How To Avoid Shifting Into Another Career You Hate

Image of someone looking at a fire

Newly Updated

Image: Adam Wilson

Scared of making the wrong move and winding up in another soul-sucking career? Shifting is always risky, but there is a way to test drive your ideas before you commit. Natasha dives deeper into the Lean Career Change method, and explains how to design an experiment that gives you clarity, confidence, and connections in your potential new field.

You lick the envelope, and fold down the flap. Rub your thumb across the back to seal it. Stand up.

Your eyes wander across the room to your manager, who's chatting to one of your colleagues about a big upcoming project.

Look at the envelope. Look at your manager. Look at the envelope…

Everything you've worked so hard for – your identity, your reputation, your livelihood, your financial security – it's all culminated in this moment.

You've been thinking about changing career for a while. You're not the kind of person to ignore that instinct. You want a career and a life you love.

And now is the moment. There's a knot in your stomach, and you feel your blood buzzing through your veins…

Three months later…

You reach out your arm and switch off your alarm clock. Tuesday morning. Time to go to work. And there it is, that familiar feeling of rising dread. All you want to do is turn over and go back to sleep. This is the second time in two weeks you've almost wished you had a cold, so you could call in sick.

You thought this new career would be right for you. You've never been so wrong.

Can you imagine?

At our online workshops, "jumping out of the frying pan and straight into the fire" is one of the most common fears our career changers say they're concerned about: leaving their current career for something they thought was their ideal work, only to discover it's not right for them.

All that effort and energy, wasted.

It's terrifying.

And it's one of the biggest factors that keeps career changers stuck in work that makes them miserable.

Uncertainty and inertia are the biggest sticking points of any career change, and oddly enough, they're a lot like onions. It seems as though as soon as you peel off one layer of "I don’t know", there you are, looking at another, trying your damn hardest not to cry.

First, there's the uncertainty that comes with having no idea what you want to do. All you want is to have some inkling of what would really, truly make you happy. And then you have a great idea, and for a short while your brain is buzzing with excitement and inspiration… until you hit the next pungent, acidic layer of uncertainty: the question: "But how can I be sure?"

There's no such thing as absolute certainty. But there are ways to get close.

At Careershifters, we work with clients using our Lean Career Change approach to shifting: running small, low-risk experiments to test out your ideas and discover answers to the three key questions:

  • Do I love this?
  • Am I any good at it?
  • Is it financially sustainable?

Once you've got a handle on the Lean Career Change method, it's time to start designing your first Shift Project, and this can be the point at which people get stuck (and the second career-change nemesis, inertia, can often creep in).

The key to great Shift Projects is to do them fast, and to do them often.

So where do you start?

There are three important questions to ask yourself to start sparking ideas for your first Shift Project

These are:

  1. Who is already doing what I want to do?
  2. Where might they hang out?
  3. What do they do?

The first question sounds simple enough, and there's also huge scope for casting a wide net.

Let's imagine you're interested in horticulture.

You'll start by making a list of every kind of person you can think of who would be even remotely connected to horticulture – including both categories of people, and people you already know.

Your list might look like this:

  • Florists
  • Landscape gardeners
  • Gardeners
  • Garden designers
  • People who work at the Chelsea Flower Show
  • Arborists
  • Tree surgeons
  • Permaculturists and vegetable growers
  • Farmers
  • Garden centre buyers
  • Nursery owners
  • Allotment owners
  • Lecturers and teachers of horticulture
  • Uncle Raymond
  • My sister-in-law's father
  • Jane

From this list, you can move onto the second question: where might these people hang out?

Florists, for example, might hang out in their flower shops. They might also be found at industry events, wedding fairs, and the flower market where they buy their stock.

Permaculture enthusiasts might have a meetup group in your area.

Your Uncle Raymond might hang out at Uncle Raymond's house.

Finally, you can address the final question: what do these people do?

See how much detail you can come up with about how these people spend their time.

What's at the core of their work? What books do they read? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? What are the unusual or unexpected elements of how they spend their time?

At first, to answer these questions, you'll be drawing on your imagination and whatever you already know about the industry (which may be very little).

What you're aiming to do by running Shift Projects is to bypass your perception of the industry or field of interest, and start to understand the reality of your career idea.

Our perspectives on career ideas are, inevitably, deeply limited.

Often, we have an idea of what a role or activity might involve, but no way of knowing if it's actually accurate. To discover the truth about what we're considering, it's necessary to do whatever you can to get as close as possible to your idea – through conversations and through action.

Luckily, the lists you've just made can serve as the launchpads for your Shift Projects in exactly that way.

Your first list becomes a list of people to reach out to and connect with.

You may already know some of the people on it.

Give them a call or meet up for a coffee, and get curious. What do they know about the industry? What's it really like to do what they do? What do they like about it? What do they hate about it? What do they love about it? What's the best piece of advice they have for you, given that you're considering a shift into the field?

As a Shift Project, these kinds of curious, unbiased conversations will help you begin to understand whether or not your career idea is actually something you'd be interested in pursuing further. They won't get you the whole way to certainty, but they will start the ball rolling. You'll begin to get a twinkle of the answers to the three questions at the core of the Lean Career Change:

  • Do I love it?
  • Am I any good at it?
  • Will people pay me to do it?

As for the people you don't know, track them down and reach out to them. Your first level of connections (the people you already know) will probably be able to help you with this. And if you want to go further, start thinking about your second list: the places these people might hang out.

Your second list becomes a list of places to go and visit.

You're looking for places that will give you the chance to be around people who work in your chosen industry, and preferably where they're up to something related to their work.

Attending an industry event, for example, is a great early Shift Project. You'll have the chance to connect with people who share your interest and passion, and to experience something of the reality of working in that field.

You might also drop in on the offices of a company that inspires you, and spend an hour or so observing what goes on.

Your final list becomes a list of actions to experiment with.

The key to this part of the process is to focus on two things:

  1. Get close to the action – your focus should be on replicating as closely as possible the reality of working in that industry
  2. If you have a choice between doing something alone, and doing something that involves other people, go with the latter. People will form the bedrock of your experiences (and can open doors for you further down the line if the experiment goes well).

Using our horticulture example, your choice of action can be informed by your first two lists. Choose one of your categories of person (horticulture lecturers, for example), and reach out, asking to spend time with them at one of the places you've listed in your second list. Alternatively, offer them value in return for your experience. Reach out to a nursery owner and offer an afternoon of your time and labour in return for the experience of seeing 'behind the scenes' at their place of work.

Interested in becoming a coach? Coach a friend on a challenge they're dealing with for an hour.

Graphic design appealing to you? Find a friend who needs some work done, and offer to do it for free for them. Alternatively, ask someone you know to make up an imaginary client with an imaginary brief and fulfil it to a deadline.

Attend a short course or workshop in the field you're interested in.

Keep in mind at all times that your Shift Projects need to be fast and frequent.

The point is not to design the 'perfect project', but to stay consistently in a state of play, curiosity, action and experimentation.

The more you do, the more you learn. The more involved you get, the more you become an insider in your chosen field. The more people you connect with, the more chance there is that one of them might open a door for you.

When you stand up from your desk on that Friday afternoon, envelope in hand, looking across the room at your boss, you want to be as close as possible to certain that you're leaving for something worthwhile.

Every Shift Project you run pushes that fire further and further from the frying pan.

Some will undoubtedly be duds and dead ends. Some will surprise you: perhaps you really expected to love something, and realise through experience that it's not for you. And yet, every dead end is a gift – a sigh of relief that you're not going to end up making the same mistake again.

What quick Shift Project could you run this week, to test out one of your career ideas? 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.