With the country's jobless rate at 10 percent, many workers are simply grateful to be employed. Giving up financial stability to pursue a dream job or long-burning interest is a risk even in a buoyant economy. Yet experts say career makeovers are still possible — they may just involve smaller steps, rather than a radical change. • "It's always healthy, regardless of what the economy is like, for people to explore those dreams," said Roxanne Hori, assistant dean and director of the Career Management Center at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "It helps you decide: 'Are you at the right time and place to make a shift or not?' "
Individual risk tolerance is a crucial factor, Hori said. A young person without kids or a mortgage may decide now is the perfect opportunity to try something new, as might an older worker who has saved enough money to weather a short-term financial hit. But in all cases, a career reinvention starts with an honest self-evaluation.
"What's really the issue: what you're doing or where you're doing it?" said Debra Wheatman, founder of CareersDoneWrite and a coach at GoSavant, a career development Web site. "If you've been doing something for a long time, all of a sudden to decide you don't like it anymore is a little unusual. Maybe something's going on in your personal life, or something happened professionally that has made you turn a corner."
The malaise could stem from a workplace that has been demoralized by layoffs and budget cuts. If the work is still enjoyable, look for a similar job at a different company.
Career counselors say people can try to improve their work lives without leaving their current employers.
"There's no better time than the new year to begin a conversation with your manager," said Hori, who suggested taking on higher levels of responsibilities or tasks that build new skills.
Sometimes a major change is the only thing that can satisfy that itch for a more fulfilling career, though it's important to remain realistic.
"Look for something that's the intersection of what's interesting and what you can get paid for," said Penelope Trunk, founder and chief executive of Brazen Careerist, a networking Web site for young professionals.
Aimee Heilbrunn, a 31-year-old Chicagoan, was a marketing executive for a big law firm in 2007 when she started Ecoscene, a Web site that reviews environmentally friendly products and services. It began as a side project after she adopted a dog and scoured the Web for a "green" dog bed. She left the law firm in March.
"I just made a decision that I'd been in the (business-to-business) marketing world for about eight years and wanted a break and a chance to try to make sure that I gave this a shot," said Heilbrunn, whose company has grown.
Continuing to work while launching Ecoscene allowed Heilbrunn to save money and prepare for the transition. Career experts say pursuing other activities during spare time is a smart way to explore interests without giving up a steady job.
"Dabble in the field you think you'd want to go into," said Chris Campbell, director of the Executive Network Group of Greater Chicago. "That might be a volunteer opportunity, joining a board or trying to take a little bit of time off and doing a shadowing experience."
Campbell said many of his group's members would love to pursue something different because they've devoted decades to one field and "all of us like change." But he also called for pragmatism.
"I really encourage people to dig down and figure out if they could be doing anything, working anywhere … what would you be doing?" Campbell said. "Almost inevitably, it's not what you have been doing. But on the other side of the coin, what you have been doing may be much more stable and financially rewarding."