How To Use A Stepping-Stone Role To Make Time And Space For Your Career Change

Image of stepping stones over water

Image: Matt Walsh



You want to find more fulfilling work, but you don’t have the energy (or hours in the day) to make it happen. Quitting your job also feels too risky. So are you trapped where you are? Natasha shares a simple but powerful way to free up the headspace to explore your options, without putting your financial safety on the line.

Career change isn’t a straightforward challenge. 

You’re trying to work out what you love to do; understand your skills better; figure out your finances; find time to connect with new people and experiment with ideas; navigate your fears and assumptions and uncertainties; explain what you’re doing to your friends and family… It's a lot.

And it’s a very real possibility that at some point, it may start to feel like too much.

Too much to ask of your energy levels alongside the effort it takes to keep your head above water in your current role.

Too much to manage in the time you currently have available each week.

Too much to demand of your head, when it’s already so full of other important things.

Perhaps you find yourself thinking things like:

  • “I just don’t have the time to focus on this”
  • “I’m just so exhausted at the end of every day I can’t think straight”
  • “This is it – I’m never going to get out”

Perhaps you’ve already watched months and years pass by without being able to take action on your shift because of a lack of time, a lack of energy, and a lack of headspace. 

And if that’s the case, your career change might require a new approach – one that starts with a fresh perspective on what this process can look like.

Career change doesn’t have to be one big leap

Feeling as though you’re trapped in your current career until you’ve found the ‘right’ new one is awful. 

And it’s also often a function of a fallacy – an ‘ideal’ vision of what a career change looks like, in which we must:

  • Identify our dream career, prepare, and step immediately into it in one fell swoop
  • Have a CV or resumé that has a clear and uninterrupted narrative
  • Be chirpy and positive and able to handle absolutely anything at all times

The truth is, finding fulfilling work can be messy. It takes time, it takes energy, and the vast majority of the time, it takes twists and turns.

Making a career change ‘properly’, (i.e. effectively, responsibly, and in a way that actually lands you in work that feels fulfilling) means doing what you need to do to make it happen. 

And to do that, you’re allowed to take a staged approach to your shift; to give yourself the gift of space, time and rest along the way.

The idea is simple: don’t try to leap the whole river – step your way across, bit by bit.

Buy yourself space and time with a stepping-stone role

A stepping-stone is a mid-shift, short-term move into an intentionally temporary position, designed to give you the space (mental, financial, or temporal) needed to make your longer-term career change happen.

It might be an explicitly ‘temp’ role, or it might be work that’s freelance, contract, or part-time. 

If your current career is particularly demanding, even a move to a ‘normal’ 9-5 where you’re able to leave your work at the office and switch off at evenings and weekends could provide you sufficient relief and stability to make your shift happen.

What you’re seeking is a combination of financial security and mental freedom.

How would it feel to finish work and still have the energy and motivation to put in an hour of action on your career change?

How would it be to wake up in the morning and be at peace with the day ahead?

What would it be like to feel as though you had the present moment held gently in one hand and the future firmly in the other?

This type of move won’t be right for everyone, but has huge benefits in certain circumstances:

  • If you feel out of touch with what you want to do next, a stepping-stone role can provide the time and space in your life for you to explore outside of your ‘reality bubble’ and experiment for a while.
  • If you have lots of ideas that interest you, this type of position gives you the opportunity to 'try things on' before you commit to your next major career role.
  • If you’re feeling ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ and worry that unless something changes soon, it never will, this pathway will create both immediate change and motivation for the rest of your career transition.
  • When you feel physically and emotionally exhausted by your current work, a stepping-stone role is an immediate route out of the stressful environment. By removing the source of stress and creating headspace, you'll be able to plan your next steps much more calmly.
  • When you want to start your own business, this type of role enables you to build your business on the side without the pressure for it to immediately support you.
  • When you want to move into a new industry, but you’re lacking experience, skills or connections, a stepping-stone role can give you the chance to upskill, volunteer, bolster your CV/resume and build connections 

Create a clear purpose that keeps you focused

Moving into an intentionally temporary and more flexible place may feel quite radical and risky, especially if you're used to being on a more linear, stable career path.

And, if you’re close to burnout or unable to cope with staying where you are, the choice can have a reactionary, desperate flavour to it, which isn’t the most empowering position to find yourself in.

It’s crucial that you articulate for yourself a positive, clear narrative for what you’re doing by moving into a stepping-stone role, why it matters, and what your needs, desires and boundaries are for it.

This isn’t:

  • “I have to get out of here and anything’s better than this”
  • “I’m taking too long to figure out my career change, so I have to take this embarrassing step down”
  • “I should be moving directly into a fulfilling career, but I’m not smart enough / connected enough, so this is the only option”

Instead, it sounds like:

  • “What my career change needs right now is a period of exploring lots of options fully and enjoyably, so I’m attending to that need”
  • “I want to be confident in my skill-set, so I’m freeing up the space and time to retrain and emerge feeling strong and proficient”
  • “I know I want a new career. To create one, I need time and space to dedicate to my next steps – so I’m finding a way to give myself what I need in order to do what matters to me.”

Consider what other ‘perks’ you’d like in the mix

The fundamental criteria for this kind of role are simple: it gives you time and space to explore your next career, without putting you at financial risk.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get more from a stepping-stone, over and above the basics.

For example…

1. What would be fun?

If you’re going to take a temporary position somewhere while you work on your shift, why not look for something that will be playful and exciting?

The likelihood is that this chapter of your life will be a little off-piste on your CV or resumé anyway, so if that’s the case, you may as well have fun with it.

Have you always wondered what it would be like to work at the zoo? Do you harbour a quiet envy of the booksellers in your local bookshop? Would it be a breath of fresh air to get to work outside for once?

Give yourself the space to imagine a period of life where work was pure play. What would be a joyful option for your in-between?

“I never in a million years imagined I’d be working in a museum gift shop at 46 years old, but I’ve loved every minute of it. I chat to hundreds of people every day, I get free entry to amazing exhibits that I’d usually pay for anyway, and I’ve made fast friends with other museum staff, who give me an insight into a world I never thought I’d get to see. It’s hardly a high-flying gig, but it’s great!” 

– Cat, shifting from charity administration

2. What would be a great learning curve?

While stepping-stone roles are unlikely to be anyone’s final destination, that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to your next career.

What kinds of companies and organisations are connected to where you think you might want to end up? What kinds of roles might bridge the gap between your current career and something more fulfilling? Where might you gather skills and experience that would help you feel more confident?

“I’m still fundamentally doing what I used to do in my old career, so I know another move is on the cards in the not-too-distant future, but being in a start-up environment is teaching me so much about how to operate in more agile, creative industries. Plus, I’m in a leadership role that I’d never have achieved elsewhere. 

I took this role simply because it was easy to get and bought me the time and space I wanted, but I can feel myself growing in exactly the areas I needed to, and I feel so much more secure about interviewing for future positions.” 

– Laura, shifting from corporate marketing

3. What would help you heal?

If you’re coming out of a rough experience in the working world, on the cusp of burnout or losing faith in people, you might choose to look for a role or way of working that makes room for you to get your feet back underneath you and nothing more.

What do you need in order to return to neutral ground? 

“In real terms, I’m still doing what I was doing before, but I’m doing the minimum I need to in order to learn to breathe again after years of living on the edge of burnout. Moving from employment to freelance was scary, but I’m finally in control of the hours I work, who I work with, and the terms of each project. And, surprisingly, my monthly income has only dropped by about 10%. 

The night I landed my first freelance gig was the first time I slept through the night in about six years. My wife can’t believe the change in me, and I’m finally starting to believe that a shift might really be possible.” 

– Josef, shifting from graphic design

Notice (and plan for) your concerns

While the idea of a stepping-stone role can be liberating and exciting, it’s also perfectly understandable if it raises some worries. 

What’s important is that you don’t bury your head in the sand about your concerns – instead, face them head-on, and plan for them in advance.

1. Won’t this make me look flaky to future employers?

Concerns about how a stepping-stone role might look on your CV or resumé are natural. After all, we’re raised with clear ‘rules’ about how your career path is supposed to look: never stay anywhere for less than a year; have a clear and compelling narrative; each role should build on the last…

And yet, as a career changer, it’s likely that your CV or resumé is going to play a very different role for you than if you were climbing the ladder in your current industry. 

Your experience won’t be directly relevant. You’ll need to create a new story about what’s brought you to this new field of interest. And a stepping-stone role will be a perfectly understandable element of that story.

What’s key is that you understand clearly, for yourself, why you chose to take a stepping-stone role as part of the greater narrative of your shift, and be able to talk about it confidently with others.

  • “I knew I wanted to move into a new industry, and so I sought a position that gave me the time and space to explore new possibilities for my next career. I’m really glad I did so, because those explorations led me here.”
  • “This position gave me the chance to retrain in X, Y and Z, which has left me feeling far better-equipped to be able to hit the ground running in this role.”

2. How do I deal with feeling like I’ve taken a step down?

The exchange of status for flexibility is one that you might struggle with, especially if you’re coming from a particularly well-respected career. 

There are two ways you might think about this.

On the one hand, if status is a non-negotiable value of yours, you may choose to only consider stepping-stone roles that still carry a level of regard that feels acceptable to you. For example, you might choose to stay in your current industry, and move from full-time work to a consulting position.

Alternatively, you may choose to use the sting of a ‘step down’ as a helpful motivator, avoiding inertia in your stepping-stone position and keeping you feeling driven to find your next role.

Additionally, give yourself time and space to feel what you feel about your new way of working. Regardless of it being a ‘step down’ or otherwise, there will be an adjustment period – and you may well find that the benefits you experience mean that your concerns around the opinions of others dissipate quickly!

3. What if I get stuck on a stepping-stone?

The shift to a temporary, part time or flexible role can feel a little destabilising, at least to begin with. 

You may need to navigate an initial learning curve to adjust to your new position, and it’s understandable to feel concerned that this first shift could distract you from the longer-term aim of your career change.

This is where it’s important to have a support team around you – people who can keep you motivated, focused and in action on your ultimate destination. 

Ensure that you’re making the most of your new-found flexibility by scheduling in regular periods of time to work on your career change, and recruit an accountability buddy to make the process feel lighter and less lonely.  

4. What would I do if I run out of money?

Drawing up firm numbers for your financial parameters may not sound like the most fun activity, but knowing your needs and limits is an empowering move when you’re seeking a stepping-stone. 

  • What is the baseline income you’ll need in order to be able to focus on your career change without a constant gnawing in the back of your mind?
  • Would it be helpful to give yourself a timeline – a period in which you can manage on a lower income, before which you’ll need to reassess – in order to ensure you don’t lose momentum on working on your shift?
  • What would be the worst-case scenario, and what solutions could you come up with to plan for it? 

Remember, a stepping-stone role is all about the magic formula of security and space. It’s not a blind leap into poverty and hoping for the best! Knowing your needs and having a plan for this period of time will give you the best foundation from which to find a stepping-stone that serves you and your shift.

How to find your stepping-stone role

Start from your skills

Making a choice based on your skill-set isn’t what we’d normally recommend for career changers seeking fulfilling work. 

But in the context of a stepping-stone role, it can be the fastest and smoothest option.

Consider which of your current skills, talents and experience you could be happy using in a  different context. What projects or tasks have you enjoyed in the past, and what were you doing, specifically, that brought you pleasure?

Look back over your work history, and identify the handful of skills that, if you were in a more relaxed or more autonomous environment, you’d feel confident and comfortable bringing to the forefront.

Then, start seeking out new contexts, companies and opportunities that would allow you to use them.

Mathilde Néau took a stepping-stone role after five years as a recruiter to allow her to explore new options for her next business venture. 

“I started freelancing for a gaming studio as a Talent Partner/Recruiter. 

Even though I wanted to move out of recruitment, I still managed to enter a more creative industry and experience the behind-the-scenes of building a game.

Joining a team was never my final destination, however. Deep down, I knew I wanted more sovereignty over my work and to create things myself. 

Since I learned so much about hiring in general and for the gaming studio, I took this knowledge and decided to build my first product: Woody, a job board for creative companies.” 

Spread the word

As ever, the power of other people can be your secret weapon in finding a stepping-stone role. 

To the extent that you feel able to, let friends, family and professional connections know that you’re looking for some low-pressure interim work while you attend to your career change.

  • Who could they connect you with that could use your skills and talents?
  • What opportunities have they spotted while out and about?
  • Where might they think of looking, that you haven’t yet considered?

While it’s tempting to feel like you have to ask for connections to specific jobs, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised (and discover options you’d never have thought of on your own) if you allow them to suggest ideas based on a looser request.

So to help your connections help you, give them a few key criteria to work with. What are the three most important features of your stepping-stone role? 

Choose the elements that are non-negotiable, and see what your community uncovers.

Miriam Christie found part-time work (with us!) through an introduction by a friend, which freed her up to retrain in a completely new direction.

“My first significant stepping-stone was to take a job using my skills, working with the team at Careershifters to promote their aims to help people find fulfilling work.

I used to love teaching aerobics and pilates, so I signed up to a yoga teacher training course. At the time, I didn’t have any real plan for using the qualification. The course helped me to rediscover the freedom and therapy that I find in movement. It helped me to find a new way of tapping into my wellbeing, which I would then explore further with my therapist.

I then did a certificate in humanistic counselling at the Gestalt Centre in London. The course was a deep dive into my vulnerabilities in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

I left the training with a new-found peace and certainty about who I am and what I want from life.”

Consider something close to home

Depending on your current situation, you may find that your stepping-stone role is available right where you are.

Negotiating for compressed hours, a flexible working schedule, a secondment or a sideways move inside your current company could be the fastest and easiest way to open up space and time for your shift.

Of course, if you’re currently in the grip of a particularly toxic workplace, this will be a much less attractive option – but many career changers have been pleasantly surprised by what becomes possible after a quiet, authentic conversation with their manager.

Richard Freeman gave himself a period of seven months as a stepping-stone, reducing his hours in his role bit by bit while he built up his business on the side:

“I reduced my hours to four days a week, and then three days per week a month later. After seven months, I left completely and went full time with my own company (which I had, by then, registered as a limited enterprise).

I had to set myself targets for income and make sure that I had some early successes. I had amazing support from my wife, but had to be honest and clear about worst-case scenarios and what I would do if those happened. We have two young children and she works part time (she was just coming back from maternity leave at the time) so losing all my income was not an option.”

Taking a stepping-stone role can feel like a big move – and a big relief

This approach to a shift isn’t as tidy – or as shiny – as a single, elegant bound into a fulfilling career.

But career change doesn’t have to be tidy, or shiny. In fact, very few are

What matters is that you’re able to take the steps you need to take; that the process doesn’t drain you of energy; that you feel the motivation that comes from progress; and that you’re in action.

And while a move into an in-between situation can feel scary, it can also feel incredibly empowering. You’ve taken back the reins on your life. You’ve identified your needs and taken steps to meet them. 

This, ultimately, is what career change is all about.

What might a stepping-stone role look like for you? Let me know in the comments below.