For 14 years, I had a delicious job as the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, which at the time was the top-selling women’s magazine on newsstands. As much as I loved Cosmo, I had a crazy, secret dream of one day becoming my own boss and writing murder mysteries and thrillers. I’d already published a bunch of these books while at Cosmo, but as you could imagine, it was tough to focus on writing with such a big day job.
So in 2012, I finally struck out on my own. For the past four years, I’ve had the great pleasure of working for myself as an author. I also travel the country giving speeches on leadership and success.
Perhaps there’s a dream job you’d love to have one day but you aren’t sure how to snag it. Or you sense there’s a dream job but you don’t yet know what it is. Here are my best tips for tuning into what your dream job (or jobs) may be—and how to make it a reality.
1. Have weekly check-ins with yourself
It’s easy to think of your career as something that kind of unfolds for you, but we have far more control than we realize. It’s important not to get so caught up in the day-to-day stuff at work that you fail to think about the big picture and strategize how to make it happen.
Set aside time each week to think about your career and reassess how it’s going. Ask yourself questions like, “Am I still happy with what I’m doing?” and “Is there some childhood dream I’d like to pull out of my back pocket right now?”
It was in one of those sessions with myself that I started to think about becoming a certain kind of author. I had taken a cup of coffee into the room I worked in when my kids were sleeping and realized that somewhere in my mind I’d always had this secret fantasy about writing mysteries and that if I didn’t hurry up and do it, I wouldn’t get the chance. I opened my laptop and typed up the first paragraph of a book. It took me two years to finish it and I did a lot of rewriting, but that opening paragraph of If Looks Could Kill, my first murder mystery—and a New York Times bestseller—remained the same.
2. Pay attention to eureka moments
Once, when I was preparing to appear on a TV show, I noticed that the woman doing my makeup seemed to absolutely love her job. I asked if she had always been a makeup artist, and she said that for many years she’d had totally different career, a career she wasn’t particularly happy in, but one day it struck her how much she loved doing her kids’ makeup for Halloween. That’s when she began to realize what her real passion was.
I think it’s so important to recognize those moments when you’re really in the zone and enjoying something. Personally, I’ve always loved anything to do with crime. I would watch endless episodes of Law and Order and read countless mysteries. I also loved reading anything related to forensics. Give me an article about blood spatter, and I’m in heaven.
Keep a running list—perhaps on your phone—of what you notice yourself drawn to or anything you think you might like to accomplish at some point in your work life. Review that list during your weekly check-ins. Sometimes it will all add up and you can see it pointing in a certain direction.
Read more: How to Find Your Passion
3. Do some career math
The first time I ever did career math was in my early 30s. I was a senior editor at a magazine, but at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try to work my way up to an editor-in-chief position. Out of curiosity, I decided to figure out when some of the leading female editors-in-chief—like Ruth Whitney at Glamour and Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan—had first attained the top job.
When I did the math, I realized that most of them had become an editor-in-chief by the time they were in their late 30s or early 40s. That helped me realize there was a window for reaching that kind of goal. Meaning that if I wanted to make it happen for myself, I didn’t have a lot of time to waste. I started hustling and taking steps to prepare myself just in case—like taking public speaking classes
Granted, the window doesn’t exist for all careers. You can certainly become an author of fiction when you’re 60, or even 90, but it’s going to be far trickier to become a movie producer or a jewelry designer at that time. So do the math. Find out when people in your dream field reached key points. That can often be the kick in the butt you need to realize, “Hey, I don’t have all the time in the world—I can’t put this dream on hold forever.”
4. Test the waters before making a big change
If you’ve begun to think that you’re in the wrong field and that your dream job is elsewhere, be careful about romanticizing the new career path too much. You want to be as sure as possible about making a switch. I knew it would be insane for me to bolt from a great job in magazines and just start writing (plus my husband would have shot me), so I wrote my first books while I was still in the media business. After I dropped my kids off at school each day, I’d come into the office before everyone else and write for an hour. I also got up really early on weekends and wrote for a stretch. Over time the pages added up.
It was draining to do that, but over time it helped me realize I loved writing enough to pull the trigger and make a big career shift. Doing volunteer work is a also a great way to test the waters regarding a new career field.
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5. Then make the leap
Yes, it’s scary, but after the initial stress, you’ll be exhilarated. My leap reminded me a little bit of jumping rope, when two other people are holding the jump rope and you just have to get in there. You may be afraid you’re going to get slapped in the face with the rope. But once you’ve jumped in successfully, it’s such an awesome rush.
Kate White is the author of six Bailey Weggins mysteries and four psychological thrillers, including The Wrong Man. She also gives speeches on leadership and career success.