How I Navigated a Career Change

From realizing I needed a change, to how I got there.

Elle Marcus
Ascent Publication

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Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash

I walk into work with my eyes still half-closed. I make my way to my cubicle and sit down at my computer. By mid-morning, a light pressure creeps into my chest. An aching headache slowly forms a band around my temples. I should’ve gotten more sleep last night, I think to myself. I stare at the CAD and multiple spreadsheets open on my computer. By the afternoon, the feeling in my chest has turned into a deep throbbing pressure. I get up and take a lap around the office. The pressure grows for days. Weeks. Months. Then one day I realize: this isn’t just a lack of sleep anymore.

Something has to change.

Three years before this realization, I had graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. My goal after graduation was to find a mechanical design engineering job. With a resume full of internships, and a degree to top it off, I had checked off the boxes for an entry-level job — or so I’d thought.

I was always waiting for someone to teach me engineering. I have the schooling, I just need that job so I can get experience! If I could make it through engineering school, I could make it as an engineer. I just needed someone to teach me.

But school has nothing to do with it. The people who are good engineers are the ones that have been taking things apart as soon as they could walk. Who had a natural curiosity about how things worked. The kids who wanted to take apart their bike when they were 10, and couldn’t wait to get a peek at the car engine when their parent opened the hood.

I started my first mechanical engineering job and realized quickly I was very behind. My manager wasn’t happy with my performance and suggested I do personal projects to accelerate my learning.

I read books on the weekends. I started (and never completed) a cat feeder. I would spend one hour every Tuesday and Thursday messing around with the motors and Arduino controls, looking up code on the internet just to realize I wandered to a blog post about product design. I would scan Medium for technology articles, just to find myself drifting towards articles on psychology, art, and self-help.

I berated myself for being lazy. I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t good enough.

That’s when the chest pressure started to creep in. A heaviness that settled inside me as my spirit and confidence sank.

Was I not interested in engineering because I wasn’t good at it? Or because I didn’t like it?

I was determined to continue tackling the “not good at it part”.

I learned of a non-profit event where you spend 6 weeks building products for wounded veterans. After 5 weeks of ideation, you spend a weekend (a make-a-thon) building your product. It was perfect: I could learn from others while helping the community.

Like all volunteer events, people will ghost after the first few days. My team whittled down to me, an orthotics specialist, and a physical therapist. I was the only engineer and became the team lead. I was panicking. I lead my team through brainstorming sessions, while in the back of my mind I thought: these ideas aren’t good enough, I need to do better. I obsessively reviewed our materials list and built out every aspect of our design on paper. The weekend of the make-a-thon arrived. The adrenaline washed over me as our team built and tested our prototype. I’m not doing enough, this isn’t good enough.

We made it through the weekend with a successful prototype.

I wasn’t bad at engineering. I must not like it.

What the hell am I supposed to be doing with my life then?

It took me 8 months to realize I needed a career change, and another 8 to figure out what that change should be. This will never be a clear journey for anyone. But hopefully, a little guidance can make it easier.

Here are the steps I took to get there.

1. Ask yourself, “What interested me as a child?”

Growing up, I loved art. I would sit at the computer for hours in middle school, coloring in pixel by pixel, frame by frame to create animated icons for AOL Instant Messenger.

In fourth grade, we were assigned to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew a picture of myself holding a paint palette and wrote: “I want to be an artist”. That evening it was parents’ night where all the parents come to the school and look at our work. My mom (a first-generation Asian-American) saw the picture, came home, and simply stated: you will not be an artist. You will be a doctor.

I didn’t want to be a doctor. So I settled for the next best thing: engineer. And my driven attitude since that day was a blessing and a curse. I was determined to stick with it.

Starting this journey, I thought to myself: what is the closest I can stay to engineering while still doing art? The answer was industrial design. I began a 6-month journey of learning how to sketch from Youtube videos.

2. Read “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

I didn’t discover this book until after my journey was nearly done. Reading through it, I thought, “Hey look at that! I ended up doing all this stuff anyway.” So I will save you the time, and can’t recommend this book enough. It will help guide you to be introspective.

One of my favorite exercises was the mind map. You start with the first word that comes to your mind. Then you branch off with other words that come to mind with the first word. You keep branching off. Time yourself for 5 or 10 minutes to make your map. Then circle the words that stand out to you.

I can see multiple themes in my mind map: what brings me joy in work and my personal life.

Another basic exercise is to make a list of what you do and don’t enjoy as you go about your workday. Did you like that meeting? Do you hate meetings? Do you prefer those hours of solitude and deep work? Did you like the spontaneous chat with a co-worker? Tracking the activities that both excite you and drain you will give you big clues as to what kind of work you want to do.

3. Do something that interests you, whether it has to do with a career or not.

It can feel misleading to involve yourself in activities that don’t seem directly related to your career. But hear me out: doing things just because you enjoy them will help bring your energy back.

  • Volunteer
  • Go to a networking event
  • Find a Meetup group
  • Go to a sports pickup

Want to learn Japanese for absolutely no reason? Maybe you want to go to Japan and tour beyond the touristy sites? Go to a Japenese Club. Maybe you’ll meet someone who travels to Japan for his sales job. You’re curious and ask him more about his job. You tell him about how you’re in the middle of a life change. You decide to meet up for coffee outside of Japanese Club. Congrats, you just organically networked. It’s the best kind of networking, and you will only meet new people if you put yourself in new situations.

When I tried to uplift my downward spiraling engineering career, I decided to participate in the make-a-thon to bring my energy back. It was there that I met an industrial designer (more on this later) and learn more about his job.

At this point, you’re probably feeling lost and confused. Not because you don’t know what you want to do, but because you don’t know what’s out there. This is not a quick solution, but rarely do shortcuts work in life. Put in the work to meet and make connections with people — it will help.

4. Take a Myers Briggs test.

This is where I took my test.

Psychologists say these tests are only accurate because they’re so vague that your bias tends to latch on to the parts of the descriptions that apply to you, and you ignore the rest.

However, if the results are meaningful to YOU, it will only help you in your journey of introspection. I found it very eye-opening. I am an ENFP, which means I can’t stay focused on any one task for long periods (I need multiple projects going). I always have huge grandiose ideas that aren’t realistic (I’m big into brainstorming thoughts, not refining ideas).

Because of my personality, I’m suited for jobs in music, art, and psychology. I like being around people and need a career where working with people is the main focus. Using my intuition will serve me better than logic.

There was also a list of jobs that I may not be well suited for. The very first one was mechanical engineer.

Cue the internal screaming. My current career path felt like pushing a heavy 5-ton block — no matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t move. Now I had psychological research backing up why I felt this way. I felt a small, subtle relief. I knew what I shouldn’t be doing, which is half the battle. But the desperation of not knowing where I should go overwhelmed any relief.

5. Take the Holland Code test.

The link is here.

This is another good test for determining what kind of job would fit you. There are 6 categories that define professional roles:

Building — jobs you do with your hands. i.e. carpenters or technicians

Thinking — Theoretical and research jobs. i.e. scientists or researchers

Helping — assisting, teaching, coaching. i.e. therapist or teacher

Persuading — motivating and influencing others. i.e. life coach or manager

Creating — art, design, and self-expression. i.e. graphic designer or musician

Organizing — managing data and processes. i.e. accountant or event planner

My top 3 were persuading, helping, and creating. I scored close to 0 with building and thinking (which by the way are the skills needed to be an engineer).

With those scores and my interests, I was best suited for an artistic job that involved psychology and a lot of human interaction. Industrial design still seemed like a good fit.

6. Write down every possible thing you’d ever want to do.

Don’t hold back. Here was my first list:

  • Park ranger
  • Cheesemonger
  • Graphic designer
  • Fighter pilot
  • Computer programmer
  • Industrial designer
  • Psychologist
  • Japanese swordmaker apprentice
  • Pastry chef

Your mind will naturally gravitate towards certain subjects once you are aware of what you’re interested in. Seeing it on paper can also be a reassurance that you have endless possibilities and choices. You are not confined to where you are now.

7. Pick your top 3 and learn more about them.

There are several ways to explore a new career:

  • Watch Youtube videos
  • Read books/articles
  • Read blogs
  • Join Slack groups
  • Reach out to people on LinkedIn

That last one is especially important. Talk to people about their careers. Ask them about their journeys. Tell them where you’re coming from and why you want to transition. Reaching out to strangers on LinkedIn might seem scary at first, but people are very excited to talk about their career path!

One factor that determines job happiness is if you like the people you work with. Every job attracts a certain type of personality. If you don’t fit in with that type of personality, there’s a good chance you won’t like the job. Conversing with people is a quick way to figure out if they are a good personality match.

My top 3 were industrial designer, computer programmer, and park ranger. I was able to rule out the last 2 quickly. Although I’m interested in programming and enjoy the outdoors, I am extroverted and like working in groups. The nature of engineering work is very individual and heads down. I get my energy from conversations, and needed a role where talking to people was a core responsibility.

8. Shadow.

Once you’ve done some initial research, you can decide if you’re still interested. If so, it’s time to shadow.

I spent 6 months learning about industrial design. I had practiced sketching. I now wanted to see an industrial designer in action.

This is where Step 3 came in handy. I reached out to that industrial designer I met at the make-a-thon, took a day off work, and spent the day at his company.

Within a few hours, I started getting a feeling that this still wasn’t for me. However, later that day, the industrial designer had me accompany him and a UX designer to a user interview at a nearby elementary school. They were working on a project for a school nurse. I observed as the nurse explained her issue, and they presented her prototypes and asked for feedback.

I was instantly hooked. I wanted to be in the room with the user. I wanted to understand how they struggled and figure out how to address those struggles.

I had come in thinking I’d want to be an industrial designer and left realizing I was more interested in design research.

9. Still interested at this point?

Go do it. There are several ways to immerse yourself.

  • Internships
  • Volunteering
  • Going back to school
  • Personal projects

You’ve now spoken to people on LinkedIn and shadowed people. Asking them to be a mentor is an excellent way to keep in touch.

10. Did you hate it? Love it?

Take that internship, volunteer, and personal project experience and create a resume and/or portfolio. At this point, you hopefully have made connections and met new people. Start advertising yourself as ready to take the next step into this field.

Or maybe not! You tried it, and maybe it wasn’t for you. What did you like about it? What did you not like? Re-evaluate, and move down the list.

You didn’t waste time if you didn’t get it right the first time. Looking back, my degree wasn’t worthless. I learned more about how machines worked and how to problem-solve. As a designer, this is a powerful skill set.

Any knowledge you gain will always help you.

As I already mentioned, this process took me almost a year. Sometimes the process might just take a month before you’re ready to move on to a different item on your list. Just be patient and give yourself a chance to explore. Keep going where your curiosity takes you, no matter how crazy the idea may seem. Good luck, and enjoy the journey.

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