What Should You Do When A Big Change Doesn’t Work Out?

Sometimes we take a risk but realize that what follows isn’t actually what’s best for us. Here’s how to regroup.

Paper art of four paper airplanes, three going upward and one sideways

(Photo: iStock)

This column by Hannah Sung—the creator of At The End Of The Day, a news perspective that puts people first—is the second in a three-part series on “good change.” (Catch up on her first column in the series, about a daughter helping her mom’s Korean restaurant survive the pandemic, here.)

The past few years have been so weird. Amid all the change in a COVID world, brought on by public health and safety measures, individuals have been making major life changes, too. You see it in headlines about the Great Resignation or stories of people moving out of expensive cities to more affordable, smaller towns. For me, during the first two years of the pandemic, the only thing that wasn’t changing was my outfit (excuse me while I burn my jogging pants forever—I may turn it into a bonfire this long weekend and make it a party).

Related: Do You Need a Life Coach?

All too often, the narrative around a huge life change is success—a big choice that ended up being the best decision ever, et cetera, et cetera. But that doesn’t reflect real life. Sometimes we take a risk but realize that what follows isn’t actually what’s best for us. Sometimes we look back with regret. I know because I’ve been there. It made me consider:

What happens when you leap into change and it doesn’t work out?

“A classic pandemic story”

This is my friend, Day. We’ve partied together on both sides of the great divide (COVID? No! Having kids!).

A photo of two smiling women in party clothes against a purple light

Left to right: Day Milman and me, her long-time friend and admirer.

That pic is from her birthday, the last party I went to before the first lockdown of 2020. Around that time, Day applied to a graduate program at the University of Toronto. That’s also where she works, supporting student wellness and mental health through the arts. Her work was fulfilling, but she craved change.

“I decided to go back to school in a program I was really interested in. I really thought this was going to be the fit of the century,” Day says.

It was a masters degree in psychotherapy and spiritual care.

“What a beautiful thing, to be in a space where you can talk about all the deep, juicy stuff of life. All of that just thrilled me to bits.” Day was excited to talk about spirituality, life and death and learn how to support people in a highly-skilled way.

This program was a dream for Day. But the Zoom aspect of it was not.

“A lot is lost when you’re online.” Day had been looking forward to impassioned discussions in a classroom setting.

“But all the organic vibing, passion and excitement can really drain out of the room in a Zoom environment because everyone’s waiting and on mute. Everyone’s really polite, which is awesome, but it also dampens the environment I was expecting to have.”

Outside of her Zoom classes, Day was trying to balance her job (she was doing the masters program part-time) as well as having her child at home with schools closed, and supporting an elderly neighbour with transportation to appointments and help with groceries.

“It was sort of a classic pandemic story in a way, where you are looking for some change, you made that change and then the pandemic brought its own limitations and challenges,” she says. “But there’s also things about myself that I recognized weren’t fitting with that program.”

For Day, there wasn’t enough discussion on white privilege embedded in the conversations. She felt there was some discomfort with bringing that topic forward. That, coupled with the other, unexpected elements of doing the program online, made her realize it wasn’t the right fit. And there’s no shame in that.

So she quit after six months. I was surprised. But I was also proud of her for walking away.

How do we practice quitting?

Over the phone this week, Day reminded me that this wasn’t the first time she’d quit a degree (FYI, she has also finished multiple degrees; we laughed that she just likes to collect them).

Years ago, Day had been pursuing a communications and culture PhD part-time that she didn’t complete.

“That was very, very hard for me to quit. My pride was wrapped up in that,” she says. “My status in the world and my career trajectory and all that.”

But the timing for Day wasn’t right. Her dad had just died. “I remember bursting into tears walking into the library because it was so lonely there,” she says.

Nothing seemed to be flowing. Not only was it a personally challenging time, there were administration mix-ups that made it feel like the universe was putting up hurdles.

Day kept plugging away, completing the first year and hanging on through the summer before finally making her next big decision. She calls it a moment of power.

“I was able to say, ‘This is about me. This doesn’t work for me.’” It took her a long time to admit it to herself, but today, Day takes pride in her decision to quit—especially in relation to her job working with student communities at the University of Toronto. For some of these students, their entire identities can be wrapped up in what they’re studying. University is a high-pressure environment, and changing course can be seen as failing, even though it’s an important part of personal growth.

“I’ve been able to draw on some of my experience to tell my students, and myself, too, that sometimes it’s okay to leave something that doesn’t work for you. It’s not because you’re not capable. It simply doesn’t work for you and that’s okay.”

“You can’t learn without failing. Imagine if we failed and then gave up on walking? Or talking? What a nightmare!” Day laughs.

It’s so true that toddlers have an amazing, inborn sense of bouncing back to try again. How do we reconnect with that energy?

At least part of the answer has to lie in reframing failure. Re-routing our decisions is the very definition of wisdom.

Day believes in trusting your gut. It’s just another way of describing how we process information that is based on understanding our emotions. That emotional information is valid.

I know what it’s like to trust your gut but I also know what it’s like to continually override your gut feeling, too. Sometimes there is no one tougher on us than ourselves and we just can’t accept when something isn’t working out.

But when we ignore the parts of ourselves that are being compromised to get that degree or stick it out in a job or remain in a bad friendship, we end up losing more than we think.

“For me, there’s a huge lesson about recognizing when that compromise is too much. What is actually going to make me thrive? Where am I going to be able to give the most and still be a happy human? I think that is damn important.”

Me too. And I’m grateful to Day for taking the time for a catch-up call with me this week! If you have a friend you haven’t talked to in awhile, why not call them? As I talked to Day, I laid on a yoga block and I promise you, it was a half-hour highlight of my week.

And on the note of change, a big thing that happened in our household is that my husband and very first reader of this newsletter (ha ha, part of the job description of living with me), celebrated a milestone this week with an art installation and defending his MFA thesis. There was cake!

In fact, Isaac embarked on this path in 2017 before a car accident and concussion derailed that plan, which I wrote about here and here. He also realized, like Day, that the program itself wasn’t a great fit so he applied elsewhere a couple of years later. It has taken a circuitous path with an unexpected pandemic in between, but sometimes we still end up where we want to be, having taken a different route. Congrats, Isaac! The whole family is so proud.

On Instagram, I asked whether you’ve made a big life change during the pandemic and whether it’s working out. For some, like Carrie, who left a corporate job to work at a flower farm (!!!) it has worked out happily.

For others, the change is ongoing. Mandy moved from Morocco, back home to Canada, and is thinking about next steps in her travel career.

For Emma, making a big change has been a mixed experience. Emma quit her job to look after her 95-year-old grandmother part-time (Nana is lucky to have you, Emma!).

Are you thinking about a major life decision? The next part of this series is an Advice Column and you know I love writing them.

What are you trying to decide right now? What are the big questions you have when it comes to making that change? Email [email protected] to write to me with your question.

Want to read more from Hannah? Subscribe to her weekly newsletter above. For now, here are two more of her columns that we love:

Meet the person who inspired me to do my own thing
Living with less can be more

Edited by Laura Hensley

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