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Career Change and the Seasoned Worker

by Susan Bryant

"When you’re finished changing, you’re finished." - Benjamin Franklin

What would it be like to quit your job and start over in a more appealing career? If you are a "mature" worker, you may think that a major career change would require overcoming too many obstacles to be worthwhile -- like age discrimination, new technology or a salary cut. But according to Helen Harkness, author of Don’t Stop the Career Clock, the real obstacles to a midlife career change may reside in your own mind. Harkness argues that several myths surrounding midlife career changes keep people from pursing their dream job. Which myths do you subscribe to?

MYTH #1: I’m too old to make a career change.

REALITY: Without changing your perception of what you are capable of, you’ll never make a successful career change. Unfortunately, while younger workers are often expected to explore different career paths, older workers are not encouraged to do so. And if you’ve progressed up the corporate ladder to an enviable position, friends and family may be shocked you would consider leaving success for uncharted waters. With this much pressure to stay put, it can be easy to allow your dream job to remain only a dream. As Harkness explains, some serious soul searching is needed to understand how and why you want your career to change, so you’ll have the conviction to stand up to others’ disapproval.

MYTH #2: If I make a career change, I’ll be starting over at the bottom.

REALITY: Not necessarily. You’re not the newbie you were when you entered the workforce. You’ve gained an impressive array of skills, plus you have professional wisdom and perspective only acquired through time. The key to bypassing entry-level status is to market these assets in your next interview. The skills that made you successful may be transferable to your dream job. Believing and convincing yourself, and your interviewer, of this puts you leagues -- and salary grades -- ahead of younger competition.

MYTH #3: This old dog can’t learn new tricks.

REALITY: Says who? Of course there will be a learning curve to any new career you try. But, isn’t having a new professional challenge part of why you seek this change? As Harkness says, the goal is to find a career that taps into your innate strengths and interests. As for the aspects of the job that may intimidate you, e.g. becoming tech savvy, accept that getting proficient in these skills may be frustrating and difficult, making mastery of these challenges more gratifying.

If these myths are stopping you from pursuing a career change in midlife, expand your thinking about your capabilities instead of focusing on what you see holding you back. Also consider that accepting these myths is easier than taking a risk.

What if you are ready to take the professional plunge into a new career? Harkness says, "Go for it," with these words of caution:

Keep Your Expectations Realistic.

If you’ve been fantasizing that your dream job will be the antidote to your personal and professional troubles, you may be glorifying what a new career can really do. Research the economic outlook and job duties for your new career, and how it will affect your lifestyle and relationships.

Give It Time.

Deciding to venture into a new career can mean changes in your work environment, coworkers, income, and how you view yourself. Even if your new position is something you’ve always wanted to do, all these changes can be a shock. Before calling it quits, allow enough time to let the dust settle and adjust to your new profession.

Know Yourself.

It has been Harkness’s experience that most people don’t know what they’re good at -- but that midlife is a good time to figure this out. You have a history of professional and personal experience to draw from when determining your natural strengths. Think about what you truly enjoy doing, what you do well and what you are proud of. Is there an underlying theme unifying these experiences, which lends itself to a job description?

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