In my Amazing Career Project online course, I teach professional women the 16 critical steps to building a happier and more rewarding career and professional life. Many of the course participants over the past 5 years have shared their deep confusion and unhappiness over their work. They offer some version of this:
“Kathy, so much of my work-life and career is not what I want – I just don’t know where to begin to fix it. Should I leave this employer, or chuck my whole career, or make a pivot? Do I leave corporate life entirely and start my own thing, or do something drastically different from what I’ve been doing for the pat 15 years? I’m so unhappy and burnt out, but I have no idea how to fix this.”
After going through two complete career reinventions myself (from corporate VP to marriage and family therapist, then to coach/writer/speaker) and then studying how to do it right, I’ve found there is a proven process that we need to follow if we want to make critical changes in our career but not turn our whole world upside in the process.
You CAN shift your career to something more meaningful and also financially successful, but most people fail to achieve that for these 5 reasons:
Leap too soon and too rashly, because the emotional pain they’re in prevents them from having the patience to identify the best next steps
Sabotage their growth because they have a significant confidence and self-worth gap
They focus on “fixing” the wrong thing
They fail to obtain the proper support throughout the process
They don’t plan effectively or in a smart way for transition
I’d like to share the 5-step career-change process that I teach professionals for changing their careers to something more enjoyable, rewarding and meaningful, without risking everything to get there.
And I’d like to help you identify the ONE most powerful micro step to take today to begin revising your career to something that will make you feel more alive and successful, and experience more joy and peace in that process.
The five steps you need to take to revise your career to something better are these:
#1 - Step Back for an empowered perspective of who you are and what you’re capable of
First, you have to understand yourself much more deeply than you do now. You have to know what you’ll give up everything for, what you value, your priorities, standards of integrity, non-negotiables and your style, preferences, and ideals. Millions of professionals don’t have an intimate understanding of who they are and what they need and want. They’re clueless. Sadly, they spend years trying to figure out a new direction to take, without having the understanding they need to make the right decisions. If you don’t know yourself intimately, you can’t build a successful and enjoyable career.
As a part of this process, you also need to step back and look at your life and career with a different lens. To connect the dots and make use of everything you are and have learned in your years of working, you have to get off the hamster wheel, stop and breathe, and view your life from a higher, more enlightened perspective.
As a start, write down all the jobs you’ve ever held – what you loved, hated, and learned from these experiences and what you want to bring forward in your next role. And try to identify all the key themes of your life – your passions, your amazing talents, and what you are continually drawn to that makes you who you are.
#2 - Let Go – of the thinking, patterns and behaviors that keep you stuck
There’s something blocking you from more success and reward in your professional life or you would already have it. The first place to look is where there are repeating negative patterns in your life – terrible bosses, toxic environments, being passed over continually, back-stabbing colleagues, draining responsibilities, putting up with things you never should, etc.
Examine the patterns that repeat, and identify the role you’re playing in them and how you continue to participate in sustaining these patterns. Then do something brave and concrete to shift that dynamic. Be accountable and take action to generate change.
You may also have limiting beliefs and mindsets (which often emerge from our childhood and families of origin) about money, success, power, your ego, your worth, etc., or you may take repeated actions that hold you back from the next level of success. For many people, it’s a problem with their boundaries – an inability to advocate for and speak up bravely for their priorities. For others, their communication style hurts them, and pushes away any kind of positive support or help. For others still, it’s a lack of confidence or a belief that they’re “less than” and not worthy of advancing or experiencing great joy and satisfaction in their work.
Until you let go of what you’re doing and thinking that keeps you stuck and small, you can’t build a happy career. Your limitations and “power gaps” will follow you in every new direction until you address and resolve them.
#3 - Say YES! to your most compelling visions
Thirdly, you need a vision for the next chapter, but not just any vision or fantasy – you need “just right vision.” So often, we dream large about where we think we’d love to be, but the vision is so far away from where we are today, that we sabotage any efforts to get there (because we don’t really think it’s possible.) As Sir Winston Churchill said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be handled one link at a time.”
Also, thousands of people fantasize about leaving behind everything they’re doing, and escaping to a tropical island to run a bed and breakfast establishment or something wildly romantic. But for many, the reality is that when they examine what it would really look like to assume that professional identity, they realize it’s not for them.
It’s critical to identify concretely what amazing success and reward looks like for you specifically, but then break that down into a vision that fits well with who you are. As an example, people will say to me, “Wow, Kathy, I see you wrote a book, and I’d really LOVE to write one too. What’s your advice on that?” I’ll then ask, “Cool! Are you writing?” and they’ll invariably respond, “Uh, no.” Well, you can’t write a book if you’re not writing anything.
If you dream of writing a book, then start writing – a blog, an article, your first chapter, a paper, a guest post, something. Writers write, dancers dance, singers sing, educators educate. Get moving towards living your compelling vision so that it doesn’t remain in the sphere of the impossible.
#4 - Explore it and try it on
Perhaps the most important step in this sequence is exploring the top three directions you’re excited about, and “trying them on” as thoroughly as you can. For example, if you’re in corporate HR and dream of being a coach, try it on and get very clear on what’s required to be successful in the life of a coach. Interview coaches who are doing what you want to do (and also people who failed at it), research it online, go to SCORE for help developing your business plan, meet with your financial consultant to review your financial plans, read everything you can get your hands on about this direction, go to networking meetings with people in the field, intern with a coach. Get trained in business-building as a coach. Don’t leave one stone unturned. Try on the professional identity of this new direction before you leap.
You can’t know if a direction is right for you unless you’ve tried it on – behaviorally, emotionally, functionally, and financially. Things look very different from afar – and the reality of all professions is that they’re quite different from what they appear. Try on the new direction as deeply and thoroughly as you can so you can feel what it would mean to live that identity.
#5 - Create it S.M.A.R.T.
I’ve read some thought leaders of late who debunk the usefulness of S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) goals. I don’t agree. Planning with smart goals is essential if you want to build a plan that works, and stay on the path to those goals without falling off because you’re discouraged, impatient, or have made some big missteps.
You can’t go from Point A to Point Z in a month. This process – of identifying who you really are and determining the directions that will align best with your values, visions and needs – takes time, energy, patience, trust and commitment. You’ve got to be ready to look inside deeply and expand yourself, if you want great success in your work. It’s not going to fall in your lap – you have to reach out and grab it, and do the inner and outer work of change.
It’s very beneficial to have 3-month, 6-month and 12-month goals, with milestones and ways you can see and measure how far you’ve come. And it’s essential to have someone in your court to help you remain accountable.
So, what is that one micro step you should take today, to start transforming your career to something you’ll love?
It’s this: Determine the one thing you dislike most in what you’re doing, and do ONE brave, concrete thing today that will help you shift away from it.
Here are some examples:
If you are exhausted to the bone and terribly burnt out:
Step: Talk to your boss about the fact that this is not sustainable for you, and that things have to change. And have a feasible plan for what that change can look like.
If you’re incredibly bored by what you do:
Step: Before your leap, identify one project, one cause, one direction that you could take on in your current work that will be thrilling for you, and do it.
If you know that you want to have a bigger impact:
Step: Starting today, sign up for three conferences, events or workshops given by people doing what you dream of. Begin associating more with, and learning from, those people who are at a higher level of impact, and learn the lessons they can teach you. Get in the same room with people who can inspire and expand you.
If you dream of a completely new career and work- life:
Step: Identify five people doing that different work that you’re drawn to, and reach out to ask to take them to lunch or for coffee, or have a brief chat. Ask about their trajectories, their passions, their skills, how they made this career work. Discover what they believe is essential to the success in that line of work. Then decide if you want to pursue it more.
These micro steps are doable and within your reach, and will open many doors of opportunity and new hope for you. But it’s up to you – take action today, or waste another year in an unhappy career.