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Whenever things get bad at work, whenever your boss pisses you off or you have to sit through another pointless meeting, you allow yourself a little dream.

You dream about meaningful work and the autonomy to do it at your own pace.

You dream about working hard and playing hard and loving every moment of both.

You imagine disconnecting from your caffeine lifeline, because you’ll be so darn happy in your dream career (whatever it is), you’ll be bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The stress will be gone, along with the crankiness and fatigue.

Or will it?

You worry you’re just kidding yourself. Can the grass really be greener in a new career? Or are you destined to be unhappy and unfulfilled no matter where you go?

In my own career change, I found some things almost instantaneously became better. For example, as an introvert, working in a job that required me to attend meetings all day, every day was draining. When I switched to working from home, I instantly had the energy to reengage and enjoy my friends and family again. These days, I average a social get-together about once a week as opposed to once a month (or longer).

Other problems were maddeningly unchanged, or in some cases, got worse. My tendency to over-commit to projects, leading to suffocating feelings of being overwhelmed, were not aided by becoming my own boss. I was a lot less short-tempered than when I worked in a big bureaucracy, but I still experienced more stress than I wanted.

I realized that changing careers isn’t the fast track to outrunning your inner demons. But it can be just what you need to outsmart them. Let me explain …

How stress can set you free

One of my clients, who is studying to get her license as a new financial planner, told me she thought she’d made a terrible mistake.

She’s always been on the anxious side and changing careers had only made it worse. Could she really make it as a financial planner? The stress and worry were driving her crazy and she found herself longing for the easy predicability of her old job, the one she had been so desperate to leave.

And she wanted to know: was the stress a sign that she’d made the wrong choice?

I told her there was no way of knowing without doing. Studying for a licensing exam is in no way representative of the life of a financial planner.

Had she told me she was bored by the material I might have wondered. Had she told me she was shadowing a couple of financial planners and the process made her stomach turn, I would have been concerned.

But in fact, she was just experiencing anxiety while undergoing a major change in her life. I felt pretty comfortable saying that the stress she was experiencing was not only normal, it was exactly what she needed.

When you’re struggling to solve an inner conflict, the more pain you’re in, the closer you are to a solution. Click to tweet

Our instincts tell us to pull away from pain. If something’s hot, stop touching it. If something hurts, stop doing it.

But that doesn’t always work when we’re talking about “first world problems” like stress and a vague sense of unease. Sometimes what we need is a forcing function to figure out how to deal with the issue we’ve been avoiding.

I told my client that I can’t know if financial planning is right for her until she gets in there and gives it a shot.

But I know for certain that finding constructive ways to deal with stress and uncertainty will make her happier no matter what career she’s in.


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21 Responses to Will Changing Careers Really Make You Happier?

    • On
    • January 22, 2013 at 10:12 am
    • Karolyn
    • Said...

    Another great post, Jen! Based on the end I’m anticipating posts or links about stress reduction before, during, and after career change… maybe?

    • Great idea, Karolyn! I was planning to talk about one of my strategies next week, but maybe I’ll go a step further and capture a few more. Any strategies that you would recommend?

  1. Not long after launching my aviation career, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I had a wife and two children to support. The opportunities and pay in the early stages were slim. But I enjoyed flying. So, with my wife’s support, I stuck it out.

    Now, thirty years later, pushing the throttles forward still gives a thrill, and the living is much better. I’d say to those who are thinking of changing careers (which is what I did), find something you really enjoy and stick with it. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.

    • What a wonderful story! A lot of people either don’t realize or forget how hard it is when you’re starting out as a pilot (my old roommate is a United pilot). You absolutely did take a risk, but it’s obviously one, as you said, worth taking. Thanks for sharing!

    • On
    • January 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm
    • Ian
    • Said...

    Jen – I can relate to your client. I think the feeling of risk is often driven by uncertainty and the unknown. One approach I’ve used to minimize the uncertainty of a career change is to conduct informational interviews with people who are doing the job I’m interested in. I learned this technique in the ‘What Color is Your Parachute’ book and its dramatically improved my career decisions, lowered my risk (and stress) in career transitions and led to discovering roles I never knew existed inside of companies. I’m not associated with the book or author, I’m just a believer in it after using it three times as a foreigner in Norway.

    • Yes, absolutely agree on informational interviews. In fact, I go a step further and advocate for career test drives before making the leap whenever possible, because we often either romanticize a career or have different enough success criteria that we don’t get the information we need from informational interviews. But it’s definitely an important step in the process, as it not only gets you insight, but as you point out, it also often leads to a job when done properly. Congrats!

  2. Great points, Jen. Every time I’ve gone through a career or business growth change, I’ve felt this stress. I’m feeling it again big time as I launch a new blog.

    But, having been through the experience a couple of times now – buying an existing music studio and becoming a music teacher and then performer – I know it’s not only to be expected but a really positive (although uncomfortable) part of the learning curve. We work through it.

    I’ve built in more habits to deal with stress as time went on (which definitely help now). But for me, the way that I knew I was on the right track every time was my level of excitement for what I was doing. When I am able to work in spite of the fears, doubts, and stress I find that I really love these things I’m doing.

    The first couple of businesses I tried (moonlighting) I ended up burning out and deciding they weren’t right after 9-12 months. But when I finally hit on the right things for me, I didn’t quit. I did whatever it took to keep going through the tough times – be it hiring people, streamlining processes, etc.

    It’s 10 years later and I’m still going strong and growing into new areas.

    You are so right, the only way to really know is to do it.

    • Another great story. I’d love to hear about some of the stress management techniques you found helpful.

      I also agree that being willing to stick with it through the hard times is a big part of making a dream career a reality. But I don’t know that one is always an indicator of the other. That is, I suspect there are a great many people who give up too soon on a career they could love simply because they are scared or are still in the “breaking in” phase. This is particularly true with entrepreneurship, which involves a HUGE learning curve. When I taught chemistry, I used to tell my students that learning wasn’t actually all that fun, but having learned something is hugely rewarding.

      It’s a lesson I have to keep teaching myself as well. :)

      • Yes, very true about people often giving up too soon because of fear or the learning curve. That’s a good point. It was a strong indicator to me, though, because every time I seriously thought about quitting, the love of what I was doing won out over any discomfort. 😉

        Wow – stress management techniques – that’s not a quick answer. It was many, many changes over the years – from getting clear on what I wanted to setting schedule boundaries, to hiring help, charging what I am worth, adopting healthier eating habits, putting systems in place, minimizing distractions, and learning to balance work with fun, rest, and down time. Keeping my inbox free of stuff that brings me down, choosing my friends & business partners carefully. Daily doses of dog walks and dark chocolate.

        Lately EFT (tapping) helps me a lot as well to get past emotional blocks.

        I bet if I think about it I could get a very long list of things…

  3. This is a great post but I have a bone to pick with this.

    “You imagine disconnecting from your caffeine lifeline, because you’ll be so darn happy in your dream career (whatever it is), you’ll be bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The stress will be gone, along with the crankiness and fatigue.”

    I think this is a trap to fall into, happiness while a wonderful thing is an elusive state when we set out to pursue it for its own sake or think that a ‘thing’ like a new career, car, relationship or money will cause us to have more of it. Happiness is always, in my humble experience, a byproduct of a life well lived and getting a new career or living in a new country doesn’t magically make you a different person than you were when you were miserable.

    Happiness is a moving target and it’s one that Americans are obsessed with making their end goal.

    • Aaron,
      Thanks so much for having the courage to post your bone. I actually love it when readers take issue with what I’ve written, because it requires all of us to think more deeply about the topic. So first of all, thanks!

      Second, I don’t think we actually disagree all that much. The line you quoted was me projecting what someone daydreaming about their dream career might be thinking. I know I did when I was looking to quit. But you’re right, it’s just not realistic. Changing careers is not a magic pill and that was absolutely my point. There are always ups and downs, and what I hoped this post showed was that no matter how bad your job is, quitting it and pursuing your dream career can only solve so many of your problems. But there are many more that you’ll be working on in any career and likely for all of your life. The trick is to find good coping strategies. I actually think this is GOOD news, but it lowers the expectations. You’re not going to be deliriously happy every day, even in your dream job. But you CAN be happier in the right job, and you can experiment with strategies for dealing with your inner demons.

      Where we do disagree is that happiness is a moving target. That suggests that one can never be happy. I think you can be happy, but not constantly. It’s like the tide, it ebbs and flows and necessarily so. But you do need the right balance between happiness and something else, whether that emotion is frustration/anger/tiredness, etc. If you read my earlier posts about happiness, you’ll see I subscribe to a 3 part definition of happiness that is probably different from what many think of when they use that term.

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks again for advancing the discussion!

  4. Great post! This really resonated with me. My career (and significant geographic) change was precisely what I needed to enjoy a happier, more fulfilling life. Of course, problems follow, as they always do, but I made the decision for the right reasons and am in a better mental place now to deal with issues as they crop up. Everybody daydreams for a little escapism on a bad day. I think the key, in actually living out the dream, is to be running TOWARD something, not just running AWAY from something. Thanks for this Everyday Bright!

    • Love that. Yes, running toward something is, in my opinion, much much easier than running away. But I acknowledge that may not be true for everyone. There’s a quote that goes something like, “Some change when they see the light, others when they feel the heat.” Maybe the most effective transitions involve an element of both.

    • On
    • January 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm
    • Leah Hynes
    • Said...

    Wonderful post Jen – career change can be scary!

    I agree with you that uncertainty is definitely a signpost of possibility though, and that you won’t know if you don’t try.

    Often that uncomfortable feeling we get about something new or challenging is right where we need to be, it’s then just having the courage to stay and not to turn and run!

    It think that is so true that it can be easy to fantasize a job change. I catch myself sometimes thinking or saying ‘If I just get XYZ done, then I’ll be happy’ and then end up in a cycle of delayed happiness instead of just enjoying the moment and enjoying the journey. I think it takes practice that’s for sure!

    Do you think part of the trick is choosing something that you are innately good at, plus have a passion for, and then the rest of the ‘not so good’ parts are a bit easier? Or should we just recognize the stuff we aren’t good at and try and outsource where possible? Or a bit of both…

    Thanks again for a fantastic read!
    Leah :)

    • My philosophy is that you must first define success for yourself, and then look for a career that meets that definition and also pulls from your passions, personality, AND strengths. All three are important. I realize that sounds like a tall order, but many of my clients actually find they have a whole list of careers that meet those criteria, once they break out of their old mindsets.

      Thanks for the kind words on the post. Glad you liked it!

    • On
    • January 29, 2013 at 10:59 am
    • Diana
    • Said...

    I know it is time for a new career change and your article takes me back when I took my first steps in the government sector. After 5 years in this industry, I am ready to start moving towards going for my dream career. Your articles are always inspiring, and they are what really keeps my spirits up and motivated. I recently met someone who has several jobs as church singer and truly loves what she does. I am extremely outgoing and my background is in financials which I rarely interact with the public. I am hopefully to find a career to mix my background in finance, accounting, technology with an equal amount of time talking with clients. Always looking forward to your next article! Diana

  5. Hi
    Thanks alot for this great subject.i want to change my career but I dont find alternative. I need to know what I like.and what is the strategy to start.