I spoke to a client this week who says he is 30 and needs to change career now before it’s too late. I also have 2 colleagues in a CV agency I contract with, both of whom are leaving because, they say, they need a different type of job – again before it’s too late. But when is too late? And does it apply, in my case, to only my clients or to me as their CV writer? After all, whilst I often feel I am simply servicing a client, my job is just that – I am doing my job to help them find a job.
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. Many of us also have heard about a person who ditches a 20-year career to follow something completely different—the lawyer who gave it all up to become a writer or the auditor who resigned her accounting firm to start her own toy company—and is the happier for it. There are periodically documentaries on Channels 4 or 5 about this; and often in The Times (does anyone read anything else?) there is a small story about self-employment; this often features someone who has changed career.
I asked myself, for the purposes of this piece, why did I become a CV writer and why would anyone change their career to that? In a 2015 piece by Kelly Gurnett called “How 4 Freelance Resume Writers Earn Money (One Made $320K Last Year!)” https://www.thepennyhoarder.com/make-money/professional-resume-writers/ I noted that people have taken to it for all sorts of reasons (perhaps they think it’s easy or non-time-consuming – forget that!), or they think we all earn $320k – what on earth were they charging!!
As you might expect, there are companies who will help a move into CV writing from anything else – and out of it into anything else. https://britishcollegeofjournalism.com/ appeared when I searched randomly in this regard. It offers courses to help the freelancer move forward into writing. And ironically, I think, perhaps out of it too – if the writing becomes good, perhaps the writer can then more easily learn how to write a CV.
“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 can be both significant and less so.
I worked with a former management consultant (her name has been changed for this article) who had not yet had the time to work out a future path. When a close client offered her the top strategy job at a FTSE 100 firm, she took it. She was ready for change, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. To her disappointment, this position was no different from her old job in all the facets she had been seeking to change. Two weeks into the new role, she realised she had made a terrible mistake.
My daughter, a critical care nurse, recently announced she might change her job because she no longer feels fulfilled. I was, at once, horrified, saddened, perplexed and surprised. I think the strongest was saddened. Why should I be, it’s her life? Because, to me, the nature of her job, its worth to the rest of us, begged the question: why would you want to leave it after training for so long and being valued?
She said it was time to make a proactive career choice. Determined to get it right, she had already talked to friends and read best-selling books on career change. By her own account, none of the advice was very useful. She researched possible industries and made two lists: completely different professions involving things she believed she was passionate about and variations on what she was already doing. A year later, a viable alternative had yet to materialise.
When I consider the experiences of these people and doubtless many others, there can be no doubt: despite the rhetoric, a true change of direction is very hard. This isn’t because anyone of us is 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 their best efforts, they remain stuck in the wrong careers, not living up to their potential and sacrificing professional fulfilment.
I know many people who are now CV writers, or writers of content such as this, or both, all of whom fear change, lack readiness, are unwilling to make sacrifices, sabotage themselves. Determining the magnitude of any work transition is highly subjective. Who, apart from the person who has lived through it, can say whether a shift is radical or incremental?
One of the most common threads in my career discussions with clients – and one which they always seem grateful I broach rather than them feeling they have to proffer – is that they feel they are the common denominator. Many agencies, thousands of jobs, hundreds of recruiters, reams of adverts. And them. They’re the one constant. It’s easy for me to see that but when I put it to them that I know that’s how they feel and that we need to try to get rid of that, some of them nearly cry – no, honestly. I always feel pleased, relieved, happy for them and very responsible, all at once. As part of this, it became obvious to me a long time ago that people usually 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.
Certain career transitions have been thoroughly studied and are well understood: a move into a position of greater managerial responsibility, a transfer to a comparable job in a new business or industry, a sideways move into a different role within a familiar field. But how often have we investigated how managers and professionals go about making a true change of direction.
I know that many people try a predictable approach and then languish for months, if not years. Again, it’s the fear that is at the root. We like to think that the key to a successful career change is knowing what we want to do next, then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But I wonder if perhaps change actually happens the other way around. Doing comes first, knowing second.
Why? Because changing careers means redefining our working identity. Career change follows a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are tightly linked, the result of years of action; to change that connection, we must also resort to action—exactly what the conventional perception cautions us against.
Conventional career change methods—my own continuous (and in advance of going to CV writing full time) networking, and my daughter’s musing-to-plan – are all different, yet the characteristics are the same: think, plan, do. I wonder if it’s the order that we don’t focus on and can make us succeed or fail.
In times of change and uncertainty, we unsurprisingly take comfort in our continuing acquaintances with friends and family. But when it comes to reinventing ourselves, the people who know us best are the ones most likely to hamper rather than help us. They may wish to be helpful, but they tend to strengthen—or even desperately try to preserve—the old identities we are trying to shed.
Headhunters can keep us tied to the past just as successfully. We assume, rightly, that they have the market perspective we lack—but we forget that they are in the business of facilitating incremental moves along an traditional route. Mid-career, though, many people are no longer looking to use past experience in a different setting. In this regard I have talked to many clients who felt headhunters were well-meaning – well, they’re being paid enough! – but unhelpful. Clients will say, ‘Here are my skills; what else might I do?’ And, they tell me, they’re usually told, ‘Why don’t you change to XX?’ or, ‘Why don’t you try YYYY?’
Clients’ anxiety is quite clear: the headhunter has no vested interest. The clients’ view is usually, broadly, that they don’t want to do what they’re offered or is suggested since it’s simply the same as they’re doing, and if they did want to do that, they would not go to the headhunter, they would do it on their own.
The conversation with my daughter began to develop into: first, determine with as much clarity and certainty as possible what you really want to do. Next, use that knowledge to categorise jobs or fields in which your desires can be joined with your skills and experience. Try to find advice from the people who know you best and from experts in tune with the market. Then simply implement the resulting actions. Any (sic) plan-and-implement approach should lead us to plan before making a move so we know exactly where we are going.