How to Change Careers When It Seems Too Late

The wake-up call often comes when you least expect it. Maybe you’re enjoying a relaxing get-together with your old college buddies when someone turns to you and says, “Wow, I never thought you’d become an investment banker. I always thought you were going to ride around the country by motorcycle and write about the experience.” Before you know it, you find yourself remembering your old dreams — and comparing them to where you are now.

Life rarely goes according to plan. Marriage, kids, and grandkids often come earlier than imagined — or later. Maybe you pursued one career path because you were considered the breadwinner, but now someone else in the family is the breadwinner. Or conversely, you landed a job, thinking you’d stay for six months, and now you’ve been there for sixteen years.

The good news: The average person will have five careers in her or his lifetime. It’s perfectly normal to change careers, even when it seems too late!

Steering your way through a career change is part calculation, part chance, and part leap-of-faith. As you set out, take the steps to help you navigate your career change:

Step 1: Be Mentally Prepared

Points 1-4 below can help you master the psychological aspects of a career change at any age.

1. Now or never is a fallacy.

For most professionals, there is no cut-off age for striking out in a new direction. People do it at all stages of their careers.

If you’ve ever dreamed of leaving a large company to hang your own shingle, you are not alone. Similarly, thousands of entrepreneurs and people working for one-man shops decide each year that they’d like to work for larger organizations.

You’ll find hordes of Baby Boomers looking for a redo alongside mobs of GenXers and Millennials — especially as the Boomers now remain in the workforce longer than their predecessors.

2. Your career is not a straight line from A to B. It has zigzags and curves.

You don’t have to have your career trajectory completely decided from the start. In fact, that’s an unrealistic expectation no matter how methodical you are.

People change. Industries merge, morph, and in some cases, disappear. Careers rarely follow the straight and narrow. Many careers can be compared to journeys — there are the adventurous patches, the boring patches, the downright scary patches, and the hills and valleys, too. The trick is to try to have a little fun while you’re charting out your various careers.

Don’t panic if you find you need to change your career. It may take some work, but you’re up for it.

3. Career changers are among good company.

Consider these well-known trailblazers whose careers took a radical turn:

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, studied computer science and electrical engineering at Princeton, went on to establish himself as a Wall Street prodigy, then quit to launch Amazon.com.

Sara Blakely, billionaire businesswoman, was a fax machine salesperson before creating her signature slimwear line, Spanx.

Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the media sites Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, initially taught computer science to middle schoolers for years.

4. Be ready to take on the naysayers.

Expect plenty of advice — usually of the discouraging kind — from friends and family when they learn that you’re exploring a career change. Those you know best are often the most vocal in trying to thwart your plans.

Be prepared to field a flurry of pessimistic conjecture and doomsday scenarios. Know, though, that when your loved ones question your judgment, they’re not necessarily doubting your talent, but trying to look out for your wellbeing. They may also be voicing their own inner turmoil over whether it’s time to plan their own change of careers.

Keep in mind that pessimists avoid the unknown, while optimists invite new challenges. Above all, believe in yourself and follow your instincts. Don’t let fear of change paralyze you from seeking out your new career path.

Project an aura of enthusiasm, energy, and passion. You’ll find it’s contagious.

Step 2: Be Proactive

Points 5 through 9 can help you master the practical aspects of changing careers at any age.

5. Take baby steps.

Ease into your new direction. Start building the skills you’ll need to make the switch.

Find out what skills you will need, and do whatever it takes to add them to your skills arsenal. Make the time to invest in additional training.

Start by devoting a half day each week to your new pursuit until you’re ready to confidently make a move.

Clearly define where you want to go and what you’ll need to do to get there. Take an inventory of your strengths. Read trade magazines, and study up on industry trends.

6. Volunteer.

Charitable organizations are often looking for volunteers to help them with their outreach, social media, and engagement. You can show up without the requisite skills and learn as you go in a fun, convivial, low-pressure environment.

Once you’ve mastered the needed skills, be sure to have the president of the organization or someone on the Executive Board write a glowing recommendation for you. (Don’t be afraid to ask them, too, if they happen to know anyone in the field of your dreams. Work those contacts!)

7. Take online courses.

Today, LinkedIn and many other providers offer online courses in everything from accounting software to time management to mastering Excel. For extra credit, see if you can find classes that award online badges for completing each course.

Don’t be shy about adding these certificates to your online profile. Keep your profile fresh by adding more and more skills to it.

8. Take a temp job.

Depending on your field, it may be possible to freelance at a company where you learn on the job.

Remember that you can’t just show up at a potential employer’s claiming you have the skills. Taking a temporary job that allows you to polish your skills is proof that you’re serious about your career change.

9. Tell everyone you know — and have them tell everyone they know — about your aspirations.

Build a family tree of contacts. Explore beyond the main branches of your work acquaintances, industry groups, and social contacts. Join your alumni organization. Tell the women at your bridge club. Tell everyone.

Ask friends and friends-of-friends to meet you for coffee to explain what it is they do and tell you which skills you’ll need to succeed in your chosen field.

If you have friends or associates with ties to the organizations where you want to work, ask your contacts to make an introduction. The majority of today’s jobs are found through one’s own networks. When jobs open up, companies invite informal recommendations from internal and external channels.

Step 3: Take It Online

This last step can help you master the online aspects of a career change at any age.

10. Develop an online presence in the field of your dreams.

Reconfiguring your online presence will be a critical step in your career change. Fine-tune your digital identity to reflect your new direction, tailoring your profile to the role and industry you’re after. Include keywords that are relevant to the industry so that recruiters can find you.

Craft a clever personal statement that states your interests, your values, and your dreams. Once you’ve zeroed in on your message, also pick and choose which outlets make the most sense for it. Will your personal statement resonate on LinkedIn? Or is it highly visual — making it a better fit for Instagram?

Polish your sites until they gleam, then get active so others take notice. Add insightful content to your social media pages that goes deeper than the information on your resume — such as commentary on something taking place in your newly chosen field.

Final Thoughts

Americans spend 1,800 hours or more each year working. That’s nearly one-third of your life, and it goes without saying that how you spend your working hours has a great bearing on your life’s happiness barometer.

Set out to intentionally pursue career satisfaction, looking for opportunities to fine-tune your working life so that you find fulfillment.

If playing the piano is your personal bliss, could you meld your love of music with your clinical psychology background and pursue using music to promote healing? Perhaps there’s a foundation that would fund you in a multiyear study.

Or, if you’re a movie buff for whom every encounter has the makings of a screenplay, why not sign up for an evening class and see if your years of writing advertising copy could morph into a new career in the film industry?

Success with a career change will occur when you mentally prepare, take a proactive approach, and mine your personal and online networks. The pay-off will be in a life well-lived — yours!

Resources About Career Change

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