When you’re considering a career change, it can feel big. And so, understandably, small steps can feel so… insignificant. The truth is, though, incremental shifts can facilitate powerful results. Part of the reason: Small changes help you begin to see what’s possible for yourself. Whether you’re stuck in your ways (and we all are, in some areas of our lives), afraid of the unknown, or tending toward all-or-nothing thinking, an incremental change can be exactly what you need to break the cycle of inertia.

Movement begets movement. Turning something around 100% may seem like an impossible feat, but by doing one thing — taking that first step — you begin the see the next step, then the next, then the next, getting yourself closer and closer to the change you want to make. One of my career coaching clients, Brian E., knows firsthand the power of incremental shifts. He graciously agreed to share his story:

“I worked as an attorney for 16 years at a boutique entertainment licensing agency in the Chicago area, building brands and protecting legacies for iconic Hollywood entertainers and classic television shows. While I enjoyed working with and serving my clients, the substantive aspects of my role became less fulfilling and unrewarding over time, leading to feelings of stagnation and discontent. But without a clear calling or alternative direction I felt passionate about, I settled into my comfort zone and made the best out of the status quo. Then, in late 2014, some operational changes and managerial decisions were made at my firm that I was neither comfortable with nor wanted my name associated with. So I left. Thus began the difficult and often frustrating journey of reflection, self-evaluation and discovery that ultimately led to my work with Anna, and a career transition into my current Tour Operations role at MillerCoors.”

Brian knew it was time for a change when he experienced “increased and evolving feelings of professional apathy, complacency, boredom, and frustration.” When these feelings began to creep into and overtake his personal life too, he knew he had to do something to set the wheels of change in motion… he just wasn’t sure what that “something” was. Brian’s journey — from frustration to confusion to clarity to satisfaction — was paved with small steps toward discovery. Allowing himself to experience downtime was, in itself, an incremental shift.

“At Anna’s suggestion and with her encouragement, I learned to step away from the process now and then and give myself both time and permission to seek out and experience joy in small, everyday adventures. Whether it was picking up my guitar, going to a movie, spending the day at a museum, or going for a mid-day run or bike ride, escaping the fog of frustration and allowing myself to just “be”, was invaluable and helped me focus and reframe my thought process to be more open to evaluating and exploring options that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered.”

How to Take Small Steps Toward Career Change

Quite often, an incremental shift can be smaller than you think. I once read an article about how to motivate yourself to exercise: The author recommended putting on your running shoes and walking around the house. The next day, take it one step further: put on your running shoes and step out onto the porch. The following day, put on your running shoes and walk to the mailbox at the end of your driveway. Tiny, incremental steps (in this case, literal!) can bring you closer and closer to your goal.

When encouraging children to eat vegetables, pushing them to take “just a taste” isn’t always an advisable first step. Simply putting it on their plate, having it in a share-bowl on the table, or making sure they see it on your plate can be smaller — but more effective — incremental strategies. In the same way, leaving your cell phone in another room during dinner can be a small step toward restoring work-life balance. Reading one professional development article instead of scrolling through social media at breakfast can incrementally build your knowledge base.

As in Brian’s case, making small shifts can be particularly helpful you if you know you’re not in the right career — but you’re not quite ready to make a drastic career change. Incremental steps can help increase your readiness, testing the waters of an alternate career. Examples include:

  • reading trade publications of the industry you want to move into
  • attending workshops or presentations led by industry leaders
  • joining professional organizations; attending their meetings and networking with other members

From Risk to Reward

When Brian looks back on his career change, he says that every step was risky.

“From quitting the security of my former job and profession without a clear direction or road map in mind, to opening up and being vulnerable, both with myself — in the sense of stepping out of my comfort zone and confronting the frustration and confusion that I’d learned to live with for so long — as well as with others, like Anna, and all the others I reached out to throughout the process to network with or just seek advice.”

Indeed, all change involves some degree of risk and vulnerability. And, as Brian experienced, vulnerability stands out as the cornerstone of growth. The first step — while it might feel vulnerable and require a mustering of courage — can ease the anxiety by helping you slowly build the confidence to take a variety of incremental steps toward your goal.

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