The most unsettling periods of my own life have been when I made a major career change, whether that involved quitting medical school to pursue a career in business, relocating from San Francisco to London, or leaving the corporate world to start my own career consultancy.
Make no mistake, career pivots involve more friction, disruption, and risk than simply staying on a more linear, traditional career path. Having experienced the emotional ups and downs of navigating career changes myself during the past two decades of my professional life, I’m now focused on understanding what it takes to successfully reinvent yourself.
During the past few years as a career change consultant, I’ve spoken with hundreds of people navigating career changes, and I’ve personally interviewed over 50 individuals from 10 countries and five continents who have shared their personal stories of reinvention on my Career Relaunch podcast. Although they span a wide range of ages, backgrounds, industries, and roles, I discovered many common actions and beliefs that seem to separate individuals who manage pull off radical career changes from those who don’t.
Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from a few of them about what it takes to successfully relaunch your career.
1. Accept That No Shortcuts Exist
Every time I’ve tried to take my career in a new direction, it’s taken me longer than expected. Figuring out what I wanted to do after I dropped out of medical school took me a solid three years of confusion, reflection, and exploration followed by another two years of additional schooling in business school honing in on my new career direction.
Stephen Satterfield, restaurant manager turned founder of the Whetstone food magazine, says overnight successes simply don’t have very often. “Any successful business venture is the product of hard work, day after day, month after month, year after year, until there’s a significant breakthrough.” His journey to become a food writer and editor has come with setbacks and challenges, but he’s stuck with it and continued to gain steady progress and traction.
Tip: Prepare yourself to run a marathon rather than a sprint, because although shortcuts are handy, in reality, few exist when you’re trying to create a meaningful career change.
2. Commit To A Steady March
Whenever I used to rush through things as a child, my father used to remind me of an old Chinese proverb, “The more haste, the less speed.” Most of my career changes have indeed resulted from time-consuming, consistent steps to make the progress I wanted rather than a sudden pivot.
Anne Tumlinson, former Senior Vice President at a health policy consulting firm turned Daughterhood community founder believes difficulty is an inevitable part of any worthwhile change journey. “Just because something’s hard, doesn’t mean you’re failing. Progress is so much less about talent than it is about time, effort, commitment, and consistency.” This attitude has helped her become an independent consultant and steadily build an ever-growing Daughterhood community of engaged women across the country committed toward supporting one another in caring for their aging parents.
Tip: Commit to a consistent, steady march to overcome the roadblocks and challenges that inevitably arise when you step off the beaten career path.
3. Take Small Actions, Even Imperfect Ones
I’m a planner. So I take comfort in first having a solid plan mapped out with all contingencies fully in place before I act. This attitude has prevented me from being sloppy in my life but also hindered me from taking action. For that very reason, career transitions have been especially unsettling because I’ve had to make a leap without feeling like I had everything fully figured out.
Chris Donovan, who spent 25 years as a telephone repairman, took small steps to pursue his lifelong interest in shoe design, even though he didn’t know precisely where they would lead him. He first signed up for a 2-day shoe design class in NYC. The instructor, after seeing Chris’s designs, encouraged him to pursue shoe design more seriously. With no design background, he applied for and got into the Polimoda Fashion Institute in Florence, Italy as a complete outlier student. “Most of the other students were in their early 20s while I was 55. I was older than the teachers. I even got mistaken for a janitor a couple times.” After successfully completing the program, and navigating his way through the complicated world of finding a manufacturer, he’s now working on producing his first line of high-end women’s shoes.
Tip: Take a manageable, brave leap of faith, which is scary, but often necessary to open new doors in your career.
4. Explore Without Expectation
Sometimes, I hesitate to invest time into something unless I know for certain it will lead to something worthwhile. This gets quite circular because I often don’t know whether something is worthwhile until I actually try it.
Vicky Dain erred on the side of exploration as a way of uncovering where she wanted to take her career. After growing disenchanted with her role as a corporate lawyer, she resigned from her role and stepped away from work, going through a period of time she called a “fertile void” to allow herself to really explore other career ideas. “I’m only going to give my ideas full respect if I actually go and try them all.” She spent several months dabbling in a range of interests—everything from writing to baking to farming to carpentry as a way of testing the waters. She realized through these explorations that working with people at a really personal level was appealing to her. “Human behaviour, attitudes, and human interactions were really fascinating to me.” She eventually identified clinical psychology as the career she wanted to pursue, and has since begun her clinical training.
Tip: Reserve judgment and expectation until after you dip your toe in the waters you’re exploring so you can cast the net widely, dispel your preconceived notions, and understand which realities ultimately resonate with you.
5. Embrace Your Unique Journey
When I attempted to land my first formal role in marketing, I had this tendency of almost apologizing for the fact I didn’t come from a more traditional marketing background. I quickly realised this mindset didn’t exactly serve me well when interviewing for roles, so had to stop self-handicapping.
Initially, teacher turned artist Sandeep Johal constantly critiqued her own work and potential to pursue a career in art, which held her back. “If there’s something you’re passionate about and something that fulfils you, just go for it because I spent so much time not doing what I wanted to do.” Eventually, she adopted a much more empowering perspective. “One day, I just stopped being my own worst critic and became my number one fan.” This strengthened belief inspired more positive actions which drove more positive results, and she’s now working as an independent artist.
Tip: To give yourself a decent shot at effectively standing out when breaking into a new industry, you have to believe you’re uniquely qualified precisely because of your unique background, not in spite of your unique background, so you can move forward with confidence.
6. Selectively Craft Your New Narrative
Figuring out how to describe myself during times of career change has always been a tough balancing act. For example, when I tried to shift from healthcare consulting into marketing, I had to highlight my past accomplishments in healthcare on my resume & interviews. However, doing that felt like I was pigeonholing myself as a healthcare professional, even though I wanted to move away from that very industry.
Recrafting your narrative turns out to be a key challenge for many career changers. Krishelle Hardson-Hurley started her career as a teacher, but eventually decided to shift into tech engineering. To pull off this pivot, she invested a tremendous amount of time refining her personal narrative so she could position herself as an attractive candidate in spite of the fact she had no experience in the tech industry. “By the time I was in front of people who could give me an opportunity to pursue engineering, I could tell my story very well because I’d done the work to understand what I was looking for and communicating my ambitions effectively.” A contact she made at DropBox was impressed by her clarity, and Krishelle eventually landed a role there as a site reliability engineer.
Tip: As a career changer, invest extra time and effort in crafting your career narrative so others can more easily to connect the dots between what you have done and what you want to do.
7. Avoid Relying Solely On Your Existing Network
Jim Rohn once famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I’ve definitely found this to be the case, although suddenly trying to surround yourself with people outside of my current industry has always felt rather awkward, at least initially. When I left the corporate marketing job to start my own career consultancy, I naturally felt more at ease with fellow marketers. I felt like an imposter around other solopreneurs, but being around those people helped push me toward gaining the clarity, confidence, and courage I needed to launch my own venture.
When Adrian Knight considered leaving his steady recruitment job, many of the people in his professional circles told him he shouldn’t walk away from his steady job, but that actually helped convince him to leave. “I looked around at the lives of the people saying these things, and realized that their lives were not the ones I wanted to live myself.” He ended up ignoring the conventional advice of those in his existing professional circles and took the leap to found his own franchise recruitment firm.
Similarly, former tech marketer Noz Nozawa also decided her immediate professional network was not the best source of inspiration when planning to start her own interior design business. “Through the process of trying to find people to talk to about my ideas, I realized you’re less likely to already know people in your existing professional network who have done what you want to do.”
Tip: Although it may feel unnatural, make the effort to surround yourself with people aligned with your desired future rather than only those from your past.
8. Define Your Clear Walk-Away Point
One of the first lessons I was taught about negotiation skills was to define my walkaway point before entering into any negotiation. What’s interesting is that I’ve noticed that I’m constantly in negotiations with myself about what is and is not acceptable in my career and life. For example, although I really valued work-life balance, I’ve gone through plenty of periods in my career where I tolerated long stretches of coming home late and working weekends.
Former professional tennis player Rina Einy spent the first part of her life playing tennis on the world stage, even representing Great Britain in the 1988 Olympics. However, after the Olympics, she decided to draw a line in the sand and pursue a corporate career instead. “I didn’t need to prove anything anymore to anyone else or myself. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.” She called her coach and told him he wasn’t playing anymore. She then went on to study at the London School of Economics, eventually landed a trading role at JP Morgan on Wall Street, and now serves as Managing Director for Textyle International and Founder of Culthread London.
Julian Mather went from being an Australian army sniper to a TV cameraman to a children’s magician. He attributes his ability to make these radical pivots to being able to walk away from his past. “It’s incredibly important to let go. It’s only by letting go that you can start a fresh life and give it your all.”
Tip: To start a new chapter in your career, define what your walkaway point will be, commit to that standard, and be willing to move on when that line is crossed.
9. Pursue Energy Instead Of Passion
None of my career changes involved me “pursuing my passion.” In fact, I’ve found that word “passion” to be a somewhat daunting, almost unreachable standard to inform where I should take my career. Instead, I tried to spend more time using my strengths and doing things that interested me, even if they didn’t reach the level of a true passion.
Former software marketer Zai Divecha started to consider making a career change when she realized she was feeling so much more motivated by her side projects than her day job. She had started a fundraising cycling team, and loved the feeling and energy she had when building something of her own. “I wondered if I could create a job for myself where I’m in flow for at least some part of the day. I knew I wanted to work for myself. I knew I wanted to be creative. But I didn’t have an exact plan.”
Thinking about which activities energized her helped her uncover where to take her career. “I’ve always done stuff with my hands in my free time since I was a little kid. That’s when I feel the most engaged and focused.” After spending over a year exploring potential ideas with other craftspeople, she eventually launched her own steel art design studio and now creates paper sculpture installations for her clients.
Tip: Identify ways to do more work that energizes you can to guide where to take your career—even if you haven’t identified a strong passion.
10. Trust Your Instincts
I would describe myself as a strongly left-brained, logical individual who types as an extreme planner on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory survey. None of my career changes has seemed rational or logical. But deep down, I always had a strong gut feeling that the time had come to do something else.
Cosmetics export manager turned nutritionist and naturopath Audrey Lemargue used her own gut feelings as her guiding compass during her career change. “As soon as I realized I wanted to become a naturopath, it didn’t matter what people thought about what I was doing anymore because I knew this was the right thing for me.” Her advice to other people trying to figure out where to take their careers is to respect your intuition. “Trust your gut feeling and follow your instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t. Give yourself the time to figure it out. The answers will come to you if you remain open.”
Tip: Trust your inner intuition because it often points your career in a direction that truly honors who you are, even when it flies in the face of logic.
Conclusion: No Magic Wands When Changing Careers, But Some Helpful Steps
One thing I’ve learned after talking to so many people about how they changed careers is that everyone’s journey is unique. While common success patterns do exist amongst those who pull off a major career change, you have to decide which actions will enable your own unique career pivot. The great news is that you’re in the driver’s seat. You get to decide when to act on that tug you’ve been feeling to step away from your current job to pursue something that makes you happier.
The other thing I’ve learned is that making the effort to pursue more meaningful work, the kind of work that energizes, excites, and fulfills you, is one of the most rewarding endeavors you can pursue in your career. Regardless of how challenging or elongated their career change journeys have been, every single person I’ve interviewed has said stepping off the beaten path to do work that matters more to them has been absolutely worth it.