What Got You Here Won't Get You There: The 3 Career 'Rules' Keeping You Trapped In Your Shift

3 career 'rules' keeping you stuck

You're not stupid. So why are you so stuck? Natasha shares 3 'common sense' ideas that are so ingrained, you can't even see them – and how to un-learn them to start making progress in your career change.

It was about 8 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and it was raining.

The sun had gone down an hour earlier, but I hadn't got up to turn the lights on.

Instead, I was sitting on my couch in the dark, staring into space.

On the outside, I was perfectly still.

But on the inside, I was churning.

That day at work, I had, quite frankly, rocked the house.

I had given a talk to the local police service on homelessness, submitted a 22-page report to help the organisation I was working for access more funding, convinced the local council to give an army veteran another chance to apply for housing, and helped a young woman fleeing domestic violence to move into her new home with her baby daughter.

Problems solved, left, right, and centre. Solutions found to complex situations, a bit of creative thinking here, some solid planning coming to fruition there... and then I came home, put the kettle on, and commenced my regular ritual of sitting on my couch and feeling utterly lost and confused.

I remember that sensation as being one of the most uncomfortable of my career change.

I wasn't stupid. I wasn't helpless. I was smart and committed and I solved problems every day.

So why couldn't I solve my own?

Why couldn't I make sense of – or do anything about – my own career change?

Sound familiar?

You're an intelligent human being. You probably get paid to solve problems. And you do, all the time.

So why does nothing you try seem to work when it comes to your shift?

Why are you still so stuck?

What got you here won't get you there

Whether at school or at work, there's a set of skills that you've learned and refined over the years.

Those skills have helped you progress and move up the ladder, whether from year to year in your education, or from promotion to promotion at work.

But although career change happens in the world of work, moving sideways is not the same thing as moving up.

You're on the same pitch, sure. But you're playing a new game, with a different set of rules.

And yet, this isn't just about learning new skills and rules.

It's about un-learning old ones, too.

Because the ways of thinking and acting that work in career change aren't just different from what works to progress in one career. Many of them are actually polar opposites.

The accepted rules that have helped you up to this point could actually be hindering you in your shift.

And the toughest part? These ideas are so accepted, so well-practised, that they're automatic and almost invisible. Like gravity, you arrange your whole life around them, never imagining that they might actually be the cause of your stagnation.

There are three fundamental ideas that are the biggest culprits.

Let's take a closer look.

1. Know where you're going before you begin

(a.k.a. “Start with the end in mind” / “Set a clear goal, and then make a plan” / “Eyes on the prize”, etc. etc.)

Got your eye on a promotion?

You know what to do. You find out everything you can about the new, superior role. What's required? When is a promotion likely to happen? What skills will you need? How can you prove your capabilities? Who do you need to impress / get noticed by?

You get clear on the goal, and then you plot a path to get there.

Running a business?

Any successful company has a strategy and a business plan to achieve it. You envision the ambition, articulate every nut and bolt, and then you make a plan to move from where you are now to where you want to be.

It's obvious, right? It makes sense.

If you're considering a career change, it's also probably exactly what's keeping you stuck.

You don't know where you want to end up yet.

There is no 'end' in your mind.

If you're like most of the career changers we work with at Careershifters, it's quite possible that the most specific you can get about where you want to be is “Not where I am now.”

So you find yourself paralysed, waiting for inspiration to strike, loitering about miserably, in the hope that clarity will just arrive one day (preferably in the form of a well-articulated job title with clear candidate requirements) and then you can begin plotting your path to your future career.

Here's the thing: 95% of the time, career change doesn't work that way.

And to make a successful shift, you'll have to un-learn the by-now automatic urge to know what you're doing before you start.

You have to learn to start anyway.

In the face of huge uncertainty, with no idea if the action you're taking is going to get your closer to your ultimate goal, you have to act.

Yes, it feels counter-intuitive. Yes, it feels like whatever action you take might be a massive waste of time.

But the thing is – that time is going to pass anyway. And sitting on the couch waiting for a lightning bolt isn't getting you anywhere in the meantime…

Clarity arises through action.

With each thing you do, you learn something new.

Whether it's discovering what you love or understanding what you really don't, every step you take (even in the darkness of uncertainty) gets you somewhere – somewhere you'll never reach if you're standing still.

So what does this look like in practice?

It means looking at every hunch, every 'maybe', as a thread to tug on – and then tugging on it.

Like Willow Hearne, who had an idea for a business… but no idea where to start, or even what it would look like once she'd set everything up. But she made a start anyway:

“I wanted a career that I could move around the country with, but that could also be flexible around my children.

“I spent a long time contemplating what this could be and how I could make it work: it's not an easy thing to come by and it felt like I was asking a lot!

“I didn't think [my business] was something I could do because I didn't know enough.

“So I went to trade shows, read lots of articles online, studied lots of other companies, and talked to lots of contacts, printers and factories. Eventually my understanding of the processes grew enough for me to realise it was something I could do. I was also really enjoying learning about it all, so I decided to go for it.

“I didn't have anything to lose by trying. Worst-case scenario was I sold all my stock at cost price, didn't earn anything, repaid my business loan and learnt an awful lot along the way.”

It would have been easy for Willow to stay where she was, waiting until a perfectly formed 'future' fell into her lap.

But she didn't. She made a start. Even with no idea what it would look like in the end, even with no idea if she could actually do it.

And with every step forward she took, the clearer the final image became.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L. Doctorow

2. Get it right

(a.k.a: 'Success' = progress, messing up = embarrassing, wrong = bad)

To get ahead in school, you had to get the answers right.

If you answered questions correctly, people applauded. You moved up a year. If you failed the exam, it was embarrassing. Maybe you were held back. You were 'stupid'.

It's not too dissimilar at work.

Your project bombs, and people come by your desk to try to make you feel better about your embarrassing failure.

You don't apply for the top-level role at your company, because you're not fully qualified and you don't want to look pathetic if you get rejected.

And this career change you're considering? It's a ripe old festering ground of potential failures. You can smell the humiliation from here.

What if you quit your job and it doesn't work out? What if everyone sees you fail?

What if you try out that business idea you've been sitting on for months and nobody buys?

What if you reach out to that person you admire and they don't get back to you?

So much potential for screw-ups. So many things you could get wrong.

And you've been taught your whole life that getting things wrong is a bad thing.

So now, you're sitting at your desk like a rabbit in the headlights – frozen in fear of messing up, and making no progress whatsoever.

Except… in career change, progress requires you to get things wrong.

You have to un-learn the instinct to do only what you know can succeed, and instead learn to celebrate dead ends, mistakes, and out-and-out flops.

You need to re-frame your relationship to failure.

If you're not failing, you're not growing.

One of the most famous examples of this different relationship to failure is billionaire founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, whose father used to encourage her and her brother to share (and celebrate) their failures at the dinner table each week.

In an interview for Fortune, Blakely said:

“I didn't realise at the time how much this advice would define not only my future, but my definition of failure. I have realised as an entrepreneur that so many people don't pursue their idea because they were scared or afraid of what could happen. My dad taught me that failing simply just leads you to the next great thing.”

This doesn't mean you should be setting out with the express intention of failure (although, like entrepreneur and TED speaker Jia Jiang, you might be surprised by how hard that can be).

But it does mean allowing yourself the space to fail in small, low-risk ways.

It means finding ways to explore your ideas (that won't leave you homeless and hungry) and replacing the pressure to win with the curiosity to learn.

Maybe your request for an informational interview won't be accepted.

Maybe you'll advertise your service on a local noticeboard and nobody will respond. Maybe you'll teach a class / give a talk / go to an event and it won't go as well as you'd hoped.

Maybe you'll experiment with an idea you've kept (with a hopeful heart) on the back burner for years, and then find out that actually, it's never going to fit with your lifestyle.

But if you don't try, you'll never know.

And even if you do get a different outcome than you'd hoped for, you'll have discovered something you can learn from.

When Lee took part in our Career Change Launch Pad, his approach to 'failure' transformed.

Every dead end he hit, he turned into an opportunity to learn...

“I applied for a programme called On Purpose, which teaches you how to shift out of the private sector through two six-month placements in socially minded businesses.

“I went through the three stages of interviews and failed at the last one – I didn't make it onto the course.

“But with a Career Change Launch Pad tool named 'The Bold Request' in my back pocket, I decided not to let that stop me. I went back to the head of the organisation, and said to him:

“'Look, I know I didn't get through the interviews, but I think I've got something to offer this sector. Would you meet me for a 15-minute coffee one morning before work?'

“And he did. So we had a coffee, and I told him what I was interested in, and where I thought I might fit, and he gave me the names of three people he thought I should speak to.”

And then….

“I made an offer to the guy who's now my boss.”

The offer was this:

“'I'll come and work for you for a week, for free. And if at the end you like what I've done, you can pay me – and if you don't think I'm any good at it, don't pay me.'

“I took this really unconventional, exciting action and then… nothing happened.

“I thought, 'OK, that's another failure'.

“But then, the following January, he got in touch to ask what I was up to.

“I met him on a Thursday for a couple of hours, and on the Tuesday I had a job offer in my inbox.”

No more straitjacket of success, ladies and gentlemen; no more uptight-but-getting-it-right.

It's time to get gloriously, playfully unapologetic about trying and trying and trying again.

It's time to fall flat on your face and come up smiling, because you've discovered something new.

Because you've been brave enough to make the attempt.

And because a dead end is not, in fact, an end – it's a roundabout.

“Failure is success in progress” – Albert Einstein

3. You're on your own

(a.k.a: “Your career, your problem”, “keep calm and carry on”)

How you do in the world of work is up to you.

At school, nobody can take the exam for you. When it comes down to what matters, you're on your own.

Nobody can take a job interview for you, either. You're on your own.

Up for a promotion? Either you get it, or you don't. It's down to you. You're on your own.

So if you've wound up in the wrong career, it's nobody else's fault. And it's not their problem, either.

Other people have their own lives to think about, their own issues to deal with.

The question of your work is a question of your work. It's up to you.


Except…. your career isn't just about your work, and it's not just about you.

How you feel about your career has an impact on every area of your life: your physical health, your energy levels, your sleep patterns, and, crucially, your relationships.

When you've had a tough day at work, your partner knows about it (and when every day is a tough day at work, they really know about it.) Your friends have heard it all a thousand times. Your family has watched you struggle for months, for years.

What you do for work – and how you feel about it – has an impact on everyone around you.

And frankly, the more help you get with anything in your life – be it moving house or moving a bookshelf – the faster it moves (and the faster you can stop chewing everyone's ear off about it, too).

So you have to un-learn the habit of struggling alone.

You have to start letting people in. Actually, it goes further than that. You have to start inviting people in.

Asking for their support.

Some people in your life will be supportive from the outset.

Others will take some persuading.

A few will be staunch naysayers from start to finish.

And there are thousands that you haven't met yet who would love the opportunity to help you out.

You just haven't asked them yet.

Alison took part in our Career Change Launch Pad, a big part of which is focused on building a powerful community to support you.

After years of keeping her misery at work secret from the people around her, she started sharing her career change dreams with as many people as possible.

And at every stage of the game, it paid off.

She found support from people she knew and loved – and discovered (to her amazement) that her favourite career idea came from someone she'd known for years...

“My biggest turning point on the course was when I started the Connecting section – when we learned how to reach out and connect with people who could help you with your shift.

“I suddenly had this influx of people all getting in touch and offering their help and ideas and support, and one of them was a woman I'd known for 16 years.

“She looked at what I'd written in my email, and she said: 'You know, everything you've described here sounds a lot like Business Psychology…'

“It felt like a jigsaw puzzle clicking into place.”

But it wasn't just old friends coming through for her. Alison was also blown away by how ready – how hungry – total strangers were to get in her corner and help her succeed.

“So much of making a successful shift is about making it clear to the world that you're interested, and eager, and open to playing. Once you start doing that, people just pop into your life and offer you amazing things.

“For example, I signed up to go to a conference run by the Association for Business Psychology.

“It was slightly intimidating being there, surrounded by all these business psychologists while I was still a lawyer, but within about ten minutes I'd met this woman in the hallway who'd transitioned herself from banking. She was also doing her Master's, and she'd volunteered to help organise the conference. The next day I got an email from her saying, 'I think you should join the team to organise next year's event.'

“We're now three months into organising the conference, I'm having a great time, and it's been a huge asset to my Master's applications.

“I've asked people if I can work-shadow them, I've connected with strangers on LinkedIn who ended up being great assets and supports… before the Launch Pad I just wouldn't have had the confidence to do things like that.”

There are a whole host of skills to learn as a career changer that will help you move faster in your shift.

But before they can be put into practice in their fullest expression, you have to un-learn the skills and rules and grand narratives of the old games you've been playing for years.

That un-learning process can be hard. You have to start by seeing the old rules for what they are – made-up guidelines that have worked for you thus far, but might not be in your best interests any more.

And then you need to train yourself out of them. Many are so ingrained by now that they're knee-jerk responses; behaving any differently feels as counter-intuitive (and potentially risky) as giving up on gravity.

But with every little nudge toward a new way of being, a whole new world of possibilities open up in front of you.

Which of these career 'rules' do you most need to un-learn? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.