Career change- in a mature economy, is it really possible?

The longer you have been doing the same thing, the more difficult, and potentially rewarding, career change is likely to be.

‘We become what we become by doing what we do’

Oscar Wilde

Some people fall into careers to which they are ill suited or chose them for the wrong reasons. Peer or parental pressure, desire for status or the approval of others are common factors. Many others reach an impasse or a mid-life crisis and find that as their values become more important to them, they can no longer keep doing what they do. Others simply run out of road or become bored and this can happen far sooner than the mid-life stage. The imperative for change is great and the alternative is stasis which sadly often leads to feelings of quiet desperation.

The good news is that the pace of change in the economy, new technology, greater awareness of alternatives and in some cases plain necessity have enabled access to new opportunities. Many have broken the shackles of the old world thinking and have started their own businesses or chosen a lifestyle alternative. Very few people will have to experience what their parents or grandparents suffered and tough out many years of doing the same thing, even when it no longer interested them. I admire them for their courage and fortitude and feel responsible for doing something with my opportunities in life. That is not to say that career change is always easy- it can be tough and may lead to painful consequences if badly thought out or poorly executed.

I was once told that changing career in mid-life is like turning around an oil tanker. If you see yourself as more of a speedboat be aware that patterns of thought and behaviour become engrained and as Wilde pointed out, our identities become set over time. Worst of all, we start to believe that we are not capable of changing. This kind of self- limiting assumption is something which I come across all the time. Many people struggle to find the commitment and the tools to make change. Fear is often holing them back and finding the courage to overcome it is the first and biggest part of the challenge. Providing the vision and belief is often the next stage.

I have been privileged to know and often to advise some brave souls who have made both radical and more conventional career changes. These people demonstrate the art of the possible and feature in case studies in my forthcoming book, including:

- Corporate Marketer who opened a luxury eco camp site in rural France

- Painter who chose the life of a Barrister over the good life

- COO who became a business Coach and Mentor

- Lawyer who became a market gardener

- Head-hunter who launched an Internet channel for children’s toys

One size does not fit all and as uniquely complex and diverse human beings, we are capable of doing many different things. These individuals all managed to overcome the voice of fear and inertia which affects us all, particularly during times of change. They exemplify Abraham Lincolns maxim that ‘it is not the years in your life but the life in your years’ which matter most and their reward is often a more abundant life.

For those of you who are struggling for inspiration there are always friends and family you can turn to but beware of listening too intently to those who are prone to telling you what you want or need to hear. A dose of honesty and tough love go a long way and you may be more likely to get that from a professional coach or mentor. They will challenge you, and more importantly ask you questions which will lead you to reflect and challenge yourself more rigorously. If your narrative is based on scarcity, they will encourage you to think more positively about yourself, your attributes, potential and adaptability. They will improve the quality of your thinking and broaden your horizons without patronising you or judging your choices in any way.

You may end up doing something which is close to what you do today, or in a related field. This should not be a surprise because you will find greatest employability in areas which are closely aligned to your sweet spot and where you add most value. The point is that whatever choices you make, it is best to make them from the inside-out based on what is best for you in a broader sense than you may have considered in the past. One of the good things (and there are many) about mid-life is that you are less concerned about what others may think. Whatever stage you are at it is best to adopt this attitude if you are to make the right choices for you, rather than just paying the bills as so many of our forebears were constrained to do.

If the idea of taking risks leaves you wanting to dive for cover, you might want to counter this instinct by playing out in your mind what ‘staying safe’ really means?

This quote, from Clay Christensen, Professor at Harvard Business School gets right to the heart of the matter:

‘We pick our jobs for the wrong reasons and then we settle for them. We begin to accept that it’s not realistic to do something we truly love for a living. Too many of us who start down the path to compromise will never make it back. Considering the fact that you’ll likely spend more of your waking hours at your job than in any other part of your life, it’s a compromise that will always eat away at you’

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to career change but coaching and mentoring can help you to find your own solutions and to act upon them. In no particular order, this is how it can be done.

1/By actively listening to what you have to say, a skilled coach will learn much about you, both from the words and the spaces between the words and will use logic, experience and his or her instincts to form an accurate picture of you. This includes your personality, strengths and the attitudes or self-limiting behaviours which may be holding you back. Being listened to in this way can be a powerful experience and crucially, you will feel that your coach understands you and is not judging you in any way.

2/By asking you challenging questions, and more importantly by getting you to ask these challenging questions of yourself, a skilled coach will help you to arrive at your own solutions in a way which leaves you feeling empowered and focussed. Because you, or your employer, have paid for this service, you are more likely to trust and act upon the outcomes, and to commit to achieving them.

3/By earning your trust and confidence, in a completely safe setting, your coach will be able to challenge you in appropriate ways and to give ‘tough love’ where it is needed. I make a point of asking my clients early on, how challenging they would like me to be? Given the context and the fact that they are often looking to make difficult changes in their lives, they invariably answer ‘very’ or enough to make them step out of their comfort zone, which may have become a fur lined-rut.

4/By referencing your experiences and what you are going through, with their own knowledge and insight, your coach will help you to feel less alone and will help you to identify the resources that you can draw upon to make lasting change happen. Often these resources come from within, but may also include friends, partners, sources of information, third parties or simply alternative ways of looking at yourself or your particular issue.

5/By helping you to identify and commit to certain goals, your coach will help you to move forward in a positive and measurable way. There is much research out there to prove that people are more energised and likely to succeed when they have goals and by writing these down, you are still more likely to achieve them. One caveat to this is that sometimes people will come to me a little lost, without a clear sense of what their goals are or should be. My view, is that there is no ‘should’ and by focussing on ‘could’ instead, the goals maybe the outcome of the coaching process.

6/A skilful coach will be able to help you to improve your emotional intelligence, and therefore your understanding of yourself, your emotions and drivers and those of the people around you. As social beings we all like and need to feel connected with others in positive ways and learning to do this more effectively, will increase your confidence, effectiveness, happiness and health. You will also learn more about your effect on others and if you care enough about this you can improve it in many ways. Coaching will help you to make sure that these effects are positive, mindful and add to the greater good (as well as your reputation and brand of course).

7/Through the skilful application of positive psychology an effective coach, who actively believes in you, will be able to improve your explanatory style and the way you think about yourself and the world around you. Over time, you may well find yourself thinking and acting more positively, eventually leading to a more optimistic mind set. If you can learn to view the world through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity, this can lead to remarkable results. On a personal level, it took me a while to work this one out.

8/By helping you to improve the quality of your thinking (this may sound a little patronising but it is invariably true) a skilled coach will enable you to be more self-aware and mindful and therefore better placed to coach yourself, and potentially other people in future. If you are a manager or leader, this can be an invaluable and often unforeseen benefit of the relationship and one that will deliver lasting results. It may also lead you to a path of continuous self-improvement, and that is surely the path most of us would chose, is it not?

I am a coach and mentor with the award winning firm Accelerating Experience. david.head@acceleratingexperience.com

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