Last week, a New York cab driver looked at me in his rear-view mirror and asked me if he should leave his wife. Travelling from mid-town Manhattan to downtown during rush hour gave us plenty of time to discuss his relationships issues and the merits of staying versus leaving. My parting advice to him came down to this: Life is short, so be happy.
I wasn't surprised by his question, or that he put it to a stranger. There is something about having a new year in sight that makes people want to explore life's possibilities, both personally and professionally. I also realized this new year's effect – in which we crave reinventing ourselves into something better – influenced my own career decisions. For example, last year I made the leap from the corporate world to the life of an entrepreneur. I set the stage for that transition two years ago at this time.
"The New Year gives us permission to have a fresh start," said Lesley Parrott, of Lesley Parrot Consulting, in Durham, Ont., which focuses on executive consulting and corporate training. She recounted that in her native Scotland, everyone cleans their houses for the new year, and it's a symbolic time to clean other parts of your life as well. Some turn to gyms while others focus on their professional lives.
Unfortunately, embarking on a major career change remains more complicated than cutting out high-calorie muffins. The impact on your financial security and relationships can be paralyzing.
Susan Ziebarth, an Ottawa-based business and career coach, said many women of the women she works with place a lot of emphasis on how their career change will impact their loved ones, including their spouse and children, their parents – even their family pets. This leads the women to wait until they hit a breaking point in their work life that feels unbearable.
"When women get stuck in a rut they tend to work as though they are in an endurance event, keeping your head down and your nose to the grindstone so that everything works on a daily basis. When they are in this mechanical lifestyle they tend to lose sight of what makes them happy," Dr. Ziebarth said.
Her advice to these women draws from the instructions a flight attendant imparts before an airplane takes off: Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping anyone else.
A new year isn't the only impetus for change. For some, "reinvention" can be sparked by life events. Torontonian Kathy Kastner can be called a serial reinventor, beginning with her first major switch 26 years ago when she became pregnant. Previously a television entertainment reporter, she noticed that she had stopped caring about what "influenced the stars" and preferred to hear what the mothers of those stars thought about their career choice.
At a prenatal class, her instructor recognized her from TV and asked for her help on a video series for expectant parents. That led to the Mom's the Word parenting series and eventually evolved into HealthTV, now broadcast in hospitals across North America. The transition from entertainment to the health industry was a major change.
"To sound knowledgeable, I really had to understand the nuances and complexities of health conditions," Ms. Kastner recalled. She also needed to adopt the appropriate jargon to be taken seriously by sponsors and advertisers. "I often felt I was in a crash pre-med course," she quipped.
In her latest act of reinvention, Ms. Kastner moved from focusing on good health to a "good death" after discovering, through social media, a group of healthcare professionals who lamented that most patients lack knowledge about end-of-life issues. To support that goal, she launched the website BestEndings.com, which required another steep learning curve to bring the topic to a digital world.
For others, an evolving economy translates into new opportunities for reinvention. Yvonne Hunter, formerly the vice-president of publicity and marketing at Penguin Canada in Toronto, decided this year to focus on e-book publishing, following the digital shift in the industry. She began her own publishing consulting firm and now works with several startups while exploring what other options are out there.
"Change, particularly if sudden, can be gut-wrenching," Ms. Hunter acknowledged, noting that celebrities such Madonna make reinvention look easy but in reality the process can be isolating. She advises those embarking on the process to surround themselves with trusted advisers.
"Tom Ellsworth, author of The Rat, The Race and The Cage and CEO of Premier Digital Publishing, gave me this advice: Hope is not a method. Career transition requires focus, adaptability and brutal honesty," Ms. Hunter said.
"He also pointed out it would change my life for the good. And it has."