Image: Sunder Muthukumaran
Are you desperate to get away from your current career? Willing to do anything to escape? You might be heading toward a reactive shift. With two real-life examples, Natasha explains how to make sure your future isn't dictated by your past.
Tuesday, 6 p.m. It's overcast and beginning to drizzle, and you've just finished work.
You're exhausted. The day started badly and, as it continued, you felt like you were living a comedy of errors. The project you've been working on for weeks took a nosedive. The people you work with seem to have been trying their best to make your life as difficult as possible and you've been fighting to hide your irritation all day.
All this work, and for what? You shake your head. Why are you so stressed out? You don't even care about this stuff. Your heart hasn't been in this work for months.
As you sink into your seat, your body has never felt heavier. But even through your exhaustion, your mind starts to spin. You can't go on feeling this way. You have to get out; you have to find something else. What are you going to do? How are you ever going to get out of this situation? Are these attempts to find work you love ultimately futile? Are you just driving yourself crazy over a foolish fantasy?
“One thing's for sure,” you tell yourself, “if I ever get out of here, I am never, ever doing anything like this again.”
If everything you're doing at work is wrong for you (and it sure feels like it is right now), your life seems to require a full 180-degree turn. You wish you could step onto a pendulum and be carried, Alice-in-Wonderland-style, to the precise inverse of your current situation.
If you're constantly supporting other people at work, you decide you're never going to help ungrateful people again. In fact, you simply must be better suited to going it alone. Maybe it's time to start your own business, in fact, and be the boss for once.
If you're sick of feeling like your time is controlled by someone else, you might decide to go freelance, or seek out work that allows you to work remotely.
Or if your career feels meaningless and trivial, you start searching for jobs in the charity and the social sector.
It makes sense, right? If what you're doing feels so awful, it's logical to head as far as possible in the other direction. Or is it?
It's important to remember that life isn't composed of antithetical states of being.
That pendulum ride may feel like the most logical thing to do, and it may take you to exactly where you want to be. But it's certainly a risky move.
I call it a Reactive Shift.
So what is a reactive shift, and what's the alternative?
A Reactive Shift: a career change that's primarily driven by the past
A reactive shift's primary drivers are the negative emotions elicited by work that isn’t right for you.
While articulating what you don't want can be a good starting point for figuring out what you do want, there's a rebellious, 'fight-or-flight response' quality to a reactive shift.
They tend to have a knee-jerk, just-stood-on-a-plug atmosphere about them, which carries a number of risks:
1. Swinging too far (throwing the baby out with the bathwater)
Rob worked in sales for a major telecommunications company. He's a talented and perceptive communicator, able to tailor messages precisely to whatever audience he has in front of him. After six years using those abilities for a cause that didn't mean anything to him, he began to resent not only the company he worked for, but even his own skill-set.
“I felt like a fraudster.
“My days were spent manipulating people to do what the company wanted them to do. It got to the point where I was so ashamed of what I did, the only way I could imagine redeeming myself was to move to something totally different. I threw my CV in the bin and went in search of work which would never involve getting people to do something they didn't want to do.”
Rob retrained as a fireman, and for the first few months was proud of getting so far away from his sales career. But then something started to change.
“It was fine, but I missed a lot of aspects of my old job, and I noticed it creeping into my work as a fireman. I quickly became the one the team turned to when we had a difficult person to deal with at an incident, because the guys knew I was good with words and had a knack for getting people on my side.
“I started to realise I still loved a lot of what I used to do, it was just the environment that was wrong. And by that time it felt too late. I felt like I'd thrown the baby out with the bathwater really.”
Rob's reactive shift was, from the outside, logical. But when we look at where it stemmed from – the feelings of shame about what he did as a salesperson – we see that it was this false association that drove his entire career change.
In his urgency to get away from the negative feelings attached to his work in sales, he'd also given up on the positive aspects of his old job.
He had, in his own words, thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and it didn't feel good.
2. Swinging into the unknown
Bex had been a probation officer for 15 years when she made the decision to change career. In a sector with such a high staff turnover, she had become something of a legend in her region. If anyone had a work-related question, she was the one they turned to. Problem client? Bex would sort it out. On the outside, Bex was always helpful and cheery, but deep inside she felt herself turning sour.
“I was just so sick of people wanting things from me all the time – service users, agencies, colleagues, even people who were meant to be senior to me.
“I was knackered. But I didn't feel knackered, I just felt angry and resentful. I wanted everyone to just leave me alone. And I didn't see that happening ever again if I stayed in probation.”
Bex had always loved writing, and decided that becoming a writer would be the perfect antidote to a frantic, demanding schedule. She was so fed up with work, and had such a lovely idea of what being a writer would be like, that she decided to jump ship and make a go of it.
“I had this image of myself sitting at my desk in the mornings, in my pyjamas, with a cup of coffee and the cat, just tapping away for a few hours. And it would be quiet, and I'd choose my own working hours, and nobody would bother me…
“I used to literally dream about it at night. Turns out I had absolutely no idea what it was all about. I quickly found out that I'm lousy at being my own boss, and working at home on your own is actually really lonely! Plus the time you spend looking for writing work far outweighs the time you spend writing, for the first six months at the very least.
“I didn't miss my old job in the slightest, but I realised this new path wasn't that much better…”
Bex made a classic reactive shift, leaping onto the pendulum and sailing as far from her old career as she could get. At that point it may not have mattered where she went, so long as it wasn't her old office, but after a few months of scrambling for writing work and missing the hubbub of her old career, it did start to matter.
She realised that in her urgency to escape, she hadn't taken the time to look into the reality of where she was going. She realised she'd sailed into the unknown, and it wasn't as romantic a journey as she'd imagined.
So what's the alternative option?
An Active Shift: a change that's informed by the past without reacting to the past
An active shift takes a curious, investigative approach to what you've learned from experiences in the past, without automatically leading you to the pendulum. It creates a multifaceted picture of both the past and the future, making use of what you can learn about what works and what doesn't work.
Rather than choosing a course of action based on an 'anything-but-this' mentality, your actions are led by the information you've gathered in an objective, inquisitive way.
1. Look for 'negativity overflow' and get specific about what isn't working
A reactive shift often arises when you allow one or two negative elements of a career to taint everything about what you're doing.
Rob associated his work in sales with an emotion: shame. And the weight of that emotion tainted not just the sales-in-telecoms nature of his role, but even his skills and talents.
Once Rob realised that he didn't have to be ashamed of his abilities – that they weren't inextricably linked to his role as a salesman, he started to look for ways he could incorporate the wordsmithery and people-skills of his sales job into something that felt more meaningful. He's now a fundraising communications manager for a major children's charity, using his natural talents to change the world.
How specific can you get about what you enjoy and what you don't enjoy about your current career? Where can you see 'negativity overflow' showing up in your attitude toward your shift?
2. Avoid 'anything-but-this' thinking, and test drive your ideas
An active shift is all about getting connected with reality, rather than with the panicked crazy-thought-loop that accompanies a career you don't enjoy.
Bex learned her lesson, too. She decided that next time she shifted, she'd be prepared. After two years of feeling miserable as a writer, she started to test-drive a few different ideas that had been bubbling at the back of her mind. In small, low-risk ways, she found ways to experience her new career ideas. She ran a few creative writing classes, took on a part-time role as an estate agent to bring in some extra cash, and signed up for an entrepreneurship course.
These experiences cemented her love for being around creative people and creating spaces for innovation. She decided to set up a co-working space for freelancers. Now, she spends her days managing the desk rentals and working on her second novel:
“I could easily have freaked out and swung the other way – gone back to a job where I was surrounded by people and didn't have to seek out work all the time. But when I really examined what I'd learned, even from the bad stuff, I found a way to bring it all together in a way that works perfectly for me.
“I never dreamed it would be possible to love some of the things I used to hate, but I really get a kick out of the people who use the space coming to me for advice and to bounce ideas around with these days! I just wish I'd taken control of my career change earlier, instead of making a knee-jerk escape.”
Can you feel yourself reacting to your current situation? What could you learn from Rob and Bex's experiences? Let me know in the comments below.