Recently I was asked by a past client my thoughts on how to deal with second-guessing after deciding to take steps towards a major transition. He asked what might be some ways to dispassionately consider aborting or charging ahead.
I think many of us have experienced that moment of doubt after making a tough or major decision. It is such a tough place to be! You just put in all that effort to decide, took the leap to declare a decision and now you feel like back-peddling! Buyer’s remorse is creeping in and you really aren’t sure what to do! Do you keep moving forward down your new path or do your bail and abort on your new plans? If you resonate with this horrible situation, please keep reading. I promise to be helpful!
While thinking about how to answer my client’s question, one memory from 14 years ago kept coming to my mind. I debated about sharing it because it was a very intense life experience for me. It really illustrates the topic though so I hope you don’t mind hearing a little bit of my personal story.
Quitting my first professional job
Travel back to 2003 with me. What were you doing then? I was about to graduate from college with my degree in psychology. In March I accepted a job at a residential school for autistic and emotional disturbed children located just west of Boston, MA. I loved my psychology classes so taking the job seemed to make sense. Also I had wanted to explore the East Coast because many of my friends went there for college, while I stayed on the West Coast. The facility expressed strong interest in adding me to their ranks so I was encouraged. My only concern at the time was knowing that I had a relatively sheltered childhood and the facility was only one step down from a juvenile lock down center.
Unfortunately, only a few days into the two-week training I started to really question my fit with the job responsibilities (which included restraining kids during their outbursts) and the student population. Honestly I quickly realized despite all my psychology training, I was not well suited for this type of work.
After two weeks of training, it was time for my first official shift at the school and residential units. After some seriously tough interactions with the students during that first week on shift I really felt as if I had made a horrible professional and personal decision. I was faced with the exact situation my client recently asked me about. Was I going to abort or charge ahead?
I had just moved all my belongings across the country for this job. I had no idea if I was supposed to follow my heart and quit my first professional job after college or if I really should keep moving forward like my coworkers advised. They said you just get used to the hard and uncomfortable parts of the job, which sounded like a horrible way to lead my life. For those of you who have worked with special needs, autistic or emotionally troubled children you know how hard (yet rewarding) this work can be on a regular basis. I really had to decide what I was going to do!
There I was not even a month into my first professional job, 21 years old, making one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make! I got advice from several trusted sources during that first week of work. It was an incredibly stressful and emotional week. I looked back on how I made my decision earlier that spring and why I accepted this job in the first place. I cried. I journaled. I prayed.
Eventually I concluded that this job was a bad fit for me and I was not going suffer through a few years of it just to get a graduate degree paid for, as many of my new coworkers had suggested. Special education, as much as I value and respect it, was not the right profession for me. I decided to abort on my initial decision. I had to admit that I made a mistake. It was so hard to walk into my supervisor's office and give him a three week notice, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do!
I tried finding other work but after about three months of working temporary office jobs and not making enough money to pay rent, I returned home to live with my parents. You have to remember this was more than a decade ago and it wasn’t nearly as common or acceptable for college graduates to move back home. Through all the pain, confusion and sometimes shame, I learned a lot about how I make decisions, and how to make them better in the future. I also learned that it is okay to change your path after having already started down one that seemed right at the time.
Thankfully only a few months later I accepted a fantastic job at an outdoor science school. My year there helped me decide on where to go to graduate school and also helped shape my current passion for helping others improve their lives.
This tough decision to abort or charge ahead had a major impact on my life! In fact, if you have known me for any length of time since 2003, you’ve probably heard me tell this story because it’s been so impactful. I share it now in the hopes that it will help anyone currently second-guessing a major decision. Below are some of the major lessons I have taken away from my hard decision to quit my first professional job. You may not be faced with this same decision right now, and hopefully you never will be. But perhaps you are unsure of a recent decision you've made in some other area of your life. If that is not the case, maybe consider these points in light of any future decisions you might face.
#1: Take an honest look at what’s really motivating your decision. Looking back I can see now the flaws in my decision to accept that job. Pride and fear ruled my decision-making process. Pride made me want to impress other people. Fear made me want a quick answer. I didn’t want to be jobless after spring break my senior year of college so I took the first good enough job offer that came my way. I wish I had waited longer and considered other options, but at least now I know to honestly look at what is really motivating my major decisions.
- Do you want things like pride or fear to be a winning reason for any big life choice?
- What ideally would you like to be your biggest motivator moving forward with this decision?
#2: Whose approval do you seek? Eventually I realized that I had accepted the job in Boston partially to impress other people. I wanted their approval too much and that got the best of me! I have also seen seeking approval backfire in another way: sometimes we begin to question our decision only after learning that other people don’t approve of our choice. Your doubt might be coming from the fact that other people are questioning your choice…and that questioning can be really hard for some people!
- Might you be considering one option over another because someone you care about would approve of your choice?
- How much of your life do you want defined by what other people value or think is good?
#3: Listen to wisdom! Wisdom can come from so many external sources such as our parents, teachers, books, movies and friends as well as internal sources such as our values, past experiences and a clear understanding of our strengths and personality. Whatever the source of the wisdom, it just might be telling you to stick this out or to abort on your plans. Wisdom may say to stick with your situation a little longer or it may say get out now! Sometimes there is a window of opportunity when it really is in the best interest of your future to abort on your newly made plans. The perfect example of this is deciding to call off an engagement when you just know that getting married isn’t the right answer. This is a very hard, but possibly life-saving choice.
- Is there any wisdom in or around you that could help you decide to abort or charge ahead?
- What are some of your own “life lessons” or personal strengths align with either option?
#4: Be humble enough to change course. The trick about applying wisdom after you’ve made your decision is that you must be humble enough to know when you should just bow out, or abort on your new plan. To do this we also have to believe that it is totally okay (and very wise) to realize that your decision was influenced by the wrong motives or really won’t lead you where you want to go in life. Sometimes we can see this as soon as we start moving forward, like I did as soon as the two-week training started. If this is the case for you too, you may just have to suck up a little pride and figure out a new plan.
- Are you willing to humble yourself enough to change course?
- If you felt more permission to change your mind (maybe again) in a year would that help you know what to do now?
#5: Don’t quit if it is just fear. Sometimes new things in life are scary just because they are unfamiliar or more challenging than anything we have done before. This can be especially true for people like myself who are natural “planners” and want to feel ready and prepared for anything that life brings. I was certainly surprised by some of the uncomfortable and challenging parts of my Boston job. I had to ask myself if I wanted to quit my job because I didn’t feel prepared and therefor feared failure or if I really didn’t want to continue moving forward with this type of work and profession.
- Although it may be hard and very uncomfortable, do you really want to abort on your decision just because you are afraid?
- If you are experiencing a lot of fear around your decision, is any of it perhaps irrational?
#6: Take a trip into the future. At some point in my decision process to leave or stay at my Boston job, someone asked me how I might feel in the future if I stayed or if I left the job. This was a very enlightening way to look at my situation. I knew that I would not regret leaving because I did not approve of the job responsibilities and the ways I was instructed to interact with the students. If I left I would be honoring my own values and standing up for my professional views. I was scared of what the future would hold after leaving, but trusted I was putting myself on a better path.
- How might you feel in 6 months after deciding to abort or to charge ahead?
- Would you feel like you gave up on yourself or your dream if you aborted on the plan now? On the flip side, might you feel like you honored something deep inside yourself if you charged ahead?
#7: Engage the mind and heart. My past client was specifically interested in how to make this type of big decision without being influenced by strong emotion, or staying rational and impartial. I am analytical in nature (as seen in my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator results - ENTJ - and StrengthsFinder results - Strategic) yet this situation taught me that emotions are also important when making big life decisions. There was something visceral inside of me that really rejected the idea of continuing with that first job. That deciding week was an incredibly analytical and emotional one for me, just ask my mom who helped me through my tears, fears and confusion. Our emotions communicate important insights that can be very helpful in a decision-making process, even if they are a bit powerful or unsettling to experience.
- Is there some way you can consider both your emotional and analytical responses in the midst of making a big decision?
- What would it look like for you to engage both your mind and heart?
I certainly hope this sheds light on any big decision you are re-evaluating. While I chose to abort in this situation certainly others I determined it best to charge ahead. There is no easy answer unfortunately. I would love to hear your thoughts after reading this post!
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First published by Jessica Lynn Johnson in 2017 for JLJ Coaching Services, Ltd.