Quiet Passengers: The Hidden Beliefs That Could Be Holding You Back In Your Career Change

Image of passengers on a bus

Image: Sarah Noltner

Do you ever find yourself holding back in your career change, but not quite knowing why? Riding emotions and anxieties that you don’t fully understand? Natasha shares 6 ‘quiet passengers’ – hidden beliefs that might be subtly influencing your choices – and how to find a way forward alongside them

There’s a lot of discussion in career change circles about fears and limiting beliefs – the niggling, negative assumptions and concerns we tell ourselves that can keep us stuck.

But there’s another set of residents that live, rent-free, in our heads. 

I call them ‘quiet passengers’.

Quiet passengers are subtle narratives we’ve constructed, learned, or internalised over time about the world of work and career change. 

And, like a single drop of ink in a bowl of water, they colour our whole approach to the task ahead of us.

These ideas don’t always show up consciously. In fact, if someone were to ask for your opinion about them, you might well answer – from a logical level – that they’re not true. 

But quiet passengers tend to  live a layer below ‘logic’ in your heart and mind; internalised to the point almost of imperceptibility. And from there, discreetly, they can steer your actions and emotions, keeping you hesitant, doubtful and afraid.

They’re not always negative, either. Some quiet passengers are idealists, hopeful to the point of absurdity. And yet, in so being, they insert a layer of ‘not-good-enough’ into your choices so you’re never fully at peace with how things unfurl.

Subtle and deep-rooted as they are, it’s unrealistic to expect them to disappear entirely.

But by acknowledging their existence and bringing them to the surface for a good examination, we can start to reduce their power.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones. 

Which of these might be quiet passengers in your own internal career change conversation?

1. Changing career means you’ve failed

One of many insidious emotions to navigate at – or even before – the start of a shift may be a sense of guilt or failure.

Explicitly or implicitly, perhaps you’re feeling ashamed for ‘getting it wrong’ somewhere along the way. 

There’s a soft voice in the back of your head telling you that you didn’t work hard enough to make it work. Or deep down, you can’t shake the feeling that changing your career makes you a quitter. You’re taking the easy way out.

It’s a painful idea, and one that can elicit enough shame to send you into secrecy, avoidance, and paralysis.

Maybe you tell as few people as possible about your desire to shift (particularly if you have a job that looks good ‘on paper’), so you don’t have to face the judgement behind their eyes.

Perhaps you focus fervently on the negative aspects of your current work to justify your move – to the point where you disregard all you’ve learned and achieved there.

Or you might even stay where you are far, far longer than you want to, kicking the can down the road and feeling your health and self-confidence suffer, in an attempt to fend off the possibility of having ‘failed’ to make it work.

But this mindset is an offshoot of a now-defunct working world. 

Trace its tendrils back to the source, and you’ll find a society in which a ‘job for life’ was the norm. Fulfilment hadn’t entered the career conversation, and your primary imperative was to make it to retirement with a clean bill of health and a good relationship with your employer.

That’s not the world we live in any more. 

Instead, people change jobs and careers regularly. Statistics on this topic are varied and not entirely reliable (there’s no general consensus on what constitutes ‘a career change’) but range from five to seven times in a lifetime to every three years

We’re expected to learn, grow and develop, and to adapt our working environments accordingly. 

Whatever your career history looks like, one thing is certain: you made the best decisions you could, given the information you had at the time.

You might have ‘fallen into’ your current career because it was the best thing available at that moment. And now that you’ve reached a new moment, you’re able to reassess and redefine what the best thing is now.

You might have started off loving your work, and over time your needs and desires (or your company or industry) have evolved and changed.

And the ‘easier’ route to take is almost certainly not seeking out something new and uncertain and unfamiliar; to muster the courage and commitment to go your own way. 

In fact, the ‘easy’ option is arguably to switch off your heart and give up; to sink deeper into inertia and resign yourself to a working life that is familiar and empty.

‘Failure’ is a term that you get to define for yourself – and you can choose either way.

Zoe Claymore struggled to accept that her career in social research wasn’t the right fit. And letting go to walk away was even harder… until it wasn’t. 

“I felt that there was something 'wrong' with me; 'society' was telling me I should be happy, but I just wasn't. I took promotions because I thought I should, without questioning whether or not they were actually what I wanted.  

It sounds corny, but the most difficult thing was making the decision to leave, and admitting I wasn't a failure for doing so.  

I would only have failed if I had stayed, as I would have been letting myself down.

Now, I’ve learned that I have more control over my life than I had thought; that change is less scary once I'm actually doing it; that I'm more capable than I'd realised; and that if I feel something is wrong, it usually is. I've learnt to trust my gut – it's there for a reason.”

To unseat this passenger:

  • Seek out people who have made career changes into more fulfilling work, and ask them how they view the decision to shift
  • Re-define what the last chapter of your life has been about, in a positive way. Generate some clarity on the purpose it’s served, so you can let it go with more ease.
  • Get excited about what might be possible for you next – and proud of yourself for doing something that your future self will thank you for.

2. You can (and should) get this ‘right’

As if finding a new career weren’t challenging enough, one of the major narratives about fulfilling work is the idea that you’re seeking a single correct answer. 

We’re told to find the work we were born to do. We’re asked: what is your purpose? Your calling? Find your passion, and you’ll find your perfect fit. 

It’s an attractive fantasy, of course, but it’s equally immobilising.

What if you choose too quickly? What if you choose wrong? What if you commit yourself to a new path, and there are still others out there that could be just as good, if not better? 

You discard ideas as quickly as they emerge, doubting their capacity to fulfil you or whether you can achieve them at all.

You worry you’ll never feel fully confident in the choice you make, even once you’re in your new role, because the possibility that you missed something remains in the back of your mind, gently festering. 

But this feeling comes from a binary set of options: fulfilling or not fulfilling; perfect or awful; right or wrong.

The reality is that there are many careers out there for you that could feel great. While the stakes of this game may feel high, there are lots of different winning answers.

A ‘yes’ in one direction will mean a ‘no’ to another – either a definitive ‘no’, or a ‘not-right-now’. There is no escaping the possibility that whatever you choose, there might still be something ‘better’ out there. 

And it’s increasingly likely that this will not be the last career change you make in your life. There may well be more evolutions down the road, and more adjustments to make along the way.

So instead of asking yourself: ‘is this IT?’, you could instead be asking yourself simply: ‘is this GOOD?’ 

In the fullness of time, and the knowledge that a life is packed with paths-not-taken, is this right-enough-for-right-now?

Monique Ross’s shift started out looking like a definitive move from a media role into starting a nature connection business. On the surface, it was a single move from ‘unfulfilled’ to ‘fulfilled’.

But over time since that initial career change, she’s continued to learn more about what she wants and needs and evolved her career accordingly: developing a portfolio career around her forest bathing and even returning to the world of media part time.

Here’s the biggest lesson she says she’s learned:

“Nothing is ever set in stone. My career is fluid, and it’s changing and growing all the time. I just have to stay open and curious, and have the courage to go with it.”

To destabilise this passenger:

  • Release yourself from the pressure of the ‘forever’ career, and think instead in terms of 2-5 years. What would be great for simply the next stage of your life?
  • Keep paying attention to the things that feel important to experience, feel, and achieve – so you know that should you need to, you can build them into a future iteration of your work, whether that’s this new career or another, further down the line.
  • Notice all the little yeses you encounter along the way, and celebrate them.

3. A career change means making a total 180°

Career change is a big deal. And as such, it means a big move… right? 

To get away from the feeling you’re feeling, you can’t help but imagine, you’re going to have to get as far away as possible from the work you’re doing. 

If you’re going to make this upheaval worth it, it needs to be a significant shift – a total reinvention created on a completely blank page.

You’re probably going to have to retrain, you tell yourself, because the experience and skills you have won’t apply to anything that’s so very different from what you’ve been doing thus far. And that will cost money, and time.

You’ll have to reinvent yourself from the ground up, with a new sense of identity, leaving your past self behind you.

This isn’t helped, of course, by flashy stories of career change online and in the media, which inevitably skip over 95% of moves into more fulfilling work to focus on the grand, sexy, and dramatic.

The prospect of such a huge step is, quite rationally, terrifying.

Except it doesn’t have to be a huge step at all.

The distance between ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘fulfilled’ isn’t measured in metres and miles. It’s not a pendulum swing, but a metamorphosis, which can often look like a subtle, nuanced and humble sideways nudge.

Sure, you may decide to make a significant shift. But you may also only be slightly off-track from a career that will work for you.

Career change might end up looking like:

  • Shifting into a whole new role and industry
  • Moving to do your current job in a new company
  • Redirecting your offerings to serve a different clientele
  • Taking your current skill-set into a new sector
  • Re-negotiating your current job to do more of what you enjoy and less of what you don’t

Paul James felt like he was on a hamster wheel in his job, doing the same things every day and feeling drained by the emotional nature of the work. A significant leap seemed inevitable if he was going to find something better, until…

“I always thought that I'd need to be looking outside of my organisation, making a big move elsewhere.  

But it dawned on me that maybe there was a job in my organisation that would fit.  

I got in touch with somebody who worked in another team, had a chat with them, and asked lots of questions.

A few weeks later they dropped me an email and said 'we've got somebody going on maternity leave and we have an opportunity for a secondment, would you be interested?'. I said ‘yes’.” 

The size of the change, in the end, doesn’t matter. What matters is how you feel when you get there. 

To loosen this passenger’s grip:

  • If the term ‘career change’ feels too loaded, find another, more nuanced phrase to capture what you’re doing. You might be ‘upgrading’ your career, ‘evolving’ it, or ‘playing with’ it – whatever allows you to feel more free to explore all the possibilities available to you.
  • Seek out people who have made all kinds of shifts – big and small – to learn from and get inspired by. You might find these in our Success Stories or among your friends, family and connections.
  • Multi-track your career change: for every idea you explore that’s a world away from what you’re currently doing, dip your toe into something much closer to home. Taking all your options seriously will help you feel your way into the right choice, instead of making a reactive shift.

4. Your new career should tick all your boxes

Somewhere along the way in your career change, you’re likely to find yourself in some version of a process of articulating what most matters to you. 

What are your needs? Your values? What collection of words sum up the life you want to live?

It’s empowering. Understanding what you want and need at your core is, in many ways, the foundation for creating a world that works for you. 

However, it can also be paralysing. 

In the last few decades, the conversation around the role of work in our lives has evolved at a startling rate. Our jobs are no longer simply a way to earn a living –they’re instead thought of as a place where we find our sense of purpose and meaning, our contribution to society, our financial security as well as our emotional safety, our friendships, and, in many cases, our very identity.

So where does this leave you, when you’re thinking about making a career change?

The tick-boxes on the list of must-haves in your new career become lengthy and weighty. 

Your new career must provide you not only with the benefits of your current line of work (because there are some benefits, however minimal, otherwise you wouldn’t still be there), but also all the other things you’ve now realised are important to you.

When we play with the topic of values in our online workshops, participants often ask me worriedly: what happens if I can’t find a job that encapsulates everything that matters to me? It’s a good question – and it’s this particular quiet passenger behind it.

What happens if you only get some of the things you need in life from a potential career? Will you have to pay for one of your key values to be met by compromising another?

Sometimes career changers say to me, in hushed tones, that they’d actually be OK with a job that just didn’t exhaust them. They don’t need to be leaping for joy every Monday morning, they say, with a slightly guilty look on their face – they just want to be able to spend more time with their kids, or go to book club once a week, or have a fun side gig.

I get why they’re hesitant to tell me this. After all, I’m the ‘fulfilling work’ woman, right? Surely my agenda is to get them into a job that they never want to go home from, one where they don’t feel the need for a book club, or a side gig? 

Here’s what I tell them: sure, fulfilling work can mean you get all your key needs met inside of working hours.

But ultimately, it simply means that it’s work that works for you.

And what that looks like, you get to say.

Marlous was overwhelmed with choices and options, constantly worried that she wouldn’t be able to find something that ticked all her boxes. But since making her move (a significantly smaller one than she imagined she’d have to make), she’s found pleasure and meaning in all areas of her life:

“It might sound strange, but I learnt that fulfilment doesn’t only come from work.

I’ve started looking at life as something like a pick ‘n’ mix selection – with happiness and fulfilment available in lots of different places!

For example, I felt a strong need to be useful, so I started volunteering for my local community centre. I packed and delivered food, and I ran free technical sessions for people who need extra help with computers.

I’ve also got back into creating art in my spare time, which I’ve always enjoyed on a personal level, just as something for myself.”

To calm this passenger:

  • Look at the different parts of your life, and notice what you get from each. It’s likely that no single element fulfils all your needs now – so you there’s no need to expect your next career to, either.
  • Define your non-negotiables. What are the three things you must have in your next career – and then what might be fun to incorporate into your life to have your other needs met?
  • To the extent that you’re able to, seek out and engage with events, communities and activities that align with your values and interests. Not only will this open up new ideas for potential careers, it’ll remind you that you don’t have to fit all your eggs into one career basket. You can get your kicks somewhere else, too.

5. A career change means taking a Single Leap

‘Career change’ sounds like a single act, doesn’t it? 

“I made a career change and now I’m fulfilled.”

“I used to be in HR, I made a shift, and now I’m a wellbeing consultant.”

“Librarian becomes best-selling author”

We talk about making a shift as though it happens in a moment of transformation – a step from one life into another. And often, we imagine, it’ll involve some kind of blind leap of faith. Jump, they say, and the net will appear…

So it’s no surprise if on some level, quietly, from the back seat, you harbour an expectation that once the light bulb moment strikes, everything will be different.

You’ll have clarity on what you want, and then all there is to do is to make it happen. Apply for a new role, write your letter of resignation, and off you go. 

One fell swoop – a single bound – from one life into another.

Anything else sounds messy, risky, a sign that you’ve tripped somewhere and gone about the process wrong.

But the truth is, career change is messy, and frequently inelegant. It looks like striking out into uncertainty, heading down lots of different paths, butting up against dead ends, pausing for rest and taking detours along the way.

  • You might make your shift in stages, using a stepping stone role to free up precious time and space.
  • You might spend time exploring one industry that feels like it’s the right one, and then discover that it’s not what you had hoped.
  • You might stay in your current role for longer than you expected, building up a side gig to the point where you’re ready to move – no blind leaping necessary.

What’s almost certain is that your shift will happen in a long series of small steps, each one largely uncertain and exploratory. 

The best thing you can do is to relax into the knowledge that you don’t have to get it right, right away. You’re allowed to explore, to course-correct, to try things on for size and walk away.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. All that matters is that you do. 

Mathilde Neau dipped her toe into a range of options before starting her new business – she played with web design, illustration, and took a freelance role with a game studio before starting to build her new product-based business. And she’s emphatic about the value of a staged approach to a shift:

“Practically, I decided to stop asking myself about the final destination, but rather what my days could look like.  

I experimented with projects I felt drawn to, and freelanced to test those out.

I found my new career through a series of small experiments, trial and error, and following what felt interesting to me. 

Be really open to things. Don’t expect your journey to be linear: it’s not a straight line, it’s going to take time, and it’s iterative.

Contrary to common beliefs, you WON’T wake up one day, and boom you have your answer. 

Even though it sounds frustrating, it's so much more fun than predictability.”

To refocus this passenger:

Practise asking yourself the question: what’s the smallest action I could take next? By focusing just a few steps ahead, you’ll always have something to do, and no big scary leap to brace yourself for.

Learn to celebrate exploration for exploration’s sake. See how lightly you can hold the process. All action is useful data, whether it’s data that says “yes, this way!” or “no, not that way”. 

Track your progress and discoveries as you go. It’s easy to lose sight of how much you’re learning unless you’re keeping note of what’s going on.

6. Making a shift means losing something

The traditional world of work is organised in ladders.

School, higher education, a starter job, a promotion, and up you go – gathering skills and pay rises and experience and accolades and familiarity along the way.

Straying from the ladder you’re on, we’re taught, will almost certainly mean sliding down a snake and working your way back up.

And on the way down that snake, this quiet passenger tells you, you will lose things.

It might be money that goes – a lower income or fewer benefits. It could be status – the way people raise their eyebrows when you tell them your job title. 

Maybe it’s the way you can coolly and confidently answer your colleagues’ questions without taking your eyes off what you’re doing, because you’re so well-embedded in your current career that you know its intricacies inside-out. 

Whatever it might be, you’re bracing yourself for loss.

This quiet passenger keeps you thinking and playing small – because the smaller the move you make, the less significant the loss, right? It whispers words like ‘unrealistic’ and ‘risky’ when you consider ideas that feel truly exciting, dulling their shine and sending them to the ‘discard’ pile. 

And, crucially, it frames your career in generalised terms of ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘forward’ and ‘backward’

Scary words – but based on narrow-minded logic.

Every change involves losses and gains, absolutely. It’s the nature of the game. 

But not all losses are negatives. Sometimes they’re the shedding of dead weight.

And not all changes require the kinds of losses your quiet passenger is afraid of. 

One thing is certain: until you explore what’s out there, you’ll never know for sure.

  • Even in significant shifts, your transferable skills, experience and connections will be valuable assets that move with you. Even if this does potentially mean a less snazzy job title, you may well still maintain a meaningful level of status and seniority.
  • You may decide to change company or industry, but keep doing the role you’ve been doing, allowing you to either move at your current level, or even to a better position than before.
  • You might find that the familiarity of your current position was a false friend, filling you with a sense of importance at the cost of exciting challenges and growth. 
  • You might realise that this concern about losing a certain element of your current work is actually important enough to you that it’s a non-negotiable element of your fulfilment, and design your career change to accommodate it accordingly.

Megha Murphy made what felt like a huge change from retail into finance, and the shift meant giving up a guaranteed income with bonuses, as well as the status of a luxury brand. But instead of purely focusing on what she was walking away from, she decided to also consider what she might gain:

“They say that 99% of what you fear never comes true. When I sat down to chart my actions for my shift, I envisioned the worst-case scenario, and then when I found a solution for that situation, everything else felt workable and better.

So think about what the new situation enables you to have or do that you can't already do in your current situation. 

It's had a domino effect; the shift has changed my whole life. My health, which was suffering and causing me anxiety, is now so much better. I'm able to balance my time properly, socialise, network, and also sleep!

Making a drastic career change requires weighing pros and cons, but it's worth it.”

To placate this passenger:

  • Make a deal with yourself to pause the ‘loss’ conversation until you actually know where you’re going. Worrying about what you’ll have to give up before you know what you’ll have to give up is wasted energy.
  • Get clear on what you’re already compromising in your current job, in order to have what you’re afraid of losing. Are you swapping your health for a private office? Time with your kids for a moment of pride at parties? Familiarity for stagnation? 
  • As well as picturing the worst-case scenario, spend some time imagining the best. What if your career change looked like a step up across the board? (If you’re going to daydream, you might as well have some nice ones, too, no?)

Quiet passengers are a part of the process

Nobody gets to make a career change without encountering their own ‘quiet passengers’.

They’re endemic to the act – built into the fabric of society, education, and popular career narratives.

So attempting to rid yourself of them entirely is futile. They’re not going anywhere. 

It’s OK to worry about things that you know, logically, aren’t true. It’s normal to carry assumptions and concerns about a choice that impacts such a significant part of your life. 

The key is to know that they exist, and to keep them in the back seat where they belong, instead of giving them access to the steering wheel of your shift.

And the first step is to name them. Bring them out into the light. Then, and only then, can you choose what you want to do next.

Which of these ‘quiet passengers’ do you recognise? And what others have you been carrying alongside you in your shift? Let me know in the comments below...