Learning lessons from our career change history

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” This well loved and widely misattributed quote is wise career change advice.

While the quote belongs to a longish list of things Albert Einstein didn’t actually say – he could have done. Because it neatly captures the spirit of enquiry and experimentation found at the heart of successful science and so much else – including career change.

Why is it that despite great intentions and well-laid plans, we so often swap one unsatisfying job for another one just like it?

Your dream career is in digital marketing, but you’re stuck in a spin cycle of soul sucking sales jobs. You land one lucrative corporate job after another but you hanker after the fun and fulfilment you found in a six month stint in a three person start up.

Although journaling and social media encourage us to be more privately and publically reflective – it seems we don’t often look back and learn from our career path ups and downs.

Or more to the point, we don’t review our career history in ways that help us avoid reliving it.

If you’re looking forward to making a genuine career change, I suggest you begin by looking back at your motivation and your methods.

First up, review what and who motivated and energised you in your past professional life. Then look at your career change method – how did you go about changing jobs?

Renewable energy - find your sources


Learn your history lessons by taking a forensic look at what you loved and loathed about your professional ‘exes.’ Think about what each job involved, how well you related to colleagues and clients and your ‘fit’ with differing workplace cultures.

How did past positions and the people and values you met there motivate and inspire or drain and depress you?

Did you work your heart out for a manager who acknowledged and celebrated everyone’s success, never forgot a birthday and suggested you work from home when your child was sick? Perhaps, acknowledgement, strong teamwork and flexibility top your ‘energisers’ list. 

Did you tear your hair out over infuriating delays that blew out your deadlines and blocked great outcomes?  Maybe complex processes and long chains of command drive you to distraction.

Did being an ace at organising entire projects keep you busy but bore you witless?  Were you stuck using too many of your most renowned skills and too few of your best loved but less applauded ones?

Getting insight into what moves and motivates you at work is the traditional starting point for navigating career change. Undoubtedly this is a vital step. However, evaluating how you’ve managed moving between jobs can unmask some of your most potent self-saboteurs.

Refresh your methods – act outside your comfort zone

Change is exciting and liberating. It’s also downright scary and an open invitation to our inner demons to strut their confidence shattering stuff. It can be tough to focus on acting outside your job seeking ‘norms’ when your mental doomsayers (not to mention some of your actual significant others) are sounding dire warnings. Where you see exciting new possibilities they see potential career chaos.

Does ‘fear of the career unknown’ condemn you to reliving your professional past?   

Answering ‘yes’ to either of the following questions suggests that your methods not your motives might be stopping you learning from history.  

Do you stay until misery overwhelms you then ‘cut and run’ from a job you hate?

Do you rely first and foremost on your established networks for inspiration and support to find a new direction?

As fallible fear prone humans, we’re given to acting rashly out of desperation and to falling back on what we know. When it comes to career change these behaviours can trap you into settling for more of the same. This is especially soul destroying if like so many of us, you’re searching for a great big life changing shift.

Unshackling yourself from the unloved bits of your work history means changing how you grow your ‘working identity’. Professor Herminia Ibarra’s article ‘How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career’  gives some thought provoking advice on how to do this. Try taking an ‘act first reflect later’ approach to seek out ‘new’ career options. Use commonsense, courage and a spirit of adventure in roughly equal measures. Think side projects, new networks, and a host of other clever contrary sounding options likely to lead to places you may never have imagined but may well enjoy.

Nudge yourself gently out of your comfort zone by switching your decision making from ‘autopilot’ to ‘manual’. Think about how often you routinely choose for your favourite pizza then wish you’d ordered your partner’s delectable alternative. 

Play patience – keep things real


Finally, or possibly firstly if we are talking skillfully managed expectations, remind yourself that history rarely reflects a complete account of events. Blood, sweat and set backs don’t often receive their rightful airspace. This is likely to be true of the your work history where hindsight may not reflect the fact that all jobs are a mix of what Michael Bungay Stanier describes as bad, good and great work. Using the tools in Stanier’s book ‘Do great work’ can show how you’ve fared historically and how you can up your ‘great work’ quotient in current and future roles. 

History can teach us heaps about our triumphs and our tribulations at work. An honest look will highlight where we were more or less accountable for both these things. It can show us the things we do that have simply ceased to work for us. After that it is up to us to ensure that we act on the insights from our history to ensure we are not doomed to repeat it.

By Jo Green, Career Change Coach

I know what it feels like to be lost in your career. I also know that when you find what you love, heart and soul, your life changes. I work every day with people who are reshaping their current careers, starting new enterprises or searching for a new direction. Basically I help people who don’t like their job to figure out what to do instead!

As a Careershifters and Firework Advanced Certified Coach and experienced career changer myself, I can help you figure out what fulfilling work looks like for you.

Drop me a note to organise a free 20 minute consultation to chat about your career change and how coaching could help.