What to Expect When You Start Out on Your OwnJul 06, 2009
by Melissa Wells
photo by Nicola Vetter
Melissa Wells learned a lot about career transition when she embarked on her own
Now: I travel around the world making short films of little-known creatures and coach people wanting to make a career change.
Two years ago: I left my career of 14 years as a management consultant to healthcare companies in the United States and overseas. And I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to earn money (I don’t recommend this last part).
The first five months I did little more than sleep and eat lots of gelato. No, I’m not kidding. Most days I would move from the bed, to the kitchen, to the hammock. It was my new routine after a considerable amount of time on the road. It felt so good to not use an alarm clock. I did not expect that I would enjoy this for five months.
The two most difficult periods so far have been carrying out my desire to leave my career and to commit the energy, time and money to feed my new business. I was truly surprised that it was hard for me to leave. I thought about it a lot and the fantasies are still delicious to me. Actually carrying out with leaving my career, not just my job, was gut-wrenching. I felt fear and anxiety regularly. I felt that I wanted to leap and rely on myself even more.
After two years out and starting my own business, this is what I did not expect, good and bad:
It would take years for me to pick a new path
Years before I knew that I would have a career outside of healthcare consulting, but I wasn’t sure what that might be. I am a master at work plans and linear progressions, so I could literally pick anything and put together a viable plan. That was a strength, but also a risk; it meant I could choose and do fairly well without loving it.
I would be brought to the place of recommitting at a deeper level, on a regular, painful basis
On some days this takes the form of weeping in front of an “underdog to hero” in-flight movie, a grown-up version of “The Little Engine That Could.” Making a change from corporate to entrepreneur, or working at home to in an office, are forms of the same thing—a massive identity change. From that perspective it seems fitting that we ask ourselves if we really want to keep going. I like to think this is most difficult when building something of your own. You live or die by your own sword.
How meaningless the titles and status created by companies are outside of the industry
This one is hard for us corporate types to swallow. No one really cares about your former title, and they have no idea what it means anyway.
The money almost runs out, always
Talk about a shock! I saved a lot of money, to support me for years. I strongly recommend doing this if you’re thinking of making a change. It gives you one less thing to think about. What I learned is that most entrepreneurs run out of money or come close. This brings them to a place of recommitting and putting more energy in or quitting.
People supported me emotionally in large numbers, and still do
When I launched my business I realized how many entrepreneurial friends I had. They all empathized and supported me. I feel like I’m part of a greater community now.
And . . .
- I missed the social aspect of a workplace much more than I thought
- It takes more energy to “get out there” by reaching out, setting appointments and traveling to them than it does to show up at a client site
- I spend so much time in my bathrobe. (I love this part, no complaints.)
Why do I do this?
I remember that it was my clients who initially chose me. Within six months of leaving my former career, a number of former clients and colleagues contacted me for career advice. That is still so important to my psychology as a career coach. It gives me confidence to continue and reminds me that I am talented at my work.
I also remember that my career coaching exists to support my travels to exotic locations. I travel with my now-husband, a biologist and explorer (that is another story). My video work is currently part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. The ability to travel extensively was something I knew I wanted, and I would not have left my career without it.
Most often I tell people, “Know why you are leaving and how you want your new work to support your life.”