You Must Have This One Ability Before Making a Big Career Change

I know how awful it is to feel stuck in work that doesn't fit.

I'm sorry if you're doing soul-deadening work that drains you, day after day. It's hard for me to watch your lifeless expression when your work feels like a grind. Sometimes, I want to cry knowing that your positive energy is being wasted.

I'm especially concerned if you're growing more cynical and skeptical about being able to shift into more engaging, life-affirming work.

Because fulfilling work not a myth. Really. It can be yours.

So, now you're wondering, "How do I get out of my rut and into the more enjoyable work I crave?"

There's one key ability you absolutely must hone in order to make a big career change (or really, any important change). I've got two stories to help make the point.

How learning to ride a mountain bike helped me change jobs

In the early part of my management consulting experience, too much of my day was filled with filling in numbers in Excel spreadsheets. Too little of the time was spent advising and coaching clients.

I felt trapped. Sometimes, I would daydream about teaching more "touchy feely" workshops about professional development topics instead of dealing with all those financial formulas.

But just then, some well-meaning manager would dump more financial modeling on me. And I'd toss my dreams out the 42nd floor window.

Things finally shifted when a friend, Peggy, left the consulting firm. After about six weeks away, she took me to lunch. Over tuna fish sandwiches, grabbed in a rush at the office food court, she said, "You're becoming set in your ways. It's time to shake things up. Only when you do that will you be able to shift to new work."

For weeks, I didn't ask my management for the new kind of work I craved. I held back. I was afraid of rejection.

One weekend, walking in a tree-lined park near my house, I felt so lucky to have my attention off of work. I could hear my heart for the first time in a long time. I remembered Peggy telling me to shake things up. My heart generated a message, loud and clear, "You need to develop the muscle for change. Take up a challenge."

So I bought a mountain bike. I liked riding a bike, but I hadn't been on one in years. And I had no idea how to ride a bike on dirt trails. And I felt all awkward, unsure, unsteady.

Yep, a challenge.

I complained to friends about this unsteadiness. Until I met a mountain biking instructor who told me: "Awkwardness is natural. Trust it. Whenever you learn something new, celebrate that you're feeling shaky. It's a good sign. If you're not feeling at least a little bit of awkwardness in your life, you're not growing."

So I took more lessons, and got accustomed to being a beginner and feeling incompetent for a while. As I rode up and down hills, I giggled when I didn't know what I was doing.

Then, when vacation time came up, instead of choosing to tan myself on a beach, I chose to take a 10-day mountain biking trip along rugged roads in Chile and Argentina. When I conquered that, including a 50-mile day riding in the cold rain, I gave myself more credit than ever for making my way through the awkwardness of change.

Soon afterwards, I worked up the courage to ask for a new job in the consulting firm. And though it took a few months to get it, I moved into an amazing role managing the professional training for more than 700 people worldwide.

Fast forward to 2010.

How Shakespeare got Nat a job in Shanghai

Nat came to me for helping making a career change. He'd stumbled into a finance career after his MBA, but never expected to stay. Yet 25 years later, he didn't know what else to do. In our Working Wellness coaching sessions, Nat went from stifled and stuck to clear about what he wanted to his career future. He decided he needed to get out of the United States and have an overseas adventure.

But he felt stuck. Paralyzed. Scared. How was he supposed to pursue that kind of career move after age 50?

"Nat," I said, "You need to do something that will make you feel awkward. You've got to flex the muscle of unfamiliarity. You know finance so well. In order to leave that ill-fitting field, you need to do allow yourself to do different, so you get the feeling of uncertainty in your bones, and so you know you can handle the shaky places."

Nat understood the rationale for deliberately choosing awkwardness.

"So, Nat, what activity would get you outside your comfort zone?" I asked.

"Well, I've thought of taking a Shakespearean acting class for years. I love the theater. That would be awkward for me. A stretch. Is that what you mean for me to do?"

I told Nat that kind of stretch was exactly what I intended. And he made it happen. He signed up for the acting class.

I got a call from Nat after his first class: "Well, if you wanted me to feel awkward, you succeeded. I'm the only non-actor in the class. I think I made a buffoon of myself. I don't sound Shakespearean. I don't think I fit in."

Since he survived, didn't get kicked out, and at least mildly enjoyed himself, I suggested to Nat that he keep it up.

After the second class, Nat said, "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm looking around for cues and clues all the time."

But by the third class, his response was, "You know, I kind of like this. I'm getting the hang of it. The teacher even said I did a good scene."

I wasn't surprised when, during the acting series, Nat connected with an alum in Singapore. She told him about a position running communications programs, in English, based out of Shanghai, for a finance firm. No number crunching. Managing people and programs.

Nat took the job. He's loving the foreign adventure. Enjoying his work immensely. Immersing himself in awkwardness every day. Like learning Mandarin. Discovering his way around on the subway. Navigating a foreign culture.

Once you learn to accept awkwardness, uncertainty, incompetence and essentially beginner's mind, you'll have built up the muscle for change.

And getting comfortable with the awkwardness will help with ANY change you want to make. Career. Relationship. Body. Whatever.

So, this leads me to my questions for you:
  • What activity can you do practice the skill of awkwardness?
  • How has stretching yourself helped you to break out of a rut and into something more enjoyable?