a steady income. It may mean you stay at your old company for longer than you like, but Evans says that creating an exit strategy makes the daily grind far more bearable. "Once you put something else in place your energy level changes," she says. Having money in the bank will also prevent you from taking the wrong job. "You don't want to take just any job -- even if it mildly interests you. You don't want to lose your focus," says Reichman, who says you can also take a short-term money gig, like bartending or dog-walking, to pay the bills until you land your dream job. Remember, though, that worrying about money will sap your energy and creativity. Make a financial plan you will be comfortable and can stick with.
5. Start small. Evans has one client, a former compliance officer at a large company, who decided that she wanted to own her own pet-care business. Instead of going deep in debt trying to open a dog-grooming salon, she started walking dogs and sharpening grooming shears as she built her business. The current workplace economy offers a lot of opportunities to pursue a new field without making a huge investment. Rather than quitting your job and trying to start over in a new field as someone's assistant, you can take contract work on a project basis. "I knew people who would meet with clients at 7 a.m., or in the evening so that they could start building a private practice," says Evans.
6. Keep the faith. Los Angeles-based Lunden, 30, needed a change. Her family thought she was crazy to leave her lucrative career as a kitchen designer to pursue her acting dream. And after her first six months in Hollywood, Lunden's savings had run out and she started to wonder if they were right. "I pounded the pavement running from audition to audition almost begging for a gig and nothing happened," says Lunden. "Then one day I got angry at myself for pursuing something like acting that I felt was downright stupid. That same day I got a call from a casting director saying that I booked a television series. I've been in the industry ever since."
Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll succeed if you take a chance and plunge into a new field. But if you're unhappy in your current position, then taking that risk might just propel you into a thrilling new life.