How To Change Careers When You Don’t Know What To Do Next

December 7, 2015

by Ravi Raman

The modern system of education and work promotes commitment to a single career path. We are trained to choose a major in our teens, and then get a job that we will hold for the duration of our working lives. This is unfortunate and flies in the face of the real statistics.

Switching professions is not something that we are trained to know how to do. It is, however, the emerging reality of many jobs. The average person changes jobs 10–15 times during their career according to US Government surveys.

The tricky thing is, making the decision to change a career can be very hard. When we were in school, the grades were laid out before us. Pass exams and move onward. The only decisions were which college to go to and which major to pick. Careers are different. There is no built-in system to support people who want a career change. This means it is up to you to figure it out.

How to Change Careers

This remainder of this article is designed to lay out some steps to help you know how to change careers even when you don’t know what to do next.

1. Embrace uncertainty

The first step is to embrace the uncertainty in this thing we refer to as a “career.” Few jobs are guaranteed for life. Even the biggest companies can and do fail. Layoffs happen. Seemingly stable industries get upended. Embracing the uncertainty allows you to know that this feeling is natural and that many others are in the same boat. This realization calms the nerves and makes action easy to take, in the midst of uncertainty.

2. Acknowledge the power in dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction in your current career, no matter how big or small the upset represents power. Even without knowing the steps ahead, you can acknowledge the inherent power in your situation. Use this power to start planning for and creating a better future instead of wondering what else you could do to be happier and more fulfilled in your work.

Tim Butler, author of Getting Unstuck: A Guide To Discovering Your Career Path and career advisor to Harvard Business School, likes to use the analogy of comparing dissatisfaction to the shell of a hermit crab. “Think of yourself as a hermit crab, dissatisfaction means you are growing and need to change to a bigger shell. It’s a blessing in disguise.”

3. Ignore your inner critic

Self-doubts are natural to have. However, the worst internal criticisms are born from our comparisons to others. Co-workers who get promoted ahead of us. College classmates who are rocketing up their corporate ladders. Successful high school peers who are self-made millionaires. The inner critic must be ignored. Don’t worry about comparing yourself to others. It’s your life, find your own way. Inspire others by your actions, don’t stay stuck by comparing yourself to them.

4. Build a vision for your future

You are in control of the vision for your future. A powerful vision is one that is created in the midst of uncertainty. Consider what you really want in your life, in all it’s glory. Consider your career goals, relationship goals, financial goals and other lifestyle goals. The antidote for uncertainty is clarity. Get clarity by creating your own vision for your future. Make it up if you need to, you can always change it later.

I apply the Wheel of Life method with my Executive Coaching clients to help them get perspective and create a vision for their future. You will find it an extremely powerful tool to use as well.

5. Establish clear criteria for your ideal career

If you don’t know what you want, anything will do. If you know what you want, and put the effort in to get it, the entire world will open up to support your dream. Spend time thinking of the important criteria for your ideal career. Even if you aren’t sure what you want to do next, you can still come up with criteria.

The act of taking what seem to be vague feelings of wanting to do something else, and codifying them into criteria helps to externalize the feelings you have about wanting to change your career. Once articulated, you can then act on the objective criteria you create.

These include things like: a specific amount of money you want to earn, a maximum commute you are willing to put up with, the type of culture you wish to work with, etc. Come up with about 8–12 criteria. Make them as specific as you can. These will help you assess opportunities as they come your way. You will also be able to better notice opportunities that fit your criteria well, that you would otherwise have overlooked.

6. Get outside of your bubble

“Ideas occur when dissimilar universes collide.” – Seth Godin.

Don’t limit your career search to Google searches and job post alerts. Exposure to new environments inspires creativity and opens your mind to new possibilities.

Suppose you are a software engineer and are considering a move into marketing. Why not join a marketing association in your local city? Why not ask if you could support a marketing related project at your current company to support your learning?

Even better, join a class or charity project related to a totally different field of work. Actively seek out new ideas and perspectives. These alternative points of view with help you decide on what career path you want (and what you don’t want!) and inspire you to think beyond the bubble you have been in.

7. Emphasize personal connection

The less sure you are about your next career step, the more important it is to seek out other people to learn from their experience. Learn how to network, and actively engage with your contacts to stay in touch and learn about what they do and why. The important thing with networking is that it is useless to network unless you tell people what you want and how they might be able to help you get it. You must be able to share your vision with others (at least pieces of it) to make networking valuable.

8. Do, don’t just think

“To know and not to do is not yet to know.” – Buddhist proverb.

Thinking without acting will get you stuck and keep you that way. The only way to find a clear path forward in your career is to take action. This includes actions like executing on the other items I’ve referred to in this blog post. Talk to people. Write down your criteria for an ideal career. In fact, write down everything! Writing will help you be objective about your progress and see patterns you might otherwise miss.

Read books to explore new career paths (biographies are excellent for this). Attend a class to learn a skill related to a potential new job. Network, network, network. Share your vision with people and listen intently to what they have to say. Be curious about the career paths others have walked.

Take daily committed action and you will feel better about your progress. When you feel good, you will be in the right frame of mind to make smart decisions (and brave decisions) that will move you towards a career you want with confidence and clarity.


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