What’s stopping your career change in your 40s or 50s…How to reduce the risk surrounding career change

This week a client equated her feelings of being in the wrong career for years to having her soul-sucked out of her body by the “Dementors” from Harry Potter.  We laughed at the time but the image made a big impression on me.  

Being in the wrong job hurts.   It’s like a dull pain that only disappears when you change jobs.  It’s short-term.

Being in the wrong career, however, is a whole different kettle of fish.  It’s feels like a great weight is bearing down on your body, endlessly eking the joy out of your work AND often your life.  Being in the wrong career feels like long-term pain and can manifests itself in illness, lack of sleep, lack of motivation to exercise, lowering of libido and a general lack-lustre feeling.

If that’s true, why do we accept it for years?  In one survey 43% of the 45-54 age group wanted to change careers (research conducted by London School of Business & Finance).  It’s fairly easy to change careers when you are in your twenties.  But once you have invested 15+ years in a career it’s much more difficult.    Midlife is a natural time to reflect and evaluate what exactly we want from a career and to decide if we’re prepared to do what is required to get what we want.   I know so many midlifers who are unhappy in their careers but can’t seem to figure out what to do to change their situations.  It might be useful to know that you are not alone in thinking career change is difficult.  

Top 10 reasons why successful but unhappy midlifers stay in careers that don’t suit them anymore?

1.      “I’ll never be able to earn the same salary again.”

2.      “I’ll have to take a low-paying job to begin with and I’m too old to start at the bottom.”

3.      “I’ve only ever done X.” (insert current career)

4.      “My partner/friends/colleagues would think I was having a midlife crisis.”

5.      “No-one would employ me to do something different.”

6.      “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this.”

7.      “I enjoy a great deal of flexibility and autonomy. I doubt I’d get that in another job.”

8.      “It’ll take me another 20 years to become good at something.”

9.      “I work part-time and no other employer will let me.”

10.   “If I changed now, I would waste the huge investment in my current career.”

I’d like to add a final one which no one has ever said to me directly but it is a very common reason to stay in a career which is wrong – “It’s easier to stay where I am.”  But that is a whole different story for another time. 

Fear

All of the above reasons to stay in a career that no longer fits have their basis in fear.   Fear has a particularly negative impact on the brain.

Psychologists and biologists believe that the primitive “flight-fight-freeze” response to danger is alive in us all and is not limited to dangerous physical situations but to situations where there is perceived risk.   To the human brain, changing careers when you have life responsibilities such as a mortgage to pay or a family to support feels risky (at best) and dangerous (at worst). 

brain sees career change as dangerous..png

What happens to the brain and body when it feels it experiences physical danger or perceived risk? 

The brain shuts down some of its operations to allow the critical ones to continue.  This results in a paired-down version of you – where optimism disappears, the risk of something awful happening is intensified and the creative, problem-solving you is turned off (or at least turned down).  In other words, you dive into risk-scanning mode where you are constantly scan the environment for things that could be dangerous or risky – thereby highlighting only the risks and pitfalls of changing career (see the above list).

Most of us know at least one midlifer who is unhappy in their career and whilst they have talked about career change for some time, they can’t seem to figure out what to do next.   The “flight-fight-freeze” response to danger might be apparent in their behaviour. 

Examples of behaviours which often indicate that someone is in the wrong career and might be considering a change – consciously or subconsciously:

·        Flight: resigning without a plan; unexplained illnesses; more sick leave days than ever before in career; attempting to get signed off on stress leave; intensive holiday planning (beyond their normal holiday excitement); impulsive behaviour; asking headhunters to “get me out of here”; praying for redundancy to happen; buying business domain names for future businesses; spending rainy day savings on random business ideas that don’t appear to be well-thought out.

·        Fight: applying for lots of jobs that seem very similar to their current job; applying for any job that is not their current job; bad-mouthing their current boss far and wide in an attempt to let other divisions know that they are open to new opportunities; digging deep to work harder in the belief that this tough period will end magically with a happy conclusion.

·        Freeze: day-dreaming of handing in a resignation letter; waiting until they have a million dollar idea for their future business while getting less and less effective at your day job; wishing and hoping that someone will email them with a new job via www.linkedin.com tomorrow morning; ignoring Sunday night blues; ignoring the fact that their role is physically and mentally draining the life out of them;  attempting to convince themselves that their current career is “not that bad” – but the thought of doing it for another year (never mind decade) makes them feel ill.

How to reduce the “flight-fight-freeze” reactions in your brain?

1.      Stop trying to focus on the elusive end point.  Instead focus on Step 1 by asking yourself “which specific bits of my current career do I really enjoy doing?” Write a list.  Imagine doing lots more of those tasks on a daily basis.  

2.      Start some easy but real research.  Do you know anyone who has changed careers successfully – even if they haven’t made a radical change?  Talk to them.  Talk to friends, friends of friends, family members or even look up celebrities who have changed careers.  How did they do it?  Ask every single person in your network if they know anyone who has changed their career and loves their new career.  Then call them up and ask them why they love their career choice. (If you really can’t find anyone, contact me and I’ll connect you to someone who loves their new career – I am in the process of interviewing 100 of them for my first book).

3.      Don’t assume you need a total and utter career change to feel more fulfilled.  Remember your last good day at work and write down why. 

4.      Open your mind to the idea that it is possible to earn at least the same salary as you currently earn by doing something that you are GREAT at.   Have a detailed look at your finances understand the minimum viable income you would require in the short-term.  What savings/assets could you liquidate to have a financial cushion to make sitting in your new job/career a little easier in the early days.  

5.      Read real case studies or autobiographies of individuals who have changed careers.  I am pulling together a series of case studies to release in the next month or so.  Sign up to my newsletter and I’ll send that to you as soon as it is ready (sign up here www.midlifeunstuck.com)

Once you have demonstrated to your brain why changing career has not been at all dangerous for a whole range of people throughout the globe (and infact has enabled them to live much more fulfilling and wealthier lives), your brain will begin to allow you the optimism (and realism) to imagine how changing career might not be actually dangerous for you.  It might actually liberate you.

Dalai Lama