Turning fear to your advantage during a career change

One of the main reasons people don’t pursue a wanted career change, or why they get stuck, is fear. Fear of failing… fear of getting it wrong… fear of looking foolish… fear of someone telling them they are doing the wrong thing… One of the challenges is that fear is often ill-defined, perhaps we have a nagging sense of doubt or we start catastrophising about all the things that could go wrong.

Fear is normal, a basic human emotion that we cannot live without. Psychologically, fear is designed to protect us. It makes us pause in our tracks, think about the next step, and decide how we are going to go forward. So we shouldn’t view fear as an inherently bad thing, it only really hurts us when it paralyses us and stops us moving forward at all.

Instead of seeing fear as a negative, try looking at it differently. Fear is an indicator. It tells us what is really important to us. Fear can even help us make decisions when used in the right way – as leverage and as a powerful driving force that can help us take positive action.

The first thing to do is to identify what your fears actually are. Putting them down in writing can help define them more clearly. Once you have made a list of all your fears, it is helpful to think through what is at their root. For example, if you are afraid of getting it wrong – what lies beneath that? Is the real concern about losing money; losing face in front of others; of having to go back to a job you are desperate to leave because it hasn’t worked out; of wasting time? Once you have clarity on the underlying fear, it is easier deal with it.

Tackling your career change fears one by one

Will I make enough money to live on?

If the real fear is about not having enough money to live on, what actions can you take to give yourself a financial cushion? It might be putting in place a savings plan for the next six months so that when you do finally quit your job you have enough to survive on until you are generating sufficient income. One trick is to see what you have left in your account at the end of the month and to move across any surplus to a savings account. It will quickly build up and even putting away a few pounds each week can make a difference over time.

Am I going to waste time by making the wrong career change choice?

If it’s fear of wasting time because you’ve taken a wrong turn or made a decision that didn’t turn out the way you hoped, what can you do to ‘test’ your decision in advance? Can you shadow someone who does the role you are interested in to see if it’s really for you; What about talking to a range of people in the industry to find out their perspective on what the job is all about, the highs and the lows, as well as the types of people that are successful in it.

How will I cope with starting at the bottom again?

This is a tough one and a really human fear. Perhaps you are contemplating taking a big drop in status, going back to the beginning and starting all over again. It can be a really daunting prospect to be at the bottom again, especially when it means having a boss who is younger and less experienced than you. It’s not just about overcoming the blow to your ego through the loss of status, but also the worry about whether you will ever be able to regain that status again. One way to tackle this is to reframe the fear mentally and emotionally. Think of what opens up to you if you do not have responsibility of being the person who is ultimately in charge. This can be a chance to try doing things differently, and to take a new path that may not have been open to you in the senior role that you held previously. Also, remember all that life experience gives you a huge advantage over the other people at your level in the organisation – you have the opportunity to add value that others’ cannot, and you may even be able to use that experience to fast track your promotion back up the ladder again.

 Let your fear help you decide

These fears may be familiar to you, or you may have other fears that are unique to your own journey. Fears can be overcome, or at least reduced, through taking the time to build an action plan. In addition, keeping your vision in mind is incredibly powerful when fear creeps up on you. Your vision is your motivator to keep going when things are tough, and then you can use your fear to sense-check what’s most important, to help you make even the most difficult decisions and get that action plan working for you.

I made my last career change in 2009, a year after the crash, and at a time when it was really tough to get a job. I was really clear on what I wanted to do, but I had a fear of whether I would actually be able to change careers successfully. I knew that I needed to do some additional study to get into the field I was drawn to, but I was finding it hard to decide between the ‘sensible’ option of studying part time (much easier financially, and much less risky in terms of being confident I would actually have a job at the end of it) and the ‘risky’ option of studying full time and hoping I would manage to find a job afterwards. I dialled into my fear to help me make my decision, and I quickly realised that my fear of being stuck in a career that I no longer loved was far greater than my fear of not having a job at the end of my studies. I realised that only by making 100% commitment to the career change would I be successful, so my approach was to quit, but at the same time to put in place a back-up plan, in case it did take longer than I hoped to find the role that I wanted.

Turning your fears to your advantage in career change is about

  1. Identifying what your fears really are
  2. Building an action plan to overcome or mitigate the risk of those fears coming true
  3. Using your fears to help you make the right decisions, a compass to tell you what’s really important to you and guide you through the action plan that you have put in place


©Allison Lindsay, September 2017