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Stop Thinking Your Career Can’t Change

career change

We all underestimate our own potential to evolve.

I know that I’ve made this mistake. As a graduate student in psychology, I was quite certain that I knew my path. At that early juncture, my interests centered solely on the development and validation of selection tests. (Focusing on topics such as motivation or aligning work with strengths, never occurred to me.) As most of us do, I surmised that with the passage of time, I would remain relatively constant as an individual — and that satisfaction with that direction would remain strong. However, time has a way of changing us. In fact, that original career trajectory is far from how I define myself as a contributor today.

Truth be told — we all evolve. In many cases, it is difficult to detect the changes as they are occurring. (They overtake us somehow.)

Does this impact work and career? Of course.

A series of studies conducted by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and his team have explored the process of how we view personal change over time and the potential impact upon our lives. Their research revealed that we tend to underestimate changes in both our core personality traits (represented by the “Big 5″: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to experience and extroversion) and our core values (measured by the Schwartz Value Inventory) over the decades of our lives. The magnitude of the illusion seems to decrease as we age, but it remains present.

We make decisions concerning what will bring us fulfillment in the future, based upon our current state. However, we underestimate how we might change over time. Essentially, we are forced to draw inferences from the past — something Gilbert aptly names, “The End of History Illusion”. We make decisions and view our lives, as if that history has ended. So, as that carefully designed future takes shape — there is a real possibility that it may no longer align with who we have actually become.

Ultimately, our own “history” continues to shake and shift.

The challenge to apply this dynamic to work and career are clear. If we don’t consider or anticipate change — we may not be prepared deal with that dynamic when it occurs.

Can we predict exactly how we will change with the twists and turns of life? No, that’s not likely.

However, we can look for the subtle changes that might affect us:

Listen intently. Not to others around you — to your inner voice. If you have the distinct feeling that your work is not bringing the fulfillment it once did, pause and reflect on that realization. Explore how you arrived at this impasse.

Embrace it. People change — it is a fact of life. You are allowed to evolve, as well. A role that brought you happiness at 25, may not suit you at 35. One that was perfectly aligned with your goals before having a child, may no longer suffice. Life and experiences will change the essence of how we might derive energy from our work. This is completely normal.

Respond. Ignoring a seismic shift in career aspirations, will not stop the dynamic from progressing. You do possess free will. Take a moment to determine what may need to change to accommodate your evolution. Start with a list of work life elements that currently bring you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction — then compare with what you would have chosen 5 or 10 years ago. What changes do you see?

As the researchers observed: “History, it seems is always ending today”. So instead, strive to embrace your ever-changing work life. A long and healthy career may center on our respect for how we might change over time.

About the Author

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who specializes in workplace success strategies and organizational change. She helps individuals, teams and organizations develop intelligently—to meet work life challenges with a sense of confidence and empowerment.