A sea change is underway among workers in the United States, and it’s got many of us rethinking what’s possible when we go to work — including where and how we do it. The “quit rate” in the U.S., or the number of people who left their jobs, reached a 20-year high in November 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the reasons vary, most people just weren’t happy with some aspect of their former job. Low pay (63%), no opportunities for advancement (63%) and feeling disrespected at work (57%) all led to workers handing in their badges, in what experts are calling The Great Resignation. Roughly half also said child care issues (48%), lack of flexibility (45%) and lackluster benefits like health insurance and paid time off (43%) were major reasons they said goodbye to a prior workplace.
Most people who left a job in 2021 did transition into another one, with 55% now working full-time and 23% part-time. But making that leap can be scary, especially for those who have been in their current position for a long time. Changing fields entirely can feel even more daunting. That’s why we asked expert career coaches how to even begin thinking about a career change, and what steps to take to get there.
First, think about how you’re spending your time.
“There’s really nothing quite like a pandemic to really make you question how you’re spending your time, energy and resources,” says Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino, founder of The Best Ever You Network. “Once you use your time, you can’t really get it back.” On average, people will spend about 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. That’s about ⅓ of our lives, and an awful lot of time to be miserable.
Take a good, hard look at whether your work makes you feel happy or fulfilled or whether you’ve just been going with the flow, advises Hamilton-Guarino. “A lot of us, in the back of our minds, know something needs to change or have something they want to do,” she explains. “But we don’t know what’s out there because we’re in that cycle of necessity, or we’re just used to what we’re doing.”
It’s also important to check in with yourself on what’s really causing unhappiness at work, so you know what to look for in your next position, Hamilton-Guarino points out. Think about whether you’re taking on responsibility for structural, interpersonal or culture fit issues that aren’t really yours to own, when evaluating whether it’s time to move on from your current job.
Realize you aren’t stuck where you are.
A lot of people stay in a job that’s not exactly what they want because they don’t see a way out, says Lia Garvin, operations leader at Google and author of UNSTUCK: Reframe Your Thinking to Free Yourself From the Patterns and People that Hold You Back. “They think, ‘This is it for me,’ or ‘I can’t do anything else.’ Or, ‘I’ve invested so much time in this job so I guess I just have to be unhappy in it,’” she explains. That last one is called a sunk cost fallacy, and it keeps many people stuck in situations they really should have bailed out of long ago.
Instead, reframing your thinking around possibilities instead of limitations can help. Garvin recommends asking yourself, “What else is possible?” or “What else might I try?” Reframing isn’t just looking on the bright side, either. “That’s ignoring all of the things that are really real and true and difficult about a situation,” Garvin points out. “It is about recognizing our agency and making a series of choices that get me closer to that thing that I want, even when there are a lot of things outside of our control.”
And if you can’t decide whether you need to change, look inward. If you’re consistently fatigued or just can’t muster enthusiasm for work, that’s a red flag. Feeling unmotivated, perpetually running late, coming down with persistent low-grade colds or even just a general feeling of unwellness, Hamilton-Guarino points out, can all be signs that something needs to shift.
Decide to make a change.
Every journey begins with a single step, so consciously telling yourself that you’re going to make a change is the first one in your career shift. And acknowledging that change can bring up insecurities and fear matters, too. If you know in your heart that you’re ready to pursue something new, that will help you talk down that little voice that says you’re making the wrong move.
That state of mind is known as a growth mindset, in which you’re mentally open to something new. “It’s putting your feet firmly on the ground and deciding,” Garvin says. “It’s a lot of pushing through the fear, the anxiety and the unknown outside your comfort zone.”
Nail down your transferable skills.
Whether you’re staring blankly at a job board or updating your resume, it can be overwhelming to think about pivoting to a new career or industry. When you get that pit in your stomach, write out a list of their transferable skills that might help them succeed in other areas, too. Think “soft skills” like problem-solving, mentoring, coaching and communication. Then, get really specific about how you’ve put those skills into practice in the past that you can share with a new company.
“That it makes it less like, “Well, everybody has problem solving skills,’” Garvin explains, “And more like, ‘When I was in this role, I did XYZ thing, which, which is a great showcase for my problem-solving skills.’” When you get into the interview room or are crafting your cover letter, that showcase will help you stand out from the crowd, too.
Write out your values.
Then, think about what really matters to you in a workplace. Over the past couple of years, more and more workers have realized they value flexibility or the option to work from home, for example. Others want a shorter commute, better pay and benefits, a more team-oriented atmosphere or a clearer path to promotion. “There’s always going to be tradeoffs,” Garvin cautions. “So think about what are the core set of things that must be there, and I mean like four out of 100.”
Realizing what you want out of a workplace can help prevent buyers’ remorse if you find yourself in a new job with the same pitfalls as your last one. Too often, Garvin explains, people focus on the list of tasks and responsibilities inherent in a new gig, without considering the way the work gets done or these other factors that can make a workplace great (or terrible).
“Recognize some of the triggers that were making the job or the industry feel unfulfilling,” Garvin advises. Sometimes a bad manager or a team that just doesn’t work well together can make a job miserable. Other times, you may be a solitary person who’s found themselves working in a highly collaborative position, or someone who loves hands-on tasks who’s ended up in an administrative role. Being very clear with yourself about those less obvious elements can be key to finding a better fit.
Call in your support system.
“For a really long time, we have associated cries for help as failure, when in fact cries for help are a sign of success,” notes Hamilton-Guarino. Just like sports teams need coaches, we all need mentors to help show us the path forward. But no one will know what you need if you don’t ask. Simply asking your family and friends to support your career change can go a long way to dispelling your fear that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ll have loved ones rooting you on along the way.
Similarly, try writing out the change you want to make, whether it’s a new role at a similar company or a total career pivot, then seeking out people who can help. If you don’t have those types of contacts yet, consider looking for professional organizations, local or virtual meet-ups or even your alma mater’s alumni group for people further down the road to your goal who might be able to help you get there.
Give yourself some credit.
Finally, realize that change takes time and just deciding to make a change is a huge step. Often, we forget to acknowledge that taking the leap has value in itself. “Change takes time. I think it’s important to have patience with yourself,” Hamilton-Guarino says. If you don’t find the perfect fit right away, or have to think longer-range than you were planning on at the beginning of your job hunt, that’s OK.
For Garvin, it’s all about perspective. Entering a situation with a negative or doubtful outlook can lead to negative thinking, like feeling you’ve failed if you don’t ace the first interview you land or the first few weeks (or months) of a new job don’t feel like paradise. Instead, try reframing the move itself as the successful outcome — you’ve already succeeded at getting out of your last job or deciding to take steps to get there. “It takes a ton of work to make a change,” she says. “And doing that is incredibly, incredibly brave and courageous. And we should appreciate that about ourselves.”
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