Question of the Month: February 2008

Question: “I’m considering changing careers, but most of the people I talk to seem dismissive of the idea or suggest that it can’t be done.  Should I listen to them?”

I’m not sure why it is, exactly, or whether there’s a name for it in psychological circles, but I think it’s safe to say that human societies have always had  their fair share of naysayers and a collective bias toward conservative thinking and the status quo, including in the area of career decision-making.  In fact, one colleague of mine, Jeff Levy, frequently calls this phenomenon the “crabs in a basket” syndrome when he’s helping people explore the idea of starting their own business.  In other words, he points out that the reason most crabs can’t escape a crabpot is not because the pot is mechanically foolproof, but because the moment any single crab starts to climb out of the trap, their fellow captives reach up and pull it back down!

While seafood lovers everywhere might rejoice in this reality, however, potential career-changers need to guard carefully against this concept and how it impacts their occupational decision-making.   Simply put, today’s job market (both mechanically and culturally) is fundamentally designed to keep people performing the same tasks and work responsibilities for their entire working lives.  The formula isn’t all that complicated or mysterious when you think about it.  The more time you spend in a job or career, the better you get at doing it.  The better you get at doing something, the more money you’ll make.  And the more money you make, the happier you’ll be, at least according to the prevailing cultural norms most of us have been exposed to since the day we were born.  Makes perfect logical sense, doesn’t it?

Where this success formula starts to break down, however, is when a person starts feeling that their current career choice no longer aligns well with their core values — or isn’t supplying them with the personal and professional growth they are starving for, deep down.  At that point, many people report feeling resentful of their current career path and a near-revulsion to the idea of continuing in it.  And yet, at the same time, these yearnings often get intercepted by cross-currents of guilt, fear, and embarrassment at the idea that they might have to “give up” everything they’ve fought for and start over in a new direction — an idea that not only tends to be socially unacceptable, but often is seen as terrifying by the individual’s family, as well, especially if this family has counted on this individual to be the primary breadwinner.

So how does one juggle all of these conflicting emotions and feelings in deciding whether or not it might be time to embark on a significant career change?  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, and it depends largely on the individual’s specific circumstances, career priorities, and motivation level.  I firmly believe, however, that significant career decisions should never be entered into lightly or on a whim.  The stakes of the game are usually pretty high, especially for older candidates who have greater economic responsibilities to consider, and one’s passion/idealism shouldn’t be followed blindly without engaging in an accompanying exploration of practical realities.  A trained career counselor can be extraordinarily useful in these situations, not only due to their experience working with and motivating people through this unique challenge, but also based on their ability to help frame things in an unbiased, objective manner — and to examine the relative degree of difficulty represented by any potential career change under consideration.

With proper coaching, in fact, a potential career-changer should be able to assemble a series of thoughtful, thorough answers to the core questions at hand within a period of several weeks.  What is the true degree of difficulty involved in a making a specific kind of change?  Have other people made this change successfully in the past?  What are the sacrifices involved?  What are the shortcuts?  What level of motivation and financial resilience will be required to achieve success?  And (importantly) will the target career being considered actually deliver the outcomes and satisfaction elements desired — or is the individual in question simply in love with “the idea” of a certain career path, without really knowing much about the day-to-day realities involved in the target job or profession?

At the end of the day, we believe that a more methodical approach to career change often leads to the best results and that people should approach the idea of an occupational shift as a serious research project, first and foremost, before making any rash moves.  This cautionary approach, however, should not be confused with the “dragging down the crab” phenomenon described earlier.  The slowing down of the process does not, in itself, indicate a bias either for or against the idea of making a change.  Instead, it adds a useful buffer of thought, reflection, and analysis that will accurately gauge whether a person truly has the patience and drive it will take — in most cases — to buck the conventional wisdom and claw one’s way out of an employment basket they have found to become restricting.  Along the same lines, many studies have found that the majority of successful entrepreneurs are not the brazen, fearless “cowboys” and “cowgirls” they are often portrayed to be, but are actually much more conservative and cautions in their risk orientation.

So if you’re thinking about making a change, I’d encourage you to take the process seriously and to try and tune out as much of the uninformed cheerleading and naysaying as possible in your search for “the truth” of what a potential change will really involve.  In the end, you might decide that your current situation is much more tenable than you’d originally thought and that you were merely overreacting to a crappy job, a dysfunctional company, or a bad recent boss.  On the other hand, if your heart and your head consistently keep tugging at you to chart a different course, even after several weeks of research, that’s a pretty good sign it’s time to try your hand at something new.  At that point, you might surprise yourself at just how resourceful and resilient you (and your family) can become in achieving a goal that REALLY matters to you!

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