This is my single favorite piece of career change/retirement advice: don’t focus on what or why you’re leaving. Look where you’re going instead.

Think about it. Life is a journey, and if you’re not watching where you’re going, not only are you not going to get very far; you’re also likely to run into obstacles, miss the turns that would keep you on course, overlook signs pointing to exciting opportunities along the way, and waste time being unhappy and dissatisfied. Thinking positively about what you want to do, figuring out how to do it, and planning the basic steps you need to take is the best way I know to both reach your destination and enjoy the trip. Let me share my experience to demonstrate what I mean.

I’ll admit, I made my decision to leave EPA the day I walked out of a conference room after a meeting seething with fury born of months of frustration and saying, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’ve got to get out of this place.” I’d lost my sense of mission, my belief that what I was doing had any positive real-world significance, and that mattered more to me than money. But I’ve always had a practical core. I knew that staying in the Fed until I reached minimum retirement age would lock in my ability to rejoin the Federal employees’ health benefit system when I actually started to collect my pension (assuming Congress doesn’t screw me over, that is). That meant staying with EPA and working hard for over two more years. For my own psychological health, I needed to find a way to stay upbeat and positive despite being miserably unhappy at work.

My approach was to figure out what I wanted to do – what would make me happy – once I was free, and to start planning the right practical steps to take to make certain I’d be ready to hit the ground running as soon as I could. My focus shifted forward, away from the dissatisfaction of the moment toward the achievement of the future.

Any time I started dwelling on what made me unhappy about my job, I’d shake off the mood by consciously plotting the story of a happy new chapter in my life. I didn’t just dream about it: I kept it real by making all my steps concrete. I met with my financial adviser to get a handle on what I could afford to do. Evenings and weekends, I researched what I would need in equipment and training, and started applying myself to learn new skills. I worked out a business plan.

Early on, I hung up a whiteboard in my cube displaying the countdown to my resignation date. I updated it every day. When I first started, the board showed over 1,000 days. Many of my friends and co-workers thought that had to be depressing, perceiving the countdown from the viewpoint of a prisoner marking off the interminable days still remaining on a jail term.

I saw it differently. To me, it showed how few days I still had to prepare before I set sail. I had spent over 20 years safe in my EPA port; now I was planning a solo adventure. I needed to find my boat, make sure it was seaworthy, equip it with charts and instruments to navigate my course, load it with enough provisions to reach at least my first port of call, get the right gear to be comfortable in the weather, and hone my own skills to ensure I could handle the sails and rudder. I took my voiceover boat out on practice trips while I still had a guaranteed berth, building my confidence in my ability to succeed. And when I left my home port for the last time, I didn’t look back: I kept my eyes on my instruments and the horizon, tacking with the wind to hold my course.

And you know something? I’m happy. I’m doing things I enjoy. And I’m planning even more for all the days ahead.

You can do it too. Look forward. Go there.


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