Making the Leap: Changing Careers Without a Net

Making the Leap

Leap cover (2)Three years ago, veteran radio journalist Tess Vigeland left what many might think was a great job with the business and personal finance show “Marketplace,” which is produced and distributed by American Public Media (APM), in association with the University of Southern California. She didn’t have a next job to go to when she gave her notice, and she didn’t have a solid plan. She just had an idea: It was time for a change, and she knew she couldn’t make it while safely ensconced at “Marketplace.”

Her new book, LEAP: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want, chronicles far more than her own experiences with doing just that. She recently appeared on the  Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about what she learned from her own career-changing adventure and from talking to many people who made similar moves, and she shares what anyone considering such a jump should do first.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below. Knowledge@Wharton also recently published an excerpt from Vigeland’s book.

Knowledge@Wharton: We should start by noting that you put yourself into this “Leaving a Job with No Plan B” category.

Tess Vigeland: I did indeed, yes. I had a 22-year career in public radio and then three years ago, I up and left it. I quit.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why?

Vigeland: It was a mix of factors. There were some issues in my workplace that were frustrating me. I had been covering business and economics for more than a decade and six of those were in personal finance. I’m sure this hasn’t happened to you, but I got kind of sick of the subject matter.

I just wanted to see what else might be out there for me. I decided that I couldn’t do that by trying to look around while I was in that job. So, as I said, I took a leap.

Knowledge@Wharton: Talking about personal finance at a time where we are coming out of a recession: Everybody in the world has jumped on the bandwagon of what it means to have a strong personal finance portfolio these days.

Vigeland: Yes. Of course, it’s very important. Getting your finances in order is one of the most important things that you should do if you’re thinking about taking a leap. But I was there through the whole financial crisis, from late 2007 onward, and had a front row seat to the pain, the angst, the anguish. It certainly taught me that personal finance and figuring out how to manage your money is really, really, really important.

“If you are asking yourself, ‘How do you know when it’s time to leave?’ you should already be looking for the next thing.”

Knowledge@Wharton: So you decided to make that shift. You write about the process of typing out that resignation letter and sending that email to your boss’s bosses and giving him the letter. What were those last two weeks like?

Vigeland: I actually wasn’t even really thinking about it because I was so busy. The last three months at Marketplace were some of the busiest of my career.

That was probably subconsciously purposeful on my part, so I didn’t have to think about the fact that I was about to leave and didn’t know what was going to happen next. Even the first few days were so exciting. I was like, “I am free. I can make my life what I want it to look like.” But then reality comes crashing into your head, and it can really kind of hit you, what you’ve done. It’s a very scary thing, and you have no guarantees that it’s going to work out.

Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of what you had done in your career — and you had been in radio for a couple of decades — is this jump to being an author really a shift in career?

Vigeland: It is somewhat, although I think you can make an argument that is still journalism, especially a nonfiction book like this one. I got to interview people, then I went through all my notes, then I wrote the book and then I did some editing. It was very similar to what I’ve been doing for, as you said, two decades‒plus.

Knowledge@Wharton: But probably a lot more writing, and a lot more editing, too.

Vigeland: Yes, yes, and I’ll tell you, the challenge for me as a journalist was that I was so used to very tight deadlines — daily deadlines, weekly deadlines. All of a sudden, I had this yearlong deadline, and I did not manage it very well. If I ever write another book, I’m going to do it completely differently.

But at the same time, I did leave my radio career. I’ve been doing some backup hosting for NPR, but for the most part, the book has been my life. It certainly was a shift into something different on a daily basis.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was it cathartic in some respects, making that decision?

Vigeland: It was. For me, I think it was building up more than realized before I gave notice. I talk about how people should really pay attention to three things. One, if you’re feeling disrespected at work, you really need to pay attention to that. Two, your body will often speak to you. My hair stopped growing, believe it or not. I had other kinds of things that were very unusual that were happening to me. It was stress, manifesting itself.

Three, I say if you are asking yourself, “How do you know when it’s time to leave?” you should already be looking for the next thing Twitter . So yes, it was cathartic, in a way. But I don’t think I even really knew how much that would be the case until a few months after I did it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What were those first few months like? I had a period of time where I was laid off from a job, and I went two and a half years between gigs in this business. As you know, working in this business is not the easiest thing in the world, because it’s a talent business.

Vigeland: Exactly, no, it is. It’s a real challenge and certainly not just in our industry, but in so many. The first six months are really difficult, and part of the reason I wanted to write the book is because I feel like there are so many other career books out there that just say, “Oh, follow your passion and you’ll figure it out and the money will come and it’ll be great.” I don’t think that’s true. It certainly wasn’t true in my case, and it wasn’t true with a lot of the people that I talked to for the book.

“There are so many other career books out there that just say, ‘Oh, follow your passion and you’ll figure it out and the money will come and it’ll be great.’ I don’t think that’s true.”

It’s very difficult for all kinds of reasons. First of all, you have to get used to having an unsteady paycheck, if that’s something that you’ve had for a while. You have to figure out who you are outside of what you do. This was the biggest struggle for me. Because I had such a great job and I had been doing it for so long that all of a sudden, I didn’t have it, and I was like, “Oh, well, why do I matter any more?” That’s a very personal process that you have to go through. It’s also very much a rollercoaster.

You can pick up a lot of contract work. You can pick up temporary work. You can pick up freelance jobs. When you have those, it feels really great, and you say to yourself, “I’m doing this on my own and I’m my own boss and I’m working out of my house and it’s super.” Then you finish that, and you have maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks where you don’t have a job. Now these days, you can do things like blog posting, you can keep working.

But it is very much a rollercoaster to figuring out how you are going to manage that — not only an emotional rollercoaster, but a financial rollercoaster and a professional rollercoaster. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’ve talked on this show a couple of times about the shift people make when they get to a certain point in their careers, when they have been in that office setting and they have had career success for such a long time, and they just want to make a change.

A lot of people have gone to doing charity work for some sort of foundation. They just want that shift of operation. It’s something that I think we’re seeing more and more, but we still have that segment of the community – especially because the economy has been slow in recovering – of people who are still nervous about doing something like this.

Vigeland: That’s where the planning comes in. You’re absolutely right. It’s something — and there have been books written about this — that starts to tug at you when you get to midlife, like we are.

For some people, it happens earlier or later, but I think there’s something about your 40s where you start to think, “OK, what have I done? What more good can I do during my time on this planet, which is getting shorter and shorter?” I certainly have had that question in my mind of whether I’ll go work for the Peace Corps or something like that. Just have both an adventure and do something good for the world.

What keeps people from doing a lot of that is, yes, financial. Again, that’s something that you should prepare for. You can do two things. Number one, you can start to save as much as you can. I hosted a personal finance call-in show for six years. I know. People say they can’t do it, but you really have to take a good, hard look at your finances.

Second, you need to take a look at your lifestyle. My lifestyle has changed radically because I don’t have this nice, fat salary anymore. My life is simpler now. I have gotten rid of a lot of things. I have adjusted my expectations for what my life can and should look like. It’s much simpler. That has made it possible for me to do this. Above all, it teaches you what you can live without. Now, that said, again, it’s not just financial. A lot of people feel the pressure to constantly be climbing that career ladder, to constantly be — especially for women — “leaning in.” When you start thinking about stepping down the ladder, maybe stepping off it to start on an entirely new one and leaning out, the pressure within the American work ethic is really tough to push against, but you can do it….

Knowledge@Wharton: Tess, [you share stories] from various people throughout the book.

Vigeland: Yes. It astonished me how many people have done this. When I did it, I thought, “Oh, I’m crazy! I am the first and only one who has ever just left her job without knowing what she wanted to do next.” I’m doing exactly what I told all my listeners to never, ever, ever do.

All the experts say you should never, ever do this. You always have to have something lined up, you always have to be busy, you always have to have a job. Then I gave a speech about leaving my job, and I started hearing from people all over the world who had done it and said, “Wow, I’m really glad I’m not crazy…. You just told your story, and this is exactly what I did.” Yes, it is difficult, but it has, A, taught me a lot about myself, and B, it has allowed me to have more  freedom from the whole idea of what your work life is supposed to look like.

It’s been so manufactured and structured for us, and the lesson I’ve learned — and the lesson that so many of the people that I’ve talked to learned  — is that you don’t have to do it the way everybody else does it.

Knowledge@Wharton: The title of your book is Leap. But you should have the net there, which is obviously very important. We are seeing more people at least considering it, making this leap….If you’re in a job, and you’re comfortable and happy, it’s one thing. If you’re comfortable in a job and you’re not happy, you might as well be beating your head against the wall.

Vigeland: Yes, the lesson that I have learned — again, maybe it’s a midlife thing — is that life is too short to be working for people who don’t appreciate you. It’s too short to be in a job that doesn’t bring you some element of joy every day — or at least every other day. I know it’s work, and I actually don’t believe in that whole idea that if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. There is no job that’s like that. Come on.

That said, you do spend eight, 10, maybe 12 hours a day doing this. So it shouldn’t be something that makes you miserable. That’s not what we’re here for. We are not here to spend our days wishing that we were somewhere else.

“We are not here to spend our days wishing that we were somewhere else.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You do say in the book, though, that when you were getting ready to have that meeting with your boss to hand him that resignation letter, you were saying to yourself, “What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing? Am I crazy?”

Vigeland: That’s because I loved my job. I loved what I did on a daily basis. The problem was, where I was was no longer a fit for me. So the dread was real, because I knew I was giving something up that meant a lot to me, and that meant a lot to my family and my listeners. I knew I was going to miss it terribly, and I still do. I’m three years out, and I still miss it. I kept fighting with myself: Like, “Why are you doing this? Don’t walk into that office. Don’t take your resignation letter in.”

I pushed through, and I’m really glad I did, because it was the right thing to do. As tough as the three years have been, as tough as that day was, it was the right thing to do. I needed to do it, and I’ve figured it out. I haven’t figured out everything yet, but I’ve started to figure things out.

Knowledge@Wharton:  You’ve got a variety of people who you talk to in this book and they relate their own experiences — everybody from parents who have had to make adjustments because of a medical issue in the family to an Episcopal priest-in-training. How do you wrap it up in a bow?…

Vigeland: One of the things that will either infuriate readers or will make them feel great is that I actually do not wrap it up with a bow. I wrap it up with uncertainty.

Uncertainty is something that I have gotten more used to over the last three years, and I’m really glad about that, because it helps me in all kinds of areas of my life. But I have a better idea now of what I want the next phase of my life to look like. I don’t know how I’m going to implement that yet, so there is no pretty bow. For a lot of the people I talk to, they were still in the throes of figuring out what their next move was going to be.

I guess the message there is that you will figure it out. We’re really a smart species. We are a species that has been forced to figure things out for millennia. My biggest advice is not to listen to all the naysayers who say, “Don’t ever do this. It will never work out. You will never get hired again.” It’s not true. Frankly, if you’re with a potential employer who looks at your resume and says, “What have you been doing for three months — just not doing anything, figuring out what you want to do with your life?” If they question that, you don’t want to work for them.

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