The Myth of the Career Safety Net: Why You Shouldn’t Play It Safe

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safety netTell me if this sounds familiar:

“I should be glad to have a job! It would be crazy to leave a perfectly good biweekly paycheck unless I have another one already lined up.”

For many of us, the thing that keeps us firmly rooted in our jobs—our “safety net,” if you will—isn’t the traditional lure of an employer pension or 401(k). It’s the idea that we should stay in a job (or field) because otherwise, we’ll end up on the street.

It’s thinking that our skills and expertise are only good in one field, and that as long as we stay in that field, we’ll be O.K. It’s having seniority in our current job and worrying that everything we’ve built will vanish if we make a change.

When we’re so scared, it’s no wonder we cling to the safety net that is our current situation. But in my work as a career coach, I tell people that if you’re staying where you are because you think it’s the safe move, you just might be doing the least safe thing for your career.

Admittedly, moving away from that which makes us comfortable is easier said than done, so your adventure doesn’t have to mean quitting your job this afternoon. If you’re feeling tentative or unsure where to start, begin with these three steps:

1. Call Out Your Skills

What are you good at? Fixing your co-worker’s computer issues? Listening patiently to angry customers? Analyzing and streamlining processes? Unless you’ve spent years in medical school (and sometimes even then), many of the most valuable skills aren’t job- or industry-specific. In fact, they could help you anywhere.

Suhaib Abdali, a 38-year-old marketing and web expert in Oakland, Calif., knows this firsthand. After 10 years working for the government in the defense industry, he landed an interview at a telecom company—an industry completely different than the one he’d been toiling in. “My interviewer was skeptical about my qualifications—there was really nothing on my résumé that applied to the job I was interviewing for,” he says. “We were doing a business case, and I was able to walk him through my thought processes. I told him, ‘Look, I don’t understand your metrics, but in my world, this is how I would see it.’ ”

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That was the kind of problem-solving Abdali’s new employers wanted on their team, no matter who brought it to the table. “My value was my analytical skill set, which I had been working on my whole career,” he explains. “I always kept my eye on the big picture instead of counting the widgets each day. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many widgets there are—it matters that you learn to count.”

Forty-year-old author and entrepreneur Erika Napoletano, of Denver, spent 17 years in various financial positions—from financial advising to working in high-risk real estate loans—before deciding to strike out on her own (and leave behind her six-figure salary), to do what she loved, which was telling stories through writing. “I had met someone who worked at a small ad agency at a business event a few months prior to leaving my job,” she recalls. “We connected out of the blue and they were hiring a writer.”

The skills she emphasized to land a copywriting position with that agency had little to do with finance—instead, she was able to show them some freelance web writing she had done while working her financial day jobs. Looking back from her current position as the head of her own marketing and branding company, Napoletano is glad she changed course: “It turned out to be one step closer to where I am today, with two books, a few magazine columns and a growing blog readership.”

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2. Don’t Discount Possibilities

Quick question: How closely does your college major relate to your current job?

For most people, not very. And it’s the same as you progress through the business world—for most of us, it’s a nonlinear path. For that reason, the last thing you want to do is eliminate any possibilities right off the bat when you start investigating new career opportunities.

Abdali explains that he never pursued specific positions, but he did keep an ear open for opportunities: “I was talking to a friend, and he mentioned that his company was going through some changes.” Abdali agreed to go in for an interview, and that’s how he transitioned from his government job into his private sector role at the telecom company.