Whether you just started a career or are three promotions into it, chances are you will be doing something different when you reach retirement age. “Career paths aren’t what they were for our grandparents and parents who climbed the ladder at one company or in one field,” says Jessica Bacal, director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College and author of Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong. “Things are changing so fast now because of technology, that often, all you can do is build skills and follow your interests.” Make your next move smoothly with her advice.
A Long and Winding Road
Developing skills while following her interests is what Bacal did for almost 20 years before landing her dream job at Wurtele. “I started out in magazines because I liked writing, but I was drawn to the health stories, so I thought maybe I should go to medical school,” she recalls. She took a job in a pediatric practice to see what it was like—and hated it. “I still wanted to work with kids though, so I decided to try teaching,” she says. That led to her going back to school for a Master’s in education, then teaching fourth grade for five years. But the writing bug flared up again, so she switched to private tutoring while working on a novel.
Finally, she and her husband relocated to Massachusetts, and she took a part-time job that evolved into her current director position. Did her route have to be so circuitous? “Honestly, yes,” Bacal says. “My job now didn’t even exist when I arrived, let alone when I graduated from college, so there’s no way I could have beaten a shorter path.”
Given our technology-driven times, the same goes for many of us—in another 20 years, we’ll likely be in careers that don’t exist now, she adds.
Know When It’s Time to Go
Feeling miserable is often what prompts people to start contemplating their next act. “But some misery is necessary to get to where you want to go, like medical school or other tough training programs,” Bacal says. If you see a defined endpoint to the misery, you should probably stick it out.
Similarly, you should wait till you reach the next level if the reason you want to leave is that you feel inadequate or like a fraud. “Feeling off-kilter is part of learning,” Bacal says. “No one starting out is an expert.” If your personal life is tumultuous, staying put for the stability is also a good idea.
The time to leave is when you’ve gone as high as you want to go and learned all there is to learn in your job. “If you’re not sure, have a frank conversation with your supervisor, asking her to assess your talents because you want to understand your career trajectory,” Bacal suggests. Or if you’re worried about showing your hand too early, talk to a mentor or colleague you can trust, instead.
Set a Deadline to Reassess
Once you’ve decided to jump ship, it’s tempting to leap right away. But don’t. You want good references, you need time to plot your next move and you are always more appealing as a job candidate if you are employed, Bacal says. If you’re in your twenties, give yourself at least a year; if you’re older, pick a date at least three months away. In the meantime, you should be researching other fields, thinking about what engages and excites you, doing informational interviews and applying for jobs or graduate school. At the deadline, take another long, hard look at where you are before you leave—just to be sure you don’t feel differently.
Reboot Again (and Again)
Hopefully, you won’t have to start from scratch in the new career, especially if you’re way beyond entry level in your current job. But if you do, rest assured that it probably won’t be for long. “Mid-career people have acquired skills that younger employees might not have, like navigating tricky personalities, or reading and adapting to the new work environment; these things set them apart and help them to make efficient progress,” Bacal says. Also, like Bacal, who worked as a program assistant when she was 35, you may find you enjoy this rookie period. “The work wasn’t challenging and everyone was always so pleased with what I did,” Bacal recalls. “Having mentors who valued my contributions kept me going.”
As you learn and climb, you’ll continue to have new goals and questions about your career. “You don’t get to some point and it all stops,” Bacal says. Whether this is one of many ladders you’ll scale or your last—only time will tell. “When it comes to the narrative we tell about ourselves, there is always room for revision,” Bacal adds. “But isn’t it liberating to know that you can always change the story?”