You’re thinking about a new career. But how do you know if you really need a change? Are these feelings just normal ups and downs, or are they warning flags you need to pay attention to? Check out our guide to the most important clues you're in the wrong career. How many feel familiar?
It's starting to bother you, this insistent, buzzy thought.
“Just pack it in. Find something else.”
It started off quietly; easily-dismissed as nonsense.
But over time, it's been getting stronger, louder, harder to ignore.
And yet, it's not as easy as “just pack it in.”
What if you're just being melodramatic?
What if you're being seduced by all the pop-culture, pseudo-psychology, unrealistic rubbish out there in the media, when actually you should just be grateful to have a steady job at all?
Sometimes, it's hard to tell if it's truly time to take the plunge and change career, or if you simply need to sort yourself out, get your head down, and wait for the storm to pass.
Here's our (absolutely non-comprehensive) guide to the most common signs it's time to make a shift.
Which of these do you recognise?
1. Body breakdown
You feel it most at the beginning and the end of the day.
Heavy, tired, drained of energy.
As your mind pipes up with its piercing morning chorus of “ugh” and “oof” and “do I have to?”, your body joins in with the bassline; weight and ache and slowness.
And in the evenings, as you arrive home from work, all you want is to flop; to try and recoup just a little bit of the energy you've spent all day pouring out.
You're developing aches and creaks in places you've never creaked before.
Your shoulders feel permanently tense (although you hadn't realised quite how knotted they were until you just reached your hand up now to check).
Are you getting sick more often, perhaps? More prone to colds and twinges?
The physical signs of an unhappy career are insidious.
They creep up slowly, almost imperceptibly. You wonder if they're just part of getting older, or if they're connected to something else.
But they're there.
“I tried to suppress and squash my feelings about my job so much that it started to have a negative effect on my health. I was prescribed anti-depressants at one point, but they didn't work because I hadn't addressed the underlying cause: the job I was doing every day.
“What brought matters to a head was when I started getting very severe chest pains, despite being only 26 and in very good health. The doctor couldn't pinpoint the cause and the medicine he gave me didn't work…. They carried on every day continuously for two months until my boyfriend begged me to quit my job.” – Santhie Goundar
2. Chronic busy-brain
You're familiar with the Sunday Night Blues, right?
That rising sense of dread as the weekend draws to a close...
But what you don't hear so much about are the Sunday Night Blues's nightmare relatives:
- Depressing-Daydreams, and
If they sound like regular visitors to the inside of your head, it might be time for a shift.
The spinning thoughts are exhausting, especially when they show up in the middle of the night (hello, Crazy-Thought-Loop!) – desperately trying to figure out what kind of work might actually make you happy, beating yourself up for not having the answers, wondering if the problem might be you and not your work…
When the alarm goes off and you pull yourself out of bed, the Pitter-Patter comes to visit:
“You just have to pull yourself together. It's not that bad; it's up to you to make today enjoyable. It's all about mindset, right? What is there to look forward to today? Oh god, there's nothing to look forward to today… what am I doing?”
Some days, often right after lunch, your brain takes you off to gorgeous worlds of fun and fulfillment.
Imagine… you're successful, paid well, doing something you love. You leap out of bed at 6 a.m., bluebirds help you get dressed, and you and your colleagues skip into the sunrise hand in hand, laughing beatifically on the way to the best office in the world.
And then you're back under the fluorescent strip-lights with a bump. You start scrolling through job ads, hoping that the daydream was a harbinger of inspiration and good luck. But it wasn't. Of course it wasn't.
Because this is all a bit hopeless, isn't it?
Enter Poke-Me-In-The-Eye, stage left.
There's just no point. It's too late. You're never going to figure this out. Frankly, you should be grateful just to have work right now – who do you think you are?
Everyone has days when busy-brain takes over. Nobody is 100% happy, all the time.
But if the inside of your mind is constantly spinning with doubts and questions and desperation, it's probably about time you began to listen to it.
“The Sunday feeling of dread about going back in on a Monday started getting earlier and earlier – so much so that 'that feeling' was starting on a Friday evening. Work misery was all-consuming; it cast a shadow over me when I was undertaking hobbies, seeing friends or trying to relax. It was my last thought as I went to sleep and my first thought as I woke up.” – Nick Hunt
3. Confidence canyon
You're starting to wonder if the problem is, in fact, you.
It feels like you're the wrong shape for this position; you don't fit into your work. It's awkward and uncomfortable, and it's dull.
You're not doing as good a job as you know you could… or, as you know you should… because it just doesn't flow naturally.
Or, if you're good at your job, it should feel better to be good at it.
But it doesn't feel good.
As the weeks and months and years pass by, you're feeling less and less strong. Less and less yourself.
And the more you feel less like yourself, the less you feel like you could ever do anything else.
You imagine being happy and fulfilled at work, but it feels like gazing across a huge, yawning divide. The idea of a career you love is so high up, far away, and beautiful... and you're so tiny and useless...
“I found that I had to change a lot in order to fit in. But I realised that I didn't want to keep fitting in: I wanted to find a way to be myself and love what I did.
The problem I had was that I didn't know what I could do. I'd beaten all my creativity out of myself, and I'd been so long in an environment where I was effectively spoon fed who I was and what I did, that it was hard to imagine what I could do beyond that.” – Sam Dounis
4. Sticky money
If it weren't for the money, you’d have left by now.
The pay cheque is regular / chunky / keeps the parents happy / <insert relevant adjective here>
You have responsibilities. You need to take care of the mortgage, your family, your future.
All important points. Money's great.
But is that the main reason you're staying in your career?
If the cash is the only thing keeping you from exploring a shift, explore a shift.
Life is too short to exchange your happiness for a pay packet.
Maybe you'll have to take a pay cut to shift, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll get paid more in a new career, maybe you won't.
But how you make things work financially is figure-out-able.
Waking up every day knowing your life has a price tag... is not.
“I'd been thinking about leaving for a long time, half-heartedly sending off a few job applications now and then… but I had to fight with my 'rational' side that raised concerns about leaving a great salary behind for an uncertain future.” – Anna Lundberg
You wouldn't call it a vice, exactly.
It's just an extra round in the bar after work.
Another evening in front of the TV.
More bags of stuff on your way back to the car from the shops at the weekend.
You'll just nip in here on your way home from work – get yourself a little something as a reward for getting through the week. You did it yesterday, too, and you've probably spent more than you should have, but what the hell. It's good to treat yourself, right?
And then maybe you'll go and meet your friends at that bar, and stay out a few rounds beyond the point you normally would, because if you go home you'll just start thinking about Monday rolling around again. Hangovers are still kind of funny, right?
You'll binge-watch that series instead of going to the gym, because you just don't have the energy. You don't have the motivation to do any of the things you used to love doing. You've used it all up at work this week. You can't be bothered any more.
Whatever your poison might be, if you're trying to block out the discomfort of an ill-fitting career by pouring something else into your life, it's time to take how you're feeling seriously.
“What do I regret? I wish I'd put more money into an escape fund and not tried to numb my misery with meaningless shopping for stuff I don't even remember owning.” – Carla Watkins
6. Split personality
Being at work feels like putting on an act.
You're not sure how it started, but you're different there.
You can almost feel the mask coming down over your face as you make your way to work each day.
Maybe you're more pushy, cut-throat. You're always trying to impress your boss, hit goals, meet targets… and that's not who you are.
Or perhaps you disappear at work – you keep quiet, keep your head down, stay on the edges of things. At home, or with your friends, you're confident and playful, but at work you just… shrink.
Whatever the change might look like when you switch from 'work' you to 'not-work' you, it's uncomfortable.
It doesn't sit right to be spending so much of your week playing a role.
But that's just how it has to be sometimes, right? Right?
“I distinctly remember the feeling I had every morning when I came up the escalators [to work]. The further up these escalators I came, the more suffocated and overwhelmed I felt, like life was closing in on me and I was just standing there letting it all happen.” – Stine Dulong
You're unhappy where you are right now.
But imagining yourself doing your boss's job, or your boss's boss's job, is even worse.
Feeling despondent about your future is not a sign of a well-fitting career. You know that. But you'll just… ignore it, for now.
Block that thought out.
Just enough to get you through the next week at work.
And then the next one.
I call this future-proofing: making your brain a Thoughts-of-the-Future-Free Zone.
And perhaps you've now future-proofed your brain for long enough that a whole year has gone by, and you're still in the same place.
The longer you pretend that the future you don't want isn't coming, the faster it hurtles toward you.
How long are you going to pretend it's not coming?
How long are you going to pretend you're not already there?
“I was a happy commercial lawyer, with a great boss and interesting work.
However, I didn't look around my firm and aspire to be a partner. My view was that if I didn't want to be at the top of the food chain in the place where I worked, then I was probably in the wrong place.” – Kate Jackson
8. Touchy subjects
Your career is tough to talk about.
At parties, you dread the inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”
You're not proud of the answer, so you brush it off quickly, jokingly, with a shrug.
People you love have stopped asking you how things are at work, because they know what the answer's going to be.
Maybe it's an ongoing joke among your friends that you hate your job; there have been enough long evenings where you've waxed lyrical about how awful it is. Maybe they're starting to run out of patience with it.
Or perhaps you've stopped talking about it to your family, because they don't understand, and it's become a big, uncomfortable elephant in the room.
You don't want to be the one who drags conversations down, but at the same time you're driving yourself crazy inside your own head, and it feels like there's nowhere to turn.
“I realised that whereas I used to talk about my work in a really positive way, I was now constantly complaining to friends and family about it. I was even boring myself.” – Siobhan Goffee
9. Irreconcilable differences
This isn't a new feeling for you.
And it's not something you've just pushed under the rug.
You've tried already to improve things in your current career.
You've spoken to your boss; you've tried adjusting things in your role to make it suit you better. You might even have moved to a different company, but nothing's working.
Either how you're feeling isn't being taken seriously, or the changes you've made still haven't shifted the deep-down sensation that you're just fundamentally in the wrong place.
You're not the kind of person to simply complain about nothing; if something's wrong, you'll try to fix it.
But it seems like somehow, if you're honest, this isn't something a few tweaks is going to remedy.
“Although I knew in my gut it was not for me, I continued trying to 'make it work'. I tried a number of different industries within the finance world and it made no difference – I wasn't enjoying it. My confidence was at an all-time low. I had no interest in progressing – I couldn't bear the thought of being in a more senior role.” – Catherine Allen
It feels like you're living under a blanket.
Soft, blurry around the edges. Muffled.
The edges are still there, but you've stopped feeling them so intensely. What's the point?
Anything for a quiet life, you're numbing yourself against the disappointment and sadness you've been feeling at work.
Apathy has set in.
Needing a career change can often feel violently uncomfortable, painful, and deeply emotional. But it can also feel like pure, unadulterated nothingness.
You don't care anymore.
You don't care about the projects you're working on.
You don't care about the office politics.
You don't care if you're doing well or not.
You're just getting through each day.
If you've reached the point where you've essentially given up, it's time to shake things up.
“I never really felt I was in the right place; I couldn't identify with the product or the industry. It got so bad that I was coming home every day without being able to feel or be creative: my head was just blank.” – Stephanie Trensinger
11. You're here
Frankly, if you're asking yourself if it's time to make a career change, there's a good chance it's time to make a career change.
These kinds of doubts don't show up for someone who's fulfilled in their work.
Sure, there are tough days and stressful periods, but a great fit is a great fit.
Unless you're here, reading this article, for purely academic purposes, it's a fairly safe bet you're not happy where you are.
Trust your gut.
Which of these signs do you recognise? Let me know in the comments below.