“I realised that if doing my job well didn’t excite me, I needed a new job.”
What work were you doing previously?
I worked for a multinational consumer goods company.
I was Brand Manager for their chocolate bars portfolio in Ireland.
What are you doing now?
Now, I'm working with a wonderful non-profit in Guatemala called Amigos de Santa Cruz.
Mainly, I'm using my business background to support their economic empowerment programmes.
Through the shift, I also built up the courage to begin working on two passion projects: a coaching and training service for small nonprofits in Latin America, and a relocation mentoring service for individuals who are moving abroad.
How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?
I was comfortable, but ultimately felt unfulfilled and inauthentic in my work.
I had an exciting job in a company I loved, with great colleagues and a career trajectory that promised a comfortable life. Honestly, it was the type of work I'd been conditioned to want since I was young. But I was missing a real sense of purpose or contribution. And over time, that lack of purpose started to outweigh all the benefits.
This translated into feelings of disengagement. I would lose interest and daydream a lot more in meetings. I stopped asking how I could do my job better, and instead focused on doing the bare minimum I needed to do to get by.
But the biggest red flag for me was the lack of enthusiasm and pride I had when we accomplished something difficult. When we would land a great campaign or meet an impossible deadline, colleagues would celebrate and congratulate us. I would smile and say thank you, but inside I just kept thinking “Yes we did it, but so what?”
I realised that if doing my job well didn’t excite me, I needed a new job.
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
There were a lot of small moments when I decided to make steps in a different direction.
These normally came after conversations with friends and colleagues who saw how unhappy I'd become and pushed me to break out of my (increasingly uncomfortable) comfort zone.
But the biggest moment came after a conversation with a leader in the business who'd supported me from the start. At this time, I'd been applying (unsuccessfully) for roles that interested me for about a year. I was nearing the end of my work contract without another one lined up.
It terrified me to be without a job – how would I pay my bills? But even more so, it terrified me to think about what that said about me as a person. I felt like a failure.
Rather than telling me to play it safe and stay in my job a while longer, he challenged me to face my fear, take the chance to leave and turn it into an opportunity. In short, he said:
“It seems like you’re trying to get to your destination by taking the few steps that exist within your comfort zone. In doing that, you’re willing to settle for opportunities you would never enjoy. Is your comfort really worth spending years doing something that makes you miserable? Why not turn courage into your competitive advantage, and get experiences that differentiate you? Find a move that excites you, and go! And then another, and another. If you get to your destination, great! But even if you don’t, you’ll be able to look back on a life well-lived. It won’t be comfortable, but I can guarantee it will be worth it.”
That conversation hit hard. The next day, I told my boss I was leaving.
Are you happy with the change?
YES! Honestly, I love it!
So far, things have gone really well (knock on wood!).
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
There was a lot of ease and comfort that came with being a part of something so well-established.
Even though I’m delighted with the change, there's still a lot I miss: my colleagues and mentors, the culture of the company, the structured learning and development opportunities, and the feeling of knowing that if I did my job well, the company would 'take care of me'.
But there's a lot that I don’t miss too: the content of the work, the 9–5 work schedule, the tunnel vision, being unable to see outside of the bubble I was in, and all the feelings that came with being dissatisfied and unfulfilled in my work.
How did you go about making the shift?
Leaving my job was the first step.
This was crucial for giving me the headspace to think outside of the world I'd been living in for so long.
I decided to move back home with my parents to save money and give myself time to find the right next step. Over the six months at home, I used books, online courses, podcasts, TedTalks and any means I could to learn more about subjects that I found interesting – things like rural development, user centricity, life coaching, Salesforce for non-profits, social and emotional learning for kids, coffee farming, and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programmes.
Though I allowed myself to be interested in many topics, a theme started to emerge around rural development and economic empowerment. It was a broad area, but I was finally able to put into words what I was interested in. That was progress.
Then, I reached out to different organisations and people within my network to learn more about opportunities that existed within this area. Cold-calling development organizations proved less fruitful (and more demotivating) than networking with people I already knew.
After a few months, a friend referred me to the Programme Director at my current organization, who asked if I wanted to volunteer with their economic empowerment programmes in rural Guatemala. It was a perfect fit. Though the position was unpaid, I decided the experience would be worth making a dent in my savings.
A month later, I moved to Guatemala and I haven’t looked back.
What didn’t go well? What wrong turns did you take?
I don’t think there have been any wrong turns, but maybe wrong expectations.
One of the biggest expectations I had to overwrite was that I would somehow go through this discovery process and at the end, the 'right career path' would magically appear, illuminated with all the 'right steps' I needed to reach my destination.
It has taken a long time to accept that there are no 'right steps', there’s just next steps. And if that step doesn’t work out, you take another. Then another. Eventually, all the steps add up to a path that you’ve made yourself, and it’s led you to right where you are. And if you’re not happy where you are, you simply take another step.
How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?
I was able to save enough during the last year in my job to support myself for a few months without a pay cheque.
Moving in with my parents also bought me a little more time while I tried to find my feet.
For now, living in Guatemala means my expenses are much lower than they would've been in Europe or the US. I’m able to focus on getting the right work experience without spending everything I’ve saved.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
I had a lot of mental blockers and limiting beliefs that convinced me I should just stay where I was. And they were all driven by fear.
I was afraid of losing a good thing; afraid of choosing the wrong path and being (even more) miserable; afraid of not finding another job; afraid of not being able to pay my bills; afraid of making an irreversible decision that I would regret for the rest of my life.
I was so afraid of getting it wrong and failing that I nearly didn’t try.
What help did you get?
I received a lot of encouragement and support from close friends and colleagues.
But the biggest help came from those who went out of their way to create connections and unlock opportunities for me within their network.
This was especially true in the moments when I felt lost, confused or alone (which happened regularly). Sometimes it would feel like I’d exhausted all of my options, and then a colleague would offer to connect me with a new contact who worked in an interesting area or was potentially hiring for a cool position. Suddenly, another door was opened, and the conversations continued.
What have you learnt in the process?
So much more than I ever expected!
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the steps or opportunities you take don’t have to be final.
Choosing to study education doesn’t mean you must become a teacher. Taking a job as an accountant doesn’t mean you will never be able to work in fashion design. If a choice isn’t working out or you’re unhappy where you are, you can (and should) change directions.
Removing the permanence associated with 'big' education and career decisions makes it less daunting to opt for change when something isn’t right.
What do you wish you'd done differently?
Though I stayed unhappy in my last job for far too long, I'm now able to leverage the knowledge and experience I gained in that time to make a bigger impact in my work. This makes the struggle worth it.
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Take stock of what matters to you in your life and career – whether that’s quality time with family, a sense of purpose, security and stability, growth opportunities, freedom and flexibility, etc. – and honestly assess if your current work is giving you what you need to feel content and fulfilled. If it isn't, don’t let fear keep you in the same place.
Get curious. Investigate and explore new possibilities. Find one that excites you.
Create a plan for how you can make it happen, including how to get relevant experience and support yourself financially during the shift.
Be brave enough to take that first step away from what you know.
And lastly, trust that you will be able to find your way, even if the way isn’t clear yet.
What resources would you recommend to others?
There are so many resources available to help you in whatever stage of the career change you are in. But the best resource I found was the book Designing Your Life: Build the Perfect Career Step-by-Step by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.
The information and worksheets they provide are invaluable for anyone who wants more out of their work and life.
I also relied heavily on the stories and articles shared by Careershifters. The stories of so many others who made the shift from what they knew to what they wanted to do made it feel less daunting – if they could do it, why couldn’t I?
Lastly, I'm also happy to offer more support and advice to those who are struggling with a career shift. Sometimes it helps to have a chat with someone who has been through the process. If you don’t have anyone on hand, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.
To find out more about Cat's relocation mentoring service, visit www.thrive-abroad.com.
What lessons could you take from Cat's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.