When is the right time to change careers?

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Timing is a strange old thing - how much of our lives are spent worrying about doing things at the 'right time', 'in time', being 'on time'? There is an inherent belief in this idea of 'timing' that we could somehow know we chose the right path - that this one was better than that one. Robert Frost captures this idea perfectly in 'The Road Not Taken', ending by reflecting that choosing the road less taken "made all the difference". In a good way? In a bad way? We'll never know, and nor will he, because the ultimate significance of the multiple microscopic choices we make every day is beyond our knowledge.

There are without doubt 'wrong times' to do something. While celebrating someone's wedding is the wrong time to announce your engagement, for instance. But when it comes to careers, I would posit that this is a harder question to answer. If you are, like me, naturally more risk-averse then you would probably say that the wrong time to change career is when you have no financial safety net, dependents relying on your income, and no certainty of a job to go into. Let's not forget, however, that change doesn't happen in an instance, so if this applies to you, it's not the wrong time - but you might need a little longer to do it.

I'm aware that using a question as a title and then failing to answer it is the blog equivalent of catfishing, and I would hate to be accused of that. What's my answer then? My experience has taught me that while there is no right or wrong time to change careers, some times are 'righter' than others. Here are some of the indicators that, in my view, suggest a shake up is in order:

1) You aren't excited about your career progression anymore

Your career is not your worth, it's not your identity, and promotions absolutely should not be the way you measure how successful you've been in life. There is huge pressure nowadays to be moving up, always, and it's incredibly hard to take yourself out of the arena of comparison. As a teacher, I watched people I'd trained with become Assistant Heads, Deputy Heads, even Headteachers, and sometimes I would look at the 'Head of Department' next to my name in staff lists and question whether I was letting myself down by not being further ahead. But I also believed strongly that nothing could make up for experience gained in the classroom, and I never wanted to lead other teachers without knowing myself what years of a heavy timetable felt like.

If you are content where you are, and the role above has never appealed, then you should feel confident and secure in that. That said, if you consider yourself ambitious, when was the last time you checked in on those ambitions? Do you actually want to progress, or are you just in the habit of wanting it? If the excitement for your future is gone, then it's time to ask why. If the desire to progress is no longer there, it could be that your heart is telling you it doesn't want to go any further up the wrong ladder. The longer you wait the harder it becomes to make the jump, so it pays to ask the question now - just be prepared in case the answer surprises you.

2) You've taken steps to remedy issues in your current role

Not everything broken needs to be thrown out. If you've pinpointed what's making you restless in your current role, or what's putting you off moving up rather than moving on, then it's time to try and fix that. When I started to feel my enthusiasm for my previous post ebbing, I looked for new challenges to take on - I enrolled in a qualification for Senior Leaders, I attended leadership retreats, and I put myself forward for every internal opportunity going. I wanted to recapture the feeling from the early days when I couldn't wait to get to work, and I could see a tangible problem to tackle.

It definitely worked to start with - I was motivated, excited for where it could lead, and full of energy. But as time wore on, and I kept taking on more responsibility and joining in with more programmes, it became clear that something was missing. I was creating challenge through volume, when actually the type of challenge I wanted was outside the classroom altogether. Part of my role involved lots of time speaking with year 13s about their future plans to become human rights lawyers, or to start businesses, or to tackle huge engineering projects - their lofty ambitions for their futures made me envious, because I didn't have that teenage excitement about my own anymore. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but for the first time in a long time I took a step back and questioned whether my sense of inertia was directed at my current role, or at my entire career trajectory.

3) You've spoken to people you trust, and whose insight you value

About six months before handing in my notice, I started working with a coach recommended by a friend. Initially, this was driven by the feeling that I was paralysed by choice. I'd always wanted to be a headteacher in an area that historically hadn't done well by its young people because I believed, and still believe, that education is the best form of empowerment. All my career decisions were driven by this, and I had five, ten and fifteen year plans to get me there. When I got to the end of my five year plan, and briefly took my foot off the gas, suddenly all the concerns in the previous paragraphs reared their heads and I no longer knew if my decisions were the right ones.

Coaching had always sounded, to me, self-indulgent and airy - something people who go through 'conscious uncouplings' would do. If I felt depressed, I'd see a counsellor, and if I needed help with something specific at work I'd find a mentor - why would I need a coach? Actually, coaching is one of the best presents you can give yourself. A good coach isn't there to tell you what to do, or to fluff your ego up a bit and send you on your way - they ask the right questions to help you see your life, and your experiences, from a different angle. They also offer a degree of accountability - I was given reflections to complete at home, for instance, which we then discussed in the next session.

Working with a coach helped me recognise that while teaching suited me brilliantly in lots of ways, there were also numerous strengths and skills that I just wasn't getting to use. Until that point, I had been so fixed on my goal of becoming a headteacher that I hadn't stepped back to think about how my life felt day to day. I was frustrated by all the small things I couldn't fix, and by the limitations of subject specialism - as much as I loved English, in my free time I was devouring books on physics, daydreaming about running my own company, and enviously reading about women in tech paving the way for others to follow.

Having someone external challenge the way I viewed myself, my job, and my ambitions drew out truths I hadn't even known existed. It also allowed the possibility of being 'something else' to take form. Working with a coach rather than just chatting with a friend also reassured me that I could speak to someone who was free of any preconceptions about me, or the weight of knowing what I'd been and done before.

If you know you aren't happy where you are, and you're struggling to picture where you might go next, then it's time to identify the person who can ask the right questions to help you find clarity - and with whom you can trust your honest answers.

4) You've set aside time to write down your vision for the future

Unless you're one of those weird people that drives for pleasure, it's unlikely you've ever jumped in the car without any idea where you're going or how long it'll take to get there. We're very comfortable these days with the idea that we should set ourselves goals and then work towards those, especially in the workplace - but these can neglect the many other components of a happy life, and they are usually rooted in what we see to be realistic and achievable. We don't necessarily recognise our own limiting beliefs and the way they stop us from acknowledging what we really want.

What if you succeeded at everything you did? What if you felt no fear? What would your life look like then?

Would you live where you live? Would you work the hours you work? Would your day-to-day look like it does now? If you met your 18 year old self and told them what you'd done with the time that passed since you last looked at them, would they be pleased for you?

We ask ourselves what we want to have in the future, but we rarely ask ourselves how we want to feel, and what it would take to get that. If you've read the extraordinary book 'Three Women' by Lisa Taddeo then you might recognise the quote that follows, which resonated hugely with me: "...It's the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were." No amount of promotions can make up for the daily numbing effect of waking up every day and commuting to an office when all you want to do is build things with your own two hands. If you dream of living in the middle of nowhere, but your job requires you to live near a city, then is the job worth the dream?

My coach talks about your strengths being the things that literally make you stronger when you do them - if you thrive on, for instance, finding ways to support others through challenging times, then finding a job that lets you do that every day will make you stronger. If your current career isn't putting you on a trajectory towards at least some of the things you wrote down in your vision, and it isn't day to day making you feel stronger and happier, then it's time for a change.

5) You have a couple of months' safety net, or an emergency back-up plan

We've allowed ourselves to dabble in dreams for a moment, so let's now come back to reality. There are bills to pay, there's food to buy, there's the desire to be able to afford holidays and a social life after paying for all the boring things. You would be unwise to read point four, fling your laptop at the wall, and send a letter of resignation to your boss without first looking at the practical considerations.

Everyone knows the job market is pretty dire at the time of writing, but there are jobs out there - you should, however, be prepared for at least a couple of months of not earning if you're planning on jumping ship without having a post lined up. As a teacher, I knew that if I couldn't find a job then I would use supply teaching or private tutoring to plug the gap while I was unemployed. Take some time to research options in your field. Sites like Upwork and Yunojuno might offer freelance opportunities which could tide you over in the gap between roles.

Alternatively, start a side hustle. If your dream is to run your own candle-making business then start making candles at the weekend. If you want to be a writer, start writing. Carve out time to test the waters - that might mean you have to skip the gym, see less of your friends, to fit it in, but it's okay because we're chasing dreams here - and discover how it feels to live your new career, even if it's just for a sliver of time per week. This is another occasion where working with a coach could be incredibly useful - with their guidance, you can set out what you want to achieve and when by, and start yourself on a new path.

6) Your career is making you miserable or ill

This is a no brainer. If Covid has taught us anything it's that life is short, and precious, and we should savour every moment of freedom we can. If you dread waking up five days a week, or feel like you are constantly balancing on a knife edge when it comes to your mental health, then it's the right time to change careers.

As a teacher, I lived with a constant stress knot sitting in my chest. Speaking to other teachers, I knew this was pretty common and it didn't bother me much beyond the occasional worry it might be bad for my health in the long term. It was only when I purchased a Whoop strap, a fitness band which tracks your heart rate, sleep and recovery, that I realised just how much of an impact stress was having on my body. When I first put it on, my resting heart rate stayed so high that it didn't register when I was asleep. I remember texting a friend one Sunday morning that my heart rate was in the 80s, and him asking if I'd just been for a run - in fact, I was on the sofa in my pyjamas watching TV. In the five weeks since I left teaching completely, my resting heart rate has dropped on average by about 5bpm.

Taking a huge pay cut, risking unemployment, and starting again at the bottom of a completely new career ladder are also stressful events, but the difference is that you are the one in control. Being able to afford nice things is great, but so is sleeping soundly through the night and not having the Sunday Evening Fear. If all else fails, remember that changing careers doesn't erase the previous one - all that experience is still there on your CV should you need it again. In the meantime, a bit of short term discomfort is worth it if the long term picture means chasing down the life you imagined in point four.

If you know in your gut that it's time to change, then as the saying goes, the best time to start is yesterday - and the second best time is right now.

The coach I worked with is called Emma Jackson - you can find out more about her here: https://www.evj.af

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