As a career and leadership coach for the past 16 years and working with thousands of midlife professionals around the world—and through my own career change twenty years ago—I’ve witnessed virtually everything you can imagine regarding the do’s and don’ts of career pivot and change after 40. My specific career change journey started at age 41, from unhappy and chronically ill corporate VP, to marriage and family therapist, then launching my firm as a career coach, writer, executive trainer and podcaster. Through that process of change and supporting others, I’ve observed successful pathways that allow professionals to pivot and build a new career in midlife in the most effective way, and also some important things to avoid.
Why Do People Want To Start A New Career At Or After 40?
Below are several key reasons for people’s deep desire to make a career change as they hit age 40 and beyond.
The current sacrifice feels too great
The work, outcomes and benefits of their current career no longer outweigh what they have to sacrifice and compromise on, in order to engage in this work.
Mistreatment or not being valued
The way in which they are being treated by their employers or workplaces makes them feel that it is no longer sustainable or acceptable to stay in this industry or field.
The need for more control
Having more control and self-authority over their professional lives and time has become paramount, especially in the face of international health and other crises that have led millions of people to think differently about their lives, goals and futures (and their mortality).
Entering a new psychosocial developmental stage
At or around age 40, we typically enter a different developmental stage than that of our younger years.
We begin to examine more critically the way we’re working, and for what reasons, outcomes and purposes. For many people hitting age 40, they recognize they may have fewer years ahead than behind them, and that gives rise to a different mindset (and urgency) about what is truly important for them, and what they wish to create that has lasting significance. And for many who have had children or are caring for elders and other loved ones, their priorities begin to shift as well.
The field itself has changed
As we’re seeing with the emergence of artificial intelligence and new tools like ChatGPT, industries, jobs and the future professional landscape are dramatically shifting. According to one report from Goldman Sachs, AI could potentially replace the equivalent of 300 million jobs.
Longing for greater purpose
Finally, as people hit 40, many feel an emergent need for more meaning and purpose in what they’re doing, versus what they focused on in their 20’s and 30’s – often trying to get ahead, earn more money, settle down, buy a home, and start a family. Many professionals begin to want their lives to matter in a different way, or they wish to make a bigger, more positive or lasting impact in the world. These new drives and desires lead them to recognize that their current field or role may not generate the reward and fulfillment they now want.
So, What Is The Best Way To Change Careers At 40?
I’ve observed that there are productive and effective ways to make this change. There are also costly missteps that are much more likely to lead to failed attempts, wasted time and loss of money.
The best way to engage in a career change involves five critical steps:
1. Step Back for an empowered perspective of who you are, your talents and abilities and what you have to offer
First, it’s important to understand yourself and your talents and abilities more deeply than you do now. Think about what you’ll give up everything for, what you value, your priorities, standards of integrity, non-negotiables and your style, preferences, and ideals. Many professionals don’t have a real understanding or self-awareness about these important aspects of their professional and personal lives. Often, they spend years trying to figure out what direction to take, and remain in the “swirl” of confusion, without understanding themselves or what they really want. If you don’t know yourself intimately, it becomes very difficult to build a successful and rewarding career over the long arch of your life.
Secondly, it’s important to examine your life and career with a different lens than you’re used to. To connect the dots and make use of everything you are and have learned in your prior years working, and to leverage that successfully, it’s important to view your life from a higher, more enlightened perspective. Many people need outside support to help with this as it’s difficult to do this on your own. As Einstein said,
“You cannot solve a problem on the level of consciousness that created it.”
Each one of us is like a thumbprint – totally unique and different from all others, with a special amalgam of talents, gifts, capabilities and experiences that can be utilized in service of others and the world. But if you doubt it, or aren’t aware of those talents and can’t speak about them, it will be difficult to shift to a new, successful direction.
2. Let Go – of the thinking, patterns and behaviors that keep you stuck
Often, there’s something blocking professionals from more success and reward in their professional lives right now. My research has revealed that a staggering 98% of professional women and 90% of men are facing 7 damaging power and confidence gaps that keep them from reaching their highest and happiest potential in their work. If we don’t address these debilitating power and confidence gaps, our efforts to shift to a new and more satisfying career will be difficult if not impossible, because our chronic challenges will often simply re-emerge in the new career.
The best way to address these gaps is to identify where there are repeating negative patterns in your life – terrible bosses, toxic environments, being passed over continually, back-stabbing colleagues, draining responsibilities, etc. Look at the patterns that continue to reappear, attempt to identify how you are participating in sustaining these patterns, and do something concrete to shift that dynamic. Be accountable and take action to generate change.
You may also have limiting beliefs and mindsets (which often emerge from our childhood and families of origin) about money, success, power, your worth and value, etc., or you may take repeated actions that hold you back or sabotage you from reaching the next level of success. For many people, it’s a problem with their boundaries – an inability to advocate for and honor their priorities. For others, their communication style hurts them, and pushes away any kind of positive support or help. For others still, it’s a lack of confidence or a belief that they’re “less than” and not worthy of advancing or experiencing great joy and satisfaction in their work. Until you let go of what you’re doing and thinking that keeps you from experiencing more success and reward, it will be difficult to build a happier and more successful career.
3. Say “Yes” to your most compelling visions for the future
Thirdly, you need a vision for the next chapter, but not just any vision or fantasy – you need a “just right vision.” So often, we dream large about where we think we’d love to be, but the vision is so far away from where we are today, that we sabotage any efforts to get there (because we don’t really think it’s possible.) As Sir Winston Churchill said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be handled one link at a time.”
Others are afraid to think big, so they keep themselves stuck in unacceptable situations. It’s critical to identify concretely what success and reward looks like for you specifically, but then break that down into a vision—and series of goals—that fit well with what you believe is attainable.
4. Explore it and try it on
Perhaps the most important step in this 5-step sequence is exploring the top three directions you’re most excited about, and trying them on and vetting them as thoroughly as you can before you leap or pivot. For example, if you’re in real estate but think you want to start your own business in another field, try it on in every way.
- Interview people who are succeeding at what you want to do, but also those who have failed at it
- Research it thoroughly online
- Get some entrepreneurial support from SCORE.org or other entrepreneurial support groups to help develop your business plan
- Meet with your financial consultant to review your financial plans
- Read everything you can get your hands on about this new direction, and understand if there are any additional credentials, training or educational requirements to succeed and be competitive
- Go to networking meetings with people in the field
- Develop your marketing and business plan, and do some exhaustive competitive research to know what you’re up against
Don’t leave any stones unturned. Try on the professional identity of this new direction before you leap.
5. Create it S.M.A.R.T.
Finally, you can’t go from point A to point Z in a month. This process – of identifying who you really are and what you want in a new career—and determining the directions that will align best with your values, visions and needs—takes time, effort, patience, trust and commitment. There are a lot of unknowns to work through. And often it requires a financial investment as well—to obtain a new certification or needed training and experience. It’s helpful to create a 3-month, 6-month and 12-month plan, with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals, and someone in your court to help you stay accountable and on track.
What’s The Worst Thing To Do, If You’re Thinking Of Making A Career Change At 40?
The worst thing to do when wanting a career change is to wait until you think you have it all figured out and have “all the answers” before you make any moves. It’s critical to pursue risk-free steps first that will help you understand the best direction, vet it as well as possible, then in measured ways, start to build that new career that will be more satisfying and successful on terms that matter to you.
For some folks, they decide to take a part-time job in the new career, while still earning money in the old one. Others take a sabbatical from their current role so they can earn a certification or new training in the new field.
Real progress doesn’t just magically happen. Nothing will change if we wait until we think we know exactly what we want to do before we take any steps toward our own development. And success won’t come at all if you’re so desperately afraid of failing and losing everything that you won’t even consider exploring (in risk-free ways) some exciting new directions.
Confidence doesn’t suddenly strike. It’s in the consistent execution of these brave (and usually a bit intimidating) steps that will help you grow the confidence, self-trust and self-awareness you need to make a career change that will be a positive move in your life.
What Are The Best-Paying Careers To Start At 40?
There are numerous lists available detailing the types of jobs that are the best-paying if you start at age 40. Indeed, for instance, lists jobs such as project manager, web developer, SEO analyst, human resources manager and more. BetterUp’s list includes roles in nursing, translation, and web or digital design. Other lists cite financial consultant, teacher, accountant and more.
My tip is to start first with a deep evaluation of who you are and what you want in the future, then begin to explore three new directions that truly excite you. Vet these direction well and carefully, then take a step towards networking to connect with hiring managers in these fields.
These steps are critical so that, once you make a change, you can be confident that you’ve done the due diligence necessary to know that this will be a rewarding direction and you’ll have the staying power and energy to succeed in this new direction over the long haul.
Career change at 40 is doable and can be very successful, but the most important step is to empower yourself with greater recognition of what you already know, the value you bring to a new field, and the abilities that you can leverage to make this change a successful one.