Very Brief Guide to Changing Careers

If you’re reading this article, I presume you are actively considering a change in your career. That guide to changing careers may be driven by financial necessity, boredom, frustration, or any one of a number of other reasons. You are hardly alone.

Over the course of the past decade, millions of Americans have been guide to changing careers, many willingly, many because they had to. The pace of this change has accelerated, a function of structural shifts in an economy increasingly impacted by globalization and technology. For a fortunate, small minority the change is seamless: the defeated congressman who becomes a high-paid lobbyist, the former pro athlete who launches a line of clothing, the retired military officer who lands a job with a defense contractor, or the beneficiary of a bequest who suddenly discovers the financial freedom to pursue a life-long dream of teaching. But for the average American, the thought of a career change is intimidating: a journey into the unknown along an often-rocky road.

The purpose of this article is to help you make this journey more certain and smoother by focusing on the three critical elements necessary for an optimal transition: SHOWING UP, LETTING GO, and TRYING OUT.


Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.–Henry David Thoreau

By “showing up” I mean activating and directing your energies towards the goal of identifying that new career. This can (and should) take many forms.

Take Inventory

What’s motivating the desire for a change?

A very common cause is plain old Boredom. If so, a career change may be an excessively radical cure, when a smaller shift (such as being reassigned to different clients or different departments, or a realignment of duties and responsibilities) might do the trick. Other common contributors motivating the desire for change: status and power, family expectations, better benefits, more flexible work schedules, a desire to do more “meaningful” work, and wanting to relocate for lifestyle reasons (moving to or leaving a big city, for example). But perhaps the largest single contributor is the category of financial considerations. A new baby, a lost job, or the desire to buy a home: these require a reexamination of your financial requirements and may dictate a career shift. Your inventory taking must include a detailed financial picture of our current position, not just assets and the need for a certain level of income, but also possible sources of support for you during a transition (would a relative be willing to lend you seed money? Would you consider borrowing from your IRA, which you can do without penalty for six months?) Fully understanding the sources of the desire to switch careers will help you make a series of better, smarter choices as you move down the path that ultimately leads to that next career.

What kind of a person are you?

Are you someone who really enjoys interacting with others, or do you prefer to work alone? Are you more of a creator or an implementer? Do you thrive working within tightly defined parameters? Is flexibility of schedule important to you? Are you a self-starter? Are you willing to learn new skills, perhaps by returning to school? Third – What do you like about your current (or past) jobs? And, a somewhat separate question, what are you good, and not so good, at doing? What aspects of your life do you find stimulating or enjoyable? What career might enable you to engage in more of those aspects? Testing (the MMPI or Strong Inventory, to name two examples) can be very helpful in identifying aptitude, strengths and weaknesses. Be aware, however, that results can be tilted towards reflecting on the past rather than illuminating the future. Just as the negative characteristics of a spouse in an unhappy marriage take on exaggerated prominence, unhappy experiences in previous work can skew test results.

Gather Information

By this I’m talking about becoming more knowledgeable about the career options you may be considering. Talk with someone, or several people, who’ve successfully negotiated a similar shift. Become familiar with the macroeconomic trends impacting the careers you might envision. Study and learn from the paths taken by likely competitors on your possible career paths. (For example, you might want to be a car salesman, but it would be important to know that sales of SUVs are trending down and so it might make more sense to apply to a Mini Cooper dealership rather than to a Hummer). What are the barriers to entry (opening a McDonald’s franchise costs might cost millions, whereas setting up a dog walking service out of your own home could be practically cost-free? Be sure to consult some of the excellent books available that can guide you in your search. These range from the very practical “How To” guides ( including my personal favorites, entitled “I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This,” by Julie Jansen and “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was,” by Barbara Sher) through the motivational (numerous titles by Dr. Phil, or Anthony Robbins) to the psychological (“Secrets of the Millionaire Mind,” by T. Harv Eker) and to the more metaphysical, spiritually oriented (“Let Your Life Speak,” by Parker J. Palmer, “Soul Prints,” by Marc Gafni). There are also numerous books (“The Power of Intention,” by Wayne Dyer, or the more simplistic “The Secret,” by Ronda Byrne) that emphasize the importance of positive thinking and visualization, which for many people can be very powerful tools in their search. Make it a point to investigate a number of these titles. Find the ones that resonate most strongly for you (I virtually guarantee that at least one of them will).

Hire an Expert

A series of sessions with a life consultant, a career counselor who is specialized in treatment programs for addiction, or life coach will allow you to enlist the help of an experienced professional for a relatively small investment compared to the potential return. In the same way that you might hire an accountant to help you figure out a complicated financial picture, an objective career consultant can untangle complexities and illuminate possibilities that will smooth your transition. Make sure that the person you engage in has a substantial “real world”, rather than simply academic, experience.

Talk to Friends

Talk with friends about your situation, particularly friends who you trust, admire, and (this is a particularly important point) who like what they do. What do they think you’d be good at? If you have concerns about your ability to succeed in what they’re suggesting, let them know about these anxieties. It’s often hard to show vulnerability and doubt, but people who really care about you will appreciate the confidence you’re placing in them by asking them to share their views with you.

Commit to spending a healthy chunk of time on these “showing up” activities each week. They will pay off.


You let it go and it comes. – Helen Mirren, upon accepting the 2006 Best Actress Oscar

As important as it is to energize yourself to show up, it may be even more important to “de-energize”. Often, people who hire me as a consultant are filled with a low-level sense of shame that they’re at an unsure place in their lives, without a plan. This shame consumes a lot of energy that could be put to more productive use. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who’s always had a burning desire to pursue a line of work (that for one reason or another they were unable to), most people contemplating career change really don’t have much of an idea, if any, as to what they might like to do and could succeed at. And yet the more comfortable you can become with this not knowing, the more open you’ll be to picking up the subtle signals your everyday life sends you that can help guide you in your search for the right new career.

Many techniques are available to assist you in this aspect of the career change process, An exceptionally valuable one is meditation. Meditation, though, isn’t about making the mind go blank. Instead, it’s about developing the ability to focus your mind, and insulate it from the literally thousands of distracting thoughts that eat away at the incredible power of our minds to create and accomplish. To develop that ability requires a consistent practice of cultivating one’s ability to focus on a single thing (the breath, a candle’s flame, the pace of your running feet, a mantra, a sunset) and noticing how often our restless minds jump away from the object we’re trying to focus on. Gently coaxing our minds back to the object we’ve decided to focus on strengthens the “focusing muscles” in the same way that workouts at the gym strengthen our bodily muscles. Be forewarned, though, that just as is the case with physical exercise, mental focusing requires repeated practice over some significant length of time to achieve noticeable results. One of my favorite books on the subject of meditation is “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The primary goal of meditation is the cultivation of a sense of inner peace. The challenge of changing careers is inherently stressful, resulting in a lot of mental turmoil. When our minds are in turmoil, we are dissipating huge amounts of mental energy that could be far more productively focused on the search for our new path. That is why calming the turmoil needs to be a primary goal. Because each of us is different, each of us has a slightly different way of connecting with and cultivating that inner peace. Attending church, being in nature, taking a vacation, being of service through volunteering, exercising, praying……each of these has at times worked miracles for their practitioners. Find out which method (or methods) can help you do a better job of letting go. An excellent book to consult on the various means of letting go, and its many benefits, is Ellen J. Langer’s “Mindfulness.”


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.–Lao Tzu

The third leg of the guide to changing careers triangle consists of experimentation. Taking inventory and doing inner work are solitary pursuits. Learning and growing CAN occur in isolation, but in fact, the vast majority of the growth we experience over the course of our lives is a function of our interaction with other people, and with changing situations. Pursuing these interactions is absolutely essential to building the confidence necessary to change careers. Here are some important ways of “trying out.”

1) Seek a mentor

Who among the people you know have lives and careers that you most admire? Ask them to sit down with you and talk about how the qualities you admire have helped them in their chosen field, and how those qualities might be cultivated and deepened within you.

2) Volunteer

See if you can find a part-time (after work or weekend) position that can help you gain real-world experience in a field of interest.

3) Join an affinity group

Investigate whether there may be a group of people in your area who meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. This might be a general discussion group of people undergoing career questioning or transition, or it might be a group focused on a specific topic that bears on a career that might hold interest and potential for you.

4) Attend a convention, trade show, or association meeting

Many of these gatherings have booths staffed by industry professionals who, at off times, will be happy to talk to you about their industries, and many of them will offer personal case histories and advice.

Pursuing the routes listed above will involve you in interactions, which will inevitably broaden and deepen your knowledge. But, beyond that, the personal contacts and relationships that you form will shed significant light on the desirability of certain careers and / or industries and companies.

Final Brief Note Guide To Changing Careers

As one of my very smartest clients sagely observed, “Just because you don’t have a career doesn’t mean you don’t have a life.” Please re-read the preceding quote emphasizing the first article “a.” It’s a concise way of rebutting the increasingly out-of-date notion that being successful equals having a successful career. Millions of people have discovered that by creating a PORTFOLIO of income-generating activities they can achieve a sufficiently abundant lifestyle and yet have more stimulation, flexibility, and fulfillment than any single career could offer them.

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