Career change: it feels ominous and riddled with risk. There are so many important factors to consider. But is making your shift too 'serious' actually what's sabotaging you? Natasha shares an alternative approach to get you moving faster towards work you love.
You'd think that making the decision to change your career for the better would be an exciting, invigorating, empowering moment, wouldn't you?
But it isn't.
You're making a choice that could determine the rest of your life.
You need to be vigilant, rational, forward planning, and conscientious. It's scary, and risky, and a mistake could cost you dearly. You need to take this seriously.
And how's that approach working out for you?
My guess is: not so great.
My guess is that you're paralysed.
Uptight, stressed out, and creatively constipated.
And that state of stifled being, however well-intentioned, is not going to get you far with your shift.
Here's why taking your career change too seriously could be keeping you stuck (and some key strategies for lightening the load without increasing the risks).
1. If you don't like it, you won't do it
No matter who you are, or how you operate, one thing is for sure: you're far more likely to do something you enjoy than something you don't.
Career change, more often than not, gets put on the back burner of people's lives, because it feels uncomfortable. Every time you try to dive in, you get unceremoniously swatted around by uncertainty, significance, hard work, self-scrutiny, judgement… It's all so heavy and serious.
And so the cycle begins:
- Avoid your career change because it feels unpleasant
- Feel stuck and stale and useless
- Blame yourself for staying stuck
- Avoid your career change because it feels unpleasant
And so on, and so on, and so on…
If you really want to make progress on your career change, you have to make it something you can't wait to get stuck into.
Sometimes, that means doing things that don't feel like they'll make you any progress. It means trying things just for the fun of it, or because you're a little curious about what they're like.
"When I first started the Career Change Launch Pad, the idea of doing something purely for fun horrified me. What a frivolous, self-indulgent waste of time. I had no idea if it was going to be useful or fruitful, and while I was messing around doing something enjoyable, I could have been doing a personality test or some other sensible activity to measure my transferable skills.
"But as soon as I started to just have fun, all kinds of new ideas and possibilities landed in my lap – things I could never have predicted. Within a week I'd become this energetic, excited person, who really believed (finally) I could find something I loved to do. And once that ball got rolling, I was off; after years of feeling stuck and stagnant, I was working on my career change in every possible moment." – Louise (Career Change Launch Pad participant, October 2015)
And once you've started to bring some enjoyment into your shift, you can upgrade your fun, too.
Often, the fastest way to get your teeth into a shift and start gaining traction is not simply to try something for meaningless fun. It's to actively go after possibilities that feel completely unrealistic and self-indulgent. Because once you allow yourself to play a bit bigger, to go to places you wouldn't normally go, to indulge in what you really want (not just what you think you can get), you create the opportunity to be surprised. You create a chance to get to know yourself better, to become and behave more 'you'.
The one thing you can be sure of: if what you've been doing so far hasn't been working, doing something else (something fun and exciting, no less) is probably worth a try. Magic and new discovery and being pleasantly surprised... these things aren't far out of your reach. They're just on the other side of the point you'd usually stop.
2. Your 'how' will create your 'what'
Situations with serious ramifications require serious processes, right?
If you're looking for something that will have you smiling more than frowning, energised more than weighed down, and empowered more than deflated, then a seriously 'serious' approach is probably not going to point you to what you're looking for.
It's not a huge mental leap to recognise that "scared, stifled and paralysed" is unlikely to lead you to work you love: work that feels expansive, invigorating, and peaceful.
The way you approach the process of an endeavour has an impact on the outcome.
"The first time I went to see a recruitment consultant during my career change, I was hopeful. I thought that maybe she'd understand what I was looking to do, and come up with an idea that I could never have thought of. I went to a consultancy known for being very sharp and rigorous, and for placing people in good companies, because I wanted to be taken seriously.
"It was awful. She looked at my CV and we had a long chat about my work history and transferable skills, and just being in that room with her made me feel like I did at work: anxious, needy and despairing. Everything about that process felt exactly how I didn't want to feel at the end of it. Looking back now, it seems obvious, but at the time I didn't realise that if I was going to find a career I really enjoyed, it would help if I felt inspired about how I was getting there." – Fran, coaching client
Fran discovered the uncomfortable reality of trying to find work you love by following a path you hate: it's like trying to find the love of your life by hanging out with your least favourite people.
If you want to find work that feels great, then you need to do things that feel great.
Match the process to the outcome you want.
3. Good ideas come from bad ideas (and 'serious' hates hiccups)
It might not be the first thing you associate with career change, but creativity is at the very core of making a shift into work you love.
Innovation (coming up with new ideas for your future career) is a creative process.
Tackling problems, obstacles, and challenges (How do you get taken seriously with no experience? How are you going to make the money work?) is a creative process.
Exploring yourself from new perspectives (What are you so naturally great at, you don't even realise it's a skill?) is a creative process.
And creativity thrives in a playful environment.
"Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father." – Roger von Oech
To create, you have to mess up. You have to try things and discard them, hit roadblocks and re-route, encounter hiccups and wiggle your way through them.
'Serious' doesn't like that idea. Hiccups are disastrous. 'Serious' lives to avoid hiccups.
But when we play, mistakes are expected. They're fascinating. We allow them, move with them, and dive back in again, eager to get back to the flow and the giggles of the game.
This isn't just theory. Musician and researcher Dr. Charles Limb studied the brain activity of jazz musicians while they improvised, and found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the area linked to planned actions and self-censoring – shows a slowdown in activity during improvisation.
"The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works." – Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play
Similarly, 'serious' is draped in restrictive words like 'should', 'must', 'can't', 'impossible', 'required', and 'but'.
Play, on the other hand, is full of curiosity, suggestion, and wonderment:
'What if?', 'How about?', 'Could it be?'
Which do you think is more conducive to discovering something you just love to do?
"It's all so much more interesting and productive, now. I'm having ideas I could never, ever have conceived of, because I've turned my nervous little filters off and got stuck in. I'm not making major, life-changing decisions right away, but I've stopped stopping myself whenever I think something might not work. I've taken my silly, crazy ideas just a step further than I normally would have, and that's where everything I've been looking for has come from." – Amy (Career Change Launch Pad participant, February 2016)
It's time to start relaxing into the mess, embracing it, dancing with it, rather than holding it at bay.
4. 'Serious' sucks you inward – 'play' pushes you outward
"The opposite of play isn't work, but depression." – Stuart Brown
I've never met a career changer who was treating their shift with playfulness and light, and who was also stuck in their head and out of action.
When you're taking things too seriously, it's easy to get trapped in trying to 'figure it out', running crazy-thought-loops inside your head, trying to prejudge or second-guess every possible move.
Or, embarrassingly, you get caught up in the drama of the situation (It's so scary! It's so hopeless! It's such a big deal! Poor me!), and end up completely distracted from what there is to do in your career change.
As long as you're overwhelmed by how significant this all is, your attention will always be on yourself and your internal dialogues, instead of on what's happening (and what's possible) out here, in the world.
And it's a great excuse for staying inside your comfort zone. If your situation is risky enough, you won't have to try new things. You can rationalise yourself completely out of anything that feels challenging, play small, and ultimately, stay stuck.
"Looking back, I think I was scared of finding myself in a situation where there was nothing stopping me from making a shift. Because then, I'd actually have to do it.
"As long as I could sit in the pub with my friends and tell them how trapped I was by my mortgage and my son, and how absolutely crucial it was that I didn't screw up, I'd never really have to put myself on the line. I'd never have to find out I couldn't do it, either – that was the other side of it.
"Even though it didn't feel nice, it was definitely easier (and I got a lot more sympathy) to keep thinking about everything that could go wrong." – Natalie (Career Change Launch Pad participant, February 2015)
During her eight weeks in our Career Change Launch Pad, Natalie learned that although there were important elements at play in her career change (her mortgage, her marriage, as well as her day-to-day happiness), she didn't have to let them keep her distracted. She could consider what was important to her and manage the risks, while still playing the career change game full-out.
5. Lightness attracts supporters (doom and gloom pushes them away)
At Careershifters, we hear this a lot: "My friends and family used to be supportive, but now I think they're just sick of hearing me moan."
If this sounds at all familiar, you're almost certainly in the 'too serious' camp.
A supportive group of people on your team is one of the most powerful factors at play in a career change. The more solid a team you have, the faster your shift is likely to move.
And although what you do for a living is an important subject, it's hard to get people feeling energised and supportive when you're being Mr/Mrs Misery Guts.
I'm not saying for a second that you shouldn't tell people how much this means to you, or share your struggles. I am suggesting, however, that enthusiasm, light-heartedness, curiosity and a willingness to play are highly infectious.
If you want to get people in your corner cheering you on, doom and gloom, catastrophising and thunder are unlikely to help.
"I've noticed how quick the people around me are to pick up on and mirror what I'm like when I speak to them about my career change. I used to call my friends to complain after a bad day at work, and they'd agree that my boss was awful and this was all hopeless…
"But if something comes up in my career change now that I'm concerned about, I'll say something like: 'It's frustrating, but it's also a really interesting challenge. I wonder what solutions there are that I've missed…" and they'll mirror my curiosity and good humour. I've realised that I get to show my support team how to support me." – Mark (Career Change Launch Pad participant, October 2015)
What if all this sounds great, but you're stumped on how to actually break free of 'serious' and start having some fun?
Pick a few ideas from the list below (and then come back next week to let me know how it goes)
- Sign up for a course you've been interested in for a long time. Martial arts always tickled your fancy? Drop in for a taster class. Love photography? Join a group.
- Seek out the kind of people you're intrigued by. Do you spend time watching TED talks by explorers? Fascinated by the way designers see the world? Love listening to historians? Find a meetup group, a related event, or a community and join their ranks.
- Make a list of your if-only ideas (the ones you'd love to follow up 'if only' they were well paid / realistic) and choose three to turn into a Shift Project.
- Keep track of your career change in a way that really floats your boat. If you're creative, scrapbook your ideas and activities. More of a tick-box type? Grab a calendar and put a star on every day you've done something to further your shift.
- Share the journey. The faster you can get other people around you to support and participate in your shift, the easier and quicker you'll find things move. Create a support team, blog about your experiences, and reach out for advice. Everything's more fun when it's shared.
- Learn to laugh at your seriousness (Rule Number 6 is a great story for this). Turn it into a game: see if you can catch yourself getting significant and dramatic and stuck. The more you catch yourself, the more you win.
- Challenge yourself to spend a week without letting any career-change doom and gloom come out of your mouth. Finding your day job intolerable and dying to moan about it to your friends? Switch it up and ask for their ideas on ways to make tomorrow more enjoyable. Talking to someone new about your career change? Make every statement positive and curiosity-filled (and see what it does to their level of interest).
How are you going to start taking your career change less seriously this week? 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.