There's a myth (or perhaps it's a folk tale) that says that in order to boil a frog, you first place the frog in a pot of cold water and then turn up the heat gradually. In the end, the frog will be too stupid to notice the water getting hotter until his body betrays him and it's too late.
I don't know whether or not the frog story is fact, but I do know it rings true for careers.
Take my friend, Stacy, as a case in point (and, yes, I changed her name to avoid critical feedback of a more personal nature). Stacy graduated from law school two years behind me. She accepted a position with a 100+ lawyer firm, not out of passion, but because she needed to start consistently filling those student loan payment envelopes.
She stayed at the firm for 14 years. I remember visiting her one day, after her 7th anniversary had come and gone, and I noticed that the walls of her office were bare. Her diploma and a few framed prints sat on the floor, leaning. When I asked her why, she told me that the act of hanging them up would create a sense of permanence, and she didn't think she could bear it.
Fourteen years, she stayed. Fourteen. In that time, she had journeyed from mid-twenties to pushing forty. Her career, while not over by a long shot, had certainly solidified. The opportunities for change were fewer, farther between and harder to spot. She had a mortgage now, a family dependent, in part, on her income and clients to serve.
The heat had turned up ... had been turned up for a while now ... and she didn't know it.
While Stacy did leave the firm, she moved to another that was roughly the same. By that time, she knew what her career would be - rewarding in spots, but lacking passion. Her eulogy would have to draw its color from a rich personal life, because her professional one, to her thinking, was beige.
There's a scene from the Tina Fey comedy 30 Rock in which Fey's character, Liz Lemon, asks her much younger, model-attractive, millennial assistant how she looks before going to an event.
"Do I look OK?" Liz asks.
Her assistant replies, "That's exactly how you look."
Approaching 40 with the heat turned up and a seeming inability to make anything more than minor movements, "okay" was exactly how Stacy's career looked as well.
Reinvention is a play in three acts.
The first act is the realization that you have the right to control your career and your destiny. The realization is embodied in equal parts fear, excitement and responsibility. The first two are obvious, but the daunting sense of responsibility to self, and the consequences of shirking it, is the most lasting.
The second act requires the insight and courage necessary to take stock in the harsh light of unfiltered self-examination and determine if you are on the right road to the place that will serve you and the world best. Those are the measures of talents used well.
The third act is where separation occurs. It is the point at which the protagonist must find the will to change when change is hard - especially the will to stay the course when confronted by the temptation of an easier, more comforting path.
Most attempts at reinvention fail. Some fail because courage or will is missing. More fail because even the need for reinvention goes undetected.
What ultimately worked for Stacy was the presence of a confidante. This person was not a best friend, cheerleader or spouse, but rather someone who knew her professionally and was empowered to speak harsh and unwelcoming truths. This was a person Stacy could ignore if she so chose, but not one she could dismiss. I wouldn't let her.
After a series of significant conversations, Stacy, at 40+, embarked on a new path. I know for a fact that she curses herself daily for not having taken that step years ago, just as she deserves congratulations for having taken it at all when many never do.
What was at the heart of my conversations with Stacy? Truth be told, they all went something like this:
Stacy: "What if I try this and fail?"
Me: "What if you stay put and succeed?"