“You took a big step back in your career,” quipped a past colleague, now in the executive role I had previously dreamed of. “You must really regret it.”
My former employee and I had met by chance at a networking event, and after the niceties, we’d quickly jumped into career talk. Apparently he’d been following mine quite closely on LinkedIn. (Be wary of who you connect with.)
While still in the same industry, we had charted very different courses over the past few years. When last he’d seen me, I was arguably at my career pinnacle—living between two global cities, flying 250,000 miles a year, managing a thousand people, and juggling a budget with a lot of zeros at the end.
I had been very good at what I did, I made a lot of money doing it, and I’ve never regretted leaving it behind.
We want something different
More than half of U.S. working professionals admit they want to change careers, not just their job, but their livelihood. And anecdotal reports say that the average worker will have seven careers in their lifetime. The exact number is hard to pin down because neither the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics nor the U.S Census Bureau entirely agree on how to measure “career change.”
They do agree on one thing: it’s not just the young that are moving around. While Millennials in their twenties are more apt to jump careers, research shows the number stays above 50 percent for those in their fifties.
Numbers aside, the fact remains that many people find themselves in a career that does not meet their expectations. This knowledge isn't failure, rather it’s a new beginning. There is the actuary that discovered he was too extroverted for the position and became a contact center leader instead. The executive that opened a yoga studio. And the restaurant manager that detested customers and went back to school to be a scientist.
We change careers for a number of reasons:
Wrong expectations or career choice
A personal or career crisis
But most of these, sans a crisis, can be improved by changing roles or jobs within the same career. They don’t necessarily require a colossal change in responsibility or work. So why?
Making the big change
My own career change was not the result of a crisis or monumental event, rather it was a gradual shift culminated by a conversation about "strengths" and an introduction to Marcus Buckingham during a corporate retreat. “Strengths are not activities you're good at,” says Buckingham, “they're activities that strengthen you.”
“Strengths are not activities you're good at, they're activities that strengthen you.” - Marcus Buckingham
To find our strengths, we completed Buckingham’s “Loved It/Loathed It” exercise. The process is simple:
1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle
2. Label one half “Loved It” and the other half “Loathed It”
3. Over the course of the next week, pay attention to how your job’s activities make you feel
4. At the moment you experience an emotion, write down that activity in one of the columns
Did you actively look forward to it? - Loved it
Did you procrastinate or have apprehension before starting the task? - Loathed it
While you were doing something, did time fly by and you could easily concentrate? - Loved it
Did you struggle to complete the activity because you were bored or distracted? - Loathed it
Afterward, were you invigorated and authentically proud, strong, or happy? - Loved it
Did the completion of the activity leave you drained? - Loathed it
At the end of the week, your strengths present themselves. As Buckingham explains, “A strength is an activity that before you're doing it you look forward to doing it; while you're doing it, time goes by quickly and you can concentrate; after you've done it, it seems to fulfill a need of yours.”
My employer probably didn’t expect that this simple exercise would mean a big career change was coming for me.
Stepping back and staying true
Buckingham believes that all the reasons we choose to change careers—burnout, more money, a better opportunity, or stress are all because we are misusing our strengths. “Many of us feel stress and get overwhelmed not because we're taking on too much, but because we're taking on too little of what really strengthens us.”
This is why understanding your relationship to your strengths is so important. For me, I’d been mistaking “being good at something, for something I loved.” I enjoyed my career trajectory and the perks, promotions, and salary that came along with it. But the truth was, my “Loathed It” column was far too long. Now, with my “Loved It” column surging, I find it easier to manage my stress, the long hours, and any work-related frustration. Those emotions are fleeting, rather than encompassing.
Transitioning from one career shouldn't happen overnight—it can be done in stages. It might mean going back to school, shifting roles, or downgrading responsibilities. But once you decide on a career change, the biggest challenge may not be in the change itself, but in staying true to your decision. As humans, we often revert back to what we know and what we are good at. And the longer you excelled in a career (mine was fifteen years), the higher the likelihood that your network (and money) will siren call you back.
As humans, we often revert back to what we know and what we are good at. And the longer you excelled in a career, the higher the likelihood that your network (and money) will siren call you back.
Resist. Keep your list near and refer to it often. Remind yourself why you made the career change in the first place. Foster the love and resist the loathing.