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Career Transitions, Identity Shifts and Uncertainty

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

I’m sitting in a drab, utilitarian office chair that had its glory days in the 90s. It’s supposed to be a meeting to discuss coaching at this organisation. The man in front of me gives me a long, critical look from behind his thick glasses and says:

Changing your professional identity sometimes means that your "flock" won't understand you. But it will also make you truly one of a kind.

“I don’t get you. Leaving your career behind to become a coach. I can’t even imagine doing anything like that myself given all the responsibilities I have. When is this capricious phase of yours going to pass so you can come to do some proper work here?”

I kept my cool, but my discomfort made me think about the way in which a professional identity can anchor you in the past with an invisible rope. One that is surprisingly hard to cut loose, where the sense of judgement and our self-perception are twisted together in a particularly resistant bond.

I also couldn’t help but think that this man was an epitome of all the things that get in the way of people going after the life they want. Inertia. Conservative thinking. Fear of the unknown. Assumptions about what having a “proper” job means.

Even the dated, tired office furniture seemed to be a mirror for this way of thinking.

This conversation took place a year into my transition from a city job to life as a career and executive coach.

It has been a brave change, even though the idea of becoming a coach has been growing within me for years. I finally signed up for the Diploma in Transformational Coaching at Animas and couldn’t believe the impact I was able to make even as a student. I’ve loved every step of the path that has revealed itself in front of me since.

Here are a few lessons I learnt on the way. I’m sharing them in the hope that they may ease the frustrations and doubts for those who consider a similar path.

Identity shift is one challenge I wasn’t prepared for.

I’m a planner and a bit of a self-proclaimed efficiency geek. I had my transition all mapped out. Goals defined and time bound, money calculations done, spreadsheets ready, contingency plans made.

But the bit that took me by surprise is how tough changing a professional identity can be.

The surprise was that it still came as a loss, even though it was voluntary and anticipated.

I was confident in my decision but I had to adjust my sense of self. With my job gone, I had to figure out who I was and what I stood for aside from my work identity.

And it didn’t feel like I could take my time, it felt like the world was pressing me to hurry up.

First, I had to introduce myself when networking to support my growing business. I also had to go through the surprisingly painful process of updating my LinkedIn profile. [Confession: thinking about the sterner members of my professional network shaking their heads in disbelief when reading it didn’t help].

That void can be uncomfortable.

It was tempting to try and find another identity to fill it with. An identity of a coach seemed logical at the time. But with coaches being such a wide and diverse group, what did that even mean?

At the start of my coach training it felt tempting to start adopting bits of identity that I found along the way. Start using the language that I heard my teachers use. Many of them are coaches I admire so it was tempting to put pieces of their identity on like clothes from different closets. However, I quickly realised it felt inauthentic, and the resulting “identity outfit” would’ve been pretty bad.

My journey has been about finding me and my real voice in the world.

But I’ve realised that my move into coaching was not about replacing but rather about adding a layer.

My new professional identity relies on my sound education as a coach, and the impactful tools and approaches I have at my disposal.

But I carry bits of all my previous layers of identity with me.

From the innovative spirit of the Silicon Valley software firm to the professional discipline of a “Big 4” consultancy firm, the amalgamation of what I learnt on the way is what makes me one of a kind.

And a perfect coach for my ideal client.

Here is another thing that took me by surprise: career transitions are very brain intensive.

In the years before I swapped my corporate job for my own coaching business, I used to think that ‘change’ was my middle name.

Working as a consultant, every time I started a new project it was like having a brand new job. New client, new way of doing things, new office and commute. I loved any assignment that would allow me to experience something new.

This fed an optimism that career change would be easy for me too, after all, I was so used it.

Instead, it was a big surprise. Usually energetic and efficient, I spent the first few months in a bit of a fog. It was frustrating, but also fuelled my curiosity…

I learnt about change fatigue and about what happens in our brain when we go through many layers of change at once. How an overworked hippocampus, responsible for recording information, can affect the amygdala and cause stress. How our brain needs to make new social maps, using a lot of energy. How draining life can be before the basal ganglia, responsible for habit formation, puts all the new activities on autopilot.

Being aware of what was going on in my brain helped me be more patient with myself. It helped me to plan more realistically and continue moving forward until I finally came out of the fog.

Lastly, I learnt to keep experimenting despite uncertainty.

For our brains, uncertainty equals danger.

We are wired to prefer the illusion of stability in a wrong job over the risks that come with making exciting changes. When we transition to a new career, we trade a well known identity for something unformulated and nascent.

It can be hard to handle this uncertainty, especially when your whole nervous system wants you to run away from it. For our brains it’s a bit like going to a new, uncharted patch in the woods. What beasts could be lurking in the bushes?

I know that by choosing my own business I’ve signed up for a lifelong date with uncertainty.

But my transition has also opened a space that has never been there before. I’ve given myself permission to follow my curiosity and try things out without worrying if my actions seemed inconsistent. Business activities, collaborations, projects. Some of them have gone nowhere, but I have learnt a tremendous amount.

I keep reminding myself that we live in an age of such change. The security we presently associate with certain jobs could turn out to be an illusion.

Technology will undoubtedly continue to make some jobs obsolete, and most of us will have to redefine ourselves anyway. I tell myself: why not beat the crowd and work on my adaptability muscle now?

In any case, changing careers is not a “happy ever after”, even if it seems so from the point of view of an ill-fitting job. Making the leap into any new profession or starting a business is just the first step.

I’m staying the course of this journey of experimentation, building my adaptability muscle, and staying clear of identity shortcuts.

This article first appeared on the Animas Centre for Coaching blog here.



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