The 4 Career Change Traps You Don't Know You're In (And How To Get Out Of Them)

Bunch of bananas

If you're getting nowhere with your shift, there's a good chance you've got yourself into a 'monkey trap'. Natasha explains what on earth a monkey trap is, how to tell if you're in one, and how to get unstuck.

If you want to catch a monkey (so the story goes), there's a particularly tragic kind of trap that works every time.

The hunters tie a coconut or a gourd to the branch of a tree, and place a banana inside. In the wall of the coconut, they make a hole – a hole that's just big enough for a monkey to get its hand inside when flattened and outstretched. And all that's left to do is wait.

Through the trees comes a troupe of monkeys, and one sharp-eyed member of the gang spots the coconut with the banana inside. Down he swoops, and wriggles his hand through the hole to grab the banana. Triumph!

But then he's struck with a problem. While he could get his outstretched hand into the coconut, once he closes his fist around the treat, his hand becomes too big to pull back out of the hole. He holds on tight to the banana, confused. He's been trapped! He stays there, totally baffled as to why he's unable to escape, until the hunters return in the morning and untie the coconut from the tree. Still he holds on to the banana, and is taken in this way back to the village.

Career change – indeed, change of any kind – is filled with monkey traps. It's a jungle full of gourds containing bright, ripe bananas and tantalising treats.

Status, pay cheques, options, familiarity, relief… the list could truly be endless.

And the biggest mistake you can make while you're exploring your options is to become intellectually or emotionally trapped by the contents of one gourd.

The moment you do that, you're monkey-trapped.

You give up on the richness and adventure of exploring all possible options. You narrow your field of potential to whatever you can reach with your hand still in the trap. And you miss out on opportunities and possibilities that you don't even know exist yet, because you've stopped travelling through the jungle.

What bananas could you be clinging to without realising you're trapping yourself?

Familiarity

There are few fears quite as compelling as the fear of the unknown. And when you've launched yourself on a major change such as this, there's a lot of the unknown to contend with.

What are you good at? What would you enjoy? How will you make your shift work financially? What will your friends and family think?

In the midst of so much uncertainty, it's perfectly natural to cling tightly to the familiar: your current career; the kinds of tasks and roles you've fulfilled in the past; the people and networks that you know. Your life, as it stands, is familiar, and somehow, despite the fact that it's not working for you any more, it feels impossible to wrench yourself away.

So you focus on looking for opportunities that are related to your current field or industry. You avoid even thinking about fields that don't already show up on your CV. You shy away from speaking to new people, and avoid putting yourself in situations where you're a beginner.

Priya emailed in to Careershifters a few months ago. A high-flying lawyer, she'd worked in law for her entire adult life but all it had left her was bored and unhappy. When she started out on her career change, she realised that the only possibilities she was exploring (even on her own, in her daydreams) were ones that featured the law in some way:

"It's ridiculous; this is exactly what I want to get away from! But deep down I think I keep saying to myself: better the devil you know, Priya…"

Sound familiar? You're in the middle of a vast and pulsing jungle, but you're only able to enjoy the tiny circle around your monkey-trap – and, ironically enough, it's the trap that you set out on this journey to escape in the first place.

Necessity

Hanging close to the familiarity banana is a trap called Necessity.

We often feel as though a particular idea or way of going about a shift is necessary, because it solves a specific problem we have. And it may well be that this idea genuinely solves a problem. However, it's usually a mistake to believe that this single solution is the only or best possible one. Not only are there normally many other solutions available, there are many other kinds of solutions.

For example, you may believe that it's necessary to have experience to land a job, or that it's necessary to save a lot of money to make a shift.

Mark joined the Careershifters community a year ago. He was a psychotherapist with dreams of working in medicine:

"It's typical 'me'. Of all the fields I want to get into, I have to go and pick the one that requires decades of training. I'm 35. I don't want to go back to school. I've got bills to pay."

Mark got back in touch with us when he realised that his image of working in medicine was limited by a belief he hadn't realised he was hanging on to: that all medical practitioners were university graduates with long-term studies under their belts. By letting go of that belief, he felt freed up to explore all the different options available to him. He discovered he was able to train as a paramedic whilst working in ambulances as an apprentice, scratching his itch to work in medicine without resigning himself to going back to school for years.

There may well be things that are necessary for you: your mortgage payments, for example, or having time available to spend with your family. But there may also be other ideas that you're clinging on to because you assume them to be necessary, without fully exploring the other options available.

Hope

When you're exhausted and desperate to move out of a career that isn't working for you, there's nothing quite like a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Someone mentions an opportunity that could at least get you out of where you are now, or you have your first idea for a new career path that actually makes you feel excited. One of the reasons that this kind of monkey trap is so powerful is that living with unsolved problems can be incredibly painful (and the longer you live with a problem, the more painful it becomes).

And now is the first time you've felt hopeful about your career change in a really, really long time. So you grab on tight, terrified that if you let this one option get away, you might never get another chance to make a shift. You try out that idea you had for your new career path, and it's far from what you imagined it to be. But, you reason with yourself (hand clenched tight around that banana), it's better than where you are now and maybe it'll improve in the future – and isn't the ideal career all a big myth anyway?

Maggie wanted to work on the water. She'd always been fascinated by boats and the ocean, although it felt incredibly far away from her office job as a sales representative. So when a friend offered her an administration job in a marine research laboratory, she struggled hard to make a decision about what to do.

"I knew it wasn't what I wanted, but it felt like a step closer to being on boats. After all, I'd be surrounded by other water-heads and maybe I'd get a chance to go out on some research vessels every now and again. Either way, I was sure it would be better than the job I was in at the time."

She hung on tight to the banana she'd been offered, and took the job. But, unfortunately, Maggie discovered that this job was just as far away from a life on the ocean as her previous career. It took her three years to break out of the office and head to Antibes to walk the docks looking for a job as a stewardess. But break out she did – and she's now happily sailing through the Mediterranean (which is where I met her, looking happy as a clam). She said she only had one regret:

"I wish I hadn't just grabbed on to that first opportunity. I wish I'd got out and explored a bit more."

This particular trap also shows up when you've found an approach to your career change that you know has worked well in the past. Perhaps you discovered an ad for a fantastic opportunity on a particular website. Your application for that role wasn't successful, but now you spend all your time checking that one website, in the hope that another will show up just like it. And round and round the gourd you go…

Progress

At some point in your journey, you may find yourself torn between the banana in your hand and another one, hanging just out of arm's reach.

You had a great idea for what you might like to do next in your career. You thought you'd found something that could really make you happy; and then you discovered something else. It's a new idea that excites you just as much, and it could take you in an entirely different direction to the one you've been working on.

There's a concern that somehow you might ruin – or lose entirely – the progress you've made so far. Maybe there's a concern that trying on this new direction implicitly negates all the work you've done on your old idea – as though you're being unfaithful to your first path and you're now rejecting it.

This was a big banana in my own career change story. I'd just returned from Greece and had been talking to the woman I'd been working for about putting me in touch with other people running natural horsemanship ranches around the world. I was excited about the idea of training to be a 'horse whisperer', and was convinced that this was a great direction for me to head in.

But I had a niggling feeling that this wasn't all that was out there for me. I knew I still wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to coach, but I just didn't see how all those things could fit together. When I started working for Careershifters, I felt as though I'd given up on my dream of spending days in the ring with my four-legged friends. I loved my new line of work, but I was also scared that I'd lose contact with my other passions – and with the people who could help me turn them into a career.

In fact, by following a range of different paths, I'd been honouring my identity as a Scanner (see my review of Barabara Sher's Refuse To Choose for more information on Scanners). And it was less than a year later when I packed up my belongings and took my career with Careershifters on the road. I accepted a position in Costa Rica training and working with six incredible horses, alongside my career online.

Had I not allowed myself to explore all my different options, chances are I wouldn't have had the incredible 12 months of discovery and joy that this year has been.

How to tell if you're stuck in a monkey trap

The real tragedy of this kind of monkey trap is that the monkey has no idea that he is the source of his own entrapment. If you asked him what was wrong, he'd tell you the hole was too small. That circumstances were against him.

So how do you know when you might be stuck in a monkey trap?

The first sign, simply put, is that you feel stuck.

In a world rammed full of potential, of new opportunities, of ways to learn new skills, of people doing amazing things and more ways than ever to connect with them, there is no objective reason for you to be stuck.

Now that absolutely doesn't mean that the 'stuck' you feel isn't real for you. It just means you're probably stuck because you're hanging on tight to something, and you're not willing to let go.

And it also doesn't mean that there aren't some factors in your life that are so important, you shouldn't let go of them. But without examining these factors you can never be sure that they're not bananas you could potentially let go of.

Ask yourself:

  • What are you not willing to give up?

  • What progress have you already made?

  • What do you believe is the 'only way'?

Make a list of your answers to these questions, and we'll work with them in the next section.

How to get out

If our fictional monkey realises he might be stuck in a trap, the next step is to decide if he's ready to let go of that banana and free himself.

The idea of giving up something that you're holding on to can be scary. It means embracing uncertainty, being willing to go back to basics, and to stretch your comfort zone.

And while it's scary, it's important to realise that not only is the jungle filled with similar prizes that might work just as well for you, but that you may not even need the kind of prize that you think you need so badly.

For example, perhaps you're totally committed to working as a freelancer and to pulling a high salary every month. It may be that for a while, you'll need to let go of the idea of a hefty pay packet while you develop your work and your business. Or perhaps you'll need to let go of the idea of working entirely on your own terms, and instead look for companies and organisations where you can flex your skills on behalf of someone else (and enjoy the financial rewards).

Perhaps you love the idea of working with other people, so you hang on tight to the 'team' banana and give up your dream of working for yourself. You're hanging on so tight, in fact, that you hear about co-working spaces and mentorships and industry support networks and they don't even register as a way to tick both your 'people' box and your 'own business box'. You miss out on the flexibility and creativity that is so vital in creating a career that's a perfect match for your needs and desires.

The key is to remember that a career change, for many people, is a never-ending journey of discovery. If you can cultivate a way of moving through the world that is flexible, open-minded and curious (see more in my 'Stop trying to change careers' article here), you'll be much less inclined to cling to safety and trap yourself in an environment that doesn't work for you, or that limits your potential.

Go through your list of answers to the questions outlined above, and consider:

  • Is this something you're absolutely unwilling or unable to let go of?

  • If someone presented you with an alternative solution, would you be willing to give it a try?

  • Where could you find that alternative solution, and would you be willing to do what it takes to find it?

  • How could you test your beliefs and ideas – and bananas – in the real world? (There's more about how to do this is in our lean career change approach.)

This is by no means a list of all possible monkey traps, and it's vital to remember that getting caught in monkey traps is unavoidable in life. We are, all of us, stuck in one or another at any given point in our lives.

The real lesson is that we're never truly trapped. All we have to do is be willing to let go of something, and we're free.

What monkey trap do you think you might be caught in? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content for Careershifters and Head Coach for our Career Change Launch Pad. She also currently travels the world as a horse-trainer, business consultant and copywriter.