career change fear

One of the questions I always ask my clients before beginning to work together explores the reasons why they believe they are unable to move towards changing their career.

If my exploratory questions were used as survey answers for the game show Family Feud, then “fear” would be the number one answer to what holds people back from going for the career of their dreams.

The most common things that people fear are failure, loss of income, high risks, and unfamiliar territory.

This may not be an exhaustive list of possible fears to have, but even a short list is already enough to create a seemingly insurmountable barrier to get started on a new career path.

Human beings are the only creatures on Earth who have the ability to seek out our purpose for existence and to recognize we have important choices to make that direct our career and life path.

It is this intelligence by its nature that also creates scenarios that give rise to our feelings of fear and anxiety.

Our brains are intelligent decision-making machines when it comes answering important questions about our life’s purpose. But before we reach the logical and reasoning centers, we first face the emotional recesses of our brain that also give rise to our biases.

Here are three cognitive biases that cause your fears associated with a career change:

You feel it would be a waste of all the time, money and energy that you’ve already invested

Many of my clients have gone through years of formal education and training to qualify for and land the job they are currently working in. The numbers of years and dollars spent being committed to preparing for entrance to this marketplace is a major accomplishment, which is often the first milestone in one’s professional career.

It is no wonder that anyone who has invested in themselves for this career path would feel that it would all go to waste if a career change led to a completely different path.

If you’ve found yourself continuing down a career path that doesn’t feel right only because you’ve invested so much time and energy into it, then it’s time to take a step back and re-frame.

It’s time to let go of your fear of waste and failure.

Remember that everything in this world grows and changes — including your career — and not all projects succeed. By doing this, you will be able to ease your grip on something that you know in your heart is doomed. One effective way to accomplish this letting go process is to realize that your past costs cannot be recovered. Your money, time, and energy are already spent and they cannot be recovered.

And that’s okay because investing in the past does not obligate you to continue investing in the future. You can pause where you are, assess, and decide to change career direction.

You seek, interpret, and recall information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs

Our faulty brains tend to get more excited by things that affirm us than things that negate us. That means that we tend to reject things that contradict our beliefs. While this may be perceived as having confidence, it is actually an unconscious choice to see only what we believe in an effort to stay within our comfort zone.

Many of my clients hold damaging myths about their career progress, such as the belief that it’s impossible to change careers once you’re past the age of 50.

Beliefs of this nature are so strong that the brain will seek affirmation and hence be rewarded for being correct.

Take a survey of any strong beliefs that you are holding that lead to a more pessimistic perspective of career change. Flag it, and take note of the specific information that you collected that triggered your pessimism. 

Then go out and prove yourself wrong. Try to dis-confirm your initial suspicions by actively seeking out and considering contradictory information. Don’t forget to circle back and consider a new perspective on career change once you’ve examined the new information.

You believe that you are somebody specific with a job identity that define you as a person

Most people see their career journey as a long linear path. Conventional wisdom defines job stability as being able to stay on this path for most of its entire length.

For the lucky few who also find this path radically enjoyable and naturally suitable, they would be admired for having struck gold for having both stability and meaning in their career.

Furthermore, the state of our self-esteem, self-image, and self-compassion rests upon the degree to which we have achieved this picture. The problem with that approach to perspective is that today’s careers — especially the non-traditional ones — are really not linear like that.

So this conventional wisdom enhances our delusion that what we do for work is a synonym of who we are as humans. The result is that any yearnings for a career change would seem like an existential disaster.

Recognize that the career landscape isn’t a lineup of daunting straight paths. It’s really just a massive laboratory in which you are the scientist. With this perspective, you can design and implement it any way you want by following your curiosity. 

In a career, most people don’t play to succeed; they play not to fail.

By playing not to fail, you never win.

Instead, you only get the illusion of not failing.

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