When Your Career Doesn't Fit

Being in a career that you hate is the absolute worst. I get it--I've been there. On top of my personal experience, I find that many of my clients feel stuck in careers that just don't fit their unique skillsets and personalities. They are 100% sure that they don't like what they're doing, but they also don't know what career would be better to move into, so they feel even more stuck.

Feeling trapped--with no light at the end of the tunnel--is a serious downer, and a pervasive problem that is worth solving.

While there are obviously lots of contributing factors to discontentment in the workplace including office culture, management styles, working conditions, and much more, career choice itself can certainly be the problem. In this case, I'm talking to those of you who might like your boss, but don't like your job. You like your coworkers, but have no interest in the work itself.

A lot of us got pushed into making a career decision during our undergrad, long before we blossomed into fully-functioning adults, and we find ourselves stuck on that trajectory, years later.  When clients bring up this topic in our conversations, I generally say something like this: "I'm not a licensed career counselor, but I am passionate about professional identity, individual gifts, and career transition. I geek out over personality assessments. If you're up for it, let's chat and see what we can come up with."

I enter into this conversation with others--formally and informally, personally and professionally--because I know the discomfort of being in the wrong profession. It took me years to figure out that I was wired to work at home and run my own business, and now that I'm finally in a career that aligns with who I am as a person, I'm blown away by the positive impact on my life! It's been radically life-changing, and I never dreamed I could be this satisfied with my career. I never thought I would want to work, but I almost always feel energized and ready to go! Why wouldn't I want to share that experience with others, and see if we can unearth a career that will provide the same freedom and peace in their unique professional journeys? 

In light of all this, I decided to create this post as a practical guide for the career-haters out there. For those of you who feel stuck in your career (not job--career!), let's dive right in. I'll cover two truths to keep in mind, as well as three steps to take in order to make that big career change. 

2 Important Truths to Keep in Mind

1. You're Not Alone

If you found yourself reading the intro to this post and nodding (or crying) along, the first thing I want you to know is that it's not just you. You are absolutely not alone in hating your job.

Believe it or not, you're actually in the majority! 

A recent Gallup poll suggests that 70% of Americans are disengaged and discontent at work. 7 out of 10, people! That's a whole lot of unhappy employees. While I theoretically knew that a lot of people didn't like their jobs, I never felt like I was part of any sort of majority. I looked around and saw people who could be content in the same office, who were much more professionally satisfied than I was. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else seemed to innately understand, and it was overwhelmingly isolating.

Whether they're sitting next to you or not, however, it's clear that a lot of people out there are looking for something better, too. So don't believe the lie that it's just you!

2. You're Not Stuck

For the career-hater, it's tempting to feel hopeless, because there doesn't seem to be a way out. Family obligations, financial restraints, and the huge time investment associated with changing careers--not just jobs, but industries--feels like too great a distance to leap. There just doesn't seem to be a way to the other side without going bankrupt, or disappointing loved ones. Why bother?

While some career transitions are harder than others to make, this is simply not true. You're not stuck! There are a lot of options available to you, especially when you're not sure what you want to do next. And when you do find the career you want to move into, there are options available to you to make the change a reality. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to invest in the process, how patient you're willing to be, and what you're willing to sacrifice to land a position in a career that fits.  

So how exactly do you bridge that gap and make it happen? Where do you even begin? 

3 Steps to a Better Career Fit

1. Get to know yourself.

If you're feeling like your career isn't a good fit for you, the first step is to stop nitpicking the career you know you hate, and instead, look in the mirror. Get to know yourself. How are you wired? What realities about your personality, skill set, and values inform your career preferences? What makes you tick? 

There are several ways to go about this step of self exploration. I'll briefly hash out 3 of my favorite methods here. 

Assessments

I am a self-declared assessment nerd. While they certainly don't tell the whole picture of who you are as a person, assessments can provide some valuable insight into the overarching trends of what makes you, well, you. There are a bunch of assessments out there, varying wildly in terms of quality and accuracy, but the big buckets that you want to assess and explore are personality, values, and behavioral style. 

If you don't feel like sifting through the massive pile of web-based assessments on your own, here is a solid sampling of the five assessments I recommend taking. The first three assessments are free, and the last two are paid tests:

If you can swing it, take all five assessments. Spread the assessments out over a period of a couple of weeks. Take your time, read the directions carefully, and answer honestly.

When you have all of your results in hand, comb through the results carefully. Highlight the descriptions that are spot-on as they apply to you, ignore the stuff that isn't accurate at all, and notice trends that are repeated across multiple sections in a test report, and especially across multiple assessments.

What have you learned about yourself? How do these concepts apply in the workplace? Start to put together the pieces, and see what you come up with. 

Job History Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises for career direction, and has been one of the most fruitful in my personal experience. My dad actually suggested this activity years ago, when I was feeling especially lost in terms of my career. The exercise was a game changer for me, and I hope it is helpful for you as well.

Write down every job you've ever had, all the way back to your high school days or first part-time gig. Depending on your situation, it might be good to include volunteer experiences as well, or involvement in extracurricular activities.

For every job or activity on the list, answer the following questions:

  • What was your favorite thing about the job? What did you enjoy the most? What energized you?
  • What were you most proud of in that role? What project, result, or client interaction makes you smile the most?
  • What do you miss doing? What do you wish you could do all over again?

After you've answered these questions for every job, look at your complete list of highlights. What trends do you see? Are there obvious themes or careers that are closely related to the tasks and projects you've highlighted? See where this path leads you, and take some time to explore the new opportunities that you identify along the way.

Survey Friends and Family

Sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us most. Asking friends and family for feedback might provide some helpful insight as you study yourself. This suggestion comes with a big caution flag, however, because some of your family and friends might not be helpful in speaking into your strengths. In fact, in some cases the 'advice' from loved ones might be downright harmful. To mitigate against any unhelpful responses, I recommend coming up with a list of 5-7 people you trust the most and feel safest with. Include people from different seasons of your life, in different roles. Make sure every person on that list is really 'for' you. Do they celebrate with you when you win? Do they grieve with you when you're dealing with a loss? 

When you have your list, ask those individuals if they'd be willing to speak into your professional identity and unique personal characteristics. If they're willing to help, provide them with a list of questions, and ask them to consider them carefully. Here are a few ideas to get you going, but feel free to add your own based on what you want to pinpoint or understand about yourself:

  • When have we been talking, and the conversation caused me to lean in, talk faster, become increasingly animated? What topic(s) seemed to draw me out?
  • What dreams have I mentioned in passing to you, that I (or others) may have brushed off as silly or impossible?
  • When have you seen me be really proud or satisfied with my own work or achievements? 
  • Where do you think I thrive? Excel?
  • From what you've observed, what do you think I'm uniquely wired to achieve? Where do I naturally perform well?

Collect this feedback from your friends or family, and see what stands out. Trust your gut--take what is helpful, leave what is not. What surprises you? What sparks your interest?

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By the end of your self-reflection period, the goal is to arrive at a list of possible careers that incorporate the elements of self that you've unearthed. You've taken the time to explore who you are, and now you have some ideas about what might be a good career move for you. How do you choose from the short list? How do you even know you're on the right track? 

2. Test the Waters

"The grass is always greener on the other side" is a nugget of wisdom brimming with relevance for your career journey. Don't leap into something new on a whim, just because it theoretically sounds better; of course it sounds better! You don't know anything about the industry yet, and only see the shiny fun stuff. But career changes are a big deal. Slow down, and safely explore your options before you decide to make a full transition.

There are several ways to explore a career without actually changing careers. Perhaps you can identify a volunteer opportunity inside of the new industry. Get your feet wet in work relevant to the jobs you're considering, and get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. See what surprises you, what interests you, what concerns you.

Another option is to set up some informational interviews or job shadowing with people in your target industry. If you have a friend or colleague who can make a networking introduction for you, that is certainly best, but cold calls aren't out of the picture, necessarily. As long as your motivation is truly to learn and get a feel for the career (NOT sniff around for job openings), it's likely that the professionals in that industry will be open to helping you out in some capacity. Ask challenging questions, like, "What is the worst part about working in this industry? What challenges do you meet in this job consistently? What trends do you see in your field? Where do you expect this field to be in 10 years? 20 years? What do you think it takes to enjoy this work, and succeed in the field?"

If the industry you're considering is really different from everything you've done historically, consider taking some courses in the subject area. For example, if you've worked a 9 to 5 your whole life and are thinking about being a full-time gardener instead, find a free online class in botany or horticulture. Does the subject matter interest you, or are you bored out of your mind? Does the class inspire you to dive deeper and learn more? 

The point of this 'trial period' is to confirm your interest, and narrow down your short list. Admit you're wrong when an industry isn't actually good for you, and move on to the next career on your list. When you find something that stands out above the rest, it's time to move on to the final step.  

3. Invest in the transition.

Career transitions aren't going to happen overnight. You have to be patient, and be willing to make the change at an appropriate pace. That doesn't mean you're just sitting around passively, though! There's a lot to do as you invest in the process of changing careers. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition happen:

Network.

Okay, so you shuddered at the mention of the word 'network.' That's fair! Most people despise the concept with a passion. But it is still a beneficial practice, and one that doesn't have to make you beat your head against a wall. Try to have a positive perspective on this one, for your own sake.

LinkedIn is your friend here -- figure out what connections you have to your new industry/potential employers, and ask your existing friends or colleagues to make an introduction on your behalf. Have coffee with strangers. Go to industry-specific events. Put yourself out there a little bit! A future blog post on networking will dig into this more deeply, but for a full-blown career change, you're probably going to need an internal referral for someone to take a chance on you. In order to find a solid internal referral, you have to network. Period. 

Pursue training as-needed, but don't make assumptions.

A lot of my clients say things like, "I guess I need an MBA now," or "But I really don't want to go back to school!" In some cases, yes--they really do have to go back to school. You can't be a doctor without the degree. But in a lot of other cases, a traditional degree might not be necessary. Is the degree you assume you need preferred, or actually required? Can you supplement your existing education with something other than a traditional degree? 

Maybe you need some specific skills for your new career--let's say you want to get into mobile app design, but have no coding experience. Your first inclination might be to go back to school for a Computer Science degree. BUT instead, if you did a search for any free or reduced-cost bridge programs in your new industry, you'd find LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization providing FREE classes and job-transition support for careers in technology. They have classes in St. Louis, my friends! They actually put people in jobs. Good jobs. It's a no-brainer! And this is not the only bridge program out there. Explore the possibility before you shell out the cash for a full university degree.

Maybe your desired career utilizes a specific type of software, and a lot of companies consistently use the same program across the board. Take Salesforce, for example, a popular CRM platform in sales and marketing. Did you know that Salesforce offers free online certification? Why not amp up your relevant skills by pursuing your Salesforce certification, while you apply for new jobs in your field? If nothing else, it's a great resume and interview talking point that demonstrates your commitment to making the career change. 

The opportunities here are tremendous. Look for professional associations certifications, apprenticeship programs, bridge programs, training courses, etc. before you commit to a more traditional college degree. Think of the time, money, and sanity you could save in the process! 

Update your resume.

Your resume might be perfect for your current industry, but you have to look at it from a totally new perspective if you're planning to switch careers. Each position in your job history needs to be re-examined, and re-framed according to the context of new job opportunities. 

If you're moving out of sales into social work, nobody is going to care (as much) about your sales results data. They want to see a commitment to people, an emphasis on relationship, and a willingness to work hard. You might find that your resume bullet points need to be "flip-flopped," or re-written altogether. This will help people reviewing your resume as they look over your application--if you don't do this work in advance, you're bound to get tossed aside after a resume screener ponders aloud, "Why is this person applying for this job, anyway?"

Make your intentions clear. Tailor your resume to speak the language of your desired industry, not the career you're leaving behind. 

Consider 'stepping stone' roles. 

If you're making a really big change, you might want to consider doing it in stages. This is especially true if you're looking to move into a competitive company, the ones on the "Best Places to Work" list. Let's say you're a contract manager at Purina, and you're looking to make a transition. You've done your homework, you've narrowed down your list, and you know you really want to land a training and orientation job at World Wide Technology. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you won't settle for less. It's great that you know what you want--but unfortunately, you have no direct training experience, and everybody on the planet wants to work at World Wide Technology. 

Instead, you could consider applying for a management role within your current department at Purina. Get some training experience. Ask your supervisor for some training responsibilities within your existing role--whatever you can swing, make it happen. Put yourself in a position to be more qualified when your dream jobs opens up. You could also apply for a contract management role inside World Wide Technology, with some management responsibility. Then, it's much easier to make an internal transfer to a different department for that 'dream' training role. 

"But that will take forever!" you say. Yep. Like I said, it isn't going to happen overnight! But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Are you willing to work for a new career, even if it might take some time to get there?

That brings me to the interim. The waiting period when you're still sitting in the career you hate, while you're dreaming of the job you think you'll love.

End well. 

Your current work matters. Your current job performance matters. You're still working for your most recent referring supervisor, my friends. You do not want to give them a reason to discredit you in the referral process. Instead, harness your existing workplace relationships (secretly, of course!) to improve your experience as you wait. Ask for new opportunities that relate to the new field. Request a schedule shift so you can attend a class. Do whatever you can to maximize your opportunities within the bounds of your current work environment. 

It's not necessarily going to be easy, but a career that suits you is still possible. Wait actively. Look forward purposefully. Engage in the process, knowing that it is an imperfect journey.

If you ever doubt that it's worth it, or forget exactly what it is you're aiming for, come back here, and I'll remind you. It is a fantastic experience to be in a job that suits me as a person. The results are life-changing, and every day, I know the journey was worth it