How to Change Careers

Do you hate your job? Do you want to change careers but don’t know how to do it? You’re not alone.

Maybe you want a job that’s more challenging. Maybe you want to do something more fun. Maybe you need something that’s more personally rewarding, or financially stable. Whatever the reason, we’re all after the same thing: a job you’re proud of.

You can’t be proud of a job that makes you miserable. You need something that makes you eager to get out of bed every day. You need a career that you’re anxious to tell strangers about when they inevitably ask “So, what do you do?”

When you’re working a job you hate, you feel trapped. You look at people working jobs they love, and get jealous. You consider your own situation, notice that you’re five to ten years into a career that you don’t like, and wonder how the hell you got here. Jim Benton captured this phenomenon perfectly in his comic below:

Jim Benton Comic - A Life Led

I sympathize with the man in the comic, because my life has played out similarly. As a kid I wanted to be a pilot, but that idea dissolved as I grew older. When applying to college I was overwhelmed with the pressure to choose what I wanted to do, because I didn’t know what it was yet. I went into computers, and after I had my degree I bounced from job to job always thinking “I guess this is okay for now.”

I’ve met so many people who are stuck in this “good enough for now” mentality. They consider themselves lucky to have a job at all, or they imagine how things could be worse, or they suggest different reasons why they should stay put:

“The economy’s tough right now. I can’t leave the job I have, because who knows how long it’ll be before I find a new one?”

“I need to stick with this job for just a few more years to help pay off my debt/student loans. I can tolerate it for a little longer.”

“I have a family to support. I can’t do what I want because I need to think of their needs first.”

Each of these statements can go either way: they can be a legitimate reason for stagnating or they can be an excuse for spinning your wheels. You’ll have to consider your situation and decide which applies to you right now.

Personally, there was a time where I legitimately felt trapped in a job I hated with no options other than to stay put. My girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, and I was her primary caretaker for the duration of her treatments. When I lost my job that same year, I knew that I needed to find a way to support both of us through the rough road ahead. I was grateful to find work quickly, even if it wasn’t work that I wanted to be doing.

These things happen, and these are the things you cannot control. Something that you can control, however, are your efforts to work towards new career goals.

Consider this: In order to successfully change careers, there are three methods to get the job you want. I’ll illustrate these three methods using a virtual chalkboard:

How to Change Careers: The Goal Illustrated

Simply put, you’re in one spot but want to be somewhere else. At your current job, you possess the skills and experience required to do the work, but you’re not happy. At your future job, you don’t yet have the requirements for that career, but you will be happier there.

The objective, naturally, is to navigate the squares in the diagram above so that you can get the job that you want, and experience happiness in your daily life. In order to do this, you simply need to choose your path. Each potential path in the diagram corresponds to a different method.

Method 1: Gain the knowledge you need

This path is hard. It often requires that you stay at your current job, but in your spare time you will take classes, start an apprenticeship, or even start a second part-time job where you can learn the necessary skills set for the job you want. I call people who use this method “The Movers.”

How to Change Careers: Method 1 - Gain the knowledge you need

Movers recognize that in order to change careers, they need to educate themselves. Although they previously didn’t have the skills and experience necessary to compete for jobs in their new career field, they made changes in order to gain the knowledge they needed. With their new skills set they qualify for the job that they want, and seek it out.

Method 2: Make your current job better

This path is going the other direction, and it is harder. Instead of changing yourself, you’re changing your job. To clarify, you’re not “changing jobs” — you’re actually shaping the job that you have into the job that you want. This requires stirring the pot at your workplace in order to make things better, so that you’re happier about the work you’re doing. I call people who use this method “The Shakers.”

How to Change Careers: Method 2 - Make your current job better

Shakers understand that drab work environments can be changed, and broken work processes can be fixed. After recognizing that they’re unhappy at their jobs, they make efforts to change things around until they’re satisfied. Shakers will need the cooperation of their managers and colleagues in order to succeed, but supposing they attain that, they have effectively transformed their existing job into the job they’re looking for.

Method 3: Do nothing, get lucky

This path involves skipping the in-between steps, and it is difficult to impossible. Granted, there are people who have successfully changed careers this way. They are able to apply transferable skills set from the job they have in order to get the job that they want, but don’t do anything other than wait for the new job to fall into their laps. I call people who use this method “The Waiters.”

How to Change Careers: Method 3 - Do nothing, get lucky

Waiters either get lucky or they don’t. In order to successfully change careers without getting educated or making efforts to create positive change, you must have an overwhelming amount of luck matched with an abundance of opportunity. I’m not saying that it never happens, because it does — but I’m convinced this shortcut is a rarely traveled path. Consequently, I’ve marked this path in the diagram as a dotted line. I also can’t recommend this path, because chances are you’ll wait forever — ending up like the old man in the comic. (“pew pew pew”)

My point is, if you’re truly interested in changing careers, then don’t wait until it’s too late to start your path towards change!

Now that you know the methods, I want to mention some ideas that will help inspire you to make the first step. I believe that happiness trumps all when it comes to the work that you’re doing. I believe this because I’ve done the alternative, where the money was good but the work involved was complete and utter bullshit. For the sake of my own sanity, I have constantly needed to be a “mover” or a “shaker” in order to be happy in my daily life.

Maybe it meant leaving a dead-end job. Maybe it meant offering to take on additional responsibilities. Maybe it meant revamping my work schedule so that I worked only part time, or traded longer workdays for longer weekends. Whatever the solution, the problem was always job satisfaction.

I have explained time and time again that the purpose of life is a LIFE of PURPOSE. If you don’t have that, then you’re missing out on your life’s calling.

Know that to abandon a job that isn’t deeply fulfilling is to abandon nothing at all. Think this over, and then decide if you have some changes to make.

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2 Responses to “How to Change Careers”

#1 Brock Blohm on 18, Aug, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Great article!
I’m with ya. We as a society are trained to think that once we are at a job we should stop looking. Had I not took the route of entrepreneurship and still worked for others, I would always stay proactive.

I would begin to look for new jobs the day I got hired. Never set yourself short. You are worth as much as you think you are. Always work towards advancement. You work that $50K/year job because you accept it. You are agreeing that is what you are worth.
Never stop looking for new opportunities! (that’s the way I look at it anyway)

Great article. I hope someone really benefits from this! Keep it up!

#2 recent law grad on 15, May, 2015 at 3:11 am

I agree with a lot of this. I am 32 and a recent law school grad. I was military first, then a few jobs inbetween. People act like “wow, you have to have ten years experience by your age at one job” and its like, WHY??? I did those jobs, and then I did this. I literally WAS them. It feels like bucket full of crabs to say the least.

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