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You’ve worked for well over a decade in the same profession, potentially with the same employer. You know your organization like the back of your hand and understand your role and responsibilities better than most of your peers, but you’re not completely satisfied.
There’s a small voice at the back of your head, questioning if this is “it.” You believe there’s something else on the horizon, something bigger. But you can’t be sure; you can’t be certain.
After 25 years in corporate America, then 11 years in doctoral research, and now teaching others about leadership and management, I know this scenario well. My journey to date has been faced with regular questions like this. Following my fair share of personal crises and challenges, I too was faced with a mid-life vocational change, which is why my research has focused on mid-life development.
Those who have worked in the same job for more than 10 years have a tendency to feel their career path has been set. However, despite competing pressures from family, relationships, career and finances, most people are surprised at their eagerness to learn and experience more of what’s personally driving them.
But when is the right time for mid-career professionals to shift gear and act upon the idea of change? With such high levels of risk associated with a career change, how do you know if what you’re doing is the right choice?
The truth is that there is no prescribed time for this to happen.
Through my teaching, I often see two types of students: those who study to progress in the careers they’re in, and those who use education as a step towards something new. Many of my students who fit into the latter category are aware of the risks associated with career change, as they have invested in change by continuing their education and therefore have a clearer understanding of the transformation ahead of them.
However, for someone in the early stages of understanding change, it is important to reflect on your life and work to understand and acknowledge how you can move towards what you want ahead of acting upon that change. My research has focused on the intersection of mid-life development and understanding the connections and catalysts for such change, which led me to a model of five distinct stages that people go through to reach an authentic life and a new beginning for joyful work.
Stage 1: The “Treadmill”
In this first stage, many people –if not most– end up falling into jobs in their 20s, which they stay in for many years. However, this approach is not often targeted or strategic. 50% of young adults who graduate will take a job that was not in their field of study, and 25% will not find a job in the first year following their graduation. By the time they’re in their early 30s, they have personal and financial responsibilities so there is a need for them to “run fast” in their role, without distraction. This stage can be uninspiring and monotonous, but we do it because we feel as if we have to. We might want to climb the ladder for a promotion, but perhaps we realize that the ladder is reaching away from where we want to reach.
Stage 2: Internal and External Triggers
During stage two, something happens to make us temporarily fall off the treadmill. This could be a relationship, a financial or health issue, or perhaps a lay-off. Or it could just be caused by a sense of angst, where you ask: “Is this it?” This is the moment where you question the meaning or purpose to your work, and when you recognize you can’t return to the treadmill. From here, it’s important to move to stage three.
Stage 3: Reflection, Self-Awareness, and Self-Care
This stage is all about reflection, about reconsidering what you want and creating a better roadmap to get you to where you want to be. During this reflective stage, you need to reinforce your choices within your new roadmap –both formally and informally– through networking and acquiring new skills and knowledge. Once reflection has been achieved, we move closer to stage four: change.
Stage 4: Change
This stage can be a challenge; many individuals already have commitments and patterns in life that feel very permanent. This is often where a flexible approach to a career change can be adopted. Solutions such as online or part-time learning can accommodate people’s lives, but also provide them with an avenue for change as well as a community and network to support them, because there will be many individuals facing similar challenges.
Change can happen at any age, and the lead-up to change is relevant both to people in their 20s and to those much older, but whatever your age, you need to make sure you are less concerned with proving yourself in your existing career path. At this stage, selfishness plays an important part because it is the key to making you happy. If you’re not happy, neither will those around you be.
Stage 5: New Beginning
Finally, change enables a new beginning. At this stage, your life feels authentic with meaning and purpose. You finally understand why you’re doing what you do, and above all, this stage brings happiness and fulfillment.
In order to reach this stage, it is important to actually act on your newly created roadmap to make change happen. If you don’t, you move back to the treadmill stage.
Many people want to make a change in their life in order to feel fulfilled. This change may be a change in career, which requires further education to acquire new skills and knowledge. Making a change often leads to fulfillment in work, which can lead to fulfillment in other areas of life– providing an opportunity to be happier in relationships and your career.