The Messy Career Change Stage Nobody's Talking About (And How To Get Through It)


Photo credit: Clem Onojeghuo

Feel like your career change is spinning out of control? Craving some certainty? If you're thinking about jacking it all in, wait: it could be a sign you're on the right track. Louise FitzBaxter explains how to navigate what's likely to be the most uncomfortable part of your shift.

You knew it wouldn't be easy.

Nothing worth doing is ever simple, right?

You even embraced that uncertainty at the start of your career change.

A new beginning – it was exciting! You could study, move overseas, apply for another job, or even start that new business. Everything was possible and time was on your side.

But somewhere along the way, that excitement has faded. There's no doubt that you're making some progress in your shift. You've discovered some new things about what you want, and you're coming up with fresh ideas. You're a bit clearer about your skills and how they might be useful in a career you'd love. Yet you still don't know exactly where you're headed.

Maybe your current job is taking up too much of your time. Or you're worried about finances now. Or your friends are asking – again – if you've figured out what you want to do with your career yet.

Things are getting uncomfortable. Despite your progress and all the things you've learned, there's still so much to do and so far to go. You're starting to think: "Maybe this was all just a stupid idea?"

Congratulations! This means you've made it to the middle.

And, while it may not feel like it, this is a good place to be.

Because in the words of Brené Brown: "The middle is messy, but it's also where the magic happens."

Sound a little bit crazy? I can understand that. But let me reassure you that every single career shifter, myself included, knows how you're feeling right now.

In fact, in Rising Strong, Brown goes on to say that this mess in the middle is an essential part of the process. Whether you're writing the next Pixar movie, or, as in our case, changing careers:

"The door has closed behind you. You're too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light."

As I write this, I'm struggling in this exact situation; I'm in a mess of my very own.

I'm caught in the confusion between taking small steps towards my dream career, and the short-term practicalities of finances and needing to learn new skills. But I'm hanging in there, because I've seen and heard that this magic thing is real. The mess is part of the process that will get me to where I want to be.

So, before you roll your eyes, let's explore this together. Let's talk about what you can do to keep moving through the middle and start creating some magic of your own.

Let go of the need for certainty

Creating the life you want is scary, uncomfortable, confusing and unpredictable.

And the middle is where this gets very real.

It's easier said than done, but it's absolutely essential to keep resisting the need for certainty at this stage. By losing your inner control freak, you will make space to learn new information about yourself and ultimately be able to make the right decisions for you.

Mandy, one of my fellow Careershifters High Flyers, experienced this first-hand. She'd recently moved overseas, experimenting with areas of work she thought she might want to pursue, not to mention building a new business of her own on the side. But novelty and excitement very quickly turned to a stifling need to have more of a plan.

We all saw growth and energy and possibilities in the path she was taking. But she was upset and torn, and just wanted the confusion to end. "If you can stick with it you'll learn from it", we reassured her. "Don't try to force the decision too soon."

Just a few weeks later, Mandy found herself needing to change plans due to circumstances outside of her control. Having hung on in there when she'd really wanted to jump ship, she took this unexpected change of circumstances in her stride. More comfortable with the mess, she was able to keep taking steps forward, even when life threw her in a new direction.

We all learnt from Mandy's experience just how important it is to act. We all saw how vital it is to keep taking actions, however small, to move on through the middle. You don't have to know exactly what comes next.

If it were possible to think your way into your ideal career, you wouldn't need to be reading this right now. So ask yourself instead: "What's the smallest, simplest thing I can do today to keep making progress?" And go out there and do it.

Keep up the hard work

In this world of Instagram and Facebook, it can be easy to believe that having the career you want is all blue skies and chai lattes.

The myth that work you love is as easy as pie has tripped many a career shifter on their way to new things.

I definitely still struggle with this one myself. The idea that you can create your own way of working is so alien to so many people that it can seem easier to follow the rules and stay within the system. I've lost count of the times I've wanted to throw in the towel, to just find someone to tell me what to do and to pay me for it! Then I remember where I've come from and why I don't want to go back.

In his call to action, Linchpin, Seth Godin says: "Being productive at someone else's task list is not the same as making your own map."

Through my own career change, I'm learning the difference between slogging it out for someone else's agenda, and working hard on something that's important to me. I'm starting to understand that 'hard' doesn't have to mean 'wrong' or 'bad'.

The challenge is part of the experience, not something to be avoided. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

"Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."

If you're feeling the urge to skip the hard work, rather than compare yourself with Instagram, try talking to a real-life person: a friend, a family member, or a fellow career shifter can help you to remember why you're doing this, to recognise how far you've come, and maybe even to solve the problem that's bugging you right now.

Get back up, again and again

Unless you're exceptionally lucky, failure and rejection are simply part of this middle phase.

You're going to fall.

This can be a hard pill to swallow for the perfectionists amongst us, but it's an essential part of making real change.

The truth is, you're challenging the way things are usually done. Many of the people that are part of your career shift – from recruiters to potential employers or clients to friends and family – will feel uncomfortable around what you're doing.

Some may put you in a pigeonhole you no longer want to be in. Some may be so busy they miss your email asking for a meeting. Others may simply not understand why you're doing what you're doing.

All of them can help you to understand how to improve the next time.

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, is a big advocate of trying, failing, learning, and trying again. In her new book Big Magic, she describes the numerous rejections she experienced on the way to becoming an author:

"I kept not getting published, but that was OK, because I was getting educated."

So, you need to keep putting yourself out there to keep making progress. Keep asking for feedback so that you can learn from it and go for it again. To a degree, this is going to be a numbers game.

Sometimes it will hurt, like when you don't get the role you've been dreaming of because someone else has more experience than you do.

Sometimes it will make sense, like when you realise you didn't enjoy that course, so maybe web design is not the career for you after all.

Whatever you learn, you can use that to help you take your next step, to make your next decision and keep moving through the middle.

If you've been told you need more experience, what can you do to go out there and get it? Volunteering, studying and even creating your own project in your spare time could all help to create the portfolio you need to show you have what it takes.

There is no miracle cure

If you run now, you'll ease the short-term pain, but at what cost to your long-term dreams?

Building the career you want takes courage, commitment, failure and letting go, not just of your inner control freak but of that perfectionist in you too. It's no wonder that after a while, this all feels like a mess.

You're forging a new path, one that is as unique as you are. So, whether your map is finding the way to build your own business or to get that new role that's more meaningful to you, you're going to have to work hard at it. And that's OK.

This bit is uncomfortable, yes, but it's necessary. My experience with Careershifters is teaching me that if you fasten your seat belt and trust the process, it will bring you closer to where you want to be.

So, I'm going to embrace the mess! I'm going to keep taking those small steps, keep taking action and see where it all takes me. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, "Miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up."

Will you join me?

What are you going to do today to embrace the mess? Let us know in the comments below!

Louise FitzBaxter's picture

Louise is in the middle of her own career change. She believes that curiosity and storytelling can change the world.