Change Your Career… By Changing Your Words? 3 Subtle Language-shifts That Will Spark New Ideas And Boost Your Confidence

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How you talk about your career change doesn’t just affect other people’s impressions of you. The words you use impact your self belief and capacity for creative thinking. Here, Natasha shares three tiny tweaks to your sentences that can transform the way you feel about your shift.  

“Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu

If career change had an ‘inconvenient truth’, it would be this: the biggest obstacle in your search for fulfilling work is you.

The external challenges of making a shift are all figure-outable, one way or another. But the inside of your own mind is the deciding factor of whether your career change will happen or not.

And the inside of your mind is a land built of language.

The way you think about your career, the connections you make between things, the sparks of inspiration, your skills, your fears, your uncertainties – they exist in words.

In short, words matter.

And by changing the words you use to talk about your career change, you can change how you feel about it, the way you think about it, and the options available to you.

But this isn’t an article on affirmations to tell yourself as you look in the mirror each morning (although you’re welcome to do that if it helps). And it’s not a piece on the power of positive thinking, or pep talks.

Instead, it’s three teeny-tiny changes that you can make to the way you talk about your shift that can give you fresh perspectives, open up your capacity for creative problem-solving, and help you feel a little less stuck.

1. Swap ‘but’ for ‘and’

I learned this trick from my therapist, sitting in his big squashy armchair one bright winter afternoon back in 2010.

“I want to – of course I want to. But I’m scared…”

He interrupted me. “And.”

(My therapist, believe it or not, was both an Aikido master and playwright. This was a man who knew how to pack a punch with one single-syllable word).

I paused, and tried again.

“I’m scared, and I don’t think I can…”

“No, no.” he interrupted me again.

“You said, I want to, but I’m scared. And. I want to AND I’m scared.”

Small change. Changed everything.

Suddenly the situation felt less hopeless. My fear wasn’t the only thing in the room – my desire was too, to an equal degree. What I’d said, the second time around, had a ring of truth to it that hadn’t been there before. I felt more balanced, more in control.

In a sentence, the word ‘but’ diminishes (or outright negates) whatever came before it.

In career-change-related discussions, it wipes out all the hope, all the possibility. It reduces you to a single-state organism: excited, OR afraid; intelligent, OR lost. Deeply inspired by the work of the social impact sector, OR someone with a mortgage. The positive statement wilts, and all you’re left with is the negative clause after the ‘but’.

  • “I want to change career, but I have no idea what else I want to do.”
  • “I’ve always been interested in the film industry, but I’m worried about what people will think if I leave law.”
  • “I think I could make this work, but my parents think it’s a stupid move.”
  • “I have a business idea, but loads of people have already done something similar.”

‘And’, on the other hand, acknowledges the multiplicity of any situation. You are never just one way – a situation is never simply one way. And when you acknowledge the both–and of something, without diminishing either truth, then you’ve got something to work with. The problem is still present, but you also have the positive fact to redress the balance.

  • “I want to change career, and I have no idea what else I want to do.”
  • “I’ve always been interested in the film industry, and I’m worried about what people will think if I leave law.”
  • “I think I could make this work, and my parents think it’s a stupid move.”
  • “I have a business idea, and loads of people have already done something similar.”

Watch out for the word ‘but’ creeping into your career change conversations (both out loud and inside your own head). Whenever you catch one, replace it with an ‘and’.

Try it, right now: out loud, say a sentence that’s true for you, related to your career change, that includes a ‘but’. Then say the same sentence again, this time replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’. How does it change?

2. Change ‘is’ to ‘could be’

One of the biggest things holding you back in your career change is likely to be your (very normal, very human) tendency to think in absolutes.

  • "I AM an introvert."
  • "Career change IS financially risky."
  • "The entrepreneur I’d love to talk to about their work IS really hard to reach."
  • "The arts ARE a difficult area to make a living in."

Some of these statements might be true. Who knows?

But in a world where almost nothing is always anything, it’s unlikely.

Thinking in absolutes simplifies our lives – it helps us categorise and organise the world so that we can make decisions and move through it faster. But it also limits our creativity and capacity to solve problems.

In an essay for the New York Times on mindfulness, psychologist Adam Grant described a practice called ‘conditional thinking’ – thinking in conditionals instead of absolutes.

He referenced an experiment where people were asked to fix a mistake made in pencil. They were directed to a number of objects, including a rubber band, sitting on the table.

One group was told what their objects were in absolutes: “This is a rubber band.”

The second group had their objects described in ever-so-slightly ambiguous terms – “This could be a rubber band” – gently priming them to think conditionally. In this group, 40 per cent realised that the rubber band could also be used as an eraser to rub out the mistake.

Of the subjects who were told "This is a rubber band", on the other hand, only three per cent made the connection.

In career change, ‘could be’ engenders curiosity. It’s a gentle reminder of humility: you don’t know everything, and it’s OK to go find out before you make a decision.

  • "I could be an introvert… (and I could also have days where I find lots of energy in other people)."
  • "Career change could be financially risky (and it could be simpler to navigate than I expected)."
  • "The entrepreneur I’d love to talk to about their work could be really hard to reach… (and it could be easier than I think, especially if I found someone who could introduce us)."
  • "The arts could be a difficult area to make a living in (and I could find out by having conversations with people working in those spaces)."

Change 'is' to 'could be' and you create space for new possibilities.

Try it now, out loud: what’s a fact you believe to be true and absolute about your career change? Say it once as an absolute: it IS this way. Then say it again, replacing ‘is’ with ‘could be’. What do you notice?

3. Add ‘yet’

Permanence is just as problematic for your career change as absolutes.

Nothing is just one way. And nothing is the way it is forever – change, hard to manage as it is, is the only constant we have.

We talk, however, as though the way things are is the way they will always be:

  • “I haven’t got the qualifications.”
  • “I don’t know anyone in that industry.”
  • “My family don’t take my career change seriously.”

In Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s study on people’s self-perception, he found that we have a tendency to massively underestimate the ways in which we will change in the future – a phenomenon called the ‘end of history illusion’:

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished”.

People tell complex, dynamic stories about the past. But when asked to imagine the future, they tend to make vague projections in which things stay more or less the same as they are now.

When we speak in permanent terms, we fall into a similar trap as speaking in absolutes: the way things are now is just how they are.

But if we verbally acknowledge the likelihood – indeed, the inevitability – of change, we don’t just think more creatively. We remind ourselves of our own agency, and we make room for hope.

And the simplest way to do that is to add a ‘yet’ to all your statements about how things are.

  • “I haven’t got the qualifications yet.”
  • “I don’t know anyone in that industry yet.”
  • “My family don’t take my career change seriously yet.”

It’s a tiny word – just three letters – but it’s potent. It connects you to a possibility of a future in which you have what you need. It credits other people with the possibility of being what you hope they could be. It reminds you that you have the option to craft the future according to what you want.

And it leans just ever so slightly on the side of positivity, too – it implies not only that you can do something about the situation, but that you will.

It’s not over – there’s still plenty to play for, and you’ve got a hand in how things pan out.

Try it now, out loud: what’s something related to your career change right now that you don’t have, believe, or know? Say it once as a statement. Then, say it again, and add a ‘yet’ to the end. What happens?

Whatever you do, it starts with you

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are” – Anais Nin

Are these adjustments to the words you use a hands-on quick-fix for the practical challenges of career change? No.

Are any of them a direct solution for the external obstacles you’re inevitably going to face on your path to more fulfilling work? Not at all.

Am I saying that applying these changes to the way you talk will magically solve the very real problems you’re dealing with right now? Absolutely not.

Your career change is your own. It’s you who has a clear view of what you’re dealing with, and you who will take on those challenges. You’ll fix that stuff, not me, and not this article.

But that’s precisely why it’s so important to manage your mind through your career change, as much as it is to manage the steps of the shift itself. Your inner chatter has a huge impact on how you relate to your outer challenges, and how equipped you are to tackle them.

So if you’re going to put yourself in the best possible position to overcome obstacles, your words are a powerful place to start.

What are some examples of sentences you could try applying these adjustments to in your career change? Share yours in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach and writer for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art and science of human connection.