As if changing career wasn’t hard enough, most people approach it in a way that sets them up for failure from the beginning. Yet a simple – if counter-intuitive – change of tack can dramatically increase your chances of success.
Switching career mid-life generally means giving up on years of education, training, experience, contacts, seniority and security. In return you’ll be starting again at the bottom of the pile, needing to retrain and re-establish your reputation, and experiencing financial insecurity at precisely the point in life when your financial commitments are at their greatest.
So it’s no surprise that a career change can be a frightening prospect, and one that keeps many people in unfulfilling careers for months or even years longer than necessary.
Yet it’s actually the way we go about thinking about a career change that creates so much of the fear, angst and indecision that people suffer. Once we’ve come to a decision that we know is right for our future, actually changing career can be a hugely liberating and energising experience.
So what then is everyone doing wrong, and how you can you avoid the trap?
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The mistake you’re making
It’s no surprise that the first question people ask when they realise that they need to change career is ‘but what else could I do?’ It’s the logical, problem-solving approach that professionals are taught to follow.
Yet focussing on this question is the single biggest mistake career-changers make. Brainstorming possible jobs, sifting through job-search websites for inspiration and writing lists of pros and cons, sensible though it may seem, is precisely the wrong thing to be doing if you want to work out what career you should be switching to.
Whilst all of these are crucial parts of the career change process later on, they’re a really unhelpful starting point.
Because instead of focusing on jobs, you should really be thinking much more broadly about the kind of life you want to lead and the role your career can play in that.
In short, instead of thinking about what you want to do you should be thinking about what you want to be.
And that’s not to say ‘I want to be a nutritionist/entrepreneur/nuclear physicist’ but rather who you really want to be in its most whole sense of what you want your life to be about and what impact you want to have.
Rediscovering your purpose and passion
This focus on who you want to be, rather than what you want to do, is essential for two reasons.
First, for most people what leads them to the conclusion that they need the huge upheaval of a career change – instead of the much less risky option of just getting a new job – is the sense that something fundamental is missing from their life. This is often expressed as missing a sense of purpose, a feeling of fulfilment, or a driving passion.
And when you’re looking to find a new sense of passion, purpose and fulfilment you need to start by looking at yourself, rather than at the jobs you might do. You need to reflect deeply on what is important to you, what holds real value and what nourishes the soul and uplifts you.
Otherwise, without this crucial understanding, you could end up in a career that, whilst being superficially attractive, doesn’t meet your core needs or perpetuates the mismatch between who you are and what you do which drove the desire for a change of career in the first place.
(This applies, by the way, even if you love your job and feel deeply fulfilled but need to change career because of some fundamental problem with your career – unavoidable nighttime working or low salary for example. You will still need to be clear about what you’re all about if you’re going to find a new career that is as fulfilling as your current job AND meets your practical needs).
Second – and equally important – by focussing on potential jobs you are staying in our rational brains, trying to solve the problem by thinking. Yet if that were possible, we’d come up with answers quickly and make the change, instead of worrying – often for months – about what we could possibly do next. Career changes are so difficult precisely because they are about hopes and dreams, emotion and instinct, as much as a dispassionate assessment of our skills, experience and salary needs. Thinking, quite simply, won’t cut it.
Start with you
So what does that mean in practical terms? What can you do that will help you to change career successfully?
At Your Best Life, our life coaches always start by working with new clients on two core pieces of work – identifying values and getting clear on life purpose.
Before working with a coach, most people have only a vague idea of their values and have little to no clue about their life purpose. Yet what we do every day of our working lives needs at the very least not to be in conflict with these. And if you want to feel truly fulfilled by your work, then your career needs to align with your values and purpose. Achieve that and you’ll be skipping into work every morning, brimming over with energy, passion and commitment.
Get clear on your values
Our values come from lots of places, including our parents, friends, influential teachers, inspirational bosses, public figures we admire and what we see in the world around us. Crucially, our values grow, develop and change as we do, often evolving most through big life changes, like getting married, having kids, bereavement or serious illness.
Importantly, when we are in a situation where we aren’t honouring one or more of our values in our day-to-day lives it can create a dissonance that leave us feeling very uncomfortable or unhappy.
For example, if autonomy is a core value then a job in a client service environment, where your day is largely dictated by other people’s demands, could be exhausting, stressful and unfulfilling, even if you’re inspired by the work, the salary is great and you see other people thriving in the company.
In that situation, if you don’t understand that the problem is a mismatch with a core value, many people would feel a real sense of confusion (why isn’t this working?), failure (why aren’t I doing as well as everyone around me?) and even hopelessness (maybe I’m just not good enough for any job). It can deeply impact self-confidence and performance, which can then become a vicious circle – the less confident you feel, the less well you do at work, denting your confidence further.
And often it can create a confusing maelstrom of options for next steps – change job, stop working altogether, move out of London, start your own business, find a new career – that just creates more anxiety and discomfort. Because you’re unknowingly trying to find a solution to a symptom rather than solving the root problem.
Yet when you shine a light on your values, it can quickly become clear that some of your discomfort, unhappiness or underperformance in your career is simply a matter of a major mismatch between your current situation and one or more of one or more of your values. That can give you crucial clues as to what might be more fulfilling and also provide a framework against which you can check all sorts of decisions and plans we make in our lives.
It’s a totally different approach to career change but one that can give you a much surer foundation from which to start.
A solid foundation for career change
By starting to get clear about your fundamentals in this way, you will be building a much clearer picture of what you need to really fulfil you.
It’s often a hugely revelatory experience for people who are working with our coaches for the first time, making sense of much of their life experiences and challenges to date.
Importantly it gives them a solid foundation to start thinking about how they fulfil their purpose, itself a detailed stage of a journey of discovery.
To Sum Up…
1. To begin with, put away thoughts about what you can do, how much that might pay, and how you would go about getting that job.
2. Instead spend time getting really clear on what you want your life to be about so that your career decisions can flow out of that.
3. Start with your values, to give you a solid foundation from which to begin your career change journey.