Changing careers — How it’s not what you might expect


For me, undertaking a career change has involved a lot of unpicking of expectations about how to best discover — and transition to — my ideal career.

It’s difficult to pinpoint where these expectations came from. Perhaps from well-meaning advice sent my way or from my dabbling in career-focused self-help content. However, from talking to others who have been through, or are also undertaking, a career change, I’ve realised that I am not alone. It appears there are some common stories that we tell ourselves about career changes, which don’t contain all that much truth, and can be unhelpful to hold on to.

You could go as far as to call them myths.

I wanted to highlight three such myths that I have found to be particularly pervasive, and offer up an alternative way of thinking about transitioning careers, which I hope will resonate with fellow readers of this blog.

Myth #1: Changing careers is about finding and following your passion

The story we tell ourselves: I need to start by working out what it is I love doing. Once I have found my ‘calling’ then it’s just a case of making that into a reality.

In reality (my reality): If you know what your passion is, congrats. I am envious. However, if — like me — you’re ‘pretty interested in quite a lot of things, and rather enjoy doing many different things, but don’t have one guiding passion’, then hearing this just makes you feel like a failure. I’ve spent many a despondent hour asking myself why I lack a passion, when everyone else appears to have one.

Why it can be unhelpful: Aside from being predicated on the erroneous idea that a person either does, or does not have, passion, this idea suggests you just have to passively wait until your passion magically occurs to you. It encourages little action — and the idea that there’s a quick fix. It also ignores the bigger question about how genuinely useful it is for the world to follow your passion.

Myth #2: You just need to put in concerted effort and logical thought

The story we tell ourselves: If I focus a lot of mental capacity on ‘project career transition’, weighing up all the options rationally, then I will be able to work out what I would like to do next.

In reality (my reality): I spent more years than I care to admit ignoring the fact I wanted to do something else, because it felt like far too enormous a project to tackle alongside my already busy life. Before naively expecting I’d have a new dream job within 3 months of taking a career break, and being disappointed I didn’t find the ‘right’ answer in that time in the face of an overwhelming array of options.

Why it can be unhelpful: Like the passion narrative, this idea incorrectly implies there is an ideal job sitting outside of you, just awaiting your discovery. It suggests that pure logical deduction is the best way to approach this discovery, when all the things that inform a future job choice (you, your strengths, your values and your experiences) are rarely that clear and linear. It also misses the important role new input plays in fueling new thinking. For new outputs you need new inputs.

Myth #3. If you want to transition careers you need to become a networking pro

The story we tell ourselves: I need to go to lots of events, work the room, approach complete strangers and start conversations. That’s the way to uncover or generate new opportunities.

In reality (my reality): On the rare occasion I managed to summon up the courage to go to an event that included networking, I felt deeply uncomfortable, and berated myself about super-awkward conversations that (unsurprisingly) didn’t amount to anything beyond the odd never-responded to LinkedIn connection. I felt opportunities were eluding me because I had an inability to network.

Why it can be unhelpful: This idea implies that there is only one right way to create opportunities: traditional networking. However, this does not reflect the way many of us actually encounter new job opportunities i.e. via existing strong relationships. And nor does it reflect the way many people most naturally and comfortably build relationships i.e. in informal 1–2–1 meetings. It tries to force us all to behave in a way that doesn’t play to our natural strengths.

A suggested re-frame

Undertaking a career change is about taking action: taking in new stimuli, actively exploring, trying out interesting things and seeing what grows from there. It’s not about fixating on a particular outcome or destination, but about enjoying the process, seeing the next job as simply the next step in an evolving story. And doing it all in a way that reflects who you are and feels right for you.

I now know that after a year soaking up new ideas and ways of thinking, working in new roles and sectors, and forging many deep relationships, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that I will magically emerge from On Purpose clutching on to the ‘one’, the one job for me.

BUT (and it’s a lovely big but), I will undoubtedly know myself a lot better, have much clearer experience-based ideas of what does and doesn’t really excite me, and a bunch of wonderful and enduring friendships. That feels like a great place from which to take the next step.

Katherine is an On Purpose London October 2019 Associate, currently in her second placement at NEL Healthcare Consulting.

Photo by gdsteam on flickr