Image by Israel Sundseth
Stuck in a job that isn't you? Ready for a career change, but have no idea what else you could do – or where to start? Drawing on his own story, Richard explains how by ditching the conventional career rules, you'll radically increase your chances of finding something you love.
It was one of the most difficult periods of my life.
On the surface, I had a good job in a well-known company. I'd done what was expected of me post-university. I'd been promoted several times. I had a mortgage, I was travelling with work and had great prospects ahead of me.
Inside though, I was deeply unfulfilled. I wasn't enjoying my work, I felt like I wasn't using my full potential, and I longed to wake up feeling like my work was making a difference – to someone or something.
Yet, I didn't have a clue what else I could do.
Indeed I'd struggled on and off for years to figure out a way to change, but without making progress.
Eventually, as you'll read below, I came out the other side. But it wasn't an easy journey.
These are the lessons I learnt along the way.
What you need to know
If you're stuck in your career change, there are three main challenges – or paradoxes – that you're going to come up against.
1. It's you that wants to make a change, but it's also you that's your biggest obstacle
In the depths of my despair about my job, there were signals from all around me that I wasn't in the right place: I was embarrassed to talk about my work with others at parties; I couldn't imagine doing my boss's job (nor the one her boss had); and I was petrified that I'd reach 60 or 70 and not feel proud of the work I'd done in my life.
On a day-to-day basis, I just felt numb – uninspired by the meaningless work I was doing, and seemingly stuck in a Groundhog-Day reality of waking up to the same story every morning.
Yet, at the same time, I had no idea what else I wanted to do (or if I did, no sense of whether those ideas were feasible) – and no idea where to start.
Looking back, I now realise something I didn't at the time – that I was blinkered in my view of the world of work. All I knew was the industry I was in. I had surface-level visibility of some other careers, but there were so many fields and roles that were completely off my radar screen.
I was also scared of taking a cut in salary, scared of what my family and friends would think, and scared of losing the status I'd worked so hard to achieve.
These weren't obstacles in the outside world; they were obstacles in me. It was me – my lack of knowledge and my fears – that was most holding me back.
Does this also hold true for you?
2. You can't figure it out by figuring it out
I was a knowledge worker: paid to think, to solve problems, and to interact with others.
Why then, couldn't I figure what else I wanted to do?
My initial approach was to come home from work, wrap myself in my bedding, and go round and round in circles in my head analysing what else could I do.
I didn't come up with answers.
I also read every single career change book I could get my hands on, scoured the internet for guidance and did numerous profiling tests.
But still no clarity.
The simple reality is that if the solution to your career change lay in more analysis – in making more lists, reading more books, taking more psychometric tests, or simply figuring it all out in your head – you'd have found it by now.
3. You won't find a job by looking for one
When I started to look for something different, recruitment consultants were my natural first port of call.
They talked excitedly to me about roles with competitors or other positions in smaller organisations.
But it all just left me cold.
It was more of the same. I wanted to do something radically different and they couldn't help.
You may have spent hours trawling through job sites or job alerts, and just made yourself more miserable by seeing again and again that you don't have the experience or skills that are being asked for. Or you may have had similar experiences to mine with recruitment consultants. Or you may have sent off your CV / résumé for jobs in different fields, thinking you might at least get an initial interview. But nothing.
These are all functions of a traditional job market that isn't designed for career changers.
Through no fault of your own, you're simply not going to stack up against other people with experience and skills in the different field you're interested in.
What you need to do
There are solutions to each paradox, but they're likely not what you think they are (they weren't initially for me).
1. Do it with others, not alone
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." – Helen Keller.
The biggest challenge I faced in my career change was inertia. I wanted to change, but I didn't want to risk the security of the job I had.
I was comfortably uncomfortable.
I would have bursts of energy to do something about my career, followed by periods where I'd get swept back into 'life', surfacing weeks or months later and realising nothing had changed.
I only really started to make progress when I deliberately put others around me.
I started seeking out others in my company who also wanted to escape; I enrolled not one, but two career coaches; and I started to meet and hang out with different types of people (one of whom was to end up leading me to a job I loved – see more below).
The net effect was different ideas, different connections, and accountability – all of which, finally, led to forward movement.
Think of your career change as an expedition, not a day-trip.
If you were climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest, it's possible you could do it by yourself, but it's highly likely you'd want to go with others – peers, a guide, a support team. It makes the journey safer, faster and, heck, a lot more fun.
2. Act it out, don't figure it out
"Ideas occur when dissimilar universes collide." – Seth Godin.
In my career-change journey, it took me four and a half years to get out of a career that wasn't right for me.
For most of that time, I was trapped in analysis paralysis.
As the coach I worked with at the time said, "Richard, it's like you're standing in a forest and you have a number of tracks in front of you. But you're paralysed because you don't want to make a mistake. And the challenge is: if you don't take any of the paths, you're never going to get out of the forest. If you take one of them, it may not be the right track initially, but you can course-correct."
When I started to act rather than analyse, things started to change.
The following are some of the things that I did.
I enrolled in a part-time journalism course. I loved it, but it quickly became clear that it wasn't for me as a career.
I shadowed my friend who worked in PR for half a day. I did the same with a friend who worked as a Japanese yen bond trader in an investment bank. Both fascinating worlds, but neither appealed.
Notice what I was doing, though.
As Seth Godin talks about, I was stepping into different worlds – sparking ideas and, at the same time, crossing off possibilities, rather than leaving them as open questions in my mind.
I was also testing ideas in a way that meant that I didn't need to leave my day job before I'd figured out what I really wanted to do (see more in our lean career change approach on how to do this).
Finally, thanks to an introduction made by my future sister-in-law, Sarah, I walked into the offices of a social start-up – and I knew in a matter of minutes I'd found something that was totally me.
Had I just seen the organisation's website or a job ad in a newspaper, I might never have discovered the connection I had with them. But it was made real by meeting the team, seeing the environment and getting a feel for the energy of the place.
In short, action precedes clarity, not the other way round.
3. Look for people, not for jobs
"Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They're attached to people. If you're looking for an opportunity, you're really looking for a person." – Ben Casnocha.
Job sites, recruitment consultants, CVs / résumés and Google all have their uses in your career change. But they're not the place to start.
Focus instead on connecting with people.
The power of being in front of people is that you can present the whole you – something a CV or résumé simply can't do.
I'm an introvert. So, you won't find me exuberantly working a room at a networking event. But I am comfortable meeting people one-on-one, or having phone calls.
So that's what I did – and with a whole set of people whose roles interested me.
It took time, there were many 'dead ends', but ultimately it led me to a role in a field I didn't previously even know existed.
More than that, this approach meant I avoided the ruthless filtering that happens with conventional job applications.
I wasn't 'qualified' to work in the social start-up I fell in love with. But what I did have was a ton of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. That was never going to come across on my CV or résumé.
I didn't get the job there through a formal application. I got it because I built relationships with people in the organisation. I did some pro-bono work, which led to consultancy work, which led to an interview for a full-time job.
Oh, and if you're curious to know, I had the worst interview of my life for that role. I so wanted the job that my brain froze, I stumbled my way through the questions, and I left thinking I'd blown it. Catastrophic. Or it might had been, had that been my first interaction with the team. But it wasn't and, because of the strengths of the relationships I'd built, I still got the job.
Remember: people first, jobs second.
What your next steps should be
"To know and not to do is not yet to know." – Buddhist proverb.
Making a career change isn't easy – otherwise everyone would be doing it.
But it is possible.
There are hundreds of stories here in our success stories section and elsewhere that show it is.
And remember, this isn't just about your career; it's about your life.
It's about how you feel every morning; it's about how that rubs off on your health and your relationships; and, ultimately, it's about the impact that you can make on the world through being alive in what you do.
The stakes are high.
But they're higher still if you don't do anything about it.
So, for goodness sake, don't just read this article. Do something because of it. Please.
And let me know how you get on.
What have you learned? What actions are you going to take? Share your thoughts in the comments below.