The Conventional Career “Wisdom” Isn’t So Wise

Those of us who are thinking about a career transition have likely grown accustomed to getting discouraging advice from our loved ones, colleagues and friends. Perhaps people are telling us “you’d be throwing away a perfectly good career,” “you’re being unrealistic,” “you’re too old to make a change,” or something else.

If we’re excited enough about the calling we want to pursue, we tend to do our best to ignore this advice. Sure, maybe some of it sounds reasonable, we think, but the joy and fulfillment we could experience if we succeeded at what we really want are worth behaving a little unreasonably and taking a shot. However, as determined as we might be to heed the voice of our passion rather than our reason, others’ pessimism can still fill us with persistent, nagging doubts.

I’m going to suggest here that, in fact, many of the typical objections people make to our desire to change careers, while they’re well-meaning, aren’t “reasonable” at all. Instead, they’re often rooted in ideas about working in our society that have little basis in logic or economic reality. We can see this if we look carefully at the assumptions behind the discouraging words we usually hear about career transitions. I’ll deal with four of the most common objections we tend to hear below.

1. I know someone else who did what you want to do and failed. Everyone seems to know someone who entered the field you’re interested in and “didn’t make it.” Some people will give you this advice even though they don’t know the “failure” they’re speaking of personally-they may only know about this person secondhand, or the person may actually be fictional. One friend, for instance, tried to convince me not to write “self-help” books and articles because a character in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” apparently tried and failed to do that.

When someone tells you one of these anecdotes, it’s important to understand how they define “success” and “failure.” Perhaps, for instance, the person giving you this advice defines “success” as earning a certain annual income-rather than, say, achieving a certain level of fulfillment or enjoyment in what you do.

If you don’t share this view of success-if, for instance, you think of success in terms of satisfaction or happiness-you might not agree that the person they’re talking about “failed” at all. If they’re making less money than they did in their previous career, but they’re feeling more fulfilled, perhaps they’ve actually “succeeded” on your terms.

But even if you do agree that the person your friend is talking about “failed” in their venture, that person’s story isn’t compelling evidence that you will fail as well if you follow in their footsteps. A whole host of factors that aren’t present in your life could have caused their failure. Perhaps, for instance, they had insufficient startup capital, they didn’t invest enough in advertising, they gave up at the first sign of trouble, or something else. Given all the variables that conceivably could have influenced their situation, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll end up with the same result.

Here’s another way to think about it. You wouldn’t jump into a career transition simply because you knew of one other person who did the same and “succeeded.” You wouldn’t start writing operating system software, for instance, just because you knew Bill Gates did the same thing and became mega-wealthy. That example alone doesn’t prove that you’d make a lot of money selling operating systems. Why, then, should one example of a “failure” stop you from following your bliss?

2. So many people would “kill” to do what you’re doing right now. Translated into less melodramatic language, this means that, because “so many people” out there would supposedly feel satisfied if they had your job, you should feel satisfied with it as well.

First of all, if you’re interested in a career transition, ask yourself: is the idea that others would enjoy doing what you do really true? Look at how satisfied you and your coworkers are with the job you’re in right now. Is the lack of fulfillment you’re experiencing unique to you, or are others feeling it as well? And if both you and your colleagues aren’t satisfied with your working environment, why should we assume a huge number of unidentified people would be perfectly okay with it?

But even assuming lots of other people actually would be satisfied doing what you do, does this mean you have to share everyone else’s taste in careers? Are you somehow morally or logically required to want what “most people” want? I don’t see why. If anything, this argument actually supports your career transition. After all, if somebody else really would be happier than you are in your current job, why not step aside and let them have it?

There’s a more grating version of this advice, which roughly goes that “starving people in far-off places would do anything to have your job because it would pay them enough to eat.” The implication of this seems to be that, if you leave a job poor people would take in a heartbeat, you are somehow responsible for, or condoning, poverty in the world.

Now, it’s unfortunate that there are people living in poverty, and of course I believe in doing all we can to change this situation. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with whether you should make a career transition. Staying in your current job wouldn’t do anything to help disadvantaged people-nor would changing your career do anything to make them worse off.

3. So many people are already doing what you want to do. By this, people mean the competition would be too stiff for you to succeed in the field you’re interested in, and thus you shouldn’t bother trying.

It’s probably true that a lot of people are doing what you want to do. The world being as heavily populated as it is, there are “so many people” involved in almost every career or vocation out there. Whatever field you choose-whether it’s pet acupuncture, tornado chasing, platypus training, or something else, many other people are already doing it. If we vowed never to do something lots of others were already doing, we’d hardly be able to do anything at all.

What’s more, a lot of people almost certainly do the kind of work you’re doing right now. And despite all this competition, you’ve been able to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in your current career. Yes, it’s true that in a new career you may have to accumulate skills and experience to become good at or recognized for what you do. But that was also true when you were entering your present career, and you developed the knowledge and experience you needed to succeed. Thus, there’s no clear reason why the presence of “so many people” in your area of interest is a problem.

Now, the argument that “there’s too much competition” may sound more compelling in the context of starting one’s own business. Sure, there’s always more room for another person to do the same 9-to-5 job, but if other companies are already in the field you want to enter, isn’t that a more valid concern? I think not. To get a useful understanding of how competition will affect the performance of your business, you need a lot more information about the market than just the number of competitors.

For example, I heard this kind of concern from some people when I told them I was going to write books and articles on career change and personal development. “There are so many self-help books out there,” one friend said. “Why should people buy yours?”

On the surface, this may sound like a serious concern, but let’s dig a little deeper. Yes, there are a lot of “self-help” books, but people who read titles in that genre tend to buy multiple books over their lifetimes. It’s not as if the average “self-help” reader just leafs through Think And Grow Rich or The Power Of Positive Thinking and declares themselves, well, fully “helped.” In other words, the mere fact that someone has read another self-help book doesn’t mean they wouldn’t read mine.

Moreover, self-help books are divided into many subgenres. There are self-help books on relationships, raising children, personal finance, and much more. Even within these subgenres, we find what we might call sub-subgenres, such as personal finance books specifically for women. The mere fact that someone bought a book on, say, raising adopted multi-ethnic children for single parents probably wouldn’t make them any less likely to buy a book on career transitions. Thus, the existence of a lot of self-help books, generally speaking, doesn’t necessarily diminish my prospects for success.

There are many other observations I could make in the specific context of the “self-help book” market, but the point is that assessing how competition will affect you in the market you’re interested in entering is a complicated task. To get a reliable analysis that took into account all the relevant factors, you’d probably need to work with a professional economist. In any event, simply knowing how many other players, products, and so on exist in the space you’re interested in doesn’t tell you much.

Finally, even assuming the amount of competition in the area you’re considering does make success unlikely, who says you can’t “beat the odds”? Why should you assume that you’re average rather than exceptional? Is “I’m no better than average” an assumption you’d accept in other areas of your life?

4. You’re too old to make a change. That is to say, you don’t have enough years left in your life to achieve success in a new career. The reasoning behind this seems to be that, if you enter a new career, it will take you a long time to accumulate a certain level of money, prestige or fame. You might not have enough remaining years to reach that level. Or, you’ll have to spend years of your life “starting all over” that you should be spending enjoying the fruits of your labors.

This concern is a great illustration of the conventional understanding of career satisfaction in our culture. The main assumption here is that the primary purpose of working is to ascend to some degree of wealth or prestige, and that once we climb to that peak we’ll feel happy and fulfilled.

However, the common thinking goes, we shouldn’t expect the work we do in reaching that peak to be enjoyable. Rather, it’s just a series of sacrifices we must make to reach the goal we’re interested in. Thus, if you’re “too old,” at the time you make a transition, to reasonably expect to reach that peak, you’ll be left unfulfilled at the end of your working years. To put it in the starkest possible terms, as many people do, you’ll have “wasted your life.”

This assumption neglects the possibility that we can actually enjoy the climb, or the process, of getting where we want to go. For instance, maybe the process of starting your own business-brainstorming product ideas and strategies, finding customers, locating funding, and so forth-can actually be rewarding in itself.

I know I enjoyed that aspect of my own career transition much more than I expected. Watching my business ventures expand from nothing to something, all through my own efforts, has been deeply rewarding. Thus, even if the “worst-case scenario” came to pass-if we didn’t live long enough to see our business “make it”-at least we’ll have been able to enjoy pursuing our own passion, rather than doing what someone else thinks we should be doing.

Moreover, we often see people reach that fabled peak-the pinnacle of their careers, in terms of money, status or whatever else-and realize with a shock that getting there hasn’t brought them the fulfillment they were seeking. They make innumerable sacrifices to reach their career goal, trusting the rewards at the end of the journey will compensate them for their suffering, but it just doesn’t turn out that way. Celebrities and wealthy people who, despite their success, abuse drugs and alcohol to “take the edge off” come to mind.

It seems that, if we really want career satisfaction, we have to develop some ability to enjoy the process of getting where we want to go, rather than simply keeping the faith that the end goal is worth the pain.

Even if we only think of success in terms of garnering a certain amount of money, fame or other perks, the “conventional wisdom” here assumes that you’ll be essentially “starting from scratch” if you change careers. None of the skills, goodwill or clients you accumulated in your old job, supposedly, will be transferable to your new one. I’ve already written about how this idea is often false. It’s more likely that the skills, savings, clients, and most importantly your character-the persistence and ingenuity you’ve developed while working thus far-will follow you wherever you go.

Also, I’ve noticed that people who believe they’re too old to change careers, or suggest that someone else is, are often stuck in a rigid, traditional concept of what a career is. To them, a career means an office building, a cubicle, a hierarchical job structure where raises and promotions have as much to do with seniority as with ability, and so on. Anything else-say, a business you run out of your home-means “unemployment” to them.

In a “traditional” job setting, it’s true that advancement takes a long time because, among other things, your superiors need to observe your performance for a while to see if they’re willing to promote you, your colleagues would get upset and leave if you “rose through the ranks” quickly and they didn’t, and so on.

But in other work environments, your compensation isn’t limited by the same factors. If you own a business, for example, your career growth depends on people’s demand for your products or services, not how those who are “up the chain” feel about you. The bottom line is that the speed at which you can “advance” in your career-whatever that means to you-varies widely depending on the work environment you’re in. In other words, you may be able to climb the mountain faster than you think.

Finally, notice that the argument that “you’re too old” can cut both ways. I could just as easily argue that you’re “too old” to remain in a job you no longer find interesting or fulfilling. If you’ve been working for a while in a field you dislike, in other words, haven’t you suffered enough? Isn’t it about time you pursued something you’re actually interested in?

If you’re contemplating making a career transition or starting a business, and you find yourself bombarded from all sides by these and other nuggets of “conventional wisdom,” take a moment to seriously consider whether what you’re hearing makes sense. On close examination, many of our common assumptions about the job market and entrepreneurship just don’t hold up to scrutiny. Keep this in mind whenever others put you down for thinking about pursuing your passion in what you do.

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