The Importance of Defining Achievement in Switching Careers

We have and are in the middle of a career revolution wherein more people are jumping jobs, taking on contract gigs (as opposed to the forty hour a week standard that prevailed in the mid twentieth century) and generally having a more varied resume. But the mentality around careers hasn’t quite caught up with this reality, leaving many people, particularly in their twenties, feeling as though they have failed in establishing themselves and people in their forties or fifties being too scared to pursue something new. The result? Depressed and worried young adults who feel like they aren’t measuring up (and are often told so by their older counterparts) and anxious or stressed older adults who feel like they are missing out (and may lash out at their younger counterparts!) Such feelings stop people from going back to school in their thirties and forties (or older) or from trying something new.

But it really is never too late to start something new, whether that is school, a new position, a new job or even a whole new career. There are a number of benefits to doing so and there are good reasons why the young twenty-something may not be established yet.

The Obsession With Achievement

The United States is particularly bad for this, but the plague of high achievement is found everywhere. I have seen in the adult classroom many times with adults quite certain that if they don’t get 90% or higher on everything they do, they have somehow failed. This obsession with high achievement though is not helpful and is likely harming many people. There are some good reasons for this:

  1. The human brain doesn’t finish developing until a person is well into their twenties. The prefrontal cortex of the brain (the part of the brain that handle executive functions, rational and logical thinking, and planning) isn’t fully developed until a person is around 25, on average. (Some people have it matured earlier, others not until their thirties!) This part of the brain is what handles problem solving, emotional control and general planning, which is why most full adults (25 or older) can handle things like peer pressure and stress better than their younger counterparts.
  2. Obsessing over the grade and perfection has been shown to hinder creativity, out of the box thinking, and collaboration, all of which are important soft skills in the 21st century. Trying to do everything perfectly is also impossible and thus demoralizing.
  3. Getting stuck in the same position and the same job for a long time leads to stagnation and so many people end up feeling stuck, burned out or bored.
  4. One’s idea of achievement will likely not match another person’s idea, but we often get stuck on one idea that may not suit. For example, the traditional high school, post secondary, job, marriage, house, kids, work for forty years, retirement. This model doesn’t work for everyone and we are only just now seeing that, mostly due to economic strain more than a desire from people to break away. 

The combination of biology (Brain development) and the reality that striving for something that doesn’t match what you actually want leads many people to feel like they haven’t ‘made it’ yet, even though they are just following a natural trajectory for themselves.

The obsession with achievement makes it very difficult to pursue different education and career paths as well, particularly for those who are already in the workplace. It often gangs up with our fear of success/failure, our ability to stay in a run long past its expiration date, and a general anxiety around change. And when we do make a change, we are so obsessed with being perfect or seen as working extremely hard on it that we cause ourselves more stress and may miss some opportunities.

So, what happens if we redefine achievement for ourselves and start looking outside the traditional career path?

Why It’s Beneficial to Switch Careers

It is extremely frightening and stressful to switch careers in order to do things like go back to school or just try a whole new job field, but it does have some great benefits. These benefits even carry over if you decide to return to your old career. 

  • You’ll learn new skills and hone old ones in new ways. Every job carries the opportunity to learn something new and a new career carries that even more.
  • New networking opportunities
  • The chance to develop a new passion that may never have occurred to you before
  • The chance to discover your true passion
  • The ability to get new mentors that can guide your career in different ways
  • Increased flexibility means that if one job dries up, it’s easier to find another one, both in terms of your skills, but also your overall ability to adapt (less depression, stress, and anxiety in job hunting if you had already mentally prepared for the possibility)

These same benefits also carry through if you decide to return to school. Certainly, the opportunities for networking, passion projects, and mentorship increase many-fold in a school. And if you’re allowing yourself the chance to change your focus, you may find that it’s not as frightening as you thought and that you don’t need to be high achieving in order to succeed; you just need some goals to follow through on.The bottom line is that we cannot expect ourselves to ‘make it’ by the age of twenty five (or even thirty five!) because our biology hasn’t caught up to itself yet, and because of the current economic climate, we have to be willing to constantly redefine what ‘making it’ means. Does it actually mean making lots of money and getting promoted constantly, or does it mean following a passion (or both?) Does it mean more time with family, more time traveling, being part of larger whole or building up something small? These are questions that only you can answer for yourself and breaking out of the mindset of what traditional achievement is will fall completely on you. Good luck!

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