“I think I want to be a psychologist, but I don’t want to listen to people’s problems all day!”
According to my mum, these were the seemingly contradictory words I uttered as a 17-year-old, nearing the completion of Year 12, and contemplating life outside of the school gates. Fast-forward 30 years and I am indeed a psychologist, but like many of us, my career path has been far from linear.
While my teenage musings may appear contrary to the typical expectations we have of the ‘helping’ profession, I realise now, that even at age 17, I was tapping into my values and strengths, potent ingredients in the recipe for career fulfilment and vocational success. My gut wanted to work with people’s strengths, and my belief system knew that with a positive and supportive approach, we all have the capacity to live better lives. However, in the 80s, the positive psychology movement was unheard of, and the psychological profession was generally more aligned with the traditional medical model, where the focus was on a client’s struggles, what wasn’t working, and what need to be “fixed”.
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So, feeling torn, I decided against studying psychology, and chose to explore the machinations of human behaviour via a communications degree and a subsequent career in public relations and marketing. But after years working with an array of clients across three continents, I developed an itch. The itch became a more pronounced rash (of the mental kind) until I made the decision to take the long road back to retraining as a psychologist.
My career tale is far from unique, and today, I recognise it makes the many client stories I hear about job change conundrums and career crossroads even more meaningful and relatable.
For many Australians, the itch never goes away because it is accompanied by a fear of the unknown that often holds us back from making life-changing decisions. It makes sense for us to fear the unknown. In evolutionary terms, a degree of caution with unfamiliar situations has helped us survive. But when it comes to careers, this fear can prevent us from pursuing a job that aligns with who we are and what we need most, ultimately leaving us feeling unsatisfied, and inauthentic, day in and day out.
On average, we spend a third of our lives at work but so many of us feel disenchanted and unhappy in the jobs we’re in. According to a recent study conducted by SEEK, almost 60 per cent of Australians report feeling stuck in their current career, yet many have a dream or vision that they are yet to action.
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So why do so many of us choose to stay in jobs that no longer fulfil us, even when the cost is high to our psychological, relational and physical wellbeing?
Put simply, we may initially make career decisions to please others or “do the right thing” or just because we can’t imagine an alternative. This becomes compounded by common barriers to job change ranging from fear of the unknown, self-doubt, and financial concerns, to feeling like our options are limited based on a lack of experience or qualifications. Therefore, a first step to change requires us to acknowledge and understand the decisions we’ve made to date, so we can recognise how these choices have gotten us where we are.
But be kind to yourself. Making a career change doesn’t necessarily require having all the answers before you leap. In fact, as is often the case with significant life transitions, sometimes the mere thought of change is more daunting than the actual act. Making a choice to mindfully monitor our thoughts and feelings about our job can help tweak the path that we are on, or at least, act as a useful catalyst for taking the first steps to a new career.
Whether you feel like a deer in headlights or you’ve taken the first steps, here’s my advice for navigating a career change:
Don’t think in absolutes.
No job will be perfect (just like no partner will tick all the boxes). At every stage of your career, play to your values and strengths, and utilise your transferable skills. Trust that no job experience is wasted, and every role has the potential to inform and enhance the next one, even if it simply creates awareness about what you don’t want to do
Believe in yourself.
Believing that we aren’t good enough, may fail, or that others would do a better job leads to feeling hesitant and fearful, which in turn results in avoidant behaviour. By challenging our unhelpful thoughts and focusing on the skills and aptitudes that we do have, we better our chances of overcoming the barriers that prevent us from cultivating change
As humans, we’re conditioned to fear the unknown but if we can sit with the uncertainty and find coping strategies to ride this wave until the discomfort subsides, we are more likely to hop on the career change wave in the first place.
We can all take incremental steps towards our dream career, even within our current job. Job crafting is about maximising opportunities to customise our current job by actively changing tasks and interactions with others at work. Volunteering can also help us realise our passion while impacting the lives of others in meaningful ways. Even the smallest of changes can shift a career trajectory, so start small but start today.
Sabina is the host and mentor on Dream Job, currently airing at 4.30pm on Saturdays on Channel 9. Sabina works with individuals, couples, groups and organisations as a psychologist, coach, facilitator and speaker. She continues to marry her communications expertise with her psychological knowledge and, like her 17-year self, is still passionate about working with people’s strengths.