NFL safety Ryan Clark’s on-field career won’t land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s not to suggest that his on-field play is forgettable—one Pro Bowl, thirteen seasons (and counting) and stops with the Giants, Steelers and Redskins isn’t too shabby. What makes Clark unique is his forethought. While many active athletes only consider the next workout session, practice or game, Clark is remarkably forward-thinking. He understands that his career as a hard-hitting, sound-tackling safety is nearing its conclusion. And that the best time to prepare for a career transition is well before it’s time to move on.

Ryan Clark’s four day ESPN internship in the spring of 2013 produced some enlightening moments. He spent time on SportsCenter, NFL Live, First Take and NFL32 understanding how the other side of sports makes a living. “…I’ve also seen the responsibility that these guys have now being on this side of it. I know that they are giving their opinion, but those opinions need to be backed up with facts and stats. That’s how you get respected.” Like scores of athletes before him, Clark may very well find himself behind a desk in a suit and tie once he finally hangs up his spikes. That reality was evident to many of us even before his ESPN internship began. While talking to the media, the safety comes off as thoughtful, well-spoken and direct. These are not traits of most current athletes; media outlets like ESPN and NFL Network have taken notice. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last, athlete to start the transition before his retirement papers are filed. Tiki Barber famously retired from the New York Giants early to pursue a career in broadcasting. He left the football field in 2006 and joined NBC as a correspondent for The Today Show and Sunday Night Football immediately. But he started that transition years earlier spending NFL off-days on Fox & Friends and taking meetings with NBC programming executives. While many professional athletes retire and move into the media without prior preparation, getting into the game early bumps you to the head of the long line of ex-athletes who want to break into the media. And just like an athlete looking for their next move, you need to prepare yourself for a career transition well before it happens.

Are you ready for a drastic career change? Perhaps a move from the world of business to the realm of sports. Maybe you’re ready to enter a completely different field—become a mobile software developer instead of a facilities manager or sports agent instead of corporate lawyer. Whether you’re burnt out with your current job, unhappy with your working conditions or hunting for something that fuels your passion, there is a way to make a transition without completely disrupting your life.

Be smart and planful. Take your desire to change careers or employers seriously. It’s not about being flighty and changing jobs every few months, hoping things get better. But when you feel no passion for what you do or hate walking into the office every day, you should consider a change. But don’t let your desire to “get out” cloud your better judgment. Don’t run away from your current job, run towards a new one. Explore your passions and you’ll find things that you’re drawn to. Read books about careers that might interest you. Or even just about topics that intrigue you. Check out targeted job boards that will help you further narrow down your prospects. Comb through websites and forums to get more opinions of jobs that you might pursue. Once you’ve decided where you’re headed—a particular organization or new career path—set a timeframe to make it happen. But be smart about it, a week or a month isn’t going to cut it. A realistic transition of six to nine months (unless further schooling is needed) means you’re serious about the change. The timeframe should include a plan with some clear action steps: complete your research, network with others, apply for jobs, select the best option and inform your current employer. Wise planning makes a major career move something to enjoy instead of something to fear.

Be realistic with yourself and honest with your family. Maybe you’ve put 10 or 20 years into your current career, gaining experience, making contacts and taking on greater responsibility. Or maybe your career is just getting started but your new job choice has nothing to do with the degree you’ve earned. While you might want to immediately jump into a new career, it doesn’t mean you’re ready. So be pragmatic about your upcoming transition. Accept that you may need to temporarily cut your lifestyle to handle the pay cut that could come with chasing your dreams. Map out college courses, internships, apprenticeships or volunteer positions you’ll need to get where you want to be. And seek ways to make your current situation bearable. Talk to your manager about expanding your job responsibilities, take up yoga or running, and embrace your friends and family to make your life feel more complete. Speaking of family, be transparent with them from the beginning. When you get the itch to change jobs talk to your immediate family, especially if you have a spouse who may feel the brunt of your decisions. While your career is ultimately yours to own, making your family part of the decision making process makes everything better. You’ll hear things you may not want to—reasons why your plan isn’t sound, for example—but going through the process with those you’re close to will make the results so much better. Your family wants you to be happy. But they also want you to consider their feelings and how your new job will affect them. With something as important as this, your honesty—about your plan and your feelings—will go a long way towards making your new career amazing.  

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