10 things no-one tells you about a mid-life career change

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Want to change careers in your 30s or 40s? Make sure you read this first

Remember when you were 16 and you went on your mandatory visit to the school careers counsellor? Via a series of startlingly bland questions, they determine that your dream job lies in being a biology teacher, or possibly a librarian.

This kind of determinism goes hand-in-hand with all things career choice, right from the point we’re asked: “what do you want to be when you’re grown-up?”

It’s absurd that, as a teenager, you’re expected to know exactly what you will study at uni, and how your life will map out from that point in. I remember being stifled and slightly panicked by the thought. And yet, it happens: even in an age where the gig economy rules supreme.

No wonder, then, that changing careers in your 30s or 40s feels subversive – like you’re somehow rewriting the rules. By the time you’ve hit this “comfortable” stage, you’re expected to be on the fast-track for senior management. Jumping ship on everything you’ve known feels flighty: suspect, even. You can expect more than your fair share of raised eyebrows.

But feel free to ignore them, because changing careers in your 30s or 40s is the absolute *best time* to do it. You have enough experience under your belt to keep you afloat, and the grit to make it happen. You’re not a wide-eyed youngster, but neither are you jaded and cynical.

Here are 10 things you should know if you’re considering taking the leap:

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1 – Job security is overrated

So many people feel tied to their jobs on the basis of money, status or convenience. But these perks are only worth it so long as what you’re doing makes you happy. If not, they’re simply things that are holding you down, and keeping you stuck somewhere you don’t want to be.

Don’t wed yourself to a career for the sake of stability alone. You can be “stable” but miserable and unfulfilled. Equally, you can have a future full of unknowns, but with ideas that fire you up and actually give you some drive in life.

2 – Stability is a myth

On top of this, stability is a fallacy anyway. No-one’s job is secure, and it never has been. The best thing you can do in an uncertain climate is to stay sharp and reactive – something that happens naturally when you pivot careers.

You know that person who’s been in their job 10 years too long, and whines at every opportunity? They’re a prisoner to the myth of stability. Don’t go down the same route.

3 – You can’t fully prepare for the unknown

When you’re on the brink of a major career change, people will tell you to prepare. Do your homework. Research. Speak to other people who’ve done the same thing.

This is valuable advice, and you should absolutely follow it. But also bear in mind that no amount of prep compares to being knee-deep in the thick of things.

The only way you can learn from a midlife career pivot is by throwing yourself headfirst into it. And then you’ll learn thick and fast. So don’t spend too much time dithering beforehand.

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4 – You have all the tools that you need

Sure, there might be some very specific skills that you need when you’re switching careers. For example, if you’re re-training to be a midwife, clearly you’ll require the medical prowess that goes with bringing new life into the world.

But the really scary part of changing careers – taking that first, giddy plunge into the unknown – is something you are already more than capable of. It’s a move that requires things such as self-belief and determination: qualities that, like muscles, only get cranked into action when the situation demands it.

5 – Just making a decision will spur you on

The hardest bit about changing careers is when you’re undecided, or trying to second-guess the decision that you’ve already made. Your mind embarks on a spiral of “what ifs?”, desperately figuring out if you’ve made the “right” decision.

The truth is, there’s no such thing. But also, just making a decision to change careers will put you in a more positive frame of mind. It’s massively freeing, and it’ll energise you in ways that are hard to imagine before you do it.

6 – You can always change your mind

We love to tell ourselves “there’s no going back” because it ramps up the pressure and creates a high-stakes scenario that can be paralyzing.

The reality is far more prosaic. There are always options in life. If you go from a full-time position to a freelance career, it’s perfectly possible to switch back if the decision doesn’t pan out.

Granted, you might not get your exact job back – but remember, there’s a reason why you wanted to leave in the first place. Your doing so will set off a chain reaction of decisions that will change and develop you in various ways, no matter what happens.

Nothing, really, is a waste of time or money. You’re always learning in some way or another, and that’s so much better than being stagnant.

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7 – Changing careers isn’t flaky, it’s smart

We live in an era of near-constant change, which means she who sits around in her job doing very little for four years finishes last. Where once upon a time you could get by with coasting in a role, nowadays it’s a dangerous move indeed.

When you let yourself drift, you become bored and disengaged – and that’s bad news at the best of times. But it becomes a major problem when something happens to your nice “safe” position, and you realise you’re completely out of step with your industry.

Changing careers is a chance to press reset, dust off your skills and stay relevant in a landscape that demands that you adapt in order to thrive.

8 – By taking risks, you become more skilled

Who would you hire if all else was equal – someone who’d proved that they’d taken a few risks in life, and stretched beyond their abilities? Or someone who’d played it nice and safe, ticking along in the same position for years?

There’s nothing wrong with staying in the same place for a while; but there’s nothing inherently right about it either. We need to get out of the mindset that risky career moves are bad.

Pivoting career in your 30s and 40s will light up your skills on a level that’s almost unparalleled. Few choices are as motivating, or carry a sharper learning curve. And people out there will appreciate that fact more than you might think.

9 – You’ll make mistakes – and they’ll be crucial

Perhaps the most important part of a mid-life career change is the mistakes you’ll make along the way.

This could be strategic errors, or those that come through a lack of experience. They could mean you end up losing money, confidence or a combination of the two. The only guarantee is that they will happen.

Yet, no matter what, these missteps will help you develop and grow in a way that could not have occurred if you never took a risk to begin with.

Sure, you can stick with what you know in your career (as much as possible) and always “succeed”. But it’s your mistakes that’ll truly push you forwards.

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10 – Life is as flexible as you make it 

People love to tell you want you can and can’t do in life. They’ll greet your plans with their best “that’s never going to happen” look.

You can hear them out, but you don’t necessarily have to follow their advice. Because, really, it’s you who will lay out the rules of how you live your life. And it’s surprising how everything adapts when you go in with enough conviction.

If you want to work from home, or four days a week, or even from a nomadic haven like Chiang Mai in Thailand: do it. Try it out. Make it happen. Change starts when you do. So instead of thinking about what you “can’t” do, shift the focus to what you want to do – and let life adapt to follow.

Images: Shutterstock, Austin Distel, Green Chameleon, Fezbot2000 and Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

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