Consequences of a Wrong Career Choice

college student_headHow do I know if I’m in the wrong career?  

The long-term consequences of wrong career choice decisions hit hard about a decade after graduation. The early warning signs are there almost immediately, but when we are ambitious recent college grads and young professionals, we tend to suppress uncertainty about our career choice. Out of the starting gate, most of us are pretty excited to put our knowledge and abilities to the test to see what we’re made of. After a few years on the job, some of us begin to get a sense that something’s off kilter. Just by observing managers and other more senior people at work, we get a glimpse of what the future holds. If we don’t like what we see, gulp, we get a little freaked out.

At first we try to figure out whether it’s just a matter of finding the right company. If a few job hops within our field to different organizations doesn’t bring that sense of “this is it, this is my thing, and these are my kind of people,” now what? Am I in the wrong field altogether or just performing the wrong functions and tasks within my field?

Truth of the matter is, lots of us aren’t sure what we are innately best at. Should we trust our hunches and go back to grad school to redirect? What if that doesn’t work out either?

In my line of work, I have a bird’s eye view of this very interesting and wide spread career mismatch problem. I’ve been through it myself and I’ve been watching people go through the same quagmire for a couple decades now. What does life really look like for most people after college, say 10 or 15 years out? The reality isn’t pretty.

Let’s take a time machine ride into the future and ask people who have already gone further down the road.

Before . . .

Excited college grads after commencement, throwing caps up in the air . . .

After . . .

Mid-career professionals from top schools share their story of the long-term consequences of their college education and career choices.

“I want to love my life and my work. I keep trying to rearrange things, as if the right sub-topic in my field might get me there, but it hasn’t. No matter what I try, the small changes still don’t get me out of bed in the morning.” ~Ph.D., Medical Research Scientist, Neurology, age 43

“I can no longer tolerate the sense of drifting. I’m in the wrong job because it came along at a time when I wanted to learn something, or anything different.”  ~Master of Arts, Project Manager, age 33

“I don’t enjoy what I do, and this makes me feel like a fraud. I’m not getting to create anything, and I don’t feel like I’m using my brain.”  ~CPA, B.B.A., Senior Software & IT Development Manager, age 40

“I want to spend the second half of my life in a career more suited to my talents. I feel like I am missing what I am meant to do in this world and life – if I could only figure out what that is.”  ~Doctor of Medicine, Pediatrics, age 44

“I feel I have proven to myself that I can be financially self-sufficient. Therefore, it is no longer enough for me to just survive. There’s got to me more to life than just working all the time in order to make money.”  ~MBA, Senior Manager, Risk Management Consulting, age 39

“I have a strong feeling that I don’t belong in my field. None of the tasks I do are genuinely interesting to me; I have no real sense of purpose.”  ~B.S. Technical Communication, Technical Writer, age 27

“I just turned 30 and got married, and realized that my career has always been about chasing the next big opportunity, mainly for the money. I never asked, “what do I want to do, what am I best at, or what do I care about?”  ~B.A. Materials & Logistics, Global Business Manager, age 30

“I feel like I am mostly brain dead and just task driven.  I’m missing mental and intellectual stimulation and lack a career path.”  ~B.A. Economics, Sr. IT Consultant, age 33

“I’m not fulfilled.  I want to wake up everyday and ‘want’ to go to work.  I don’t feel challenged and I am not adding value to my community.”  ~MBA, Pharmaceutical Sales Rep, age 32

“I don’t have a sense of direction.  I have never truly enjoyed the work that I’ve done in the past.  I was always looking for the next thing with no clear direction.  I always thought something would fall into place if I kept taking chances and trying different opportunities.  I want to figure out what career is right for me.”  ~MBA, Financial Analyst, age 44

Why didn’t the career choices of these professionals pan out, despite having high intelligence and a commitment to work hard? Why aren’t their stellar credentials and advanced degrees making the road any less bumpy than they imagined? Some say that it feels like they’re trapped in Hitchcock movie, their dreams turned into nightmares once they landed in the future they thought they wanted.

You may find it interesting that these really smart people are success stories in their parent’s and friend’s eyes. Most of them are suffering their career choice problem quietly alone. It’s not easy to admit that all your hard work isn’t panning out, or that you don’t really know what you want to be.

Waking up in the wrong career in your thirties and forties stems from a problem very early in our careers, but most of us don’t get a handle on it until decades later. Many of my clients say that they knowingly went to college without a clear sense of direction, they didn’t want to miss that opportunity, so they crossed their fingers and hoped that things would eventually work out. To hedge their bets, they often stumbled their way onto career paths that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Corey Taylor, rock star, offers an unconventional solution that fits my principle for making good career choices:

“Forget about your (childhood) dreams. Figure out what you’re really good at and pursue that instead.” 

When we approach 30 years old, we often have the realization that our younger, teenage self had dreams (or whims) that were not carefully chosen. With very limited knowledge about our natural talents and how we care to engage them in the world, the best we can do is guess or wing together a “career story” that is largely untested in reality or experience. For many of us, a “career choice” is more like marrying someone we hooked up with for a one night stand. Yikes!