5 Myths About Making an Early-Stage Career Change

Alexandra Nemeth

Content Marketing Manager at MovingWorlds.org

Picture this scenario: You’ve completed your studies, and now it’s time to find a job. You find one that looks good on paper and seems to make your parents happy, so you take it. You show up on the first day eager to prove yourself, but over time, you start to notice things that don’t line up with what you thought you were signing up for. The company culture is wearing on you. Your values aren’t aligned. You’re not getting to use your unique strengths, and it begins to feel like the same thing every day. You feel like your only choice is to stick with it because you’re still early in your career, and you feel stuck.

If you can relate, here’s some good news: you have the power to get un-stuck. Despite the common “myths” warning against it, making a change early on is not a career limiting move! The real career-limiting move is staying with a company that isn’t the right fit. Why? Because staying in a role where you can’t bring your strengths and full range of unique talents will limit your opportunities for learning and growth. More so, if you’re not engaged, motivation will be an uphill battle every morning when the alarm clock goes off. And lastly, if you’re not in a place that supports you taking on stretch assignments and testing new ideas, then you won’t be able to acquire the diverse set of experiences you need to keep advancing your career.

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

M. Scott Peck

If you know it’s time for a change but feel stuck in the wrong job, we’ve busted 5 common myths that might be holding you back from making the career change that’s right for you: 

Myth #1: If I’ve been with my company for less than 5 years, changing jobs will reflect negatively on me

Reality: The days of building a lifelong career at a single company then retiring with a pension are long gone. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person will change jobs more than 12 times over the course of their career. On top of that, data from LinkedIn shows that the number of companies people worked for in the first 5 years after graduation has nearly doubled over the last 20 years, from 1.5 companies to about 3.

Although it may feel like it at the time, clearly you’re not alone in changing companies before the 5 year mark. Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve, argues that successful people actually change jobs more often, not less. Changing jobs keeps you learning and growing, expands your network, and builds your repertoire of new challenges you’ve learned to master which only add to your professional value. If you do encounter a company with outdated tenure rules and receive a rejection, Liz suggests “you will have dodged a bullet. There’s too much fear in an organization that turns away job-seekers because they don’t stay stuck in their jobs for five or ten years. There’s no way your brilliance could shine forth in a place like that. Be grateful for the “no thank you” letter those people sent you, and thank Mother Nature for sending you signs and signals to keep you on your path.”

What matters most when you’re looking for a new role isn’t the amount of time you spent at your previous one, it’s the transferable skills you’ve developed there, and the way you frame your professional narrative to connect the dots between the experience you have and the direction you want to go. 

Myth #2: I can only get hired in the same industry I have experience in

Reality: If you have work experience, you have transferable skills. Just because you’ve only applied those skills in one context so far doesn’t mean that is the only context they can apply to! In fact, skills developed in one sector can make you an even more attractive candidate in another. For example, if you want to move from a big corporation to a smaller startup, the internal processes and operating procedures you learned in the corporate world can make you uniquely qualified to help build new processes from the ground up. As Executive Coach and Design Thinking Strategist Deborah Richardson shared in this article, “One common [career change] mistake is to think narrow. Thinking narrow only pigeonholes you into previous roles but doesn’t explore what it is that you really do best, where you do your best work, how you do your best work, or why you do what you do.”

In our social impact & career development program, we’ve helped a lot of professionals overcome this barrier. Thais, for example, came from a marketing background and was struggling to find her place in the social impact space. After digging deeper into understanding her strengths, she realized what a strong inclination she had for program and project management. She reflected, “This was really eye-opening for me: I had been limiting myself before because I was not connecting the dots between my past experience and future options..Recognizing my own skills, and getting feedback from the MovingWorlds team and my peers helped me confidently choose a direction that wasn’t in the realm of possibility before. I came out of the [program] believing that I could be good at project management, and that I did have something unique to add. The training and coaching then helped me emphasize that more in my CV and in an interview.” Before the program was over, Thais landed a job with a social enterprise in Madrid as a program coordinator, and within two years she had been promoted to Chief Operating Officer. Having the courage to leave her previous marketing role for something that better fit her strengths allowed her to choose the right organization where she could bring her talents and advance quickly as a result.

Myth #3: Changing careers is a single giant leap

Reality: We’ve supported hundreds of professionals to grow their careers at MovingWorlds, and have found that changing or accelerating your career is actually a series of incremental steps, rather than one big scary leap. One of the best ways to avoid analysis paralysis by starting small. What is the smallest thing you can do to get the ball rolling in a new direction? It could be reaching out to someone in your network to learn more about their job, posting your resume on a job search site, or signing up to volunteer in a space you’re potentially interested in working in. After each incremental step, reflect on what you learned from the experience (did you validate that you’re going the right direction, or is it time to try a different direction?) then set your next micro-goal and repeat.

The career transition that another alumna of our professional development program, Heather, made is a great example of what this looks like in practice. After working for a national nonprofit for a few years, she was ready for a change but wasn’t sure what to do next. She was considering fundraising consulting, and leveraged her background in grant writing to serve as a pro-bono fundraising consultant for a Colombian social enterprise. The experience effectively allowed her to “test drive” a possible new career in fundraising before deciding whether to change jobs. The project confirmed for her that she was heading the right direction, and within a year she was hired by a fundraising consultancy. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when your goal is “change jobs”, but dividing the process into achievable micro-goals will help you build the momentum and confidence you need to keep going.

Myth #4: It’s only worth it if I find the “perfect” job

Reality: There is no ONE perfect job. Exploring multiple possible directions will help you find the job that fits you, rather than you having to fit yourself into a certain job. As Career Coach Maggie Graham points out, “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.” 

The career transition that Fernanda, another alumna of our program, made is a great example of how following small sparks of curiosity can lead the right job to you. She enjoyed her existing job, but found it just wasn’t personally fulfilling anymore. Instead of waiting for the “perfect” next job to come up before taking any action, she dove into exploring the unknown and ended up serving as a pro-bono consultant for an education social enterprise in Nicaragua. Based on her previous international field experience, she was able to design a new program for the organization that ultimately led to a full-time job offer tailored exactly to her.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to have your final destination in mind to begin the process. Knowing you want something different is enough to start exploring. As Fernanda’s experience proves, you may not know the right next job until you’re out there creating it! These books are a helpful starting point as you begin to brainstorm your possible future paths, particularly the tools and resources in Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

Myth #5: I have to keep my intention a secret from everyone until I have a new job lined up

Reality: While you may not want to share your plans with certain people (like your direct boss), you’ll limit your options by job searching in isolation. Executive Coach Joe Casey explains that, “People often think about a career change in a primarily linear fashion. I want to move from doing A to doing B. It’s logical, but that approach can limit your creativity. Think about it as an interactive process where you’ll be learning from other people. The best career shifts aren’t mapped out in isolation in advance. They emerge in discussions.” 

Those discussions can be with people you went to school with, family friends, or members of professional networking groups on platforms like LinkedIn or MeetUp. Embrace the informational interview to talk to people who are doing today what you want to do next – it’s one of the best ways to learn about the day-to-day realities of a different job. Also remember that people can’t help you if they don’t know you’re looking, so put the word out. Leadership Coach Liz Peintner points out that, “Part of our identity is rooted in the role we play in circles of other people, and your colleagues and friends might be able to see gifts you have that you might not recognize yourself. They will want to support you. So share your curiosities with others, listen to their reactions, and accept offers to connect with their networks. They will be happy to offer you those gifts just as you would be if the tables were turned.” 

You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brené Brown

If you’re feeling stuck at work, don’t let outdated myths hold you back from making the career change that’s right for you. For more tips based on our experience helping professionals transition to authentic and meaningful careers, check out our 11-step guide to career change for social impact. Looking for even more customized support navigating your own transition? Apply to our social impact and career development program to join a cohort of like-minded professionals on the same journey.