Everyone knows a story about a smart and talented businessperson who has lost his or her passion for work, who no longer looks forward to going to the office yet remains stuck without a visible way out. Most everyone knows a story, too, about a person who ditched a 20-year career to pursue something completely different — the lawyer who gave it all up to become a writer or the auditor who quit her accounting firm to start her own toy company — and is the happier for it.
‘Am I doing what is right for me, or should I change direction?’ is one of the most pressing questions in the mid-career professional’s mind today. The numbers of people making major career changes, not to mention those just thinking about it, have risen significantly over the last decade and continue to grow. But the difference between the person who yearns for change yet stays put and the person who takes the leap to find renewed fulfillment at midcareer is not what you might expect. Consider the following examples:
Susan Fontaine made a clean break with her unfulfilling past as partner and head of the strategy practice at a top consulting firm. But the former management consultant — her name, like the names of the other people I studied, has been changed for this article — had not yet had the time to figure out a future direction. When a close client offered her the top strategy job at a Financial Times 100 firm, she took it. She was ready for change, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. To her dismay, this position — though perfect according to what she calls ‘the relentless logic of a post-MBA CV’ — was no different from her old job in all the aspects she had been seeking to change. Two weeks into the new role, she realized she had made a terrible mistake.
After a four-week executive education program at a top business school, Harris Roberts, a regulatory affairs director at a major healthcare firm, was ready for change. He wanted bottom-line responsibility, and he itched to put into practice some of the cutting-edge ideas he had learned in the program. His long-time mentor, the company’s CEO, had promised, ‘When you come back, we’ll give you a business unit’. But upon Harris’s return, a complicated new product introduction delayed the long-awaited transition. He was needed in his old role, so he was asked to postpone his dream. As always, Harris put the company first. But he was disappointed; there was no challenge anymore. Resigned to waiting it out, he created for himself a ‘network of mentors’, senior members of the firm whom he enlisted to guide his development and help him try to land the coveted general management role. 18 months later, he was still doing essentially the same job.
A milestone birthday, upheaval in his personal life, and a negative performance evaluation — the first of his career — combined to make a ‘snapping point’ for Gary McCarthy. After business school, the former investment banker and consultant had taken a job at a blue-chip firm by default, biding his time until he found his ‘true passion’. Now, he decided, it was time to make a proactive career choice. Determined to get it right, Gary did all the correct things. He started with a career psychologist who gave him a battery of tests to help him figure out his work interests and values. He talked to headhunters, friends, and family and read best-selling books on career change. By his own account, none of the advice was very useful. He researched possible industries and companies. He made two lists: completely different professions involving things he was passionate about and variations on what he was already doing. A year later, a viable alternative had yet to materialize.
When I consider the experiences of these people and dozens of others I have studied over the past few years, there can be no doubt: despite the rhetoric, a true change of direction is very hard to swing. This isn’t because managers or professionals are typically unwilling to change; on the contrary, many make serious attempts to reinvent themselves, devoting large amounts of time and energy to the process at great professional and personal risk. But despite heroic efforts, they remain stuck in the wrong careers, not living up to their potential and sacrificing professional fulfillment.
Many academics and career counselors observe this inertia and conclude that the problem lies in basic human motives: We fear change, lack readiness, are unwilling to make sacrifices, sabotage ourselves. My in-depth research leads me to a different conclusion: people most often fail because they go about it all wrong. Indeed, the conventional wisdom on how to change careers is in fact a prescription for how to stay put. The problem lies in our methods, not our motives.
In my study, I saw many people try a conventional approach and then languish for months, if not years. But by taking a different tack, one I came to call the practice of working identity, they eventually found their way to brand-new careers. The phrase ‘working identity’, of course, carries two meanings. It is, first, our sense of self in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others and, ultimately, how we live our working lives. But it can also denote action — a process of applying effort to reshape that identity. Working our identity, I found, is a matter of skill, not personality, and therefore can be learned by almost anyone seeking professional renewal. But first we have to be willing to abandon everything we have ever been taught about making sound career decisions.