Courageous Career Change

The decision to change your career path is not a choice to take lightly. Venturing into the unknown is uncomfortable, and it is scary. The easy choice is inaction--accepting your career circumstances with complacency. Resolving against complacency in search of something more inspiring requires courage.

Aristotle upheld courage as the first virtue, because it makes all the other virtues possible. He believed that one must be aware of what they're doing, choose it for its own sake, and move towards action from a fixed and permanent disposition.

When we speak of events leading up to a courageous act, they are usually spoken of in terms of fear, perceived conflict, and anticipated failure. Courage is, therefore, not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

According to Dr. Karl Albrecht, there are only five different types of fear:

  1. Extinction. The fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist.
  2. Mutilation. The fear of losing part of our bodily structure.
  3. Loss of Autonomy. The fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control.
  4. Separation. The fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness.
  5. Ego-death. The fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self.

Let's talk about how you can overcome fear to make a successful career change. Where does your fear of career change exist? You're not likely to die or lose a limb by changing your career path, so that leaves us with numbers three to five to explore.

Loss of autonomy.

Being courageous is about deeply claiming your autonomy--empowering yourself to accomplish more than you previously thought you could. Yet, the very moment before that reclamation, is often the moment you're most overcome by the fear of losing control. You're paralyzed, overwhelmed, and your animal instinct tells you to run.

But, is this fear real? Boldly proclaiming you're ready for a change is not likely to imprison you--you're not going to be trapped by telling the universe "I'm ready." Therefore, learning to recognize where this fear originates in an objective way will allow you compartmentalize the obstacle.


In contrast, separation from all that you have known, and the people you've grown accustomed to is a very real possibility. You may have to distance yourself from negative friends, you might be faced with a spouse who is threatened by your ambition, or parents who fear you won't land on your feet. Understand that your career change will mean separating from former beliefs and relationships, but you'll become connected to something new, and much better than you thought you possible.


Our fear of failure is often the hardest obstacle to overcome because it's deeply embedded in our past memories and deep-seated wounds. At its essence however, fear of failure is nothing more than fearing the loss of one's identity. "I'm successful," "I'm a provider" "I'm a ______" "I'm not that smart." Positive or negative they are our familiar labels--our stories.

Breaking away from the familiar means you are forced to ask the question "who am I?" However, if you can look at your career change as an opportunity to explore new, or expanded identities, it will become a lot less scary.

Finding Courage

You are not likely to die or be physically injured by being courageous enough to change your career path. But loss of control, isolation, and shame could happen. Know this ahead of time, understand where these emotions come from, and above all else remind yourself that they are not real. Reality lies in what you create.

Shaun Johnson is the cofounder and program director at Startup Institute, New York. He'll be leading a one-day workshop on how to design a career path that is rooted in personal clarity and strategic planning.