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

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

Wrong job vs wrong career

Being in the wrong job hurts.

It’s like a sharp 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 in my book research, when left unattended, it brought on other symptoms like these in some of the individuals:

  • recurring low-level illness;

  • sleep deprivation;

  • a general lack-lustre feeling;

  • reduced interest in exercise;

  • lowering of libido;

  • depression;

  • anxiety; and

  • sometimes a disconnection with family members.

If that’s true, why do we accept it…for years?  

In one survey, 43% of professionals aged 45-54 wanted to change careers (London School of Business & Finance research).  It’s fairly easy to change careers when you are in your twenties. But once you’ve 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.

Midlife is the time to decide if we’re prepared to do what is required to get what we want.  

I know midlifers who are not at happy enough with their work but think career change is impossible for them. If that’s you, it might be useful to know you’re not alone in thinking.

Top 10 reasons successful midlifers give to stay in careers that don’t fit 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. 

Even just thinking about career change can make some of us feel like we’re standing on shaky ground.

Even just thinking about career change can make some of us feel like we’re standing on shaky ground.

Let’s be honest…we’re talking about 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 when it thinks you’re in physical danger or at 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 constantly scan the environment for anything that could be dangerous or risky – thereby highlighting only the risks and pitfalls of changing career (see the above list).

I’d bet money that you know at least one midlifer who seems unhappy in their career and even though they talk about doing “something about it” regularly, they can’t seem to figure out what to do firstThese “flight-fight-freeze” response to danger might be apparent in their behaviour.

Behaviours (conscious and unconscious) which often indicate that you’re in the wrong career.

Our brains view career change as dangerous which forces us into three different types of natural reactions - Flight, fight or freeze. Sometimes we don’t even recognise our reactions but our behaviour will make it obvious to those around us.

Our brains view career change as dangerous which forces us into three different types of natural reactions - Flight, fight or freeze. Sometimes we don’t even recognise our reactions but our behaviour will make it obvious to those around us.

Flight behaviours:

  • Asking headhunters to “get me out of here”;

  • Resigning without a plan;

  • Unexplained, frequent, low-level illnesses;

  • More sick leave days than ever before in career;

  • Trying to get signed off work…for any reason;

  • Intensive holiday planning (beyond their normal holiday excitement);

  • Impulsive behaviour;

  • 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 behaviours:

  • Applying for lots of jobs that seem very similar to your current job;

  • Applying for any job that is not your current job;

  • Bad-mouthing the current boss, or team or company to show that you 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 behaviours:

  • Day-dreaming of handing in a resignation letter;

  • Writing and carrying a resignation letter in your laptop bag - every day;

  • Waiting until you have a million dollar idea for your future business while getting less and less effective at your day job;

  • Wishing and hoping that someone will email your with a new job via Linkedin tomorrow morning;

  • Ignoring Sunday night, Sunday afternoon or Sunday morning blues;

  • Praying for redundancy;

  • Obsessive Netflix watching to block out the reality of a career that doesn’t fit anymore;

  • Emotional eating or drinking to forget.

  • Ignoring the reality that your role is physically and mentally draining the life out of you;

  • Digging deep to work harder in the belief that this tough period will end magically with a happy conclusion.

  • Attempting to convince yourself that your current career is “not that bad” – but the thought of doing it for another year (never mind decade) makes you feel ill.

If you are experiencing these Fight, flight or freeze feelings, there are so many ways to reduce the sense of danger around re-designing your work. Here are some ideas.

If you are experiencing these Fight, flight or freeze feelings, there are so many ways to reduce the sense of danger around re-designing your work. Here are some ideas.

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

1.      Stop trying to focus on the elusive end point. 

Instead focus on the start point 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? 

If you really can’t find anyone, contact me and I’ll connect you to someone who loves their new career or better still, I’ve done the hard work for you in my book X Change: How to torch your work treadmill where you’ll read the stories of professionals like you who designed more satisfaction and fun into their careers.

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 it was better than recent days, weeks, months or years.  

4.      Open your mind to possibility that you could earn AT LEAST the same salary doing something you LOVE.

After you've read X Change: How to torch your work treadmill you can see that some of the individuals retained the same salary or higher after the early transition period.

Why not have a detailed look at your finances to understand the minimum viable income you would require in the short-term to give you freedom in the early days? It amazes me who infrequently individuals do this when thinking about changing careers. Read this story from one of the midlife unstuck community members of how she found freedom after understanding her detailed financial situation here.

5.      Read real case studies or autobiographies of individuals who have changed careers. 

It couldn’t be easier. Check out my “Jam-makers” career change stories for an ever-growing list of midlifers who are making their 40s, 50s and 60s the jam years of their careers.

Once you’ve demonstrated to your brain that changing career has not been at all dangerous for a whole range of people throughout the globe (and has even enabled them to live much more fulfilling and satisfying 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!

Are you ready to torch your work treadmill? Book a call with me now.

C

Other related articles:

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What I’ve learned about career change (after interviewing 100 midlife career changers)

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Over the last two years, I met people who’d lived about 600 months when they decided to change careers. To do work that mattered more, to them and others around them. And in less than an hour, I fell in love with each of them, just a little. 

They offered me lessons in career change that impacted my outlook, my work...and my life. I can barely remember how I was before I met them.

And here are a few of those lessons that might help you too.

  1. We generation Xers are in our 40s or 50s now and we need to work. It’s where we hone our self-esteem, our self-worth and our funds to enjoy life, in our own way. For better or worse, we’re going to be working for a very long time. 

  2. There are many partners in law or accountancy firms who “can’t afford to retire”. Even though they earn £750,000+ per annum! So, I guess they made a decision one day, that stuff was more important that freedom and fun? 

  3. “Safe” doesn’t exist in corporates - especially after a 50th birthday. So, we need to design a career that could last a long time, because it needs to. Especially if we have dependants - old or young.

  4. Fear is everywhere but we can train ourselves to squish it long enough to try something. A little experiment that won’t change the world. But might just change our world. 

  5. Security is as addictive but it’s a habit that can be broken, with no need to go cold turkey. We don’t need to risk it all to be happy but we do need to take the blind-fold off. 

  6. So many of us successfully sleep-walk into a career coma which ends in a frightening career cul de sac. And the only way out, is to switch off autopilot and put your hands on the wheel. Scary as it seems. 

  7. No-one values you or your career beyond what you can do for them, this year. So we’re left holding the career bag with our name engraved. And need to carry it creatively for the next decades.

  8. If your job is eroding you, your mind will tell you in a whispered warning.  If you don’t listen, it will begin to shout from weird parts of your body. And if you still don’t listen, it’ll scream at you all the way to the hospital.  

  9. An ever-present urge to escape usually means we’re not thinking straight. We believe the only way is to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not. But we sometimes need help to differentiate the baby from the bath water.

  10. Confidence grows with action. And shrinks with inactivity to keep us stuck. Hop on a tourist bus to a new rough destination, then hop off and see how it feels.  Small steps. Low bar. Ace it. Then bigger steps. Higher bar etc. 

Still reading? Thank you - Here are a couple of bonus extra lessons.

  1. There’s a way to use design thinking to tweak work with life and test reactions. Test reactions within you and yours and then test reactions commercially. Before signing off on final designs.  

  2. Time is more precious than anything else. What if we counted it in months, or days or even hours? So that we might not waste another hour doing work that didn’t matter enough. To us or those around us.

I met 100 people who had lived about 600 months before they decided to change careers, to do work that mattered more.

They took a pen to their work to design it differently

And began their first draft of the next chapter of their work story

Before another month evaporated.  

If you liked this you’ll love this…

X Change: How to torch your work treadmill, retire your boss, dump the ingrates, torment the passive-aggressives, escape the toxic office, get your fierce on and design the career that lets you live, love and laugh after 40. 

The one thing I lacked (that would have shaved years & at least £20000 off my career change costs)

5 years ago, I first noticed a slow, dripping tap of career dissatisfaction. But it took me years to figure out the one thing I lacked to enable me to fix it - and save lots of money and painful, wasted energy at the same time.

If I’d invested time and energy (or paid someone to help me) in this one thing, I could have turned off my slow, dripping tap of career dissatisfaction years earlier.

If I’d invested time and energy (or paid someone to help me) in this one thing, I could have turned off my slow, dripping tap of career dissatisfaction years earlier.

The dripping tap numbed my wins and my losses. 

Flattened my fun. 

And coloured my days slightly grey.  

But I shoved the fear of big change around next year’s corner. 

A prison of my own making

The career I’d gifted 20 years of my youth to, had morphed into a prison of my own making. From this prison, my window of opportunity felt like it was shrinking the closer I aged towards 50.

I’d worked hard. And saved hard. Maybe even enough for a great escape - but not without a plan. 

Plan A was definitely fading.

To be frank, so was I. 

Another year passed but no plan magically materialised. Because I still had no idea where to start. 

Escaping from my self-made, comfortable career prison took me about 4 years but it shouldn’t have.

Escaping from my self-made, comfortable career prison took me about 4 years but it shouldn’t have.

A leap that nearly broke me

When the dripping tap switched to full flow, I jumped from Plan A without a parachute, of any colour. And crash-landed at university, trying to master psychology. 

Far from a soft landing, it was the hardest year of my life!

Not kidding.

The wrinkles on my brain and my face slowed my learning. 

I donated every ounce of energy to getting great marks - all the time believing I was on the brink of failure. I did well and felt proud, for two minutes, before the fog of reality returned. 

I STILL had no Plan B to go forth with.

And STILL didn’t know how to start one. 

I STILL didn’t know anyone who had one - or one that excited them.

STILL didn’t know where to start figuring out what I’d be good at, or (whisper) maybe even great at. 

I STILL didn’t know how to get paid to do work that I might love.

But mostly, I STARTED to wonder if I might look back on my career with regret asking “What if?

The unusual question that changed everything

Then, I whispered to myself a tough question: 

“How am I going to live a life, with the freedom to do work that makes me feel great AND work that matters so much I get invited onto BBC1 Desert Island Discs?

That’s how I knew I still had hope

I just needed my Plan B. A bloody great one! 

Big B.jpg

So I put my newfound research skills to the test and scoured the globe to learn everything possible about career change.

And created a methodology to design bespoke Plan Bs Plan Bs for individuals, like me, who’ve got plenty left in the tank and don’t want to waste another minute wondering.  Plan Bs designed around personality and unique talents, combined with lifestyle and freedom desires.

And I implemented my own Plan B - doing work that’s fun and that matters.

Incase you’re wondering, I’m quite a way off being invited onto Desert Island Discs! BUT I’m a heck of a lot closer than I was 5 years ago.

2 years ago.

Yesterday. 

Check out my “Where to Start” guide to career change at your age and talk to me about designing your Plan B