Navigating the Turbulent Seas of Career Change: Why it’s a Challenging Journey

by Anna Katharina Schaffner

Our Wine & Wisdom topic this month was about the daunting process of changing careers. Will, the founder of Performance Catalyst, has assisted numerous mentees, including many former athletes like himself, in transitioning into new careers. What is more, our entire team at Performance Catalyst has gone through career changes and quite dramatic pivots at least once in our lives. After his successful cricket career, Will established himself as a facilitator, coach, and mentor, eventually founding Performance Catalyst. Lindi, who used to be a physiotherapist for high-performing athletes in South Africa and England, an Insights facilitator and taking over as the Director at Performance Catalyst. Nick, too, was a house master in Canterbury before becoming a mentor and an executive coach.

Anna left her role as a Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent only this summer to work full-time as a coach and facilitator at Performance Catalyst. Anna’s transition is still very fresh, and so we decided to share our experiences and learnings about the emotional and professional challenges of changing our careers.

Many of us dream of pursuing our passions and finding greater fulfilment in our work, but the reality is that career change is a challenging endeavour – especially when we are no longer in our twenties or thirties. Embarking on a career change in mid-life is like leaving a safe harbour and sailing into uncharted waters. We give up convenience and security for adventure and feeling more alive. As we navigate through a sea of uncertainty towards our new professional horizon, we can experience a mix of emotions ranging from excitement and exhilaration to fear and frustration. 

Herminia Ibarra, the author of Act like a Leader, Think like a Leader, wrote an excellent article for the Harvard Business Review on this topic called “Why Career Transition is So Hard.” Ibarra reminds us that, despite our good intentions and dreams of greener pastures, “we often fail to move ahead because taking even well-considered risks triggers self-destructive behaviour.” This insight is spot-on – every career change comes with radiant potentiality and also very real risks. How we cope emotionally with risk and uncertainty plays a crucial role in our success during the transition. It also very much determines how much we enjoy the process.

Here are some of the common challenges we may face when deciding to change careers:

1. The Fear of the Unknown

Leaving behind the familiarity and comfort of a job we know inside out can be scary – and when we enter unchartered waters we may well experience fear of the unknown. Ibarra also highlights a paradox: “The more successful you’ve been and the more accustomed to being successful, the harder it is to take the leap into the unknown.” Ironically, the more accomplished we are in a particular profession, the harder it might be for us to leave it behind. After all, we have probably worked years, if not decades, to get to where we are now. Our fear of failure or uncertainty can paralyze us, preventing us from embracing new opportunities and exploring different career paths.

2. Identity Crisis

Over time, our professions become an important part of our identities. We define ourselves by our job titles, industries, and the skills we have mastered. When we consider switching careers, it can feel existentially disorienting, like dismantling a core part of our identity. Giving up our careers also means giving up the status we may have worked hard to achieve. Sometimes, we may have to start in lower positions when we make a pivot. 

But accepting that change and challenge are integral parts of personal growth is essential to overcome this hurdle. Ibarra offers the following advice: “We tend to think of ourselves as who we are right now, and not who we are becoming.” We must be mindful of loss aversion: if we focus only on what we have to lose, and not on what we have to gain, we may never embark on our change journey in the first place. We must keep alive a compelling vision of what it is we are longing for, even when setting sail seems overwhelmingly daunting, or when we hit choppy waters.

3. The Learning Curve

Changing careers often means starting from scratch, acquiring new skills, and not being as accomplished at something as we used to in our old career. The learning curve associated with switching industries can be steep and overwhelming. We may transition from being highly skilled, even masterful, in one domain, to becoming an apprentice and a beginner in our new field. 

While many of our so-called soft skills, insights, and qualities might be transferable, Ibarra reminds us that “Most of the skills needed for a successful transition will not be useful in your next role.” This is a particularly hard truth to swallow. This realization can leave us feeling frustrated and inadequate as we strive to prove ourselves in our new field. But if we are motivated by learning new things and personal growth, we will be able to enjoy the process. What is more, we are starting our new careers with compounded wisdom and much more maturity and experience than we possessed when we began our previous jobs.

4. Nurturing Support Systems

As social creatures, having a strong support system is crucial, and especially during major life transitions. However, when it comes to career change, the lack of a robust network in our new professional field can be a significant obstacle. Especially at the beginning, we may not yet be well-connected in our new circles. Building new relationships, networking, and finding mentors who can guide us on this unfamiliar path can be challenging yet necessary for our career success.

5. Financial Considerations

A final factor that makes career change challenging are the financial implications. Taking time off work for retraining, accepting a lower-paying job, or starting a business from scratch can dramatically impact our financial stability and earning power. Many mid-lifers have mortgages to pay and children to support, which raises the stakes even higher. We may also find ourselves in a “golden cage” scenario, where our current salaries seem simply too good to give up for what is essentially an uncertain future, or, at this point, a mere dream or vision. 

In the early or planning stages, career pivoting may seem perilous. Balancing financial considerations with pursuing our passions requires careful planning and realistic expectations. A good response to this dilemma can be starting to build up our new career on the side and take the first steps whilst we still have a salary. If it is an option, it can be wise to start training or making other first inroads into our new profession whilst we still have an income. That way, we can test the waters rather than sail on good faith alone into the unknown.

Transitioning into a new career, we can safely say, is not a cake-walk. It requires resilience, perseverance, adaptability, and, most importantly, an unwavering belief in ourselves. It also requires a hefty dose of optimism, faith, and lots of patience. As Ibarra puts it, “Transitioning is not an event that happens in one fell swoop but rather a process that unfolds over time.” However, we should not let the challenges deter us from pursuing our dreams. Instead, we can embrace the hurdles as opportunities for personal growth and transformation. 

For, we must remember, while the voyage may be rough, the rewards that await us are potentially enormous. When we dream of career changes, we usually do so because something is lacking in our lives. Often, we contemplate career changes because we feel stagnant, unfulfilled, bored, underchallenged, or else unhappy, burnt-out, chronically stressed or underappreciated in our current careers. Sometimes, our needs and desires have changed over the years. 

Even if the thought of venturing into the unknown is daunting, we must take these feelings seriously. NOT acting on pursuing our dreams also comes at a price: lacking purpose and fulfilment, and languishing rather than thriving. By recognizing and understanding the various obstacles we may encounter during this journey, we can navigate the tempestuous seas of career change with more grace and determination.


Posted on

January 25, 2024

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