The idea of changing careers later in life can be frightening. Whether it’s your own choice, the result of a company restructuring or even being fired, the stress of switching careers – even the thought of it – can be crippling. But, it can also be freeing. The perspective you decide to take can make the difference. I ought to know. I’ve been there.
As I entered my fifties, a mid-career change was the last thing on my mind. For 20 years, I’d been working successfully in the film industry. When I became a senior executive on a project based in Los Angeles for the Discovery Channel and the American Film Institute, I assumed I’d landed a secure spot. But after management decided to relocate the position across the country, I was suddenly without a job. For the first time in decades, I had to go searching for work, write a resume, prep for interviews.
Despite a concerted effort, no one seemed to want to hire me. From perspective employers, I heard conflicting feedback: “You’re overqualified.” “You’re underqualified.” It started to dawn on me that now, well into mid-career, my age was becoming a factor. It was a daily effort to maintain a sense of confidence amidst all the rejection. This difficult experience led to one great thing: It inspired me to become a career coach, so others could benefit from what I learned the hard way. Here are the five steps to jumpstart a career change that I wish I’d known earlier:
step 1: for mid-career change, engage your passion
Whether you’re considering a mid-career change by necessity or choice, this is a moment of opportunity. One way to make the most of it is to allow yourself to dream. I don’t suggest this lightly, as a frivolous act of fancy, but as a pragmatic tool that can harness motivation, lead to discovery and ultimately action. Allowing yourself to envision a job in which you derive real satisfaction is a first step in making your new career a reality.
To jumpstart the process, do some exercises. Spend adequate time as you go through these. Write down your answers to see what they uncover.
- Describe one experience in your professional life when you were the most motivated to do the best work you could? This could have happened yesterday or 25 years ago.
- List two activities outside of work when you feel the most engaged, as if time was zooming by or maybe even standing still. What was specific to these activities that made you feel this way?
- Reflect on your superpower –the one gift or talent that comes most naturally. This is no time for modesty. Write down a moment when you were able to make use of it.
- When you were growing up, what was the very first job or profession that you remember most wanting to do? (No parental or financial ”shoulds” here.) What did you dream of doing?
Look over what you’ve written. What stands out? What are the common themes? Do you have a passion that has endured? Embedded in your answers will be clues to important elements of your next career, and they will guide you to action steps.
step 2: find your transferable skills
In contemplating a mid-career change, there might be parts of your resume that need to be reframed to provide evidence of transferable skills. And sometimes, these skills come from surprising places.
As my efforts to find a job faltered, the gap in my resume widened – as did the gaps in my schedule. So, I volunteered to be part of a grassroots organizing group working on issues of importance to the community. I came to realize that the leadership and entrepreneurial skills I’d developed in my film career, now lying dormant, could be useful to the group. Before long, I was participating in civic-minded activities I’d never dreamed of doing before, like lobbying members of Congress, chairing town halls, testifying in the California State Assembly and eventually, becoming part of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Task Force. The volunteering boosted my flagging confidence at a critical juncture (and I became a better citizen). Equally important, my volunteer stint became a featured part of my story, and it eventually led to a job.
Community service, taking care of family members, coaching your kid’s soccer team, running a marathon or even remodeling a bathroom are all worthy enterprises. Turn them to your advantage during a mid-career change by demonstrating how these undertakings are another reflection of your determination and talent. By doing so, you develop the case that your talent is transferable.
Build these stories into your narrative, see what works and edit out the slow parts. Practice telling your story in three minutes.
step 3: tell your story (again and again)
After losing my job, I felt enormous shame. The last thing I wanted to talk about with colleagues and friends was failing at employment – and so I made the biggest career change blunder one can make. I kept quiet. But to succeed, retreat is not an option.
Telling your story, again and again, is the best way to uncover ideas about what you want to do next and to learn of opportunities. Remember the exercises in step one. Say out loud what you’ve discovered to a few people you know. In the process, you might be surprised to learn how many others have experienced job loss and are eager to lend a hand. When I was floundering, it was a random lunch with an acquaintance that provided the jumpstart After we both shared our professional ups and downs, it set me in motion to become a career coach.
Dig into your circle of confidantes, colleagues, former classmates, neighbors and folks with whom you volunteer, worship or exercise. Make a list of people to contact. Then, draft an email that you can personalize, explaining why you’re exploring new opportunities. Next, commit to a metric of how many people you’re willing to contact each week – and then add two more. Revitalize connections even if you lost touch a decade ago. Be persistent and don’t get deterred by slow responses. Start networking with those you feel the safest; it’s a good way to practice telling your story.
step 4: retrain to gain a mid-career advantage
If I could go back in time to give myself one piece of advice in the midst of a mid-career change, it would be to add a bankable skill. I’d been in one field for so long that it didn’t occur to me I would have to supplement my experience to be attractive to the modern marketplace. Had I figured this out sooner, it would have spared me years of anguish.
In my case, transitioning from media executive to career coach required training. I needed to return to school for an intensive program of in-person classes, online seminars, peer work and mentor coaching, alongside others who were at least a generation younger.
Your career change might require a smaller tweak, like brushing up on the latest coding language, getting more adept at social media marketing or finally acquiring the project management certification you’ve been thinking about.
Be honest with yourself about what needs refurbishing to make you more bankable. Then, consider the ways in which you learn the best. Refuse to be intimidated if cohorts are younger (much younger, in my case) and start exploring.
step 5: take a step forward and do a test run
As I was mulling over becoming a career coach, I needed information to help with my decision-making. My first step forward was to collect data. I called the International Coaching Federation for recommendations of the top training programs in LA and then asked administrators to put me in touch with some of their graduates. I spoke to a dozen of them to learn how their businesses were faring. With that knowledge, I summoned a group of trusted friends for feedback on my career-change plan. When the positives outweighed the negatives, I was better prepared to take the leap.
As you’re investigating potential new avenues, don’t wait too long and get stuck in your head. Take a small step forward and do a test run. And by test run, I’m not suggesting a big financial leap to begin. Your first step may be to talk to others doing the work that you admire to get a sense of the field, learn whether it’s a good fit, what the opportunities are and what the potential is for income. And if it all lines up, make your move.
Editor’s note: You can watch Wendy’s recent interview about her mid-career change on The Today Show.