How to change your career direction
Has the Covid-19 pandemic made you reconsider your working life? Jos Akkermans, a behavioural scientist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, defines a career shock as a deliberate career-affecting thought process triggered by a disruptive and extraordinary event. Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic fits the description of being disruptive and extraordinary.
For some, being reminded of their own mortality may spark off a voluntary process of pondering career change. For others, finding themselves suddenly out of work may encourage or even force them to consider new directions.
Many people feel anxious about the prospect of large-scale change and wish they had more confidence so that they could take action and pursue some new career. However, confidence rarely arises spontaneously, and action is required to generate it.
It’s your party
Thankfully, that action can be broken down into small, very manageable steps. To consider what you might do next, allow yourself time to reflect on how you would like your life to turn out.
Imagine it is your birthday in 20 years’ time, and your friends and family have gathered to celebrate your life. Over a couple of days, spend a half-hour writing down what you would like these people to say about you.
Consider not only professional but also personal achievements they might speak of, and reflect on the personal qualities and values you would hope they mention about you.
Continue to take small steps by reading widely and speaking with friends and confidants to generate ideas about possible careers that might allow you to express or develop the qualities and values that you feel are important. Think also about particular skills you enjoy using or topics that engage you.
When you have identified possible contenders for a new career direction, aim to deepen your insight by engaging in what are known as informational interviews. Contact people within your network and ask for referrals to people who are doing the kinds of work or employed in the sectors you are considering.
Suppose you are considering a move into the charity sector or starting a business. Reach out to individuals in those lines of work. Explain that you are looking to understand more about the nature of their work and that you wish only to interview them for perhaps as little as 20 minutes.
If you are respectful and show that you have already done your desk research on them and their organisations, you will likely find that a good proportion of people may feel sufficiently flattered to talk about their career paths.
It also helps to reassure them that you are not asking for a job – that you are only gathering information on their work, industry and the routes they took to get there.
Time to dabble
Next, find ways to dabble or experiment with your prospective career or careers. Many would-be movers who are currently in work limit themselves by thinking of career change as a black-or-white, all-or-nothing transition – they must either quit to pursue the new career or stay as they are.
A more helpful and nuanced way to consider career change is to think in terms of shades of grey – to find small ways to try out a new career while retaining the safety of the main job.
Could you take an introductory course on your prospective field of work? Could you take a few hours or days off to attend an industry event or shadow someone in the sector? If you are currently employed, consider taking a sabbatical, or negotiating part-time or flexible working arrangements to gain the freedom in the short-term to pursue your long-term career aspirations.
Look for opportunities to volunteer or otherwise get involved. By actually interacting with people in prospective lines of work, you will have more conversations with industry insiders and learn much about the work, its upsides and pressures. These sorts of personal conversations will deepen your understanding of both the nature of the work itself and how you might move into it.
As you consider new options, do also think about your constraints and personal situation. What restrictions do you face geographically, financially and socially? Consider especially the pressures you may put on your family and the limitations on their willingness to support you during what could be a disruptive time.
Some people avoid changing careers because they fear the upheaval. But remember to think of career change as a series of small steps rather than one massive, daunting leap. Taking action will grow your knowledge, skills and confidence, so explore the possibilities by taking small steps.
To begin with, do as little as investing a handful of hours every week in researching options and interviewing people. Having conversations with real people will inform your thinking so much more than simply wishing and hoping that your working life could be different.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace