It was a bitterly cold February day as I walked along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada, contemplating departure from a career that was just not me. I was a probation and parole officer, about a year-and-a-half out of graduate school, working in a noble profession that did not resonate with my skill set or hopes for my life.
I pondered options and realized that, to make a change, I would need to put significant time and attention into first understanding what I wanted to do with my life. Then I would have to determine how to get there. Certainly, no one else was going to do that for me.
Thus began a journey that took me from criminal justice to labor relations and human resources management, and from Ottawa to the U.S.A. I augmented my education with business school curricula. There was a move to England, back to the U.S., and 16 years in the corner office as CEO of Aquarion Company. And, by my own account, I made a number of blunders along the route, but I am nowhere near finished with this career journey. I have learned much about the artistry of career change and have set about to help fellow-pilgrims who might have a need or an interest in taking a similar journey.
This much I know:
To thine own self be true: You must assess your skills, your interests and your personal values honestly. If your goal and lifelong dream is to play professional sports, but you lack the ability, then you have a couple of choices. In lieu of playing the sport professionally, you could work on its periphery, perhaps in sports marketing or commentating. On the other hand, you could discard the thought altogether and move on to a completely different field.
I have seen far too many folks pining for something that never was. In my own situation, I came to understand and accept that I was very results-oriented, and social work/criminal justice requires infinite patience. I was a misfit. My point is this: through an accurate assessment of who you are and where your interests lie, you will eliminate the fog that’s enveloping you.
You must run toward a new career, not run away from one: Being dissatisfied with a career is one thing, but knowing what you really want to do is quite another. You can use that dissatisfaction as energy to fuel your momentum, though you must put in the time and sweat equity to determine where you are going. Most folks, in my opinion, fall down on this front. They cannot decipher a clear path forward and, consequently, they continue to spin their wheels in neutral for years, never truly enjoying what they do.
I often recommend “The Campbell™ Interest and Skill Survey” (CISS®), which measures self-reported vocational interests and skills. Based on your honest assessment in completing the survey, it will assess your inclination for specific occupations. It is relatively inexpensive, and the results are immediate. Then you can start investigating options by talking with individuals who already work in the career you wish to explore.
Risk tolerance, age and financial status: These three factors are interrelated and must be considered as you begin your initial assessment of a new career. If you have a high tolerance for risk (entrepreneurs are high on this scale), you will have a greater bandwidth of possibilities than if you are conservative and more risk-adverse. If you are under 40, you may have a greater degree of freedom and flexibility than someone who is older. People in their early to mid-30s can afford to stumble if the move does not turn out as anticipated, whereas rebound is tougher if you are in your late 40s or 50s.
On the financial end, people in their mid- to late 20s, as I was when I switched careers, may not have a lot to lose. Obviously, if you are supporting a family and paying a mortgage, you must work these factors into your career calculus.
I would say that, over the past four decades, the folks I have known who changed careers could be segmented into three categories: people looking for a better financial future; those who sought less stress and a better work-life balance; and individuals who wanted a new challenge because they were no longer passionate about their chosen field. If any of this resonates with you, know that a career change is very much within the realm of the possible. Just be sure to bring a sense of dedication and commitment to make it happen.
And remember, life is too short to waste on something you dislike.