Career Change at 30: Essentials

2020 Guide for How to Make a Career Change at 30

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This is Not Me

Many smart people tell me they are ready get serious and “choose my real career;” their career change at 30 is really about brutal self-honesty: “This is not me.”

As you approach 30 the reality of your career choice has set in. You’ve had about a decade to test-drive your career path and may be wondering what else you could be doing. It’s suddenly clear: the future isn’t going to work itself out. You are now facing the consequences of the “choice” made by your 17 year-old self.

Wrong Career?

If you’re not into what you’re doing or made job hops that aren’t panning out, chances are you may be in the wrong career ballpark altogether.

If you were in the right ballpark you’d know it by now.

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, which is landing 70% of young professionals in careers that don’t fit who they are.

Why It's Happening

Way too much guesswork: Most of us make career decisions by default. Without enough accurate information about our innate talents or where we fit in the career world, the best we can do in our 20s is weigh in conventional advice, make up a career story that we think sounds cool, and rely on fate to do the steering.

Navigating without an inner compass: A meandering, trial and error approach to career change can be costly. Lots of people are piling up master’s degrees and waking up in a second and third “wrong career” that doesn’t fit their natural talents.

Overly relying on hunches & prestige cues: Behavioral economists know that when young adults face complex choices, especially career choices, they take short cuts by “crowd sourcing” their decisions and overly trusting their most basic, inner caveman instincts by romanticizing the potential outcome.

Sunk cost fallacy: As people near their 30s the romantic spell wears off the reality of a bad career fit hits like a brick. Panic and worry can trick us into doubling down, that is, working even harder at an ill-suited career is sinking many people into a deeper hole.

The good news: you don’t have to rely on guesswork to choose your path. There’s another way.

Read on: How to design your career and go after the life you really want.

6 Unconventional Tips

Six Unconventional Ideas for Designing Your Career Change at 30: 

natural potential compass1. Find 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.

Read on: How to uncover your “hidden” abilities.

2. 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.

3. Sample Your Range. Many well-educated people have already attempted changing careers at 30, over half of my clients are in their late 30s and early 40s. Even with a graduate degree and a good 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 sampling a small, well-suited range of careers that fit your innate potential. 

Read on: What career fields am I cut out for?

4. Choose the Reality, Not the 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 emotional pain and misery that often stems from a mismatch with natural talents and a lack of purpose.

Career change at 30 advice

5. Question Tribal Norms. 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 tribal-minded 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 have 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.

6. Don’t Settle. Sure, you can wait until you’re forty-something to make a career change, but keep in mind that that’s another 10 years that you’ll have 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