As part of my coaching practice, I am often asked variations of the same question: “How will I know if the time is right for me to try a new job or change careers?” It’s a good and reasonable question with no one-size-fits-all answer. The good news is that finding a solution doesn’t have to feel like a game of chance; with the right strategies you can answer this question with confidence and clarity.
When people mention a potential desire to change jobs or careers, it is usually with some hesitation. I often wonder what might be holding them back from considering the options available to them. When I ask people about the obstacles and considerations that keep them from change, I hear legitimate concerns like financial stability, timing (waiting for other events to occur, such as kids getting older), a lack of confidence in their having enough or the right experience, or a lack of advancement or other opportunities.
What I’ve found is that while people may have been thinking about a change, and may even genuinely desire a change, they feel blocked from seriously considering their options. They become stymied by worry. “What if I don’t like my next job?” “What if the grass isn’t greener on the other side?” “What if I fail or get fired?” “What if I’m not liked or a poor fit at my new job?” “What if I’m not good enough?” While it’s perfectly normal to experience these kinds of anxieties, they can quickly become a stumbling block that saps the will to push forward, leaving people in the status quo. While navigating fear, worry and indecision is part of the process of contemplating any significant change, such trepidations don’t have to be limiting factors if they can be addressed head-on.
One of the reasons I think people feel safe discussing career change ambitions with me is because they’re aware of my own unusual career path. When people find out I left a career in law, they often wonder why I would take such a big leap, leaving behind the proverbial big pay cheque, nice office, and a seemingly respected position. There were times along the way where I wondered that myself, but the truth is, I changed because I was willing to work on myself, which allowed me to see the benefit of pressing past the fears and uncertainties to pursue what was most meaningful to me.
As is true of many people, my work journey hasn’t been short and sweet. My career path has had numerous twists and turns over the past 25 years since I started my first career as a lawyer, as I was constantly searching for the right time to start, step to take, and place to land. I used to view the search for my “right place” in the work world as a multi-year roller coaster ride, and not in a thrill-seeking, fun-and-adventure kind of way. The truth is, I hate rollercoasters. My stomach turns and my first clench involuntarily at the thought of riding one.
My point of view on career change being a turbulent roller coaster ride shifted when one of my kids was working on plotting line graphs in school. He offered to help me plot out a graph that would visually represent the 13+ jobs I have had since I started my first career over 20 years ago. It was an eye-opening result.
To assist with the graphing, I decided to evaluate each job using a couple variables that many people use to define career success:
1) income/salary and positional job status; and
2) work satisfaction (which I defined as whether my personal values aligned with those of my workplace, and whether I was utilizing my strengths at work).
I went through each job and rated my experience based on these criteria. My son quickly generated a graph (kids these days are such tech-wizards) and presto, my career “learning journey” suddenly made a lot of sense to me.
The idea that my career trajectory had been a roller coaster ride was validated by the steep curves and sharp drops of the graph which traced my progress as I moved between positions in my search for the “right place” for me. I noticed that the increases in wage and positional status that came with some of my career moves didn’t always align with an increase in work satisfaction. This was a daunting bit of truth to consider, as it turned my examination into an exercise in overcoming loss of identity. Could it be true that I might be happier in my day-to-day work and career if I was not at the top of the pay scale or in a position of authority? The answer was not a clear “yes” for me, but it did push that thought to the forefront as I continued to analyze the graph’s results.
What I noticed most was that later in the graph, as my career evolved, my job satisfaction grew exponentially while my income stayed at levels I would describe as “reasonably satisfactory.” It was a graphic illustration that what should have been the height of my career based on status and income did not correspond with increased career satisfaction. So, what did it all mean?
First, it spurred me to redefine for myself what the meaning of “career success” was. The graphing exercise also helped me to dig deeper into what were my true work values and personal strengths. This led me to reconsider how I could use this information to increase my awareness of what job satisfaction meant to me and how important things like income and status were for me at varying stages of my career and life.
Reframing how I considered my career changed the game for me, and it may also work for you, if you’re willing to try. It’s as simple (or as difficult) as putting time and effort into contemplating the following:
1) Identify your core work values. I’d recommend narrowing your top work values down to no more than three or four. Ask yourself: what is most important to you about the work you do or have done? Is it making a difference or contributing? Connecting with others? Learning or solving problems? Helping or collaborating? Once you have your top values figured out, ask yourself if they would still be top considerations no matter what your pay or job title is, was or will be? If you are at a loss for what your potential work values might be, you can start by thinking of a time when you felt most alive and fulfilled at work or in other areas of your life. Look for themes within these stories.
2) Identify your top strengths. These are the skills that you most enjoy, the ones that feel like they come to you naturally or easily. These strengths are what make up your personal brand and differentiate you from others. Are you analytical? Caring? Precise? Team-oriented? Visionary? Action oriented? Keep in mind that you can have a variety of strengths, so don’t limit yourself. If you are struggling for words, recall what others have complimented you on. You can also ask others what they see as your strengths but be discerning about who you ask and how you process their input. Consider feedback to be information rather than your truth.
3) Identify your needs. While salary and status may have been important at an earlier stage in your career, what is reasonable at this time? Are advancement, title, prestige, or increased responsibilities something that motivate you? Do you feel unfulfilled when contemplating your career to date? If so, what are you missing? You may want to spend some time mapping out a work-life ‘bucket list’ of things you want to accomplish before you leave the workforce. Try to stick to no more than three to five items. Once you have your list, go through it and ask yourself honestly if any of them are actual needs and not just wants. If they are needs, how can you use them to assist in plotting your way forward?
4) Identify your worries or fears. Fear is one of the most common reactions to change. For me it manifested as a fear of losing identity and status, which kept me “comfortable” in some jobs for too long, and at other times made me leap without looking before eventually reverting to safer ground (higher pay and status). While safe and familiar, these backsteps did not lead to the increased job satisfaction that motivated my initial leap, leaving me to repeat the cycle. I eventually discovered that I could escape backstepping through better examination of my motivations. If fear is getting in your way, like it did for me, then I recommend you:
- Get curious. Don’t keep pushing aside your thoughts, feelings, and questions about whether you are in the right place or not. Take the time to be thoughtful and considerate of your needs and what is most important to you.
- Connect with others. Ask others who have successfully changed jobs or fields about their story. What helped guide them? What did they learn about the transition process? What did they wish they had known or thought about before they shifted?
- Get creative. For me, the creativity in career transition started with me redefining what success was on my own terms. Separating myself from what I perceived as the opinions and expectations of others was part of the process that allowed me to be more creative in my thinking about potential paths forward. Perhaps this is more about “creation” or “reinvention” than creativity?
- Practice self-care and compassion. Be easy on yourself during this process. Take the time and space that you need to take care of yourself so you can do your best thinking. If you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed with work or life, taking care of your well-being first will certainly position you for doing your best thinking and making decisions that align with what is most important to you personally and professionally.
Once you have had a chance to apply these insights into your own career path, you may have a clearer view of what you truly want and need to feel happy and fulfilled. Are your true values being met, or does the absence of satisfaction still motivate you to consider a change? What are you really looking for, or what do you really hope to gain (or possibly avoid) in making a change? Is it possible to balance your values and strengths in your current position or current field, or does your analysis and contemplation point you elsewhere?
By being curious and pursuing your introspection with self-respect and integrity, the answers should present themselves. The work you do will show you the identifiable landmarks of your career to date and provide you with navigation points for the rest of your journey. They may not provide guarantees, but they’ll help you avoid a roller coaster scenario (or help you to get off of one) by allowing you to consider the process of job or career change as a learning journey that satisfies your true needs without the turbulence, noise and anxiety of enduring a ride you only partially control.
Looking back at my career path, I can see how a lot of the ups and downs of the roller coaster could have been avoided through better self-examination of my motives, and a clearer definition of what success meant to me personally. While I have few (if any) regrets, I struggled through professional challenges because I was motivated by common considerations that didn’t align with my actual values.
I now know that with the right support, anyone can chart a course for growth and success that fulfills their needs, meets their values, and gets them off the career roller coaster now and forever. So, are you ready to define and create a career path, or contemplate a career change, that is right for you?