Before you jump ship at work, consider these five things that successful people do.

There is a problem with the idea of a perfect job.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 69 percent of the workforce is either passively detached or actively disengaged. That adds up to 103 million people who are unhappy in their jobs – a staggering thought, considering that you are statistically bound to run into several of them as you pick up your morning coffee, drop off your dry-cleaning, take the bus, and read the news online (someone had to write those articles!).

This epidemic of work unhappiness can have an unfortunate side effect. Once an individual realizes that he or she is not happy at work and would rather be doing something else, there is a temptation to blow it up. Never mind if the current situation is allowing you to keep a roof over your head, food in your fridge, and health care coverage! It is easy to convince yourself that jumping ship right now is the only thing you can do to be happier at work.

As a professional and an executive coach, I have faced several key decisions along my career path, and have watched hundreds of professionals do the same. Some step into a similar career at a different company. Others change gears: abandoning a CPA track to go to nursing school, or launching their own companies. Some transitions are successful; others are devastating, financially and emotionally.

Who makes the cut? How can you time the steps correctly, land on your feet, and set yourself up for more opportunity and growth? In my experience, those who get it right do these five things consistently.   

1. They ask themselves, “What if the thing I am doing today would HAVE to be the thing I do for the rest of my life?”

This limited-option scenario is an artificial one – in reality, you always have choices. The challenge is in being completely honest with yourself about whether you could find a way to make your current situation work and increase your job motivation. Many people do not approach the job-unhappiness puzzle with the intention of salvaging as many pieces as they can – slash and burn is the more typical, and often less constructive, approach.

Sometimes, the true answer is that the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving. If the situation is truly un-salvageable, do what you must. However, before you jump, be sure that you have considered all possible ways to optimize what you already have.   

Homework: Be still. Look inside. Can you honestly say that you have exhausted everything within your power to make your current work situation as good as it can possibly get and increase your happiness at work?

2. They have reserves.

There is no gentle way to put it: career change can be expensive.

The smoothest scenario is one where you interview for an obvious-fit position while still employed, give your notice, and start the new job without any employment gaps or loss of income. However, what happens if you are looking to change your track by doing something different – breaking into a different industry, going back to school, or launching your own company?

Financial reserves can create the most obvious safety net, but there are other reserves as well. Emotional resilience and willpower to make it through a challenging job search or a re-training program are finite resources. Do you have a well of energy, serenity, and stamina to dip into when you hit a bump on the road?

Homework: Changing jobs is among top life stressors, along with death in the family or a serious illness. Consider what you need to do to build up your reserves. Remember that life circumstances combined with career change can stretch your emotional and financial resources thin. Is now the right time?

3. They have a great support network.

Career change is not a sprint – it is a marathon. Make sure you bring your cheerleaders, because you will need them.

A support network isn't there to simply applaud everything you do: you will need a sounding board, an accountability system, and a place to regroup after some of your efforts inevitably fail. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.

Homework: Make a list of your allies – people with whom you can share your toughest challenges. It is OK if that list is short: it is not the length of the list, but the quality of the people on it, that matters most.

4. They are clear on why they are making the change.

Here is a simple test straight from Steven Pressfield's Do The Work:

Why are you considering this career change?

  • For the money?

  • For fame?

  • For power?

  • To prove my mother/father/ex-boyfriend/teacher/coach wrong?

  • To serve my vision of how life ought to be?

If you chose any one of these as your reason, pause. Not because you cannot be successful when motivated by money or a desire to prove someone wrong – but because those are beginners' tools, and they can only get you so far.

What is really driving you? What values – ideals that are deeply personal and meaningful to you – are at stake? Victor Frankl, a psychologist and a former Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, explains in his book Man's Search for Meaning, that human beings can endure unimaginable suffering if they see a meaning in it. What will accomplishing this change mean to you and your happiness at work?

Homework: Consider why you are making this move. As with most questions that cannot be simply Googled, the answer may take some soul searching. WHO will you get to be a result?

5. They understand their value.

In my experience, professionals who are brilliant at transitions are those who have a clear understanding of their unique value. I am talking about personal branding. If you think that branding is just for big corporations, I would encourage you to have another look. Everyone has a personal brand: some people own it, shape it intentionally, and communicate it well, and others do not. My advice – be aware of your personal brand and become purposeful in defining it.

If you are considering a job or career transition, spend some time thinking beyond your static old resume, degrees, and job titles. What do you do that only you can do? What can you be counted on for? What is your superpower? What is your job motivation? What problems can you solve, and what is that worth?

Homework: Be able to verbalize your value in a compelling way. Your goal is to have the imaginary listener exclaim “Wow! Who wouldn't want you on their team?”

My bottom line advice, based on my years of hiring, firing, and coaching professionals, is to take careful stock before you burn bridges. While that disciplined strategy may not be as satisfying as slapping a resignation letter in your boss's face right now, the clarity and motivation that you get from understanding yourself and your current situation are worth the delayed gratification.

That way, should you make the decision to leave, it will be from a place of grace, alignment, integrity, and ultimately greater conviction.

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