Midlife Career Change Can Mean Midlife Culture Shock

By Cathy Goodwin

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One reason midlife career change is so hard is that you move into a new culture, with new values and expectations. My client was used to corporate life. Every day he knew exactly what he had to do to keep his job and to move to the next level. There was no ambiguity.

Now, he had to figure out the new landscape. The next step wasn’t clear to him and he certainly didn’t have a game plan.

Two Culture Shifts Of Career Change

In a career change you get two culture shifts. First, you experience a shift from the act of changing careers, especially if you come from a structured corporate environment.

Corporate success is like NFL football: you play a position and you don’t make spontaneous moves, even if they seem better at the time. You get rewarded for doing your job and being in the right place at the right time.

Midlife career change is like playground basketball. You improvise the rules, you have to find your own coach, and success comes from reacting spontaneously and “playing well with others.”

Career Change Is Toughest In The Early Stages

I can relate to these challenges. My former life was totally different than the one I live now.  As an academic, I made statements and claims very carefully. It was a point of pride to say, “That’s outside my expertise.” Smart people said things like, “It could be this or it could be that.”

Outside academia the world is very different. People want you to sound confident and firm, even if you’re not sure of yourself. It took me a long time to get used to this style and I still hesitate sometimes.

It’s also important to remember that when you’re new in any world, you’ll see the worst parts. It’s like moving to a new town: as a newcomer, you’ll meet all the people you’ll avoid later on.

As a career consultant, I was horrified when I found people saying things like, “That test is self-validating. If you feel the results are accurate, they are.”  Now I rarely encounter these attitudes. I meet sharp, educated, intelligent coaches.

It takes even longer to find new people who will become your confidantes, friends and supporters. Friends from your former live will rarely be helpful. Even if they “get” what you’re doing, they’ll wish they could join you so they’ll be jealous – or they’ll simply lose touch because you have less in common.

Stages of Culture Shock Mirror Your Career Change

Typically you can expect to go through stages of culture shock. At first the new world seems exciting and fun. As you progress, you start to see the downsides, the negative things you didn’t notice. You often hit bottom when you think, “OMG, I made a BIG mistake! I want to go back!”

It’s important to pay attention to those feelings. It’s easy to stifle your response with, “Oh yeah, everything is fine. I just have a headache today.”

At this point, you might indeed realize you’ve made a mistake. If so, it’s better to weigh the situation now – perhaps with a friend’s help or with a career coach.

At the same time, obstacles tend to look smaller in the rear view mirror. All too often people walk away from opportunities because the challenge seems impossibly hard. Almost immediately, they realize they were held back by their own fears.

Generally it’s best to decide NOT to decide. Recognize your feelings and keep moving. Test a few different options as time permits. Find comfortable ways to tap into your intuition, with meditation, exercise, tapping, or just walks with your dog.  Eventually you’ll find yourself gravitating naturally to a solution.

The Home Stretch

Once you emerge from hitting bottom, you’ll likely be optimistic again, but in a more realistic way. You’ll understand what options are available and how you can leverage your current experience to reach your ultimate goal.

Career change doesn’t end with a feeling of success. You just wake up one day and realize you’ve stopped reading the want ads. You realize you look forward to working most days (it’s rarely 100%!) and you no longer feel dread at the idea of going to work. You probably have more energy in general and you feel better physically.

And after a few years, you might get the urge to wander again … or realize a new door has opened that you never anticipated.


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