Career change: It’s not all about you

Does success just mean money to you?
The LSE’s Jesse Potter looks at the crucial questions we can forget to ask when moving into a new job
THE DECISION to change careers is, for many, the most difficult of their lives. When to make the leap from one industry to the next, or to a competing firm within the same field, can be agonising. And while compensation and opportunities for advancement are clearly important, changing careers also affects the way we perceive ourselves, as well as areas of life outside of work.
Research on career change reveals the need to think of our “careers” as more than the sum of our productive activities – as encompassing a set of social arrangements that are not only economic and financial, but also personal, political, and interpersonal. This opens up the decision-making process, meaning we should consider implications that a more limited definition might leave out. Taking examples from my latest book, I look at what some of these considerations might include.

WHAT DOES SUCCESS MEAN TO ME?

While pay packages and promotions are important considerations in any decision, we need to weigh up their value against the possibility of more intrinsically satisfying activities.
Research shows that people often juxtapose financial reward with the potential for greater satisfaction. For Oliver, who left a career in dentistry at 36 to try his hand at composing film scores, “success” meant being someone who could “look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I had the guts to do it’”. Understanding success as having “the guts to do it” represents a departure from the security of material-based achievement. It also reflects the reality that, as Oliver put it, “you only get one shot at life”. A career change can be risky, but those are risks worth taking for potentially greater satisfaction.

THE IMPACT ON NEAREST AND DEAREST

Careers are as much about we as they are about me. Research shows that our partnerships and relationships are mediated through work. The trajectory of those relationships often parallels the trajectory of our careers, and changes to one can have profound implications for the other.
Samita, who traded in her high-profile marketing position for a career in art, found that the greatest challenge was the reaction of her partner: “He was like, ‘how are you going to do this?’…because it meant that I was backing out of a supposed agreement that we had.” What’s best for one’s career often works against expectations in a relationship.
For Samita, those expectations were embodied in “the idea that we would have two professional incomes, and eventually the big house, and two cars... that picture”. By including in our decision to change careers considerations that extend beyond the productive sphere, we can prepare ourselves for, or even mitigate, the impact these decisions might have.

THE STORY OF MY LIFE

At the heart of having a career is a story about our lives. Changing careers means amending that story, and this is sometimes the most challenging part. For John, an author of travel guides, “the hardest thing was giving up an identity that I knew, that allowed me to say, ‘this is what I do, this is who I am, I’m the managing director of a company’”.
John’s experience suggests that career change begins with a personal story, and that, in order to make such a change, we need to answer the question, “what do I want my story to be?”. To make the right decision, we need to account not only for who we are as individuals, but understand “career” in its broadest sense; recognising its personal and interpersonal, political, and emotional impact on our lives.
Dr Jesse Potter is a sociology lecturer at the LSE. His book Crisis at Work: Identity and the End of Career is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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