I’d bet money that you know someone who appears “successful” to the external world but internally they dread Monday mornings, feel unfulfilled while at work and head home most days feeling dissatisfied with their contribution to the world.
But what should they do? Leap into something else or just point their head down and bum up until they have amassed enough of a retirement fund to go and do something more fun instead - as the 80s kids TV programme suggested.
What it feels like to be in a job that you hate
Someone I know well wrote an article for me explaining in perfect detail how a job that he used to love turned into a job that had begun to erode his motivation, his energy, his family life and ultimately his health. Read his anonymous story here. It certainly packs an anonymous punch.
Not all situations are as drastic as the one above but without action low level unenjoyable work can develop into something more serious. Check out the stories below of mid-life career changers who took action - but not a moment too late:
· Charlotte Moore couldn’t imagine continuing in her corporate Social Media Editing role at Tesco after the creative elements were outsourced to an agency. She wasn’t offered redundancy even though she had all fingers and toes crossed for that outcome following a restructure. Read what Charlotte did after hearing the news.
· Ben Fielding got stuck with a new boss who had “a cataclysmic impact” on his love of his work. He took charge of his future in an interesting way which gave him focus, a very specific goal and breathing space whilst still paying the mortgage. Read Ben’s story here.
· Andy Eaton realised two things which prompted his departure from a 20+year career. He realised that over the previous decade he'd spent 50% of his time away from his family on work trips and that the role of Finance Director had morphed into something he didn’t want to be anymore. Read how logical and creative thinking combined to lead him to his new career.
From my coaching experience, mid-professional career changes are always prompted by a specific trigger experience that prompts deep reflection. In some people, this deep reflection converts to a need for action.
Note: this need for action is what differentiates actual career changers from people who would "like to do something about their career" These people haven’t quite reached a tipping point from which action is required. They are likely to stay where they are until things get bad enough or until they see a perfect idea that excites them. (Read this article to see if you've reached your career tipping point yet)
Top 10 triggers for “taking action” towards a mid-profession career change.
- A big birthday – either on approach or a year or two afterwards
- Personal illness
- Medically-diagnosed (as opposed to self-diagnosed) work-related stress
- Elderly parental illness or the death of a parent
- Unplanned exit from a long-term company/role
- Major changes at home e.g. kids moving to big school or university
- First ever lower than expected performance appraisal
- A crappy bonus
- A missed promotion
For the people I coach, all these experiences have prompted a re-adjustment of their expectations from work. They express a desire to have "more" of something at work (often satisfaction, fulfilment or fun) and less of something else (the crap bits of working life).
The trigger can initiate a different thought process – if this thought process doesn’t cause some action, the circular thought process can sometimes lead to the ever-decreasing circles of a mid-life career crisis. But, if this thought process is actioned, attached to a structured method and allowed enough time it will result in a clarity of vision for the remainder of a career.
Why it appears so hard to change career
If you look around you, you will get the impression that career change at any age is bloody difficult!
Some suggest that natural human behaviour just gets in the way e.g. the fear of change (Read my article on how career change is experienced in our brains) or unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices or simply being unprepared for the degree of change that is required to pivot into a career.
But it is more than that. Here’s how conventional wisdom about career change suggests you go about it.
“Career Leaping” - the Conventional Wisdom on how to change career (Plan & Implement) :
- Be clear and sure about what it is that you really want to do.
- Identify roles or fields in which your passions can be linked with your skills and experience.
- Seek out advice from those you know well and those who know your new chosen market well.
- Implement resulting action steps.
Never one for sitting on the fence, when asked my opinion on this mode of career change I usually whisper-shout… “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!” Here’s why…
According to the conventional wisdom, successful change is a one-chance saloon. Apparently, you should only make a career change when you know exactly where you are heading. WRONG AGAIN. If you follow this advice, you are in danger of staying exactly where you are for a very long time…possibly forever!
Problems with the “Career Leaping” Conventional (Plan and Implement) Career Change model:
- Most people I meet are not clear about what they want to do with the rest of their career even though they’ve often spent a long time thinking about it. They can easily tell me what they want to escape from (mind-numbing corporate politics; feeling shrunk-to-fit; under-challenging work; over-requirement to be away from home; futureless internal career vistas; lack of learning opportunities; over-cautious decision-making or organisational short-termism.)
- When I ask what it is they do want from their work – they never have a clear answer
2. Link passion with skills:
- I don’t trust psychological profiles for career change. All psychological profiles which are commonly used in career coaching are flawed but can give general insights to those who have lost a connection with themselves or have been stuck in an identity for so long they can’t imagine getting beyond it. Starting point? Yes, but very broad brush.
- Re-designing your working identity is a must before any change takes place. It frees up creative energy to change career. Our working identity can be tied up in status, our income, our life-style, our ego, our parenting and the way we were parented. This takes time, reflection, pulling apart and putting back together over time. This isn’t included in the Plan & Implement model.
- “Passion” is my least favourite word to use in career change discussions as it more often than not leads us down a fantasy passion path. To risk everything on something called "passion" is at best...risky.
3. Seeing advice from people you know and those who know your new chosen industry/field:
- People already known to you are invested in you staying in the same spot. Your partner wants you to be happy but needs to feel secure; your favourite head-hunters are tied to your past in a way that is unhelpful for a career change. Your colleagues and mentors lack the investment in you as a human to do anything radical with their opinion of you.
- The individuals who know you best, are less likely to be able to imagine you with a completely different working identity and can become more of a hindrance than a help.
- You need a new tribe to change career.
4. Implement resulting actions
- Banish the idea of linear career. We need to let go of that linear idea of career steps leading to somewhere very specific that we had planned earlier and making pre-judgements on how it will feel when we get there.
- Single leaps can be lucky. But they are more likely to fail or go nowhere.
A different method of career change – Experiment, Analyse and Refine
- Experimentation = Action before knowing the answer.
Rather than leaping into a new career, I believe the only way to know whether your potential career change is the right one is to conduct a whole range of mini-experiments. This is the only way to evaluate whether a certain change could be right. Not quite trial and error…rather experiment, analyse and refine.
By doing a whole range of experiments you open doors that were never open to you before to see if the draught bowls you over. You edge open doors that were ajar in your mind and then see how it feels with the wind in your face. You push against some ugly doors to sometimes discover the most beautiful possibilities behind. The limits placed on your experiments provide the only limitations for your future career. (LINK TO DOORS)
BUT THAT TAKES BRAVERY AND TIME.
I feel so strongly about this experimentation stage that I have built an extra 3 months into my "The Big Re-think" programme to support individuals through the sheer volume of experiments that need to happen to ensure a successful transition. Done slowly this experimentation phase could take 3 years but very few of my clients have 3 years to spend – we narrow down the initial experimentation phase to a 3-month period following a 3-month discovery process. That way the experiments are not random. They are focussed. They play on the SuperPowers of the individual and they feel exciting.
Single leaps can be lucky. But they are more likely to bring us back to the same starting point and crucially, they make us feel like a failure. That’s why you hear stories of people who made a leap and within a short time frame are back in their safe old job. They were following the Plan and Implement model.
It’s not perfect - Downsides of the Experiment, Analyse and Refine model of career change
· A longer, less linear transition process can sometimes leave you feeling that you are not moving fast enough. But smaller steps combined with quicker analysis after each experiment allows for a richer, more developed and realistic idea of the future work identity to emerge.
· The Experiment and Learn technique of career change is challenging and requires resisting the pull of the familiar.
· It requires tenacity to lift and shift experiments and point them in a different direction, at a different audience or to tweek the experiments.
· Did I mention that it requires bravery? But really, how brave is it doing a few little experiments on the side of your real job (that doesn’t fit anymore)?
· The experiment stage is front loaded – you can’t sit behind a screen and do some lovely, easy research. You must do stuff. Make stuff. Write stuff. Try stuff.
· You need your brain to be turned on to analyse.
· You need energy to do the experiments but if you are using your SuperPowers you’ll be surprised by how energising it can be.
· You very often need someone to have your back, pick up the pieces, re-point to after each experiment, challenge your thought processes until they broaden for themselves, re-frame your imposter syndrome, tone down your perfectionism.
If you don’t test your dreams they remain just that – or even worse, they could end up as pipe dreams.
Experiments are the only way to test your dreams. Their advantage lies in their small scale, their ability to be squeeze in around your current work and their lack of large-scale risk.
Whilst trigger events are usually pretty horrific when you are going through them, they can become the beginning of a completely new career story - or life story if you want to think bigger. If you are interested in this idea, it might be worth reading Pamela Slim’s Body of Work.
Discovering work that fits and understanding why takes time and effort, but it also requires a methodology to discover if you have the skill to make it a reality. My methodology is called “The Big Re-think” programme.
Planning for the perfect leap is more likely to leave you staying where you are today. Experimenting and learning, taking action in the form of mini-experiments, analysing the results and refining new experiments very likely to find you in a much better place.
How ready are you for action?