Changing careers can be a risky and challenging move. This is especially the case for folks who have been at a career for 10, 20, or more years.
For most individuals with 20 + years of work experience in one field, the easiest (and often most advisable) answer is to stay put through the primary working years. While this is the easiest answer, this is not always the feasible or desirable answer.
A Question of Feasibility
The larger economy, as well as the nature of companies in general, continues to change in our day. With these changes, few organizations can assure their people that they will have lifetime employment. For many in our day, career shifts are based on necessity rather than personal wishes.
This necessity may be due to downsizing at their current company or organization. This necessity may also be due to a larger trend in their industry in general—trends that mean fewer jobs are available in their field.
A Question of Desirability
Other times, a change in career is driven by personal desire rather than the practical questions of feasibility. As a professor teaching in the seminary context, these are the students I often meet. These students are considering a career shift to pastoral or other church-based leadership roles that typically is not driven by necessity.
Whether it is a shift toward church-based ministry along with many of my students, or another career path altogether, the question of desirability is driven by finding a vocational role in the years ahead that will be personally meaningful and fulfilling.
Practical Advice for Changing Careers
Whether driven by the feasible or desirable, what is the most effective way to pursue a career transition? I came across a fascinating article on this topic by Herminia Ibarra this past summer. Ibarra observes that there is one key differentiator between those who make a successful career change and those who do not.
This key differentiator is moving from a “Plan and Implement” approach to a “Test and Learn” approach. Here are some of my reflections on Ibarra’s broad categories that I will engage around the shift from planning to playing.
Traditional Advice—Plan then Act
Typically, people consider a career change by thinking through options, deciding on one, and then taking the plunge by acting on that knowledge. In other words, the process moves from planning to acting. This seems like a logical and helpful approach.
The only problem with this is that it is disconnected from the way life typically works!
Consider the way infants, toddlers, and children learn. Toddlers do not typically spend weeks thinking through their future walking strategy and then all of the sudden start their walking journey with perfection. Most toddlers spend a lot of time trying things out—“playing”—and typically take lots of spills along the way. Over time, though, they learn a new skill and it becomes an integrated part of who they are. In this example, planning is not the key, but rather playing.
Often this is the way various sports and hobbies are selected as well. Children and teens try on a lot of options and slowly figure out both what they are good at and what they enjoy. The initial career process often follows this path as well.
Better Advice—Play then Act
However, the further along we go in our career, the less likely we seem to follow this path of play. We become more risk adverse in career selection, and this often leads to making very thoughtful, methodical, calculated, and slow decisions. In Ibarra’s words, the plan and implement approach “sounds reasonable—but it actual fosters stagnation,” and keeps us “mired in introspection.”
While there is wisdom in thoughtful and slower decisions, it is important to go back to our earlier days to drawn insights we once knew about playing that leads to proficiency.
Because developmental learning is often tied to trying things out first—playing—experimenting with career transitions by trying things out is key to the success of many pursuing career transitions.
Ibarra calls this the test and learn method to career transitions: “You put several working identities into practice, refining them until they’re sufficiently grounded in experience to inspire more decisive steps.” Putting these identities into practice is vital because careers are closely connected with people’s identities. On this point, Ibarra writes:
“The test-and-learn approach recognizes that the only way to counter uncertainty and resist the pull of the familiar is to make alternative futures more vivid, more tangible, and more doable. We acquired our old identities in practice. Likewise, we redefine them, in practice, by crafting experiments, shifting connections, and making sense of the changes we are going through.”
Finding Ways to Play before Acting
In light of such advice, the key to considering a career transition is finding ways to try things out first before taking a plunge. What is the possible career transition you have been considering? How can you find a way to experiment with this career before releasing your former career?
Ibarra recommends trying out “new activities and professional roles” on a small scale before making a commitment to a different path. This likely means making some form of sacrifice in the short-term:
- Trying out freelance work in a new area
- Considering an educational option that will give you on-the-job experience
- Doing some pro bono work to get experience
- Engaging in a new area of work as a volunteer
- Using some evenings or weekends to try out a role through a second job
- Taking some vacation time to explore the new role over a concentrated period of time
In all of these examples, the key is to find a way to “play” rather than just “plan.” Try things on. See if the role is a fit. Use the “play” time to see if you are (1) good at the role, and (2) enjoy the role.
As you play in this new role (or roles), be open to the fact that this role may actually affirm that you are already in a good fit already. Whether the play affirms a new career direction or reaffirms your current career, this vocational play will be well worth the investment.
Enjoy the Planning and Playing
Bottom line, a career change is a big decision. It is worth taking the time necessary to make sure it is the right decision. Taking time is not just about planning, though. It is also about playing. Take time to play in these new roles, try them out, and see if they are the right fit for you at this season of your life.