It was one of the most difficult periods of my life.
On the surface, I had a great job in a well-known company. I’d done what was expected of me post university. I’d been promoted several times. I had a mortgage, I was travelling with work and had great prospects ahead of me.
Inside though, I was deeply unfulfilled. I wasn’t enjoying my work, I felt like I wasn’t using my full potential, and I longed to wake up feeling like my work was making a difference – to someone or something.
Yet, I didn’t have a clue what else I could do.
Indeed I’d struggled on and off for years to figure out a way to change (making, it seemed to me, every career change mistake there was to make), but without making progress.
Eventually, as you’ll read below, I came out the other side. But it wasn’t an easy journey.
These are the lessons I learnt along the way.
If you’re stuck in your career change, there are three main challenges – or paradoxes – that you’re going to come up against.
In the depths of my despair about my job, there were signals from all around me that I wasn’t in the right place: I was embarrassed to talk about my work with others at parties; I couldn’t imagine doing my boss’s job (nor the one her boss had); and I was petrified that I’d reach 60 or 70 and not feel proud of the work I’d done in my life.
On a day-to-day basis, I just felt numb – uninspired by the meaningless work I was doing, and seemingly stuck in a Groundhog-Day reality of waking up to the same story every morning.
Yet, at the same time, I had no idea what else I wanted to do (or if I did have wild ideas, I had no sense of whether they were feasible).
I had no idea where to start or how to go about the career-change process. I was also scared of taking a cut in salary, scared of what my family and friends would think, and scared of losing the status I’d worked so hard to achieve.
Ultimately it was me – my fears and my lack of knowledge – that was my biggest obstacle.
I’d wager you’re in a similar position.
Like I was, you’re probably a knowledge worker: paid to think, to solve problems, and to interact with others.
Why then, haven’t you been able to figure what else you want to do?
My approach was to come home from work, wrap myself in my duvet, and go round and round in circles in my head analysing what else could I do.
My colleague Natasha describes this as her ‘midnight crazy thought loops’ – sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night trying figure out what she could do next.
Neither of us came up with answers.
The simple reality is that if the solution to your career change lay in more analysis – in making more lists, reading more books, taking more psychometric tests, or simply figuring it all out in your head – you’d have found it by now.
When I started to look for something different, recruitment consultants were my natural first port of call.
They talked excitedly to me about roles with competitors or other positions in smaller organisations. But it all just left me cold. It was more of the same. I wanted to do something radically different. They couldn’t help.
You may have sent off your CV / resume for jobs in different fields, thinking you might at least get an initial interview. But nothing. You may have spent hours on job sites and just made yourself more miserable by seeing again and again that you don’t have the experience or skills that are being asked for. Or you may have had similar experiences to mine with recruitment consultants.
These are all functions of conventional job market mechanisms that aren’t designed for career changers.
Through no fault of your own, you’re simply not going to stack up against other people with experience and skills in the different field you’re interested in.
There are solutions to each paradox, but they’re likely not what you think they are (they weren’t initially for me).
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller.
The biggest challenge I faced in my career change was inertia. I wanted to change, but I didn’t want to risk the security of the job I had.
I was comfortably uncomfortable.
I would have bursts of energy to do something about my career, followed by periods where I’d get swept back into ‘life’, surfacing weeks or months later and realising nothing had changed.
I only really started to make progress when I deliberately put others around me.
I started seeking out others in my company who also wanted to escape; I got a coach; and I started to meet and hang out with different types of people (one of which was to end up leading me to a job I loved – see more below).
The net effect was different ideas, different connections, and accountability – all of which led, finally, to forward movement.
Think of your career change as an expedition, not a day-trip.
If you were climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest, it’s possible you could do it by yourself, but it’s highly likely you’d want to go with others – peers, a guide, a support team. It makes the journey safer, faster and, heck, a lot more fun.
“Ideas occur when dissimilar universes collide.” – Seth Godin.
In my career-change journey, it took me four and a half years to get out of a career that wasn’t right for me.
For most of that time, I was trapped in analysis paralysis.
As the coach I worked with at the time said, “Richard, it’s like you’re standing in a forest and you have a number of tracks in front of you. But you’re paralysed because you don’t want to make a mistake. And the challenge is: if you don’t take any of the paths, you’re never going to get out of the forest. If you take one of them, it may not be the right track initially, but you can course-correct.”
When I started to act rather than analyse, things started to change.
I did a part-time journalism course. I loved it, but it wasn’t for me as a career. I shadowed my friend who worked in PR for half a day. I did the same with a friend who worked as a Japanese yen bond trader in an investment bank. Fascinating as it was to get a glimpse into these different worlds, neither appealed.
But notice what I was doing.
As Seth Godin talks about, I was stepping into different worlds – sparking ideas and, at the same time, crossing off possibilities, rather than leaving them as open questions in my mind.
I was also testing ideas in a way that meant that I didn’t need to leave my day job before I’d figured out what I really wanted to do.
Finally, thanks to an introduction made by my future sister-in-law Sarah, I walked into the offices of a social start-up – and I knew in a matter of minutes I’d found something that was totally me.
Had I just seen the organisation’s website or a job ad in a newspaper, I might never have discovered the connection I had with them. But it was made real by meeting the team, sensing the environment and getting a feel for the energy of the place.
In short, action precedes clarity, not the other way round.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Job sites, recruitment consultants, CVs / resumes and Google all have their uses in your career change. But they’re not the place to start.
Focus instead on connecting with people.
The power of being in front of people is that you can present the whole you – something a CV or resume simply can’t do.
I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to work in the social start-up I fell in love with. But what I did have was a ton of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. That was never going to come across on my CV or resume.
I didn’t get the job there through a formal application. I got it because I built relationships with people in the organisation. I did some pro-bono work, which led to consultancy work, which led to an interview for a full-time job.
Oh, and if you’re curious to know, I had the worst interview of my life for that role. I so wanted the job that my brain froze, I stumbled my way through the questions, and I left thinking I’d blown it. Catastrophic. Or it might had been, had that been my first interaction with the team. But it wasn’t and, because of the strengths of the relationships I’d built, I still got the job.