20 career coaches share their best advice for changing careers

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

In his commencement address to Stanford University’s graduating class of 2005, Steve Jobs offered this advice: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

If you haven’t found it yet, it’s never too late to make a change. While there is no perfect roadmap for navigating a career transition, there are proven processes which involve setting goals, prototyping solutions, taking action, learning from your actions, refining your approach, and then repeating the cycle. In many ways, this iterative career change approach is similar to human-centered design (HCD). In the MovingWorlds Institute, we help professionals frame their career transitions as a design challenge, applying tools like HCD to gain clarity on next steps. 

Career coaches around the world use the Designing Your Life approach to help clients build a life that is both fulfilling and meaningful. To help you navigate your own career transition, we asked 20 certified Designing Your Life Career Coaches this question:

“What is the best piece of advice you have for people thinking about a career change?”

Here are the suggestions they shared:

1. Create your own luck

“I am a big believer in Planned Happenstance, the theory that if you take action on your curiosity you can manufacture opportunities. Have you ever asked someone “how did you get that great job?” only to have them tell you about an extremely lucky, chance event that led to where they are today? 

That is exactly what happened to me when I made my career change (from environmental engineer to career coach) – a sequence of lucky events. But those events occurred because I put myself out there and started following my curiosity and building skills. I joined committees, took part in a leadership development program, founded a staff organization. If there was an opportunity to attend a free class or volunteer my skills for something – I was there. 

My advice is to create your own lucky encounters by exploring your curiosities and talking about this exploration with others. Build your network by volunteering, learning other people’s stories, and sharing your own story. In this way, opportunities will have a chance to find you.”

Rebecca Andersen, Career Coach, Director of Career Services & Alumni Relations at UC Berkeley. Find more advice from Rebecca on Medium

2. Embrace the informational interview

“Go find and talk to people who are doing the job you want to enter. Ask them what their day-to-day looks like, feels like, and what the best and the worst parts of the job are. Also ask what advice they would give to someone who’s entering the job now that they’ve done it.”

James Chen, Managing Director at Empowering Management Consulting Inc., China Representative at INCAE Business School

“The best advice I’ve heard comes from Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life. Talk with people who are doing today what you’d like to do next. Be sincerely interested in learning about what they do, what it’s really like and how they got there. Find out more (without focusing on a job search conversation). Be genuinely curious.”

Joe Casey, Executive Coach at PEC, Managing Partner at Retirement Wisdom®

3. Prototype before you leap

“Prototype your new career before you make the first move and be aware that a new life is part of the deal. Prototyping is one of the most effective techniques I use in Designing Your Life business coaching. Originally prototyping is used in the development of digital and physical products. In Designing Your Life anything can be prototyped, from a physical subject to a new career. In my article on Linkedin “Prototyping, Nothing is Ever Completely Finished” I explain the requirements of a good prototype.”

Dirk Alberti, Director of “Time To Move On” Coaching

“Take your ideas for a walk! Think like a designer and create several options or ‘prototypes’ and then try them out. The design-thinking process is a team sport. There are several ways you can ideate and expand on your ideas if you work collaboratively. Often the best ideas are the ones that are a combination of two or more seemingly unrelated thoughts – when combined, you have something very unique and innovative. This is often how solutions to wicked problems are discovered. When you apply this same methodology to your life and life’s work it can yield an exhilarating journey (the prototype part) and epic experiences.”

Deborah Richardson, Design Thinking Strategist – Certified Executive Coach at Think Partner

4. Stop trying to find the “perfect” job

“You don’t need an overwhelming, sweep-you-off-your-feet passion. It’s okay to follow small sparks of curiosity, or simply to realize that you’re unhappy with what you’re doing. That’s a starting place in itself. There’s no need to go on a quest to find THE right career fit for you. As Designing Your Life says, ‘We all have a lot of lives within us…Of course, we can only live out one at a time, but we want to ideate multiple variations in order to choose creatively and generatively.’ (p.91)”

Maggie Graham, Career Coach for Introverts and Career Change Ally at Maggie Graham Coaching 

“My best piece of advice would be to make sure you are in the right mindset when thinking about a career change. When thinking about a career change, most of us tend to think that we’ll be happy if we find that « perfect » job or step into that new career. We think there is only one option or one solution and this way of thinking puts a lot of pressure on our shoulders because we are afraid to make a mistake.

You need to think like a designer and remember there are plenty of options. You need to remember there are tons of right jobs and what feels right for you, at the moment, may be different in a few years, and that’s OK too!

Having such a mindset helps you silence your fear so you can make better choices, choices that are aligned with your true nature and not chosen by fear. Unfortunately, our brain is wired to protect us so fear will always come first. So in other words, it’s about never letting fear be your guide!”

Vanessa Deschênes, Founder of Ntuiva

5. Introspect & uncover your motivations 

“Find out the true motivation behind the change. Some people only think about “money”, or “the need to be in a new environment”, for example. If these things alone do not align with your true motivation and needs, the move will not last.”

Joseph Lei, Trainer, Facilitator, and Coach at DTIA – Design Thinking In Action 

“Recognise the instinct beneath your recurring thoughts and start taking small steps to explore that urge. I have a rule that if I have thought about doing something 3 times, then I need to take some kind of action on that recurring thought. You don’t have to make a wholesale change all at once but you do need to get super clear on what it is you want to change.”

Fiona Reith, Designing Your Life Coach 

“Career planning can sometimes feel like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, with everyone having a view on what’s best for you and where you need to pin the tail. If you want to pin it smack-bang on your “career bullseye” you need to take off your blindfold so you can see what’s important in your life and career. Thinking about a career change is your opportunity to press pause, reflect and clearly connect the dots between who you are, what you do and what you believe. This will help you build a more coherent life, one where your career choices feel aligned to who you are as a person, giving your work a sense of meaning. Start the process from there and it will become the foundation from which you can design your way forward to a career and life you can thrive in.”

Jacqui Beaver, Certified Designing Your Life & ICF Coach – Founder Jacqui Beaver Consulting | Life by Design Not Default

“Do your research. Take the time to work through what you’re looking for. Reflect on your strengths, interests and motivators. Focus on what you love about your current and recent roles – list the tasks that come easily to you, give you satisfaction and energise you. Write your ‘dream job’ position description and go and explore opportunities that will give you the opportunity to thrive and shine. Your next best role may not be advertised – so don’t be afraid to have productive conversations with many people in roles and industries of interest to you. Don’t focus on a narrow set of job titles, dig a bit deeper and look at new and emerging roles that suit your skills and match the direction you want to take. Allow your curiosity to navigate options.” 

Barbara Mackie, Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) Career Development Manager

6. Design thinking is your friend

Editor’s note: If you’re not sure about what design thinking is, make sure to read our popular blog post, Human-Centered Design vs. Design-Thinking: How They’re Different and How to Use Them Together to Create Lasting Change

“Learn the principles of design thinking. Not only can they be applied to the question of ‘where to next?’ in the world of work, the skills you learn can be applied more generally to your life and are increasingly sought after in the workplace. For example, people discover the benefits of collaboration, opening up new experiences and perspectives and generating more options. And they learn to ‘choose well’, to let go and to move on. If you want to know more, read Designing Your Life, watch Bill Burnett’s Ted Talk and Dave Evans’ Ted Talk, and read Tom & David Kelley’s Creative Confidence. Then get started! If you’re still stuck, you might need to get some help from a career professional who can guide and support you through the process.”

Penelope Robson, Founder Penelope Robson Coaching Services

“This is where the Designing Your Life tools come into their own. Tried and tested to aid in self reflection, the WorkView/LifeView exercise can help you take stock of where you are now in terms of what truly matters to you and begin to highlight where you might want to get to. Another great exercise is the ‘Good Time Journal’ which asks you to record and review which areas of your working day make you sing and which ones are a drain on your energy.”

Fiona Reith, Designing Your Life Coach

7. Embrace change: life is meant to be redesigned

“My first reaction is DO IT! Our lives are meant to be redesigned. People change their careers several times in their lives and find this is a very fulfilling way to live! 

From a more tactical response, assuming you don’t know what career you want to pursue, I would encourage you to look deeply and get really clear on your values. A coach can absolutely help with this piece. When we live true to our values, we are in resonance which makes for a more fulfilled life. I would also encourage you to connect with your ‘champions’. The people closest to you. By doing so, you are taking action and activating your network. This is when the ideas start to flow. In the world of Designing Your Life, we call this Radical Collaboration.”

Sharon Ilstrup, Founder Sharon Ilstrup Leadership & Career Coaching

8. Your first thought is not always your best thought

“Don’t assume that your first idea is your best, and recognize there are many paths (not just one) that could bring you fulfillment. Check out the concepts from Designing Your Life to put yourself in an exploratory frame of mind. Clarify what each path would look like for you – down to what it feels like to have that job, live in that place, have that commute, and work on that project – and see which bring you the most energy. The key is to experiment with several alternate paths and eventually narrow down to one, rather than starting from ‘this is the one’ and searching for the needle in the haystack that matches it.”

Liz Peintner, Certified Leadership Coach, Founder of Meaning & Momentum Coaching. Find more advice from Liz on IdealistCareers.

9. Get (and stay) curious

“Start with curiosity. Elizabeth Gilbert’s episode of Oprah’s ‘Super Soul Conversations’ podcast on The-Curiosity Driven Life is a great place to start. When I changed careers from education to coaching it started out with curiosity. What’s out there, what are my options? Which turned into a year of research and a notebook full of information and training programs. Which turned into me working full time and completing 3 certification programs. I had teaching as a back up until I built a business in individual and organizational coaching. Think of ways to start the transition without going full bore at the outset. It takes the pressure off financially and it gives you a buffer in case it’s not what you thought it would be.”

Tracy Yates, Organizational & Life Coach at Ignite Development

“Career development is a process (cyclical or atypical, not linear) and it’s important to be patient with yourself. Like most things in life (financial literacy, good writing skills, the ability to speak in public), it takes time to learn how to be effective in your career transitions, and in the US, we’re expected to change careers an average of 7 times in our lifetime. Oftentimes the emotional toll and anxiety produced by these transitions can seem overwhelming, but you have to sustain productivity through the challenges and remain positive as you encounter obstacles. Take things one step at a time – from accepting where you’re at, to exploration, to research, to prototyping your ideas, to potentially dipping back into research. You can then create a strategy that will land you a job that hopefully represents where your values, interests and skills meet. Maintain your curiosity, have a bias towards action, be open to new ideas and options that present themselves along the way and most importantly, enjoy the journey!” 

Rita Soultanian, Director of Career and Re-Entry Center at Saddleback College

10. Build a support network

“Find a coach! A coach will hold space for you to explore what is important to you in a new career – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. She will also be a steadying hand to counter the circular conversations going on inside your head. Her job is to help you thrive, however you define that term.”

Clare Morrison, Designing Your Life Coach

“Get some support with the process; you can’t do it all in your head. A mentor, a friend from the sector you are considering or a career coach can bring new perspective and accountability.”

Fiona Reith, Designing Your Life Coach

“My other big piece of advice is to create a team of advisors. By now, most of you have probably heard how important it is to have a mentor – do not let the weight of this word hold you back, it is easy to create your own ‘unofficial’ team of advisors. I have a group of people (they may not even know who they are!) whose advice I rely on to steer my professional development and see my blind spots. You cannot see your own blind spots – find people whom you trust to hold the mirror.”

Rebecca Andersen, Career Coach, Director of Career Services & Alumni Relations at UC Berkeley. Find more advice from Rebecca on Medium

“Assemble a ‘Success Team.’ This small group of non-judgmental, high-energy people will brainstorm with you, be your sounding board and provide that all-important emotional support. Face it, leaving the familiarity of a business or industry after five, 10 or 20 years can be terrifying. You don’t know what you don’t know. Your Success Team can act like your rear-view mirror, helping you see the blind spots so you can drive confidently to your next adventure. 

One of my clients had done government work for 20 years. She was positive she wanted to move into a corporate role. Her Success Team noticed that when she talked about the switch, her voice tapered off, her shoulders sank and her energy waned. That feedback was just what she needed. She realized a corporate role was something she thought she ‘should’ do instead of what she really wanted.

Getting out of your head and assembling people you trust is critical. Life is a team game, so play it that way!”

Erik Jacobson, Founder of Lulo Coaching

“My best piece of advice for people thinking about a career change is seeking out a trained coach to help you get curious and gain clarity both on the inside and the outside. Here’s what I mean. 

1) INSIDE: Do you have a picture in your head of how you want to be and feel in five years? What does life look like? What core values are being served? (Exercise: paint a picture with words in the present tense of what you’re doing five years from now, who you’re with (or not) and use three words to describe how you feel in this picture.) Research out of the University of Charleston by Angela Passarelli shows that when there is a vision involved, you’re 50% more likely to achieve and maintain the changes you’re implementing as far as 7 years out. So, does this career change you’re hoping for support the vision you’ve painted for yourself? If so, GET ON IT!

2) OUTSIDE: If you know what you want to do, it’s time to network. Tell friends, family, and co-workers what you’re thinking of changing careers and ask if they know anyone in your new industry that you can reach out to. Search people on LinkedIn or do a blog search and see what you can find. If the contact is in your area, offer to buy them a cup of coffee so that you can pick their brains and hear the story of how they got to where they are (people LOVE to talk about themselves). If they’re not nearby, see if they are willing to FaceTime or chat for 20 or 30 minutes on the phone. Don’t be afraid to be persistent and always follow up with a thank you note.”

Tracy Yates, Organizational & Life Coach at Ignite Development

Editor’s Note: In our survey of career coaches, this was the MOST popular piece of advice by far. If you’re going through a change, find a support network. Need help? Apply to our MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship to join a cohort of professionals all going through a career transition for social impact.

We know that career changes can be scary, but they’re exciting, too. Making a career change is a step toward your best version of you. We hope the guidance provided by the incredible network of coaches listed above can help you take the next step in Designing Your Life

In summary, remember to:

  1. Create your own luck
  2. Embrace the informational interview
  3. Prototype before you leap
  4. Stop trying to find the “perfect” job
  5. Introspect and uncover your motivations
  6. Make friends with design thinking
  7. Embrace change: life is meant to be redesigned
  8. Dig deeper, knowing your first thought is not always your best thought
  9. Get (and stay) curious
  10. Build a support network

We are grateful to the coaches featured in this piece for their generosity in sharing their insights with our community. Whether you’re in the process of transitioning your career or thinking about making a change soon, we hope the advice included here will help you confidently take your next step. For more support in making a career change, check out our social impact career acceleration program for professionals or reach out to any of the coaches above whose advice resonated with you!