I remember many times in my life when I felt certain it was time to make a change. As soon as the realization hit me, there was this sense of urgency to make it happen right away. I felt that if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, I should get out quickly.
I’ve heard from many friends and readers who have been at a turning point like this as well. They dislike their job or they’re ready to make a full career change. Or they might have some plan to build something or start a business of their own. Or they have no idea what they want and they’re feeling directionless. Whatever the case, I encourage them to question that sense of urgency.
I took a lot of risks when I was younger, many of which seem foolish in retrospect. I dropped out of school and turned down the few jobs I was offered so I could pursue work I wasn’t qualified to do. Thankfully, these risks worked out. Now, while I still enjoy taking risks and think they’re important for growth, I’ll often have a backup plan in mind. But on top of that, I always try to buy myself time.
Say you have a full-time job as a designer, but you want to go freelance. With the current popularity of freelancing, it almost feels like you have to quit your job now or you’ll miss your window. My advice: Stay, at least for a little while.
Define a specific deadline and work hard until then. Learn as much as you can about design while you’re getting paid to do so. Observe your co-workers to learn how they close a sale or interact with clients. Take on side projects (if you can do so and still be a good employee) while you have the safety net of your current job, and slowly build your client base. Most importantly, save as much as you can.
How much money do you need to live? What’s the minimum amount you’d need to scrape by for say, six months? How about for a year? Calculate that, and be honest with yourself, then figure out how long it would take to make that money at your full-time job. That length of time is your deadline. It’s the hope that will get you through the next few months or years of work you may not want to be doing.
During that time, you might be working nights and weekends. You will probably live a different lifestyle while you save your six-month cushion. It may sound unpleasant, but your deadline will carry you through. It will motivate you to work even harder because you know it’s only temporary. You have your finish line in mind, and that little secret will drive you forward.
This is what I did when planning my move from Austria to New York. I even made a spreadsheet and compared cost of living between the two cities (which I share in detail in my Let’s Go to NYC book). Then I continued working, taking on design jobs with my current studio, until I had the cushion I needed. Cesar Kuriyama did this before creating the 1 Second Everyday app, which now has millions of downloads. (You can hear more about Cesar’s story here.) Illustrator Malika Favre, whose work you’ve probably seen in The New Yorker and elsewhere, uses this strategy every time she makes a big life or career transition. You can listen to our NTMY conversation about it here.
The concept seems obvious, and it is. A lot of people more strategic and serious than me would call it a given. Of course you’d calculate and save before taking a risk, right? That’s not always the case for people who feel desperate or fed up with their current situation. It’s easy to rush into something or let anxiety control your next move. Then you potentially find yourself in a more desperate situation than before, struggling to make your dream work.
The beautiful thing about this approach is that it removes that urgency and panic. You’ve bought yourself time. You have the security of what you’ve learned, a client base you can build on and savings you can live on while you’re getting your new plan off the ground. Now you don’t have to compromise or take on projects you don’t want to do. You can only focus on what you do want.
Put simply, it’s about being strategic and patient. You’re just working toward your goal within the safety of your current situation. But if you think of it as buying your time, it changes everything. You’re in control, you’ve removed the feeling of crisis and you’re making it happen for yourself. You can breathe a little easier because you’ve extended your window.
Buy yourself time and you’re technically paying for peace of mind. That’s worth a lot.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!