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4 Steps (and Counting) to Owning a Career Change

Advice from someone who’s figuring it out, too.

Photo by Callum T on Unsplash

It took me four whole years to realize that my career wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to. Sure, there were little signs here and there pointing towards something not being quite right, but for the most part, these were ignored.

The problem was, I didn’t know where else to turn. My jobs always had decent perks and kept me busy enough to not justify looking sideways or backwards for other opportunities. Straight ahead and up the corporate ladder was the only direction I thought I could go.

Despite four years of trying (and failing) to make office jobs work for me, this year I finally reached my breaking point. I realized that dream careers don’t plop down in front of you unless you go looking for them, so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these last few months. Although it takes a lot of perseverance and soul searching to uncover new career paths, trust me when I say it is well worth the effort.

Full disclosure, I’m still in the middle of my career change and am still figuring it all out. However, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my options for pivoting careers since I began this quest. In this article, I’ll be sharing my advice for how to finally find a career that works for you, no matter what kind of career change you’re looking to take on.

Your job doesn’t define you, but we all have a right to enjoy the work we do.

Before we get into the more practical advice, I’d like to share a little about my career back-story and why I decided to change careers in the first place.

Having most recently worked for a big corporation, the obvious way forward for my career would have been middle management. Although my job paid well and had room for growth, when I tried to imagine what I would be doing five or ten years from now, my mind went blank. Not just when it came to this company specifically, but for any company for that matter. I’ve discussed all of my reasons for leaving the corporate world in a previous article, but for the most part, it came down to not finding anyone in my field whose job I wanted and not being able to see myself work for anyone but me in the long term.

Although I learned a lot from my four years of full-time office jobs and will be forever grateful for the experiences they gave me, I knew that my forever career would have to be drastically different if I had any hopes of enjoying the work I did.

The only problem was, I had no idea where to turn next. I felt completely trapped by the four years of experience on my résumé because it all leaned towards business and project management skills— things I was good at but didn’t want to continue building a career out of.

You might be wondering why I’m telling you all of this. Well, maybe you’re in the same boat as me. Maybe, after years of building a career in one particular industry or sector, you’ve woken up and realized you don’t want to continue down this path anymore.

So what do we do next?

It’s ok to find yourself in the wrong career — here’s how to get out of it.

It’s not unusual to end up in a job or career by complete accident. It happens to the best of us — we grab the first job opportunity that presents itself after finishing school, and don’t give much consideration to whether it’s what we actually want. Hey, I get it. A job is a job, and they don’t usually hand them out like hotcakes.

Of course, not everyone stumbles into their job by complete accident like I did. Maybe you thought you always wanted your current role until you actually started working towards it and realized it’s not a good match. Perhaps you were pushed into your career as a result of family pressure. Or, maybe you recently experienced a drastic life event that has made you reconsider everything. No matter how you got to where you are right now, or how many years you’ve spent building your career, it’s never too late or wrong to decide you want something else for yourself.

Some people are lucky and hit the career lottery from their first job. Others might not find the perfect career right away, but with a few years of trial and error and some small changes, they’re able to settle into their careers with relative ease. Then there’s the rest of us: those who have tried everything to make our careers work, but for whatever reason, something never feels quite right.

I won’t lie, it’s definitely scary to think that your career has been moving in the wrong direction, especially if it’s been moving that way for a few years or decades. However, it’s also completely normal. Not all of us are lucky enough to get our careers right on the first try, but it doesn’t mean it’s too late to find work that we love.

With that being said, here are the five steps to pivot your career and find what’s right for you.

Step 1: Accept that you’re in the wrong career.

Let’s start with the basics. The first step to exiting your career in favor of a better one is accepting that you’re in the wrong career in the first place.

Some of you might already know this, in which case feel free to move to the next step. To others, you may still be at a point where you’re figuring things out. It is tempting to try and stick with it and make your existing career work, but if you’ve spent a few years drudging through and still aren’t happy with where you are, it may be time to admit that this career thing isn’t working out for you.

But fear not, you’re in good company! As I said, it took me four years to realize this for myself. At first, I thought I was just in the wrong role or at the wrong company. But after a handful of different jobs and companies, it finally dawned on me that office work in general just wasn’t my thing. Having come from a family of small business owners, it probably should have been more obvious. However, we all need to figure this stuff out on our own terms. Once I was able to admit this to myself, everything else clicked.

Though it’s scary to admit to yourself at first, especially if you’ve spent years or even decades chipping away at a specific career path, it’s never too late to switch directions. Let’s face it, most of us probably won’t retire, so you may as well enjoy what you do! All joking aside, even if your next career move is wildly different from your current one, there will always be a handful of transferrable skills that you can use in any career. Therefore, see this career change as starting a new chapter in your life, not rewriting your entire life story to date.

Though this article alone won’t hand you all the answers, it will give you some considerations and things to think about while you navigate your career change. Once you’ve decided that you’re at the point of no return (AKA you’re fully committed to leaving your career), we can start to figure out some next steps.

After all, it’s a big deal to admit to yourself that you’re in the wrong career. If anything, you should celebrate!

Do you know how many people are unfulfilled by their careers, but are too afraid to do anything about it? I don’t have the exact numbers here, but I can guarantee it’s a lot!

Not you though, you rebel. You’ve made a choice to go against the grain and try something different. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s emotionally draining. But as they say, getting started is the hardest part.

Speaking of common sayings, they also say that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same applies to your new career. You have a long journey ahead of you, but first, take some time to not only congratulate yourself on this big decision but also pat yourself on the back for choosing to act on it.

Here’s a virtual high five.

Step 2: Tell someone else about it.

Once you’ve accepted that you’re in the wrong career, the next step is to tell a few other people about it too.

Telling other people that you’re in the wrong career serves two purposes:

  1. By going public with this realization, you’re more likely to act on it and actually do something about it. Changing careers is hard, so you need to make sure you’re fully committed to finding something else. Who better than a few select people in your life to hold you accountable?
  2. Given the challenges you’ll be up against during your career change, you’ll need a great support group to keep you going. Trust me, it’s so much easier to switch careers if you know there are others out there rooting for you.

Now that we know why it’s important to announce to others that you want to change careers, let’s talk about who you should tell.

Personally, I wouldn’t go announcing this news all over LinkedIn yet, especially because you probably don’t have a plan to execute your career change just yet. Social media can be a great way to find your next role or see if anyone in your network can make an introduction, but that will come later.

Right now, you don’t know exactly what you’re doing yet, only that you want to stop doing your current work. So keep this announcement to just a few trustworthy, reliable people that you know will have your back and support you no matter what.

For me, it was my mom, my partner and a few close friends and colleagues who I shared my news with. If you don’t have anyone in your life who you’d feel comfortable sharing with, the internet can be a great support network. You can even stay anonymous!

I’ve found The Dots community to be an incredibly helpful bunch. They have so many mentors in all sorts of creative industries, and their forums are a great place to ask questions, get advice, or just connect with others going through the same thing.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to rush this step. It took me a few months of secret planning and pondering before I was ready to admit to others that I wanted to shift careers. Sometimes, there can be a lot of shame and fear of judgment attached to telling others about this, so only tell people when you’re ready and only share with those you trust. After all, you may need to spend a few more months drudging through your current job before you can officially move on, so it’s best to keep it on the down-low.

Interestingly, once I started telling people about my desire for a career change, it completely shifted my mindset. I went from hoping I would find a new career path, to actually taking accountability for it. So that’s why this step is so crucial — try sharing your news and observe how your mindset shifts.

Step 3 (the best one): Start exploring.

I love this step. This step is where the magic happens. Like the previous ones, it’s not to be rushed, but it’s one that I encourage you to have fun with. After however many years of going down the wrong career path, you can’t suddenly expect to find the answers you’ve been looking for after only a few hours or even days of searching.

This is the step where you need to reach deep inside your psyche, your childhood, your motivations and desires, and try and come up with some new possible career choices. There isn’t some magic formula or any single exercise that will unlock the truth. However, the best thing I did when I was tackling this stage was to keep a completely open mind and believe that any career I chose would be possible if I put enough time and energy into it.

Besides this, I also advise you to grab a pen and some paper. Optional, but highly recommended, is to block out a few hours, find a great Spotify playlist, lock yourself in a room and have an alcoholic beverage close by.

Whether you already have an inkling of an idea of what you want to do, or you’re feeling completely lost, working through some basic questions and exercises will help you gain a sense of direction and give you a place to start.

There are a million “what’s my perfect career” tests to be found online, in books, on podcasts — you name it. It’s impossible for me to recommend any specific ones since we’re all starting at different stages, so the key thing here is to just do the work and begin exploring. You’ll be surprised by what you discover about yourself.

Here are some questions to consider for your first exploratory session:

  • What do I enjoy most about my current role? What do I enjoy least?
  • What types of activities in my daily life do I find most motivating?
  • When do I feel like I’m in flow?
  • What types of projects (personal, school or work-related) have I enjoyed working on the most in recent years?
  • What topics and things could I talk about for hours?
  • What types of things did I love doing as a child?
  • Whose job would I want five, 10 and 20 years from now?
  • What do my friends, family and coworkers say are my strengths?
  • What skills do I want to continue building?
  • Do I prefer full-time employment, project-based work, freelancing or any combination of these?
  • Are there any special requirements I have for the work I do, such as flexible hours or working remotely?
  • If I was 20 again and new to the workforce, which direction would I choose to go in?

As I said before, you probably won’t find the answers you’re looking for in one session, but I can guarantee that each time you have one of these exploratory career sessions, you will come closer to cracking the code.

My journey of career discovery

For me, this step was very much a several-month-long journey of discovery. However, I also had genuinely no idea what my next step was. I still can’t say I have it all figured out, but it definitely feels like I’m going in the right direction. Listening to my gut and ignoring outside expectations has been a really important part of this process for me, and I don’t think I would have gotten very far if I was still concerned with what others thought I should do.

I won’t lie, this discovery step hasn’t been all smooth sailing. At first, I hit a lot of mental roadblocks because I thought I needed to rush this step and immediately find my next job. But then, I realized that every time I tried to do that, I just ended up applying to other office jobs. It was the safe choice, but I knew it wouldn’t get me very far. So I literally had to remind myself for weeks that another office job, even if it was for a different company or industry, wasn’t the answer.

You might have different reasons for wanting to get out of your current career, but once you figure out why remind yourself of it constantly and it will be so much easier to distinguish what you think you should do next versus what you deep down actually want to do next.

For me, all of the wrong turns in my career came down to feeling like I needed to keep progressing and being promoted to more senior, higher-paying roles. My focus wasn’t at all on what interested me, but what would get me bragging rights and status when compared to my peers.

However, once I realized I don’t live in a movie and none of that stuff actually matters to me, it became a lot easier to plan a career around what I actually like doing. As it turns out, the answers were there all along! It came down to what I enjoyed doing when I was younger, as well as some of my more recent interests in adulthood. I spent a bunch of nights writing lists and word clouds of what I enjoyed doing and talking about, as well as deciding what potential income streams and jobs I could create from these.

Anytime I found a potential career that I liked the sound of, I’d go online to research what it was actually like. YouTube is also a great search engine for this because people from all career paths post videos with titles like “What it’s actually like to work as a florist” and so on.

I also spent a lot of time stream-of-consciousness journaling. It wasn’t always career-related but my mind often went to that topic, and it was useful in helping me make sense of all the possibilities and directions my career could go in.

My dream career is still very much a work in progress, but I’ve found a few jobs and income streams I love the sound of, so I’m working towards building these out. I’ve decided what I want to work on in the short-term with more immediate results, versus the type of work I hope to be doing in the long term. And of course, I’m keeping it all very flexible because who knows what will happen.

Step 4: ???

So I haven’t quite made it this far yet, but my best guess is that the fourth step would be something like ‘Achieve self-actualization.

In reality, once you decide on your new career path and plan how to work towards it, you’ll probably have to spend a few months or longer up-skilling and building credibility. The amount of time and effort this takes depends largely on how big of a move you’re making. For example, switching from working full-time in IT to being a lawyer will take a lot more time and effort than if you have an option to change departments at your existing company. But no matter what hurdles you encounter, remember that it will all be worth it if you end up in a more rewarding career.

In addition to this, you’ll also need to consider how to transition careers. For instance, you might keep working at your current job and start looking for new roles in your spare time. Or, you might want to stay at your job and build your dream career out on the side. I’m a big fan of taking a few months off if you can and just having the time and space to process everything — however this should only be done if you have enough of a financial safety net.

This fourth step will depend largely on whether or not you have an emergency fund, how much spare time you have, how quickly you’re looking to switch careers and, of course, how big your risk tolerance is.

If any of you reading this have successfully pivoted careers, don’t be shy about sharing your wisdom with those of us who are still in the midst of this process. Trust me, we’ll take all the advice we can get!

In Conclusion

Finding your forever career is daunting. It takes a lot of time and will probably be one of the harder things you do in your life. But the one thing that always keeps me going is the idea of one day finding work that I really love.

After all, what’s a few years of absolute confusion about what you’re doing with your life, followed by a few months of finally trying to get said life together, if you can find a career you’re genuinely interested in? I mean, it practically sells itself!

Sometimes, I do envy the people who have a seemingly linear career path or have taken all the correct, strategic steps to get to where they are. But then I am reminded of the fact that most of us, no matter our age or background, have no idea what we’re doing with our lives. We’re all trying to figure this crazy world out and make the best of our time here. Hopefully, we will have some interesting stories to tell if we ever do end up retiring.

Until then, stay curious and keep exploring.

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