How to Face Down Your Fear of Career Change

You’re out of your comfort zone and almost guaranteed to bump up against fear at some point.

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Curt Rosengren
Changing careers to pursue your passion means thinking bigger than your immediate box and stretching yourself beyond your current circumstances. When you do that, you’re 99.9 percent guaranteed to bump up against fear at some point. It just comes with the territory.

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Most people will do just about anything possible to keep from feeling that fear. It’s one of the biggest obstacles keeping people from taking serious steps towards their dreams. And that’s unfortunate because, rather than a hideous monster under the bed waiting to attack as soon as they venture out of their cozy comfort zones, that fear can actually be an enormously valuable asset.

Fear comes in two varieties: limiting fear and productive fear. Limiting fear stops you dead in your tracks. Productive fear shines a light on potential dangers so you can assess how to minimize or eliminate them. And sometimes the only difference between the two has to do with what you do when you feel that fear.

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Just like the ability to feel pain is a vital part of keeping our bodies safe from harm, feeling fear can be a vital part of avoiding unnecessary trouble. The fear might be there for a very good reason. For example, let’s say want to make a career change, but you’re afraid that you’ll fall on your face and run out of money and have to go back to your old career with your tail between your legs. That fear could either be a limiting fear, keeping you from taking any action, or a productive fear, helping you understand more about how to more successfully move toward your goal.

Asking these four questions is a great way to harness the positive potential of your fears:

Is this fear valid? As the saying goes, don’t believe everything you think. Just because you feel a fear doesn’t mean it’s realistic. If you decide that it isn’t really a likely outcome, or that you are exaggerating the impact of any potential negative outcome, keep reminding yourself of that. Journal about it. Talk it over with a friend. Make it into a joke. Do whatever helps to take the energy out of it. If you decide that, yes, it is valid, move on to the next question.

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What warning does this fear have for me? Get clear on the warning the fear has for you. “If I do this, _____ could happen.” Here again, be aware of whether or not the warnings are valid. In our career change example, the warnings might be, “If you pursue this path and you fail, you’ll end up broke and you will suffer a massive setback to your career.” The risk that you could run out of money might be a valid warning, but the warning about the massive career setback might actually be greatly exaggerated. (I always think of that one like this: If someone took a couple years off to travel around the world, how adversely would that affect their career? Typically not much, especially in the big picture.)

What would make this outcome more likely? Taking the warning about winding up broke, you would ask what factors might increase the odds of that outcome becoming reality. For example, you might list: not having enough money set aside to start with; not having enough experience to get traction quickly; not being realistic about how much time it would actually take.

What could I do about each of those risk factors? For each of those risk-increasing factors you identified, explore what you could do to eliminate or minimize them. For example, rather than the immediate gratification of flipping the switch and making a change immediately, you might delay for a year and focus on building up a cash reserve to help tide you through (taking whatever small steps you can towards the new direction at the same time).

The more you can learn to put those valid fears to use, the less energy those fears siphon and the more they contribute to moving you towards your vision.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.