change career

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

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 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 (London School of Business & Finance research).  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 successful mid-lifers give to 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. 

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 are 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 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.   This “flight-fight-freeze” response to danger might be apparent in their behaviour. 

Behaviours (conscious and unconscious) which often indicate that someone is in the wrong career:

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

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’ve made it ridiculously easy for you - check out my “Jam-makers” career change stories for an ever-growing list of mid-lifers who are making their 40s, 50s and 60s the jam years of their careers.

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!

C

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Considering a career change after 40? Worked in big company all your life? Are you self-driving your career or are you possibly snoozing at the wheel?

Steering wheel

One of my old clients SAB Miller (then owners of beer brands Peroni & Fosters) would openly inform interviewees that under no circumstances did they manage the careers of their employees.  They were only interested in individuals who would take charge of their own career progression. 

This candour scared off many individuals who had grown up in an era where career progression was offered by companies, not owned by individuals.  The degree of career progression offered by a company would define its level of attraction in the market.

How antiquated does this appear today?   

Historically, this outsourcing of career progression was totally acceptable if you were in the baby years of your career when you didn’t know your bottom from your elbow.   Upon entry into your teen career years (early management), the responsibility would begin to shift slowly towards more of a 50:50 split between company and you.  When you reached midlife and the heady heights of senior management, you were very firmly on your own.

I specifically remember not being able to keep up with the influx of phone calls around 2008 when big companies began to eject senior leaders by the hundreds.  So many of these talented leaders had not spent any time in the preceding 5 years of their career doing the dreaded “networking” to ensure that competitors/suppliers/strategic alliances/head hunters knew them as 3D humans with personalities as opposed to business people.  

Those who had participated in real networking (often through personality style rather than tactical design) were positioned firmly on short-lists for the ever-decreasing supply of senior leadership positions which actually made it to the market.  Many positions never actually were announced to the open market as the perfect individual was offered the position after a couple of informal "meetings".   The realisation that individuals who were being selected for new positions had been STEERING THEIR OWN CAREERS FOR YEARS (if not potentially since their career was a baby) came as a shock to many.  Despite very successful careers, these individuals were left feeling behind the curve.         

SAB Miller at the time were leagues ahead of the average “blue chip” company in demonstrating its total lack of interest in steering the careers of employees from the get-go.  They didn’t appear to care a jot whether you were in the infancy or the midlife of your career. 

Admit it, many of us whose careers matured in big companies, joined cultures where we expected the company to at least help our career, if not perhaps engineer our personal career plans.  

Even as senior leaders in big businesses in the networking enlightened age of today, are we still in danger of "outsourcing" our career planning by not making it a major personal focus? 

I am embarrassed to say that as a senior leader in my final few years in my last corporate job, it was made clear to me by my MD that if I wanted training of any sort all I had to do was to ask, tell him why and the cost would be covered.   Nothing embarrassing about that I hear you say?  

EXCEPT that I couldn’t think of ONE area of training that I wanted or needed.    Looking back, I think that should have been the very obvious sign that I was in a career rut.   

 

warning sign career rut

I failed to recognise that I had steered my own career into a mid-career rut.

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You see, one of my superpowers in my home life is that I LOVE the process of trying to learn something new - it makes my brain feel awake.   I feel energised when I am learning new stuff that I am, even on the surface, interested in.  I am constantly planning what I might learn next.  Here are the first 8 items on my current list: 

  •       public speaking for natural introverts;
  •       unicycle riding;
  •       cartoon drawing;
  •       tumble turns in the pool;
  •       20 second hand stands;
  •       high-diving;   
  •       clever iphone photography;
  •       how to work twitter – Claim to fame: I’ve never tweeted – my social media experts' (www.socialthyme.co.uk) eyebrows reached her hairline as I mentioned this to her.  What can I say?  I am “midlife stuck” on this one at the moment!   

My “things-I’d-like-to-know-how-to-do” list usually contains about 20 weird and wonderful items.  Depending on life, available funds and time I will pick one, research it and then crack on with it.

BUT during those last two years of my corporate life, I honestly didn't learn a thing.  Not because my company were unsupportive or wouldn’t pay for training - they clearly wanted to.   BECAUSE I HAD ZERO IDEA IN WHAT DIRECTION I WANTED TAKE MY CAREER.  No surprise, then, that I didn’t know what skills or knowledge I needed to get there.

This was an odd period of my life, one that doesn't fill me with pride.  That said, I feel sure I won’t be repeating it any time soon.   But, even if a career rut rears its ugly head again, I now know how to recognise it (https://www.midlifeunstuck.com/new-blog-1/2017/4/25/career-rut-or-just-a-bad-month-your-reaction-to-these-numbers-will-tell-you-for-sure) and understand what I’d do to escape it.  

I would re-trace the searching and transformation process which I led myself through a few years ago. 

I spent two years interviewing people with successful AND happy careers, interviewing people with successful and unhappy careers, completing a masters in Psychology, researching work & life happiness across the globe, learning how to support individuals in grief, training in solutions-focussed coaching, listening to 100s of podcasts and ted talks from people with very “successful” parts of their lives and listening to a couple of ancient recordings of my secret guilty pleasure (Desert Island Discs) every week. 

This intensive learning process culminated in the design the transformation projects (which can be found at www.midlifeunstuck.com) so that others might find changing careers an easier and speedier process.  

If you’d like to hear about my short-cuts to designing fulfilling work feel free to drop me an email to lucia@midlifeunstuck to tee up a time to speak confidentially.  

If you are not quite ready or feel up to leading yourself through the processes, sign up to my newsletter for free resources, articles and career transformation stories at www.midlifeunstuck.com.