Why Is Career Change So Difficult? You Might Have Been Doing It at the Wrong Time
When should you consider a career shift and look for the next development opportunity? Or, in more general terms, when should we seek change?
Consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario A: Everything is going well at work for John. In fact, it is very difficult for John to envision a better work-life style.
Scenario B: John’s company has suffered from the recession and many colleagues have been laid off. John is worried about when he will be the next one to let go.
In which scenario is John more likely to consider seeking growth and change?
But, in which scenario, it’s easier for John to shift his career?
We usually don’t seek change when everything is going well. “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” right? Not quite.
Many of us are living in John’s Scenario B. It’s a tough market, and people are holding onto their jobs. Some of us are anxious about the precarious situation and are fortunate enough to start a side-hustle while still having a “day job.” Others became unemployed and were forced to change jobs and lifestyles.
As Charles Handy aptly put:
Change is easier to envisage when crisis looms but harder to implement with resources and time running out.
We know it’s hard to get back on our feet after a “fall.” You have to start from zero or even negative to get back to where you were before. This change is forced upon you.
How to avoid such a fall? The key is to get ready to jump around the peak before the decline.
Scientific Research As Career Guides
Economics and management science is scientific self-help guides. There are so many more scientific studies on the growth of economies and companies than on individuals. What can we learn from the literature to make better career decisions?
Learning From Economics: Business Cycle and Policy Interventions
The economy has business cycles that include recession and expansion.
We have our career cycles as well, starting with the investment period. Think about the years in school and at entry-level positions. The costs are normally higher than the returns in those initial time periods. Later we start to accumulate skills and capital and up climbing the career path. Eventually, we will reach the peak of our particular career path and entering the decline phase. Is the decline avoidable?
Any introductory economics textbook will tell us that the business cycle is unpredictable. That’s true. But over time, fiscal policy and monetary policy working together have lessened the damage of an economic downturn. We can see that the business cycle has become less volatile over time.
What can we learn from business cycle management?
- The economy is monitored all the time. Adjustments are not limited to an economic downturn.
- Interventions come in with early signs of recession (or overheating), not at the trough.
As individuals, we are inclined to make changes unless we have to and avoid information when things are not going well.
In behavioral finance, the research found that investors monitor their investments much more frequently when the market is booming. On the other hand, people avoid the information when the market crashes since looking at our account is painful. This is the Ostrich Effect.
We need to pay close attention to opportunities and threats in all stages of career development.
Browse through job advertisements when you have no intention of quitting yet. Check out the market, and update the resume. Nothing to add to the resume? That would be a signal to start investing in yourself more.
Learning From Management Science: The Second Curve
Management scholar Charles Handy introduced the concept of “the second curve.” The idea is to start a new round of investment phase around the peak phase when there are ample resources such as time, money, and the energy to cover the initial costs of a career shift.
Two major challenges with the second curve thinking:
Challenge 1: How do we know when we reached the peak?
It’s easy to draw the graph but much more challenging to predict the peak.
We can judge the situation base on individual-level factors and the economy-wide environment.
At the personal level, ask yourself if you are still struggling and learning in your role. If everything comes easy and you can complete tasks automatically, things are calling for a change then.
On the macro level, it is a lot harder to switch careers when the overall economy is not doing so well. This requires less explanation since we are still witnessing the impact of the pandemic on the labor market.
Also, the timing of job searching matters for income level. Research shows that people who graduated during recessions still earn less a decade later.
We don’t know when the pandemic will be completely over. Like we can’t predict when the next crisis will come. What we are more certain of is to be more prepared for the next one. If the situation allows, get ready to start career change when the economy is in full-bloom recovery.
Challenge 2: Do we have the courage to leap when no apparent change seems necessary?
Start with small leaps, not giant jumps.
You can experiment with new directions in your current role. Be an intrapreneur, develop new projects, ask for bigger roles. Do this at the height of your career, so you and your company have the resources to support you.
Considering starting your own business? You don’t have to quit your day job and go all-in immediately to enjoy the benefits of the second curve. In fact, in a 2014 study, Raffiee and Feng found entrepreneurs who start a business while staying at their “day job” are more likely to succeed than those who went all-in directly. Adam Grant discussed more examples in his book, Originals, and contributed these successes to risk diversification.
You don’t have to start your own business if that’s not your goal. There are multiple paths to change. If you are considering switching career tracks, moving to a new industry, or going back to school, see if you can engage the changes while having the stability from your initial curve.
The best time to change is when you don’t have to.