It’s the little things that count. The Chrysler Building soars a thousand feet against the New York City sky. But without its 3.8 million bricks, its gleaming Art Deco peak would be sitting on the sidewalk. The same is true of your career. It’s built of a million little bricks.
Whether you’re talking Chrysler Building or career, if you try to switch out a whole bunch of bricks at once, the entire edifice will fall. But by carefully sliding out and replacing a brick here and there, you learn the technique. It gets easier to replace the next one and the next, until one day you look up and see an entirely new building before you.
So if you’re contemplating a big, scary leap into a new career (and mind you, changing jobs can be as terrifying as your first skydive), not to worry. There’s a way to get past that fear. You can get comfortable with change by making small but meaningful changes every day. Little changes bump out the edges of your comfort zone, making it roomier each time, so the next scary thing isn’t so scary after all. Once your changes have moved you far along a new direction, a career change feels like an evolution, not a revolution.
Here’s how it works. Do something that makes you edgy – whether it’s agreeing to give a presentation to a big audience at work or signing up for a 15-mile fund-raiser walk you’re not sure you can finish. The beauty of this is that challenges in your personal life will make you bolder, just like challenges in your work life. The added sense of confidence they confer reaches across the frontier between work and play.
Be a Kitten Not a Dinosaur
Oddly enough, expanding your comfort zone can be imperiled by success. By midlife, you know what you’re good at, and you’ve advanced far enough in your career to have some control over your work life. Unless you’re an envelope-pusher, you may stick to what you know. One of the more extreme examples of this are the tales I’ve heard of CEOs who refuse to use e-mail and have their assistants print out every message for them. I once worked with a creative director who wouldn’t learn to use the computer. The magazine actually hired another employee to sit at the keyboard and execute the creative director’s commands on the screen. The CEO stories may be apocryphal, but I saw the second situation happen in a magazine art department with my own amazed eyes.
The CEO and the creative director were losing out big-time. Sure, they were both powerful enough to make lesser employees do their bidding, but both eventually had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the computer age. By that time, they arrived hat in hand, losing out on an opportunity to build new confidence through the experience. They were dinosaurs, and if they didn’t get with the program, they faced extinction.
What you want to be is a kitten, fearlessly embracing the world. I have a pair of them. Velma and Stan regard the entire house as their playground. Their motto: No counter too high. They chase each other along the backbone of the sofa, leap twice their height to bat at a fly. If they don’t make it onto the counter top the first time, they try again.
Having them around is a tonic. I look at Velma and Stan and pledge to be more adventuresome in every way. A good way to begin is to start saying yes to opportunities: Sure, I’ll speak in front of the local women’s business group; absolutely, I’ll take a sailing lesson. Then put yourself in the driver’s seat and start making your own opportunities: pitch yourself as the speaker; put a group of friends together to charter a boat. Take charge, feel the fear, then glory in the accomplishment. If it were easy, it wouldn’t feel so good afterward.
As your spirit soars, the way forward to a new field or a new job will seem less fraught with danger, more filled with promise. Just remember, no counter too high.
Susan Crandell is the author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.