Career Change at 30: Essentials

Wisdom and Advice on How to Make a Career Change at 30

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Many brilliant people tell me, “I think it’s time for my big career change at 30, I’m ready to get serious and choose my real career.” As you approach 30 the reality of your career choice has set in. You are now in the future that you imagined. By now you’ve had five to ten years to test-drive your career path and you may be wondering what else you could be doing. This is the age that most people fully realize that the future isn’t going to work itself out, and that their initial “choice” was likely a random guess made by their 17 year-old self. 

If you’re not into what you’re doing or excelling in your field, or if you’ve already done some job hopping and still haven’t found your way, chances are you may be in the wrong career ballpark altogether. If you were in the right ballpark you’d know it by now.

If you’ve hit your 30s and feel like you are in the wrong career, don’t beat yourself up—you’re not alone. About 75% of recent college grads say they did a lousy job of choosing their major. Most of us make career decisions by default. Without enough accurate information about our strongest talents or where we fit in the career world, the best we can do in our 20s is weigh in conventional advice, and then wing it and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the future rarely works itself out and a trial and error approach to career change can be costly. Lots of people dig themselves into a deeper hole with a master’s degree that doesn’t fit their talents.

Neuroeconomists are finding that when young adults face complex choices, especially career choices, they take short cuts by following the crowd (usually guided by status and survival instincts), or overly romanticizing the potential outcome. As people near their 30s the romantic spell wears off and the reality of a bad career fit hits like a brick. Lighten up, a sense of humor helps to solve this problem. Take a deep breath and smile. Let your inner caveman off the hook and thank him for doing a good job of getting you this far.  

The good news is there’s a better way to move forward. If you have the courage and commitment to do whatever it takes to rethink your career choice, now’s the perfect time to design your career and make a plan to get the life you really want.  

5 Ideas & Advice for Designing and Making a Career Change at 30: 

natural potential compass1. Get Your Bearings, Don’t Trust Your Interests. Before taking the leap into a career change, get your talent bearings first. To avoid going down a dead-end road, it’s important to be clear about what career paths you’re innately cut out for. Be smart about the mainstream advice to follow your passions and interests, they may only be good clues to something deeper. First, figure out what you’re strongest natural abilities are—your innate talents are a more accurate compass for long-term fulfillment. Your more enduring passions will become more obvious once you begin the process of mastering your natural talents and strengths.

2. Really, Really Know Before You Go. Hold off on grad school until you know where you’re ultimately going. The mainstream advice that “more education is better” is getting people into more trouble and rarely helps people find their career direction. Worldwide, Gallup studies find that very intelligent 30-somethings, many with advanced degrees, are unwittingly making career choices that “feel right” but aren’t panning out in the long run. For many people, going to grad school is a desperate leap of blind faith; they are essentially marrying a blind date.

Over half of my clients are in their late 30s and early 40s. They are well-educated people who have already attempted changing careers at 30. Even with an expensive graduate degree and a high paying job, most still haven’t found their fit. Some made the same mistake twice by prematurely following what they “thought” was a passion. It’s difficult to make a good career decision without extensively testing driving a potential career. Get engaged to the career before you go to grad school to marry it.

3. Choose the Reality, Not A Sexy Career Story. The state of the American workplace is dismal; 70% of Americans report that they are not reaching their full potential. Although most parents and teachers advise that you can do anything you want with hard work, what they don’t say is how bored you’ll be if you’re not into the subject matter and primary job functions of the field you’re in. About 25 percent of my clients are newly minted lawyers who are “career change at 30” casualties; they can’t stand the typical day-to-day nature of legal work and don’t care all that much about their client’s problems. Many say that although they have high status and are well-paid, these benefits don’t cancel out the guilt, mental pain, and misery (a.k.a “career hell”) that usually stems from a mismatch with your natural talents and sense of purpose. 

Career change at 30 advice

4. Ignore the Herd. Many of the happiest career changers intentionally ignored pressures and advice from friends and family to stick with their socially prestigious careers. Hot career trends only work for trendy people. An underlying reason for career dissatisfaction is an overly optimistic hope that the crowd knows best. Smart career decision-making is counter to conventional wisdom; people who attain long-term career satisfaction and overall success in life are following their inner compass, even if it means doing something that others deem “impractical.”

My most successful career change clients have reframed their concept of a career as something that you custom design and build, rather than something to find out there as a ready-made job-off-the-shelf.  

5. Don’t Settle and Don’t Fake It. By the time you reach 40-something it gets even harder to drag yourself out of bed to go to a job you don’t enjoy. If you don’t genuinely like your work, it gets increasingly more difficult to stay competitive in your field. Faking an interest in your work causes unhealthy stress that can make you sick and impedes your ability to excel. All the typically advised “work-life balance” tweaks won’t fix this sort of problem if the gap between the “real you” and your career is too wide. So, if you’re considering a major career change at 30, this is the best time to get it right. If you’re going to set up a side hustle, it might as well be a smart, well-planned stepping stone to becoming your real gig.

Take the first step:

Anthony Spadafore, coauthor of  Now What? : A young professionals career guide for career design, career choice, and career change.  

If the future doesn’t come toward you, you’ll have to go fetch it. ~Zulu proverb