Before 9/11, I felt trapped in a 18-year corporate career that didn’t align with my values, preferences, talents and desires. But I had worked so hard to create success and recognition in it that I was, simply speaking, scared to death to let it go. After a long while, serious crises began to hit, one after the other, and I finally got the message that I needed to make a change, and fast.
So I sought outside help – a therapist, a career counselor, mentor and more. Sadly, none of this helped me learn the key lessons I now know are essential if you want to change directions successfully, without losing everything or making a big mistake.
Finally, I took the plunge (after a brutal layoff in the days following 9/11) and made the change I was dreaming of. I became a therapist, career coach, writer, speaker and leadership trainer for women. I can confidently say, after helping over 10,000 professionals improve their careers, that changing your career to something more suited to your authentic self is doable, even in these tough economic times. And it’s a life-changer. And to finally leverage who you are and your dominant action style, you will feel more at home and at peace in your work, and your life. (Take my Action Style quiz to learn which style you prefer and why it’s important.)
But to switch careers effectively and achieve a positive outcome, you need a number of critical ingredients, namely: clarity (to understand what you really want not just dream about), bravery to pursue a new direction even through risk and fear), and perseverance (to commit staunchly to transitioning, even when the going gets hard). Without these, you’ll most likely struggle hard and fail. Further, there are core steps you must take to ensure you are emotionally, financially, and professionally ready for this next step and for the eight important stages that you’ll undergo.
Step one to successful career change is to get real with yourself – take off your rose-colored glasses, and “get hip to your trip” about what you’ve created so far, and how you’ve potentially contributed to all the challenges you face. It’s critical to stop blaming others and the outside world, and begin to hold yourself more accountable than ever before for what’s in front of you. If chucking your career is appealing, certainly explore the process of career change and start trying on the new directions that appeal to you most. But make sure you take concrete steps necessary to do the internal work first to shift yourself to a more positive, empowered state, and avoid the five top blunders so many career changes make. These missteps will wreak havoc on your life, relationships, health, your check book, and your future.
The five biggest blunders career changers make are:
1. Running to the opposite end of the world to escape your unhappy career
I’ve coined a term “The Pendulum Effect” to describe when, after years of being unhappy in your career, you finally snap, and you want to run as far away as you can from your pain. If you’re struggling and you’ve waited too long to make change in your current situation, you’ve most likely grown to hate your job, or your colleagues, the work you do and skills you use, and you want to escape to the opposite direction in the world.
This was me 15 years ago – I couldn’t stand what I was doing or who I was doing it for, so I ran to the farthest corner of the professional world I could find – from corporate life to becoming a marriage and family therapist. In hindsight, my training as a therapist was a powerful, life-changing experience that gave me skills and expertise for success in my work today. But living the professional “identity” of a therapist – and dealing as I did with the many dark sides of humanity – rape, incest, pedophilia, suicidality, drug addiction, attempted murder, etc. — was, in the end, not what I wanted for my life and career. I needed a second reinvention to create the best work fit for me.
The way out of this misstep is this:
Don’t wait until you are desperately unhappy in your current situation to make change. And definitely don’t leap before you’ve improved your current situation (even if you think you can’t). Wherever you are today, empower yourself to better it. Repair broken relationships, build more self-respect, find your voice, advocate for what you want, develop your expertise, and become more of a leader. Do the thing that scares you the most. Become BRAVE. Then, when you do leave, you’ll be able to achieve and attract a much better role, and have the internal power to create more success and reward in your work. Running away will not solve your problems – they’ll just be repeated in the next chapter if you don’t address them now.
2. Not developing a sound financial plan that will carry you through your transition
Changing careers takes time, money and effort. Thousands of professionals dream of making a change, but have no available money to do it – either in the bank or accessible through other avenues. And they haven’t researched how long their transition will likely take.
The harsh reality is this: You can’t go from making $75,000 or $100,00 in one career to replicating that salary in a completely new career, without it taking a good deal of time and effort. And to make a change that will be lucrative and successful, you have to follow key steps in the process. Skipping these steps ends in detours and problems.
One critical step is to do solid research to explore your desired change with your accountant and financial consultant and experts in that career to understand clearly – without emotion and without a “build it and they will come” mentality – the financial requirements necessary to support you through what can be years of transition. If there’s no money available, wait until you can access some (earn more, borrow, use your bonus, etc.) or lower your expenses to sock away what you’ll need.
3. Believing without question that what you fantasize about doing is really what you want to do
When you’re embarking on career change, you have to first identify the “essence” of what you want, then find the right form of it. Questions you need to answer are:
– What skills and talents do I want to utilize?
– What business outcomes do I care to support?
– What type of people, environments and cultures do I thrive best with/in?
– Which values, standards of integrity and needs must be supported through this work?
– What types of challenges do I want to face in my work?
– What financial compensation and benefits are non-negotiables for me?
– What other components are necessary for me to have a happy career?
Once you’ve dimensionalized the “essence” of what you want, you then have to find the right “form” of work that fits you, your lifestyle and your needs. This is where folks trip up the most.
Because you want independence and flexibility, for instance, you might assume that launching your own business or consulting firm is right for you. But for thousands, it isn’t (read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It, by Michael Gerber, for more). Assuming without knowing gets you into deep trouble. You need to try on the professional identity of the work you’re thinking – physically, spiritually, financially, behaviorally, etc. — to figure out if the living identity of this career will, in the end, be what you want.
Here’s an example – lots of people fantasize about becoming a singer in a band, or a therapist, or working for non-profit, being a creative artist, or owning a bed and breakfast. These directions may seem glamorous, exciting, and fulfilling, but for many who live these careers, they would tell you a very different story. These careers work well only for certain type of individuals, with certain types of personalities, goals, skills and passions. (I’ve sung in a band, and can tell you, doing it for fun versus for a living are two very different things.).
It’s wonderful to dream and fantasize, but you need to go further. You must “try on” your top three, more compelling directions for several months in any way you can (volunteer, shadow, consult, lead a project, intern, take on pro bono clients, perform on a gig, etc.) to know for sure if it’s right.
4. Not knowing your “why” or digging deep enough
Let’s say you’ve been in recruiting for 10 years and now you want to transition over to digital marketing. I’d ask you to explore deeply all the reasons behind your wish to make this move. Is it just because digital marketing seems exciting and is the “it” thing now, or because you’ve actually been doing some marketing in your recruiting work and know you enjoy it?
Are you running from your recruiting work because you’re exhausted and burnt out, and work for a toxic boss? Or is your wish to move out of recruiting truly because it’s no longer a fit with what you care about and your natural skills (and perhaps never was).
Understand your deepest “why” before you make any moves. And make sure you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Do as much research and exploration and dig as deeply as you can to determine what you want, and what you really want from this career change. Perhaps you don’t want a different career at all, but long to bring forward new aspects of yourself, your talents, creativity and skills. The question is: What professional identity will make you the happiest? Only by trying on new directions will you have a solid answer to that question.
5. Not understanding that you’ll need time to transition effectively
Finally, failed career changers often throw in the towel too quickly. You can’t make life or career change without significant effort, time, commitment, and usually some substantial money.
I’m always stunned when people expect major life or career change to happen overnight – or within a few weeks or months. They’re so eager (or desperate) to leave behind what’s made them miserable, that they simply don’t have the perseverance to tough it out over the long haul to get to their desired destination.
If recent studies are right, 75% of full-time employees are open to or actively seeking new jobs. From my research, a large portion of these actually want a totally new career. It’s a phenomenon of gigantic proportion.
If you want career change, I hope you’ll go for it. (I’m so thankful I did.) But do yourself a favor, and do it right.