How to Think Through a Career Change

“I’m in the wrong career and I want to know what the right one would be.” Jason had a winning smile, bright penetrating eyes, and a capable, confident, easy-going manner. As a graduate of Harvard Law School, I could also assume that he was intelligent and hard working. His large law firm had probably been delighted to recruit him not only because of his attractive personality, but because minority hires with his outstanding academic credentials were highly desirable and not always that easy to find. “I’ve been a commercial litigator for three years,” he went on, “and I hate almost everything about my job. In fact, I never liked studying law in school. I am not interested in the subject matter and I don’t feel I fit in with the people I work with.”

Jason had chosen law as his career for many of the same reasons that others do. In high school he had been told that he communicated well and held up his end in an argument. Jason was an excellent student from a tough inner-city high school where he was the school president his senior year. He excelled at basketball and loved to play the game. Jason went to Amherst college and, after an initial adjustment, he did well there. Jason’s teachers as well as his parents encouraged him to consider the field of law because it would be a secure and lucrative profession.

The first inkling of trouble came in law school. Jason did well in law school because he worked hard, but he had no interest in the legal concepts he was learning. He persevered because many people told him that the practice of law was not like law school. Maybe he would enjoy practicing law.

In his first and second summers during law school he interned at the law firm that eventually hired him when he graduated. This large firm had a reasonably good reputation for quality of life. Jason worked in the litigation practice group. He described the practice group leader as a “decent guy” and the others in the group were “kind of boring but okay,” according to Jason. As time went on, however, it became clearer and clearer to Jason that for him the work wasn’t what he wanted to spend his time doing, and the legal issues were uninteresting to him.

Jason was, he said, a “real people person” who liked to be “physically active”. He looked at the partners at his firm and realized that he did not want their jobs or their lifestyles. Ever. Big money did not motivate him. Jason felt that he was wasting his time as a lawyer at a large firm. Other people might think that his life was “cool” or “prestigious” but nothing could convince him of that. He hated going to work and couldn’t wait to leave at the end of the day. Every Sunday he got depressed.

What did he want from his work-life? Jason described his ideal job. He would look forward to going to work. The workplace would be “active” and involve a team with a mission that excited him. He would interact with a lot of people during the day. He would feel good about the mission and the goals. He would be involved in a work world that brought out the best in him. When we went through his work history, the job that he loved above all others was the job he had had coaching the women’s basketball team in college. He enjoyed the activity, the counseling and coaching. He loved the thrill of the games and the administrative work did not bother him because it was part of the effort needed to make the team successful. He liked everything about that job. On a scale of 1 to 10 that job had been a 10.

What set Jason apart from some dissatisfied professionals I work with was the knowledge he already had about his career dissatisfaction. Jason was certain that his job and probably his career was wrong for him. He knew that he needed a roadmap to help him find a career that was better for him. He had already given a lot of thought to what would make him happier.

Some of my clients begin our first session with a tangle of undefined depression and weariness.

After trying for years to unravel the cause of their unhappiness by themselves or with the help of books or spouses or friends who are tired of hearing their complaints, they meet with me to help them solve the mystery of their dissatisfaction. All they can say is that they are unhappy, but they do not know why.

No matter how confusing or mixed up the initial ball of complaints may seem, it is usually possible to untangle it by identifying four elements and using these elements as a device for sorting out the dissatisfactions and needs that must be met. This, along with a work history helps us understand the basic building blocks for a successful career.

These four elements we discuss are: aptitude, interest, lifestyle, and self- actualization. They form the acronym AILS. Each person needs to have a differing amount of these four elements in his or her career, but everyone needs to get these four elements to experience career satisfaction. If you are unhappy ask yourself “What AILS me?” by thinking through how well or how poorly your current career is satisfying these elements for you.

Aptitude

Aptitude is what you do well. You want to have a career where you get to play to your natural strengths and your natural talents. Others may describe you as “terrific” or “excellent” at these activities.

Usually aptitudes are not speculative by the time you graduate from college. By then most people have experienced, recognized and have evidence of their talents and gifts. Other people such as your parents, teachers, and friends have pointed them out to you. “Wow, you sure are good at public speaking,” or “I can’t believe how well you understand people and you are so good at helping them feel better,” or “You just always seem to understand math. How do you do it?” Often you will be able to tell that comparatively and objectively you do well at these activities. You are the person who is asked to take a leadership role. You are the person that everyone seems to trust to tell their secrets. You are a stand-out in your science class. In short, you do the task or activity well and you are naturally good at it.

There are also aptitude tests that can be helpful for people who want to be sure about their strengths or gifts and avoid missing a hidden aptitude that might influence career path choice. Aptitude tests are especially helpful for people deciding on their initial career path. Once you have invested significant time and energy in a professional career and have developed a skillset that is marketable in that industry, it may be less useful for you to be told that you should have been an architect or a doctor, for example. At that point in your life, the energy and/or cost it would take to recredential in a field that demands years of study and internship or other hurdles, may be impractical, too expensive or too time-consuming for you.

On the other hand, there are often related fields that will allow many professionals to enter with little or no re-credentialing. For example, many attorneys are able find niches in the legal profession that play to their strengths, eliminating the need to re-credential. Or they might find a career that relates to the field of law or serves the field of law where the legal background acts as leverage and gives them an advantage- these are called JD Advantage jobs. Some examples are professional development for law firms, sales of technology services for law firms, career services in a law school, public relations for the legal field or legal recruiting. There are many others. If you transition your career into the new field you will no longer practice law, but your legal experience makes you more valuable because you understand the legal work world and you serve or support some aspect of the legal field. From that strategic move, you can sometimes move further into the new field. You can go from legal recruiting to executive recruiting, or career services for the law school to another role in the administration of a university. Other professions have the same kind of potential for people who want to leave the direct delivery of services in that field but can deliver valuable services to the industry in a different role. An example would be changing careers from being an environmental consultant doing field work to the role of strategic communications director for a renewable energy company. There are many other similar transitions that can work for people who are trying to retool their careers to play to their strengths and interests.

In Jason’s situation he seemed to have an aptitude for the law that would have sustained him had he been interested in the law, but he was not interested.

Interest

Interests do not always match up with aptitudes. You can have an aptitude for math but be uninterested in a career where you use any of your math skills. Your “interests” are important because they provide the energy or motivation powering your work-life. You like to think about the kinds of things or ideas or engage in the kinds of activities that are typical for this field. When you choose a well-matched career the feeling is “What!? They pay me to do this work? I’d do it for free! It’s fascinating.” You enjoy the mental life you experience when you do this work. You are excited about the work and look forward to getting better at the same or similar activities.

Some people tell me they have no strong interests. Those people tend to have a strong interest they have not identified. They usually care about having a life that works with friends and family and good experiences. This can be a strong interest too!

When you are really interested in something, the whole world falls away. It’s as if you are in another world because you are so focused, so “into” whatever it is you are doing. This is referred to as “flow”. In career work I strive to find out where there is a high level of interest to help my clients who want or need to re-purpose or re-tool their careers in a better direction. Of course, we also need to factor in other elements as well including the amount of money someone needs to make, work-life balance, market forces, and whether the person must return to school for more education if that is needed to gain the skills to land a job in the new field. I worked with a young man who was sent by his parents because he had “no interest in anything.” All he wanted to do was play video games. He was terrific at these games. After working together, we both agreed his passion and dream was to be able to create videogame content. He was excited to go to school to learn how to create video games. This career path allowed him to follow his strong interest.

For Jason, strong interest in the law was missing. He reported a sense of monumental boredom with not only his practice area and the work he did at his firm, but he had also disliked law school. The content of his law school classes was not engaging for him. He had gritted his way through law school, and he was gritting his way through as a lawyer. When he looked at the people who were partners at his firm and imagined himself doing what they were doing he felt uninspired and depressed. That vision of a future life was not something he wanted.

When the “interest” factor is present, the person enjoys learning, reading and doing the activities that lead to greater expertise. Because Jason had only been in one job for his entire legal career, we thought it might be premature to think that the field of law was uninteresting to him. We considered other practice areas. Jason did informational interviews to see if other practice areas might appeal to him. He found lawyers in different practice areas through his law school career services center and either met in person or talked with them over the phone to find out about their experiences to see if he could imagine himself doing the work they were doing.

In Jason’s case, it seemed possible that his interest in sports and his background in law might fuse to create an interest in sports law. But after doing informational interviews with people in the niche practice area of sports law, Jason rejected that idea. He did not want to do legal work for athletes, which he learned would mainly mean contract negotiation and drafting. Jason also considered and rejected being a scout or an agent for athletes after doing some informational interviews with lawyers who had transitioned to that kind of work. Jason did not find any legal practice area that held his interest. If anything, after talking with other lawyers he was more determined than ever to leave the field of law. His lack of interest in the law was undeniable.

Life Style

Life style is a composite of factors. Some people really need to have these factors in their work-lives to be successful. Some do not. These factors differ in terms of importance depending upon the person. Some of these factors include but are not limited to:

  • How much money you want or need to earn to feel secure
  • Work/ life balance
  • Typical hours (time for family and friends or activities outside of work)
  • Flexibility and ability to work remotely
  • Travel schedule
  • Flexibility of place- being physically active during the day

These and other factors have varying degrees of importance for people. For some, there are items on this list that are crucial and other items that would need to be added. There are other people who would not put any of these items on their personal radar screen for lifestyle.

When I work with clients, we do a thorough work history. Clients write up the work history with a pro and con list of everything they liked and did not like in their past work experiences, past school experiences, past jobs and current job. We also talk about their family of origin and their experiences growing up. A work history and personal history illuminate themes that reveal lifestyle needs as well as aptitudes and strong interests. A thorough and penetrating discussion of these recurrent themes is the key to identifying elements that people need and need to avoid in their work-lives. Important elements recur, and “pop out” in the work history.

For example, Jason identified a need to be physically active. “I feel pent up at work all day,” he said. “I used to like being able to move around and go from place to place in college. My classes were in different parts of the campus. I really liked that walk.” “I look at the partners at my firm and wonder when they ever get the chance to exercise.” To feel okay, Jason needed physical activity in his daily life. When he played basketball, which was something he did well growing up and in high school, he felt that he was in his element. His favorite job had been assistant coach for the girl’s basketball team. Doing that job, he got to be physically active and he was also coaching, teaching, advising and training- all activities he enjoyed very much. The mission of helping the next generation was very motivating for him. Working with the team was absorbing and gave him a sense of flow.

For many dissatisfied professionals, voicing complaints and unhappiness has been a recurrent topic of conversation with colleagues, friends and spouses; enough to wear them out sometimes. Unfortunately, complaining does not usually get you closer to a solution. But the exercise of articulating likes and dislikes in a work history ferrets out these major themes and needs that people have and that can in turn lead to a better understanding of the right career direction for success.

Jason and I learned about his needs and allergies through his work history. We came up with a master list unique to Jason as I do with hundreds of other clients who work with me to identify their career direction. I highly recommend doing a work-history where you identify pros and cons of your past jobs, paid or unpaid, if you are trying to figure out the right career direction for success.

Self-Actualization

The fourth element is self-actualization, self-growth and/or personal development. It is the hallmark of being human that we are each unique and that we usually feel good if we are working towards personally resonant goals in our lives.

Just as plants need the right kind of soil, amount of sun, and nutrients, people have internal psychological needs that relate to their potential for growth. If you put a person in the wrong work context that person will not grow as well and will not feel satisfied or be successful in that career. There are also toxic workplaces with bosses that denigrate workers, screamers, yellers and micromanagers. Some workplaces are not good for anyone! In some cases, the person in a toxic workplace will feel depressed and use alcohol, drugs, or other self-medication to try to deal with the problem. Some people will blame themselves for their unhappiness at work. In my work with many clients, if the workplace is the problem, moving to a better workplace with a better environment is the cure. In addition, if the personal mission matches up well enough with the career, many people experience a sense of relief and greater contentment as well as personal growth. Given the variety of workplaces out there in the world, it is usually possible to find a better fit to match your needs.

Our careers should help us to grow and to develop in ways that we want and need to evolve as people. To do that we want to put ourselves into career contexts that promote those parts of ourselves that we want to develop. The young woman or man who was shy in high school and college or grew up in a household with an overbearing parent, might yearn to develop his or her ability to stand up, have a voice and speak out. Conquering an ancient fear can be a powerful force for personal growth as well as a motivator creating long term interest in in a field because it satisfies a profound personal need. A person raised in a household where the oldest son was allowed to bully his younger siblings may feel actualized by a legal career in which s/he can take the role of the avenger (i.e. prosecutor, public defender, personal injury attorney). The context of the workplace should support and nurture the positive personal mission of the individual.

Careers come in many different varieties when it comes to these self-actualization needs. For example, a person who blossoms when he or she can assume leadership roles and an opportunity to assume responsibility might find good opportunities in many fields as long as the work settings permit or foster that kind of growth. But let’s say a person has a strong need to have a calm and supportive team environment, with people who ask how you are feeling, appreciate you, thank you and work collaboratively. A person with that kind of self-actualization need will be less likely to find many satisfying workplaces where the firm or company has a high intensity, competitive culture. Searching for and finding the right match between workplace culture and your personal needs is very important. I teach my clients how to do this and I have written two books that help people to find their way to the right workplaces.

Some of my clients report that the career they have chosen is not working for them because they do not like the way they have to behave or act in order to be successful. They do not like the person they are becoming in order to do the job well. “I’m turning into a witch! I yell and scream at people!” one female litigator announced. “If I don’t leave the law, I will probably ruin my marriage I’ve become such a bitch.” Other lawyers have said, “I hate to pretend that I actually enjoy winning at any cost. I really don’t like the whole competitive thing. I do not want to have to act in a way that isn’t me.” Many others have said, “I think I am becoming a worrywort. I worry all the time. Did I do it right? Will the partner throw me work at the last moment on Friday when I am leaving for my friend’s wedding? Did I blow a deadline? I used to worry about things before I became a lawyer, but not like this!” Others say, “My partner finds fault with everything I write and re-writes it all in his style which makes me feel like a failure.” These and other problems bring people in to work with me.to figure out if they should transition to a new career or simply change their workplace to get a more compatible work environment.

Another aspect of being human is that in our families of origin, we also have experiences that set us up for allergies towards certain people and situations. Many of these allergies come from our childhood, the parenting we had, and the kinds of experiences we had growing up. Without question people also bring their personal baggage and allergies with them into their work lives. Even so, workplaces can increase a person’s problems and intensify psychological distress. The measure of the job’s fit with a person’s internal needs for self-actualization must be determined by that individual’s unique blend of requirements. That blend includes quirks and sensitivities.

One person may be allergic to the micromanager boss who is reminiscent of the over-involved mother that he or she could not wait to get away from. Ironically, he now has to deal with a boss who brings up the same feelings in him. Another person might be allergic to a situation in a work group where highly credentialed attorneys (prestigious schools) do better than attorneys with more experience (street smarts) by being given better assignments and greater responsibility. It isn’t fair. Anyone might be upset about that. But if the experience reminds you of a painful rivalry with a favored sibling, for example, that will intensify your allergy to the unfair work situation and make it unbearable for you.

Everyone has these sensitivities or allergies and carries them around as personal baggage. If your personal allergies are interfering with or even torpedoing career and personal success, and/or a sense of abiding satisfaction with life, relationships and work, then it pays to unpack the bags you carry and try to understand or even remodel yourself if you can. Some people are able to do that through individual or group therapy, CBT or DBT work, counseling, journaling, or talking with family or friends.

There is a way to figure out with reasonable accuracy if you have an embedded personal allergy that is hurting your career success. If the workplace problem is coming from your personal baggage, you will usually find this problem has cropped up in other past work settings and in interactions with friends and family. Often, the work history will reveal that the person has a history of similar reactions or feelings in multiple settings.

If you want to try to figure this out for yourself, write up your work history: every job you have had, paid or unpaid, and what you liked and did not like about it. Then read it for themes. A history laced with similar stories about “bad bosses” or “people who never get along with me” or “older supervisors who always criticize me” can be a big red flag to help you to identify your own psychological baggage or allergies. If you carry this baggage with you it will follow you in life. You might want to consider therapy or counseling to move beyond these recurring problems from childhood.

In many cases there is a mix or blend of elements that contribute to workplace dissatisfaction. The person has an allergy or sensitivity and the workplace exacerbates it. If that is the case, moving into a different workplace with fewer allergens present can be a highly effective cure for the problem. The person who is, for example, highly allergic to the micromanaging boss will do a lot better in a different work world or workplace with a boss who trusts him or her to do the work. Although the underlying personality problem is still there, the problem is less evident because it is not stirred up at work.

When it came to Jason, changing to another law firm, going in house or finding a government job was not going to be the solution to his career problem because he would still be practicing law. He did not have problems with the culture of his firm, his partners or his colleagues. Jason needed to transition his career out of the field of law. After doing some informational interviews to learn about sports administration, Jason applied for a masters in sports administration at Amherst and got into the master’s program. He learned that his law degree should help him to land a good job in that new field once he graduates. Jason was excited about this transition. We can predict that he will be successful in his new field because all four elements are very likely going to be met based on his informational interviewing- aptitude, interest, lifestyle, self- actualization.

Final Thoughts

Aptitude, interest, lifestyle and self-actualization are the building blocks for a successful career. If you understand this much about yourself and your needs, you will be able to identify career goals that play to your strengths and set you on a path to career success.