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I didn’t see it at first, though it was staring me in the face. I was writing a psychological suspense novel about a TV host named Robin Trainer (it’s called “Eyes on You” and was published this summer) who has to reinvent herself professionally, and it didn’t occur to me until I reached the final chapters that the main character’s situation echoed my own in certain respects. Maybe, I thought, creating Robin’s dilemma was my way of working out some of the issues I’d faced.
My situation wasn’t totally like Robin’s. While her career is in TV, mine was in magazines – I spent 14 years running Cosmopolitan – and unlike her, I made a deliberate choice to change things up. I left the magazine business two years ago to work full-time as an author and speaker.
But no matter the circumstances, there are certain universal issues that pop up when you go about a reinvention. And I think there also are universal strategies that can make the process easier and ultimately more fulfilling.
The one thing that helped me enormously was that I tested the waters first, and I recommend this for anyone considering a change. It will help you be sure you haven’t simply over-romanticized the idea in your mind. Do volunteer or freelance work in the field you’re imagining for yourself (I wrote eight mysteries before I left Cosmo, so I was sure I wanted to do it), or at least talk to as many people as you can.
And if it’s a new life rather than a new career, my God, test the waters, too. Recently someone told me she was seriously considering a move to Miami because she’d heard great things about living there, and she began applying for jobs without ever having set foot south of Georgia. I think people sometimes fail to test the waters because they don’t want the dream dashed before they start, but if you don’t fully investigate in advance, you can make a costly mistake.
And speaking of money, get your financial ducks in a row. Are you sure you can afford the change right now, or would it be better to bide your time for a bit and save up?
A few other suggestions:
When you’re considering what you want from the world with this next step of yours, also consider what the world might want from you.
This may be the moment when you’re finally going to fulfill your passion and do what you want to do. But there’s no harm in figuring out how your reinvention can best align with what’s in demand in the universe. In other words, aim for success, too.
People often ask my advice about how to get a book published on a topic they’re “dying to do,” but in the discussion it becomes clear that they’ve never investigated whether there’s a real market for the idea. It may take only a little bit of tweaking to turn your concept into one that has real scale. And there’s nothing wrong with making money doing what you love.
Don't panic if your new life feels slightly off at first
At Cosmo I had a magnificent glass-walled office, and I looked out each day to the sight of fun, fabulous staffers zipping around, racks of the newest fashions being wheeled by and male models stripping off their shirts for test photos. When I changed paths, I started working all by my lonesome out of a small office in my Manhattan home. The most dramatic thing I saw out my window during the past year was a red tail hawk devouring a pigeon. Fascinating, but not quite what I was used to.
Working in such a solitary way was a big shift for me, and there were some early days when it felt strange. But I told myself to be patient, that it was what I wanted, and that I’d soon come to love it – and I do.
That said, don’t ignore what isn’t working
It’s good to step back on a regular basis and evaluate. What’s bringing you the most satisfaction, and what isn’t?
I mistakenly didn’t do much of that type of introspection the first nine months in my new life, partly because I was so busy. But when I finally made the time, there was a big payoff to the process.
I went through my calendar and saw that there had been tons of phone and in-person meetings devoted to someone wanting to “pick your brain.” I like sharing, but all those conversations had been not only a huge time suck, as well as mentally draining. I scaled way back on them after that.
If your reinvention was forced on you, know that it may hurt for a while, but soon you need to move on.
Maybe you were downsized out of a job or a career your love. You’re starting over in a new area and, though that may be exciting, it’s hard not to miss what once was.
Dr. Ish Major, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist I met while doing a spot on the "Today Show," told me that dealing with the finality of who you used to be can be a lot like grief.
“What I hear a lot of is, ‘I don’t know who I am without that,’” he said. “But what I tell patients is that whatever it was, it wasn’t the biggest part of them. They need to get in touch with their essential self.”
He suggests asking five friends and five family members to describe you in one word. You may be surprised by how much those words differ from the professional definition of yourself that you had up until then. Let those words point you in the right direction.
Don’t stalk your old life.
I’m sure you know it’s a mistake to keep checking Facebook to see what a former lover is up to. It will only torture you. Well, the same is true of your old work life. Don’t encourage former colleagues to gossip with you about your old workplace or co-workers unless you can do so without any psychological pinch.
Remember, it’s not written in stone.
Once your new life begins to unfold, keep in mind that things could evolve differently than you expected and you shouldn’t be so locked into the original plan that you don’t see the beauty of an emerging area.
When I left my job, I planned to do a certain amount of public speaking about business and careers, but not a huge amount. And yet because I enjoy it more than I anticipated, I’m increasing the amount of it in the mix.
And next year? Who knows? I’ll just have to wait and see how I feel. Done right, reinvention is an ever continuing process, opening all sorts of exciting and intriguing doors.