Making a Career Change: Part 1

I’ve always thought it funny that we go to college as young people with only the barest understanding of who we are and pick a major that–for whatever reason–we think we’re going to do for the rest of our lives.

I don’t know about you, but I hardly know what I want to have for dinner tonight, much less what I want to do for the rest of my life.

And I had even less of an idea ten years ago. Twenty. Thirty.

So if you, like many people, wake up in the prime of your life and ask, “What am I even doing here, and how can I get out?” then this series on making a career change is for you. We’ve talked about transitioning into a new career a bit before, but now we’re gonna get down and dirty.

Before we get started with the details, let’s talk big picture. What does your life look like after your career change?

What Does Your Perfect Day Look Like?

You may not know exactly what you want to be when you grow up. That’s fine. But you probably have some idea what you want your day to look like. So let’s start with that.

I did this exercise with a colleague, April, who is thinking about making a career change. She’s in her early fifties and she’s an empty-nester. Here’s her perfect day:

“I wake up at 7 am and have a cup of coffee. Then I go for a jog around the block. I get home in time to shower and change for work. Today I’m going into the office, because I get lonely if I stay home a lot. But some days I prefer to work from my home office if I have a deadline. Today, I get dressed wearing something attractive but comfortable, take a short drive to work (I can’t stand my current long commute), and get to work by 9 am. I spend the day with small groups of people doing meaningful work that uses my brain. I am home in time to make dinner, and I don’t open my laptop at all once I walk in the door.”

Take a few minutes to think about what you want your day to look like. Who surrounds you? Where are you? What are you doing? How often are you doing it? These key elements will help you figure out what’s actually important to you.

Distill Your Day into Values

Now that you have an idea of what you want your perfect day to look like, we can start to figure out what’s actually important to you.

A couple of things stand out about April’s perfect day:

  • She specifies a short commute, so LOCATION is important to her
  • She mentions comfortable clothing, so a CASUAL ENVIRONMENT is important to her
  • She mentions both not wanting to spend too much time alone and working in small groups, so TEAMWORK is important to her
  • She doesn’t specify what she wants to do! She simply mentions it must be meaningful and use her brain
  • She says she doesn’t want to open her laptop once she’s home, so a clear WORK/LIFE DELINEATION is important to her

Based on April’s values, she needs to think about what “meaningful” work means to her. It could mean doing charitable work, artistic work, work that contributes to the betterment of society, work that creates innovative technology, etc. But let’s say April decides that creating technology is meaningful to her. That leads us to the next section.

Prioritize Your Values, and Examine Inconsistencies

Most of the time, we can’t get everything we want. (More’s the pity.) So it’s necessary to rank our values so that we understand what tradeoffs we might be willing to make.

In April’s case, we are pretending that “meaningful work” means working in technology. Unfortunately, April lives in the suburbs, so doing work in technology in an office will probably mean she has to drive into town, earning her a commute. Plus, most technology jobs are fairly demanding, and many times, never opening your laptop after hours isn’t really an option. So April needs to determine:

  • What is most important: her desire to work in technology, or not having a commute?
  • What is more important: her desire to work in technology, or her work-life separation?

In April’s case, she might decide that a short commute is ultimately important, so she might decide that while technology isn’t the answer, other work has meaning for her, too. She might decide to work for a local company that shares her values, interests, and concerns, for example.

Get Ready to Put Your Day into Action

The more specific you can get with your perfect day, the more you’ll understand your own motivations for changing careers and the less likely you’ll be to dive into another career that isn’t a good fit. This is also a wonderful exercise to help you figure out what’s not working in your current job! Sometimes, you might think you hate your job, but really you hate driving in traffic, the long hours, the loneliness (or conversely, the noise!). You can try to work out a small list of changes with your manager to make your current job closer to how you want to live your life.

In Part two of this series, we’ll talk about how to turn your list of values into a list of possible next moves.