Why You Should Stop Trying To Change Career (And What To Do Instead)

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Newly Updated

Image: Will Porada

Spending day after day in the wrong job hurts. And once you know you need a change, all you want to do is make it happen, now. But can trying to change something actually be counterproductive? Natasha shares four concepts that can take you out of panic mode and move you further, faster.

There's a lot of effort involved in career change, isn't there? A lot of agonising, a lot of searching, a lot of squeezing. It's exhausting.

And actually, when you look at all that trying… it's not that effective, is it? All that energy you've put into your change; you'd think you'd have made more progress by now.

I'd like to introduce you to four ideas that turn all of the push and the struggle and the force upside down. They go against pretty much all traditional career change advice (and in fact, general advice about how to get what you want), so you may need to hang out with them for a while.

But boy, do they work.

The very concept of change is based in fear

Psychologists, medical professionals and biologists tell us that the primitive 'fight-flight-freeze' response to danger is still alive and well in the human body.

However, it's no longer solely related to the approach of a real, physical risk.

In modern society, it's triggered just as effectively by real or perceived risk in any area of our lives. Job interviews. A disagreement with a loved one. Road rage. The thought that you might have missed the exit on the motorway. The idea of being in the wrong job. The thought of trying to find something new.

When we relate to the world as though something's wrong, our body reacts as though we're in danger. Our bodies and brains go into minimal-operation mode; a pared-down version of our usual creative, problem-solving selves. In other words, the brain cuts out almost all ability to focus on small tasks. We're only able to think 'big picture' in order to perceive better where the threat is coming from (for more on this, check out Taylor Clark's Nerve).

Could this be why you know you want to change career, but you can't figure out the next small step to take?

Could it be why you're an excellent problem solver in your day-to-day life, but this seems like a problem you're never going to solve?

How do you get out of the 'fight-flight-freeze' way of operating? And what could you start doing instead?

Try on 'there is nothing wrong'

In Buddhist thought, it's said that suffering comes from desire. In other words, suffering exists in the gap between how things are and how you think they should be. Try it on right now with an example from your own life. In what area are you suffering? Within that, where do you think things should be different from how they are? See the gap?

My own suffering stopped when I realised that I wasn't changing career. I wasn't switching from one thing to another; from the wrong thing to the right thing.

When I first started out in my very first career, I was totally in love with what I did. I was proud to tell people what I did for a living. I was energised, excited, engaged.

Then I grew a little, developed some new interests, found out some things I didn't know before, and took on a new shape as a person. And that career just didn't fit me any more.

I hadn't wasted time in the wrong place. I wasn't in the wrong place. My career was simply evolving alongside me, as I evolved as a person. And that process, I realised, would never end.

As I continue along my path, that feels truer than ever. I'm in a job I adore, which fulfils some of my deepest values and uses my greatest skills. It supports a lifestyle I'm committed to, which creates space for growth and learning and adventure. And I'm absolutely clear, it's going to evolve and develop further. Who knows what I'll be doing in five years' time? I certainly don't.

There is no 'final destination'. There will be no moment when I've 'arrived', and my career change is over, because I'm not trying to change anything; I'm just growing and evolving.

That switch in mindset gave me the greatest sense of relief I've ever experienced.

I'd closed the gap between how my life was and how I thought it should be.

When I stopped looking at my life as though something had to change – stopped using the word 'change' – I realised that there was nothing wrong. There was no gap between how things were and how things were 'supposed' to be.

How I felt was fine. My discomfort at work didn't mean anything more than the fact that I'd evolved, and now it was time for my work to evolve too. And whatever I moved to wouldn't be more 'right'; it would just be different. Like me.

What would it be like if you let go of the idea that there's something wrong?

Stop fighting the way things are

Carl Jung said: "What you resist, persists".

This points to the idea that our inclination to push away uncomfortable feelings gives them more power over us. They take up more space in our brain.

Have you noticed, for example, that since you decided that you needed to change career, you've spent more time researching / thinking / talking about career change than you ever have before?

And that the more you focus on how terrible things are at work, and how much you need to change, and how you haven't done it yet, the worse you feel about it? And the worse you feel about it, the harder it gets to move forward?

What you resist, persists.

Sarah (name changed) got in touch with me via email. She was miserable in her job and wanted to move to a career that took her outdoors and using her body. She wasn't sure what kind of job that might be, but she did know she had to get out of her current role as soon as possible, before she lost her mind.

"I know I need to network, but every time I get in touch with someone, the conversation only goes as far as a couple of emails and then things dry up. I'm embarrassed to be so vague about what I want when I talk to professionals, and with each lead that drops off, I get more and more disheartened. I hate not knowing where I'm headed, and I hate that the upbeat, friendly, outgoing industry I had imagined is turning out to be so unfriendly. I'm so tired of pretending everything's fine to my boss. I can't keep it up much longer, but I don't know what else to do."

Sarah was resisting virtually every area of her life. It wasn't OK that she didn't have a clear plan for her future. She had to get out of her current job immediately. The responses she was getting from people who worked outdoors were not the right kind of responses.

And, inevitably, this resistance was persisting. When she got in touch with someone, she was either apologetic for not knowing what she wanted, or she tried to pretend that she did know, which came across as inauthentic. She didn't communicate how things were; she communicated her resistance to how things were (not the most inspiring conversation to have). So the emails dried up, and she found herself back on the merry-go-round.

Her head was constantly full of angry self-talk: "You can't figure this stuff out. You're never going to make a move. Look at how awful everything is. You've got to try harder. Why aren't you getting anywhere?" So much 'resistance talk', in fact, that there was no time or headspace for her to look at solutions.

Sound familiar?

The martial art of aikido is based, in part, on the principle of non-resistance. Rather than using opposing force against an attacker, an aikido fighter blends with the attacking motion and redirects its force.

Like most martial arts, aikido is also a philosophy of life, and the principle of non-resistance carries far beyond the dojo.

"Without an understanding of the principle of non-resistance, our first reaction when provoked or attacked is to tense up and resist – both physically and mentally, and try to defend our position, or force an outcome in our favour.

"By not resisting the natural flow of our lives, we in turn provoke less resistance. We are therefore able to more effectively conserve our energy, remain aware, and steer the direction of our lives as best we can given the circumstances we find ourselves in. We still strive, but we do not anxiously cling to the outcome. We remain flexible, constructive, creative and spontaneous with our responses. We instinctively understand that this actually increases our chances of heading in the right direction towards our ultimate goals." – Morihei Ueshiba, creator of aikido

When you stop fighting how things are, you open up a huge amount of mental space for creativity and solutions.

A few months later, Sarah got back in touch with me. She hadn't left her job yet and she still wasn't sure what she wanted to do next. But the tone of her email was completely different.

"I realised that I'm probably not going to change career right away. So I had a chat with my boss and explained that I was really stressed with work. And you know what she said? She said 'I know'! And then she offered me a reduction in hours. I had been trying so hard to pretend everything was fine at work, when I didn't have to. Now I'm spending one day per week volunteering with an Outward Bound group for disadvantaged kids. I don't know if it'll become my future career, but I've made lots of really helpful new friends, and I'm actually enjoying my life again."

Sarah had stopped fighting the way things were. She'd given herself permission to be in a space of not-knowing. She'd allowed herself to be honest about how she felt at work. And as her resistance melted away, so did everything she was resisting.

What are you resisting in your career change? What could you choose to accept, instead?

Give yourself a break from 'trying'

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu articulates the idea of wu-wei, or 'action through inaction'. There are an enormous number of interpretations of wu-wei, but for the purposes of our discussion here, wu-wei is the art of knowing when action is appropriate, and when it's wasted energy.

For example, there's a huge difference between trying to love someone, and allowing love to arise, seemingly of its own accord.

Or when you're feeling low, have you ever noticed that trying to be happy just doesn't work? And yet allowing yourself to be unhappy – not wasting your energy trying to fight the unhappiness – gives you mental space to notice the fact that the sun is shining?

In career change, action is essential. When given the option of thinking about your career change and doing something to move yourself forward, action trumps thinking every single time.

But occasionally, non-action trumps action. Being fully 'in the moment' and paying attention to your gut-level responses and intuition is a priceless guiding light. In his book Trying not to Try, Edward Slingerland examines this phenomenon in depth:

"Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called 'body thinking': tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behaviour that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive."

Stopping trying to change career and simply living your life, or taking regular breaks from your career shift (even in thought) can yield surprisingly effective results. Like falling asleep with a problem in your head, allowing your subconscious to do its work unhindered can enable you to wake up in the morning with the solution.

A participant on our Career Change Launch Pad, Rachel, told us that one of the biggest things she learned from the course was how taking her foot off the accelerator and just relaxing into the moment actually had a more powerful effect on her career change than hardcore action:

"When I was first changing career, I had all these goals for 18 months' time and things I had to achieve by a certain date, and I just got depressed and demotivated; I felt stuck. I got a lot out of learning simply to be more open and responsive to my everyday life, really."

I found this to be hilariously true during my own career change. Unable to extricate myself from the opinions and judgements of those around me, I booked myself a one-way ticket to the Greek mountains. Over the course of three months, I just relaxed into the things I loved: working with horses on a ranch, writing, reading personal development books and travel blogs, and immersing myself in a new, sunshine-filled culture. No career-change thinking, no torturous 'figuring out', just space.

It's one of the greatest cosmic jokes of my life that everything I chose to do on my 'time off' from thinking about my career change is what I'm blissfully getting paid to do now. Yep. I'm now a writer and career-change specialist, living in the sunshine. And I wrote this article to you from Gran Canaria. Ridiculous.

Another way of saying 'a career you love' is 'getting paid to be you'. So it might be a smart move to spend less time trying to change career, and more time being yourself. The most yourself you could possibly be, in fact.

Don't worry about being mid-career-change, and what that might mean, or how far along you are on your journey. Just do more of the stuff that makes you happy. Not only will you be hanging around with other people who like the same things as you, and might even be making a living from them (wink wink), you'll be giving your brain a break from all this logical chatter. Allow your subconscious the space to do its thing.

If you weren't spending so much time trying to change career, what would you spend it doing instead?

Applying these principles

These four concepts are radically different from so much we're taught to believe about how to make things happen. In fact, to begin with, they can feel like 'giving up'. But they're actually incredibly active ways of being.

Here are four ways to bring them into your career shift and your life:

1. When you feel uncomfortable with the way things are, move with what is

Don't focus on fixing or stopping things, or on what your life and your career is not. Get involved with what is, and move accordingly. In aikido, we don't battle the motion of our attacker. Nor do we sit back and take the assault. We grasp an arm and use their momentum to carry us to where we choose to be. Far from giving up, we're participating in the flow of life and taking control.

When I felt as though everyone in the world had a say in my life and I couldn't hear my own thoughts, I didn't tell them all they were wrong and try to change what they had to say. I also didn't sit back and do nothing. I moved with what was happening, and took it in a direction that worked for me. That direction turned out to be headspace, Greece, and ultimately, a life I love.

2. Become a 'fascinated observer'

Benjamin Zander, composer, conductor, and author of The Art of Possibility teaches his students a powerful way of dealing with mistakes and moments of perceived failure. Every time they get something wrong, or something doesn't go their way, they're taught to straighten their backs, throw their arms in the air, and yell "HOW FASCINATING!"

No self-flagellation. No hair-tearing. No fight. Just observation, and the opportunity to learn something.

Cultivate a way of being based on awareness and observation. Wherever possible, take an objective stance. Get curious about your life and the things you're interested in. Remember, if you're on the floor, wrestling with how things are, you're too wrapped up in battle to notice the open door.

3. Be authentic and up front about where you're at and how you're feeling – with yourself and with others

A life built on a lie is a life destined to crumble. In all likelihood, you're very aware of that right now. There's no power in pretence. With Sarah, we saw how an authentic and honest connection – with how things were and with her boss – revolutionised her experience of her shift. There are few things more inspiring than someone who's able to be truthful and real. Where are you pretending that things are different than they are? Where could your life use a little more authenticity?

4. Give yourself a break. Nobody found work they love by beating themselves up

When we're working on a normal task, we take breaks every now and again. But, somehow, when we're experiencing discomfort, we feel as though taking a break is admitting defeat. Sometimes, it's the very opposite. You don't have to be deep in the grind to be doing great work. And when you're looking for work you love, giving yourself the gift of doing something that doesn't feel like hard work can be the best indicator of which direction to take. Take regular breathers. Enjoy yourself. And remember that your subconscious never sleeps. Give it space to do its work.

I invite you to give these principles a try.

Where could you stop trying so hard in your career change? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.