By Ted Leonhardt
Here’s a dirty little career secret you won’t hear often: It’s always okay to change your mind. Let that “always” sink in–this way you’ll remember it the next time you find yourself in a tricky situation where backing out may feel like burning a bridge, damaging your credibility, or worse. Chances are that in the long run, changing your mind amounts to none of those things–just as long as you go about it the right way.
EXPERIENCE ABOVE ALL
It’s decision time, and you’re anxious. You’re afraid you’ll make the wrong choice. Or worried that once you commit, it’s important to stick it out no matter what, lest you risk looking fickle or like you’re not a team player. In some cases, career coaches will even tell you that follow-through is important for demonstrating commitment and integrity in the future–that you need to have a proven track record of making up your mind and seeing things through once you have.
What’s really important is the experience.
Well, in my experience, what’s really important is the experience. First–yes–commit, and then adjust to what you’ve committed to, even if that ultimately means changing your mind. It’s your life and career after all. If you’ve made a wrong move, add it to your list of worthwhile experiences and move on.
Trust me: This problem arises at every stage of people’s careers, and as a coach I’ve seen them all. When you’re right out of college, it’s natural to feel like you have limited choices and even less leverage. The feeling that you need to take––and stick with––an immediate opportunity can be difficult to counter. That was my own experience, after all. Later, once you’ve built up a career, you might get excited about a new opportunity but not see it for what it is, then feel afraid to admit that you’ve made a mistake.
No matter what, it’s always fine to reverse course, even if you wind up letting some people down. There are ways to contain the damage and save face, but the main thing is to get straight on your own priorities, then move forward accordingly. It isn’t easy. It’s still something I have to remind myself nearly every day after all these years.
The way you go about changing your mind in even the toughest professional situations is always basically the same:
- List all your options–even the least appealing ones and the ones that seem like distant possibilities.
- Talk it out, preferably with a colleague you trust or a coach who can offer some battle-tested perspective.
- Communicate the change of mind you’ve had as politely and definitively as possible, then just enjoy the ride that follows, including the bumps.
WHEN THE DETAILS COME IN LATER–AND THEY AREN’T PRETTY
Cindy, a coaching client of mine (she’s one of three whose experiences I’ll recount in this story; I’ve changed their names and some details for privacy), was in design school and had previously been a model. When she got an internship offer for an apparel design role, it initially seemed like a perfect fit.
In the interview, the firm’s owner breezed through her portfolio and offered her the position on the spot. Cindy stammered a yes as he promised to share more details by email. Cindy pretty much did fist pumps all the way home.
List all your options–even the least appealing ones and the ones that seem like distant possibilities.
Now, you might think that was a rookie move, and maybe it was, but in the heat of the moment, decisions like these are easy to make and happen more often than you’d think. Needless to say, when she received them from the hiring manager, those promised details were devilish, particularly the part that read “. . . and the internship pays [insert insultingly low hourly wage here].”
“That’s half what my classmates make!” thought Cindy. She tried to negotiate, but the owner wouldn’t budge. Cindy now had a choice. She could:
- Swallow her pride, cut her personal budget, and take the internship, hoping it would be worthwhile experience anyway.
- Take the internship and look for something better—fast.
Ultimately, Cindy declined. It was a tough decision, nearly a heartbreak, not to mention awkward to roll back her acceptance. But she ultimately learned to slow down in interviews and get all the information before making a decision. That experience was lastingly valuable, but despite the unpleasantness of the whole mishap, Cindy did one thing perfectly right: She approached the change of heart as a renegotiation–which, after all, it was.
WHEN IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SIGNED UP FOR
Robert sold everything he owned and hit Silicon Valley armed with a decade’s experience in corporate research. The stable paycheck had been great, but he was ready to take his chances on a startup. He was hoping for a jackpot.
At first, Robert’s interviews went well, especially with a founder who described her vision in world-changing, passionate terms. Sure, she had far to go, but she was thinking big, and that resonated with Robert. He accepted an offer and quickly dived into the work. Okay, so it wasn’t the research he’d longed for, but working for a startup meant wearing many hats, right? And grunt work. Lots of it, it turned out.
It was a nightmare. Robert’s personal pep talks worked for about six months, and then he gave up. Whether he’d been lied to or he just wasn’t ready for the grind wasn’t the point—it just wasn’t working out. This wasn’t what he’d moved to Silicon Valley for. The only thing was that he didn’t have a backup plan. He faced a choice:
- Stick it out and pray for improvement.
- Use his tiny new network to find a better gig–maybe–in one of the most competitive job markets back home.
- Bail and go home.
Those were his options, which Robert wisely enumerated and shared with friends and family. Ultimately, he chose to stick it out for a year all told–an eternity in startup land. Then he headed home and launched a startup incubator in his hometown. It wasn’t so much that Robert had to renegotiate with the founder whose team he’d joined; it was actually a bit tougher. He needed to renegotiate with himself: what his career goals actually amounted to and the best ways to achieve them.
WHEN THE GRASS BACK THERE STILL LOOKS GREENER
With five years of work experience under her belt, Sara was ready for a change. So she polished her resume and discreetly began to interview. Soon she had two offers: one with a small firm doing pro bono and community work, and the second with a global giant–let’s call it Ginormous, Inc. She loved the small firm, but Ginormous offered twice as much, plus a fat signing bonus that would land in her checking account right away. Sara couldn’t resist, took the big offer, set a start date, and promptly spent the bonus.
You can renegotiate anything at any time–you just have to approach it that way.
But days went by and Sara kept remembering the smaller firm. Its work was meaningful; it touched her heart. She’d met with the founders, not some guy in HR. Every day she became more convinced she’d be happier there, even if she’d have to accept being a little (okay, a lot) poorer. But how could she tell Ginormous so soon after accepting? And what about that bonus?
Here’s how Sara’s options stacked up, and there weren’t many of them:
- Keep her Ginormous commitment and try to forget about the offer she’d passed up.
- Ditch her big new corporate employer, probably by disappointing some people, join the small firm, and figure out how to pay back the bonus.
Ultimately, Sara followed her passion. She told the small firm she was still very interested in the role, as long as it was still open (it was) and explained her predicament. Together they negotiated a salary that included the bonus amount. She declined the Ginormous offer that she’d previously accepted, and quickly paid them back.
As all three of these experiences show, you always have options even when it may seem like you don’t. You can renegotiate anything at any time–you just have to approach it that way. Yes, there will be consequences. But you’ll find that time after time, colleagues and employers have all worked through similar dilemmas. Some people will be disappointed and may even think less of you than they did before, but that’s not a contingency you can always control; more than that, it’s no reason to continue down a career path that doesn’t suit you.
Life often turns out differently than we envision. It’s the experiences along the way that are the important part. Those experiences shape your character no matter which way you slice it. Never hesitate to sit back down at the table, no matter how long it’s been since you shook hands and pushed your chairs away.
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