Changing careers isn’t easy. It takes courage to leave the security of the career you know to venture into the unknown in search of something more fulfilling. Navigating the transition is a highly individualized process, and one without a clear roadmap of what’s ahead. But to quote Joseph Campbell, “if the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
The good news is: although the path ahead is yours alone, that doesn’t mean you have to navigate it alone. To support all of the courageous career-changers out there, we asked 20 career coaches the question, “What is one common mistake you see people make when they are making a career change (or thinking about making a change)?”
Here are the 10 common mistakes they shared:
#1: Letting the pressure of other people’s expectations hold you back
“Thinking of your career in isolation to the rest of your life and clinging to your comfort zone. We work on average 90,000 hours over our lifetime. How we spend our days is how we live our lives, and this spills over into how we are being within ourselves and with others. When we make career decisions based on the expectations of others, without having a strong internal compass to guide us in our decision making process, we often find ourselves on an accidental career trajectory. As humans we are hardwired to maintain our sense of safety and comfort. If we’re unhappy in our careers we often wait until the pain of doing nothing becomes greater than the pain of doing something before we embrace the courage it takes to move outside our comfort zone and really stamp a sense of self on our career.”
“One common mistake is to think narrow. Thinking narrow only pigeon holes 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.”
Pro tip #1: Avoid this pitfall by taking the time to introspect and understand what matters to you, as well as what doesn’t. This self-knowledge will serve as the foundation for the rest of your search, and will help you evaluate potential opportunities. Tools like the Designing Your Life Energy Engagement Worksheet can help you get clarity on what energizes vs. drains you, and the Imperative Purpose Assessment is a great way to understand your purpose drivers and motivations.
#2: Over-analyzing without ever taking action (analysis paralysis)
“There are two common mistakes: (1) analysis paralysis and (2) inertia due to feelings of unworthiness or overwhelm. The Designing Your Life design thinking mindset is predicated on finding the smallest thing you can do to get the ball rolling. Doing it. And then reflecting on it. Refining it. Doing it again. Creating momentum.”
“One of the patterns I see often with my career exploration clients is thinking that they need to figure everything out and have a detailed map drawn up before they make any moves. Career change is actually a series of incremental steps rather than a single leap. It’s vital to pilot ideas – a bit like going into a dressing room at a store and trying on an outfit. Does it fit the way I thought it would when I saw it on the rack? Find that out before you make the purchase and leave the store. If you translate this analogy to career change, it means having a conversation with someone in the profession you’re considering, setting up a shadow day, volunteering so that you step into that role yourself, taking a class – in some way getting a visceral experience so that you take things from your head to the reality of your day-to-day life.”
Pro tip #2: Start small. Pick the smallest thing you can do to get the ball rolling – whether that’s 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 interested in. Afterwards, reflect on what you learned from that experience to set your next micro-goal, then repeat! 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.
#3: Thinking it’s too late
“Thinking it’s too late. This type of thinking will keep you from taking action that is congruent with your dreams and goals. Using design thinking and applying it to our lives, we use reframes to turn this into “It’s never too late to change careers!” That way, we take action coming from a more empowered place.”
Pro tip #3: If you’re making a change later into your career, try shifting your perspective to focus on what you uniquely have to offer because of your previous experience. It’s an asset, not something that will hold you back! Experienced candidates are uniquely positioned to bring a depth of wisdom, experience, and perspective that younger candidates simply can’t.
#4: Falling prey to the “one perfect job” fallacy
“You think you have to find your one perfect job based on you one true passion. It sounds great, but have you done the research to see if that would really work for you? If you convince yourself there is only one route to a dream job, you might prematurely choose a direction and not change course, believing you have come too far to turn back now. What if you believed a number of potential dream jobs were out there for you? You could think about a number of possibilities and research those options. You just don’t want to spend too much time in this mode, either, or you’ll never take that next step. As a certified Designing Your Life coach, I show you how to expand your vision before narrowing it, and how to test-drive your options. For example, if you are curious about being a researcher at a Washington think tank, you could ask people in that job about their experiences. You could offer to volunteer at a think tank for a month. It’s better to spend a few months prototyping jobs to see if you really want them than pursuing something that won’t fulfill you.”
“People often rush to closure without thinking of their options more broadly. They often try to make their first idea or their one big idea work. This often comes back to the beliefs and assumptions they hold. (These are like wallpaper – we often don’t notice them). In addition, people are sometimes unwilling to experience the feelings of uncertainty that go with not knowing where to next. The Designing Your Life methodology shows us how to reframe these unhelpful beliefs, turning problems into actionable challenges and opening up space for new, unexpected solutions!”
“Very common mistake you can make: Becoming lured by the enticing notion that if you simply follow your passion you will find the perfect career or job for you. If you have a driving passion, then you’re likely not experiencing any angst about your career choice. Let’s face it. It’s the 80% of the rest of us that search and wonder and too often feel less than because we can’t name that passion. Let go of the notion of a ‘right’ job or career and embrace the far more likely probability that the job you’ll love most in your life will come only after you explore and learn about yourself from several less-than-ideal jobs.”
“My generation was told we needed to ‘follow our bliss; find your passion to live your best life!’ Well, it’s really hard to figure out exactly what your passion is – because most of us have more than one (or our passions are just hiding out of view). Instead of finding your passion, find a direction that you’d like to explore today. You can always change direction – our careers are not ladders, they are jungle gyms! So get out there, try out the monkey bars and see how you do.”
Pro tip #4: Explore multiple possibilities, then narrow them down from there based on little experiments. Tools like the Designing Your Life 5-Year Odyssey Planning Worksheet allow you to map out multiple ways your life could unfold by comparing and ranking alternative five-year plans.
#5: Not ‘testing’ the new career first
“People usually don’t explore deeply enough the *new* career. Are you sure this new career is really what you want? We’ve all heard the saying, ‘the grass is always greener on the other side.’ How do you know the grass will actually be greener? How can you know it’s the right career when it’s something completely different than what you are currently doing? A good way of avoiding being disappointed is doing what we call ‘prototyping’. In the design world, ‘prototyping’ means building models to help understand a problem. In the world of changing careers, it basically means talking to people that are already doing the career you are seeking. By doing so, you can ‘prototype’ or validate your assumptions before taking the big leap. It’s a good way to know if that new career is really for you, or whether you need to readjust your strategy.”
“I would say one common mistake would be committing too much without prototyping. There are many ways to prototype and try out different aspects of the new career before fully committing to the change. This is especially true for people who are about to start a new business without prior experience in the entrepreneurship space.”
“Get clear on why you want the change. One common mistake is when a person romanticizes the career change as the end-all-be-all answer to their unhappiness, and they make a career leap without actually doing the thing first. If you want to work with animals, volunteer at a Vet’s office. Can you handle the pee, poop, blood, cat scratches? Also, are there ‘gravity’ problems you’re facing? If you’re 50 and hoping to become a physician, but you have two kids to put through college, medical school prerequisites to take, and adding and subtracting is difficult for you, maybe a career change to a physician isn’t in the cards. Get clear on why you want the change. Is it because you want to care for others? Administer to the sick? You can do that without medical school. We all want to enjoy the work we do, whether we live to work or work to live. Regardless, do some field tests: volunteer in your new chosen field if that’s possible. Network with friends and family to see if anyone knows someone in your new chosen field, and take them to coffee, ask them what a typical day is like for them. Ask them what the best part of their job is and what frustrates them the most! You could also ask what they wish they knew before they got into their chosen field.”
Pro tip #5: Learn by doing. If you’re struggling to decide which ‘experiment’ to try first, check out this Design Expedition: Experiment Guide from Stanford d.School.
#6: Job searching in isolation
“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.”
“Job searching in isolation is the most common mistake I see in career changers. Sometimes we have a tendency to stew alone, thinking we must have everything sorted out before we announce to others that we’re making a change. Don’t assume you can get unstuck on your own by thinking and analyzing your way through it. 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.”
“People think a lot and think a lot, then they either do nothing or make a sudden change without interviewing people in the target industry/job or without relevant experience themselves. Instead, they just think, and make assumptions depending on their perception/imagination.”
–James Chen, Managing Director at Empowering Management Consulting Inc., China Representative at INCAE Business School
Pro tip #6: Let people know you’re looking! Your family, friends, or colleagues may be able to make connections or point out possibilities that you hadn’t even considered before. When that happens, be sure to send a hand-written thank you note to express your gratitude, and remember to pay it forward.
#7: Not using your professional narrative to reposition yourself
“Narrowing your options. Our identities are so tied up with our careers that it can be hard to let go of the job titles that have defined us. Even when deliberately trying to break free from a past than can pigeon-hole you, there is an art to telling the new story. Update your LinkedIn profile to indicate your career interests, transferable skills, and motivators. Rewrite your resume so that it doesn’t scream ‘Data Analyst’ when you would prefer to be viewed as a design-thinking customer-centric strategist. Be an active contributor and thought leader for topics that will increase your visibility in the industry of your choice. Actively rebrand yourself to avoid the risk of being typecast by your experience and qualifications. Your summary sections on your LinkedIn and resume provide the perfect vehicle to signal to hiring managers how you want your capabilities and potential to be interpreted.”
–Barbara Mackie, Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) Career Development Manager
“The most common logistical mistake I see is using a universal resume or cover letter for every job application. Writing excellent, tailored documents takes a lot of time, and if you really want the job, it’s important to take that time to show the employer you have a clear understanding of who they are and what they need. You will stand far above any other applicant by translating company-specific knowledge into your documents and showing how your skills address their particular needs. This can be done through researching the opportunity and company, speaking to professionals who work at the company, and learning about their competitors and the market surrounding their industry.”
–Rita Soultanian, Director of Career and Re-Entry Center at Saddleback College
Pro tip #7: Position yourself for success by rebranding your LinkedIn, resume, or any other professional assets you have on the web. This article from the LinkedIn blog gives concrete suggestions for how to optimize your profile and leverage the platform for a career change.
#8: Not leveraging your existing network
“The common mistake that I see people make when they are making a career change is not using their existing network. I’ve met many highly-connected professionals with a vast network who they call on regularly in their roles, yet who are nervous to contact them for some support with their careers because it crosses some kind of invisible line or seems too personal. In reality most of us are delighted when asked to tell our story and introduce people to interesting people we know. Clearly not everyone will either help or inspire you, but think what you might be missing if you never ask! If you can get some time with someone who’s in a role or sector that interests you, ask them: How did you get here? What’s the next big thing in this sector? Who else should I speak to about this?”
Pro tip #8: Just because you’re entering a new industry doesn’t mean your existing contacts won’t be relevant. They may have connections in your target industry, and because you’ve already established a relationship, they will be more likely to be receptive to a request for an introduction. When people do facilitate introductions for you, remember to thank them and follow-up to let them know how it went.
#9: Not considering the long-term
“Not considering timing – and as a consequence – risks and resources required to make the transition you are considering. For example, it is all very well to want to transition from a large corporation to an NGO or a start-up, but is this the right time for you to do it? Given that you might be working until you’re in your 70s – unless you’re in your 60s – you probably have a lot of time to do this! If you want to do it now, and you can’t think of any other option that will satisfy you, then consider the risks and how you might mitigate them. For example, how can you experiment with your idea first? Can you volunteer with a similar organisation for a week? Can you get a contract role for a month? What research might you undertake to minimise your risks? And what resources do you realistically need to have in place to make the transition? As a general rule, you should have the ability to fund your lifestyle for at least 3 months comfortably without income if you are making a big career change beyond a pivot. Being prepared and expecting the worst is critical to making you feel safe – and feeling safe is key to being creative and calm when transitioning into your new career.”
“A career change is always an intermediate step of many steps ahead. Include and consider also what lies beyond. It seems that the motives behind a career change forces and conditions people to only think about the next step forward. But if you consider your career in the long run you must ask yourself: ‘Is this really the right step to take?’ Changing careers: always bear in mind your horizon.”
Pro tip #9: Avoid this pitfall by thinking through next steps over a longer time horizon, like 5 to 10 years. Tools like the Designing Your Life 5-Year Odyssey Planning Worksheet allow you to map out multiple ways your life could unfold by comparing and ranking alternative five-year plans.
#10: Giving up too soon
“Most career changers get discouraged too early on in their transition because ultimately it takes time to get your current boat of experience closer to the next industry boat you want to jump into. It’s ok to take things one step at a time and even volunteer or take on part-time work to gain more experience in a field before you officially land the dream job. Take your time and get creative with prototype opportunities to network and get more familiarized with your field of interest.”
–Rita Soultanian, Director of Career and Re-Entry Center at Saddleback College
Pro tip #10: Try to maintain an attitude of curiosity and experimentation. Making a career change is an iterative process, and involves trying new things as you go. If fear of failure is holding you back from getting out of your comfort zone, the Designing Your Life failure log is a useful tool to help you reframe your ‘failures’ as learning opportunities to build up your immunity against the fear of failure so that you can try new things.
For more guidance, take advantage of these career change resources and remember to avoid these 10 common career change mistakes:
We are grateful to the coaches featured in this piece for their generosity in sharing their insights with our community. For more support transitioning to a more fulfilling career, check out our social impact career acceleration program for professionals or reach out to any of the coaches above whose advice resonated with you!