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How to Defend Against a Bad Career Choice

Nov 06, 2012 | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Many people have an aversion to experiments because they don't like the uncertainty of their outcomes or the risk that accompanies them. Most of the experiments that we conduct in the world of work leave the potential for surprise, and as much as we think we like them, we kind of don't. Surprises, uncertainty and instability -- they make most of us nervous, so when something as significant as our career choice is on the line, the aversion becomes even greater.

But this is where the fun happens: Surprises make life interesting. If you search for a life that has no tension, one that is scripted and obvious and safe, then very little in it will be satisfying. Experiments can remind you that you are in the game and you get to call the shots.

When we consider how averse so many people are to uncertainty, it is no wonder that the principal mistake people make when they are contemplating a career change is hesitating to step forward. They want to be sure they are doing the right thing, they want to do all the research and they want to make sure their direction is clear and logical. They don't want to get lost. The problem is that they'll never know if they are doing the right thing if they don't simply start doing it. Julien Smith writes in The Flinch, "Getting lost is not fatal. Almost every time, it will make your world bigger." I agree. You must be willing to get lost in order to find your way.

When I was going through a career change, I knocked out four possibilities by doing experiments. As my husband would attest, experimenting is my preferred method of inquiry, because I'm not a fan of sitting back and wasting time. When I get a nudge or something sparks my interest, I usually take the next step right away. Thus, my experiments have included volunteering, working on the side, returning and taking classes. I did all of these experiments without compromising the paying job I had at the time, which was a critical piece of my transition process.

Chucking stability to experiment can be a dangerous game because when you are under the gun financially or there's pressure to make something new work out for you, you won't think as clearly and you're more likely to jump to commitment too soon.

Jennifer Musselman (http://jennifermusselman.com), a former entertainment executive-turned marriage and family therapist and published author of self-help books for women, knows first-hand the benefits of career change experimentation. At the age of 37 and after being in the entertainment business for 13 years, Jennifer had a nagging feeling that there was something more she was supposed to be doing. She wanted to grow and to experience new challenges but she wasn't sure if she wanted that growth to happen by slipping into another job in PR or if it meant dropping into a new career altogether.

Jennifer decided her best first step would be to take a class and see how it felt. She was interested in studying psychology but she needed to first figure out if she could even deal with being in school again and if her interest merited further exploration. That first class taught her that yes, psychology was the path that excited her most and that being in school was even better than she imagined. So, she took another class, which eventually led her to enroll in graduate school at Pepperdine. She worked full time at her PR job and took classes at night.

At the same time this was happening, the culture at her work began to shift and after several rounds of layoffs over several years, she was aching to get ahead of the curve. She saw graduate school as her emergency preparation kit. It was her ticket out if she ever found herself on the receiving end of a restructuring. After three semesters as a part-time student, that's exactly what happened. The silver lining was that she was gifted a severance that allowed her to go to school full-time for the second year and a year later, she received a master's degree in Clinical Psychology.

While getting laid off turned out to be a blessing, Jennifer also knew that her severance would only last so long and she had to hurry up and make her new career work. She said she cried a lot and that it was the scariest thing she's ever done but it was also the most empowering. The entire experiment of testing out the idea, pursuing it while still keeping a full time job and then hurrying to make it work once the safety of the full-time job was no longer there taught her that she can do whatever she sets her mind to, a belief she thinks is essential when it comes to career change.

During Jennifer's second year in school she did an internship with The CLARE Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to saving the lives of people affected by drug and alcohol dependence and abuse. By the time she finished her internship requirements, they offered her a full-time position. She took a fifty percent cut in pay from what she was making as an entertainment executive, but her levels of happiness and fulfillment were off the charts.

The most difficult part about changing careers at 37 years of age, Musselman said, was accepting the fact that she was new. Once she was able to do that, she began to embrace the idea of being a student in every way possible. Instead of letting it hold her back, she used it to drive her forward. She adopted the Beginner's Mind when it came to her new field of work but was also quick to bring all of the experiences she had being an executive at a large entertainment company to bear in her new role. Her supervisors appreciated her professionalism, her ability to use good judgment and the ease with which she was able to establish professional relationships with not only her clients, but with everyone who worked in the organization. She said all of that gave her a solid leg up on many of her younger counterparts.

Now, as a director herself, Jennifer is always on the lookout to hire people from other industries who have years of experience from which to draw. She said that having gone through an experience like that she now knows how much more difficult it can be to break into a new field once you reach a certain age and she wants to gives others the same chance she had.

When Jennifer reflects on her role as an intern she says that unlike many of the younger people she interned with who had the financial backing of their parents and were blessed with a financial resource she did not have, how to survive financially was high on her priority list. She said, "This was do or die for me. I had to make this work. Plus, I wanted it more than anything." She looks for that attitude in the people she hires these days because she knows they'll give the job, whether paid or not, everything they've got.

At the end of our interview, I asked Jennifer what advice she would give to women over 35 who are contemplating a career change. She said, "Test it out, create an exit strategy, learn to be okay with failure, own your decision and move forward." She is also quick to tell others who are considering a change that it was hard, she was afraid and that the reason she was able to make it work is because she believed in herself. I agree. Belief in yourself is what will sustain you on your journey no matter how many obstacles show up on your path.

Trying out different options when you are contemplating a career change is the single best way to determine whether or not something is a fit. With each experiment you do, you become clearer on your priorities, you answer questions you didn't even know you had and the momentum you create from that experiment will lead to even more action, as you make your way toward the career path that is new and exciting and interesting to you. Very often when we think about career change we get caught in the "if only's." Experiments help you consider "what if?"

Something critical to remember when you are contemplating a career change is that it's not purely an intellectual decision; it's an emotional one, too. During each experiment you try you will be inclined to make a move based on your emotions. When you have been stuck in a career that is a mismatch for you and you're wasted and fed up with your current situation, or when you've been out of work for a long time, the moment you enter into new territory it feels fresh and exciting. It's easy to get taken in then and not see the whole picture. You therefore have to be sure that you bring the emotional responses together with the objective and intellectual side of you to make the best decision. If you put reason behind your emotions you will create a better space for you to make a decision.

So, take your time, consider all the possibilities available to you and give yourself permission to have fun experimenting in the career change sandbox for a while.