Taking Off the Comfort Blanket
By Julie Norwell
During the pandemic, Philip was promoted to deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of a 2,300-person agency within Washington State’s government. He was tapped for the role because of the high-caliber value he would bring to the office at a time of great need. And value he brought. Philip readily accepted the position because it meant helping Washingtonians, and his contributions were significant and well appreciated by everyone he worked with.
When the pandemic subsided, though, the prospect of doing the job long-term became less appealing to Philip. He discussed changing roles inside the government with various people. To his surprise, he learned that moving up or moving out were his only options.
“The deputy commissioner role is close to the last stop. In fact, if you don’t plan to become an agency head, it is the last stop,” explained Philip. “My only option, therefore, was to leave government completely.”
A long-time civil servant, Philip had little experience job-searching outside the government and this unfamiliar territory understandably filled him with apprehension. The public sector is very different from the private sector. “That’s a comfort blanket I would have to take off,” Philip observed. With the support of career management firm, The Barrett Group (TBG), Philip did shrug off that “comfort blanket” and bravely launched a job search in the private job market. He landed not one, but two jobs – both outstanding career opportunities that Philip felt lucky to have.
In the realm of career change, Philip’s story is unusual. Most job transitions stem from the inherent stresses and uncertainties of unexpected layoffs, miserable work environments, demoralizing lack of recognition, and other unpleasant circumstances. Then there are those rarer individuals, like Philip, who, despite enjoying a stable and successful career, willingly choose to upend a good thing and blaze a new career path.
Why in the world do people make a big career change when they don’t have to? Because much more growth and opportunity lie on the other side of the comfort zone.
When Familiarity Becomes an Obstacle
Without doubt, facing the unknown in work is unsettling in the best of times. Throw in a mortgage, a few dependents, and a professional reputation to maintain and it becomes downright nerve-wracking. Sure, the goal of most professionals is to find a groove. That is when you establish yourself in your field and enjoy the greatest productivity. Familiarity in work is a blessing and an asset – that is, until it becomes an obstacle.
Jocelyn Hirschfeld found herself in such circumstances after 16 years with a mid-size provider of medical supplies, services, and support. During her tenure she played multiple roles and gained enormous expertise. Eventually, an acquisition triggered her to consider whether it was time for a change.
“I wasn’t unhappy in my job, but I like to be challenged. I didn’t see myself continuing on as I was for another 15 years until retirement,” said Jocelyn.
The decision to change careers did not come lightly to Jocelyn, though. She did her job well and she was well paid to do it. Why rock the boat?
“It’s hard to get serious about changing jobs when you’re in a very lucrative position that you’re comfortable with. I did a lot of second-guessing. I wondered: Do I really want to do this or is this a mid-life crisis?” said Jocelyn.
Skeptical that she was doing the right thing, Jocelyn worked with a TBG career consultant, too, and took her time to explore her options. Her initiative paid off. The more she talked to people in her network, the more excited she got about a career change. Eventually, Jocelyn landed a job with a medical device startup. The high-risk, high-reward atmosphere of this new world offers ample opportunities to keep her feeling challenged.
“[This opportunity] could be the greatest success I will ever have,” exclaimed Jocelyn after accepting the job offer.
Five Stages of a Typical Career Cycle
It’s amazing to see how the discomfort of the present outweighing the discomfort of the unknown can propel growth. This scenario is the focus of research in several fields. And it is even part of the typical career cycle conceived by career development theorist, Donald Super.
Super argued that people choose occupations that enable themselves to express their “self-concept.” A self-concept is an understanding of who you are and what your interests and goals are. If that self-concept evolves, so will your desire to change your occupation.
Super identified five stages of development in a typical career cycle during which people explore and express their evolving self-concepts. These stages are:
- Growth (Individuals start developing a self-concept.)
- Exploration (People crystallize their career preferences and begin exercising career choices.)
- Establishment (Individuals secure their places in their chosen professions.)
- Maintenance (People aim to maintain their positions and productivity.)
- Disengagement (Individuals experience a growing distance from their original self-concept.)
Sometimes people retire at the disengagement stage. Others, however, might cycle through all five stages multiple times during their career. If your self-concept changes, you will weigh your growing dissatisfaction with the status quo against your fear of doing something completely different. When the former exceeds the latter, you’ll feel motivated to risk a career change.
Will the reward be worth the risk? The answer to that question is: You will never know if you don’t try.
A Bias for Action
Foraying into the unknown is scary business and failure can leave you with regrets. But there are moments when taking career risks are called for. Furthermore, new evidence suggests that not taking those risks is likely to leave you with more regrets – a lot more.
Author Daniel Pink recently published a bestselling book in which he surveyed people from 105 countries about their regrets. He found that people of all ages exhibit regrets about both action and inaction. Interestingly, as people age, regrets about inaction increasingly dominate.
“There’s about a 3-1 ratio of regrets of inaction over action. What people regret over time are things they didn’t do,” Pink said. “And I think it’s because we are slightly over-indexed on risk.”
Pink suggests that, because we tend to overstate risks, we underact. And the regrets of not taking that career leap, not exploring a new industry, or not initiating a new project weigh heavier with time. He encourages us, instead, to develop a bias for action.
There are plenty of actions you can take to induce a successful career change.
According to Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, major career changes are likelier to succeed if you test them out first. How? Ibarra suggests volunteering, consulting, or doing short-term contract work in fields and roles that interest you. Also, explore more than one career path before making a big transition to ensure you have chosen well.
An easier first step is to reach out to people in your network to glean new insights on possible opportunities. People commonly avoid calling friends and colleagues to discuss career transitions, especially when the relationship has gone stale. They fear awkwardness or indifference from the other person. But Pink’s study reveals that these apprehensions are often unfounded, and the efforts to reconnect are usually welcome.
The takeaway here isn’t to indulge in reckless risk-taking, rather, to skew towards action. Because, again, as we progress through our careers, it’s not the failed actions we pursued that we regret as much as the opportunities we let slip away. Our willingness to take thoughtful risks, reach out, and seize opportunities – in short, to take off the comfort blanket – can, therefore, become the cornerstone of a fulfilling career.
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