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Lessons Learned

I Made Three Big Career Changes In A Row—Here's What I Learned Each Time

From marketing trash bags to selling desserts, this writer explains why making big career shifts doesn't have to mean starting over.

I Made Three Big Career Changes In A Row--Here's What I Learned Each Time

[Photo: Bill Diodato/Getty Images]

When you switch careers, it often feels like starting over. Sure, you're still taking what you've learned in another field and finding fresh ways to apply it, but it always takes hitting the "reset" button—now you're a novice again, navigating unfamiliar terrain. It's just not the same as getting promoted or leaving a job for a new, higher-paying one in the same industry.

I should know. I've made three major career changes in my professional life, and they've all taught me something different. Each time, I was surprised to find that it didn't feel like starting over altogether. In fact, some of the most eye-opening moments have come after leaving one job behind to pursue a new career path. In unexpected ways, each new turn depended on the one before it—even though I couldn't have mapped out the route.

1. Job Titles Aren't Everything

My first corporate job was as an associate marketing manager on the Glad trash-bag brand at Clorox. No, I did not grow up dreaming of marketing trash bags. But like many other aspiring, post-MBA marketers, I decided climbing the ladder of a well-known consumer goods company would help me establish my credibility in the field. My goal at the time was to quickly get promoted to the sparkly title of "brand manager," widely regarded in the industry as the badge of an accomplished marketer.

That never happened. I ended up resigning from my role a few weeks before getting promoted so I could move to the U.K. to be with my then girlfriend, now wife, whom I’d met in an airport several years before.

As though finding a job in another country wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, I was worried what hiring managers would think about the fact that I didn’t land that brand manager title. But it didn't take long to discover that most cared more about my former experience than my former job title. Not earning that promotion didn’t stop me from landing my next job within a few weeks at Gü, a luxury desserts startup in London. Once I realized my job title didn’t define me, I no longer felt at the mercy of it, which was handy at a startup, where titles truly don’t matter.

Leaving a Fortune 500 company in the U.S. for a startup in the U.K. was a major career change for other reasons, too. Handing out in-store dessert samples was something an intern might do, but it taught me firsthand about consumer shopping behavior. And jumping head-first into leading the creation of a national ad campaign—typically senior director–level work—taught me about creative strategy.

Those were two things I couldn't have experienced directly had I stayed on my corporate marketing career path. Not being bound by your job title ultimately allows you to experience more, learn more, and contribute more.

2. Your Work Molds You More Than You Realize

When I decided to work in the corporate world, I honestly never expected it to change me. But when you spend most of your waking hours at work, its environment shapes you—whether or not you like it, realize it, or wish to admit it.

For example, when I was at Clorox, a company that valued rigor, analysis, and structure, I eventually came to value those approaches as the "correct" way to do marketing. Gü was a totally different environment—a startup, challenger brand that saw much of its success by breaking the rules. While there, I caught myself approaching projects pretty dogmatically, getting frustrated with people who weren't as rigorous, analytical, or structured in their approaches as I was. Only by being thrust into this new environment did I realize how narrow-minded my own views had become.

This realization convinced me to resign from Gü after only 18 months, even though I didn’t have another job immediately lined up. The fast-paced, frantic startup environment, with an almost impatient thirst for growth, was having an impact on me. I caught myself behaving more intensely outside of work, becoming more impatient with my wife and people in restaurants and shops.

So while that was a sign that I needed to leave, I quit with a new appreciation for how your environment can change you, even when you try to resist it.

3. You Don't Entirely Own Your Reputation

After leaving Gü, I moved on to a global marketing role for Häagen-Dazs (forsaking one umlaut-ed dessert brand for another). This, to be fair, was less of a career change than a career return: I thought moving back to a bigger company—one I believed had a more stable, grounded culture—would help me feel more at peace.

While that was indeed true, spending my days marketing ice cream soon left me feeling empty inside (ironically enough). There had been a time when I loved being associated with a big brand at a widely known company—the kind that conveniently endows you with instant credibility when someone asks, "What do you do?"

But after spending 10 years in brand management, the appeal began to wear off. Perhaps the emotional high of getting married, followed by the emotional low of watching my father pass away three months later, changed my perspective on what really mattered to me. I eventually left Häagen-Dazs to start my own business.

Major life events have a way of quickly convincing you that spending most of your waking hours doing work you don’t truly care about just isn’t worth it. But around this time—after leaving the corporate world once again—I began to see just how much my reputation depended on the brands I’d worked for.

Setting up my own business was as tough as it was gratifying—and that's still the case. But early on in my shift into entrepreneurship, I learned that without the name recognition of the big corporations I'd worked for, I went from being a sought-after marketer to some random guy people in certain professional circles overlooked. I was shocked by how quickly my identity could transform.

It took me a while to stop constantly questioning the value I could offer others without the backing of a big-name company. But slowly, over time, I began to find my footing, building on the lessons I'd learned by leaving other companies behind. I evolved my job title as I myself evolved. I created a work lifestyle that made the most of who I was. And I managed to start creating my own reputation on the basis of my own work and passions—the things that truly excited me.

But I couldn't have done any of that without experiencing each of those career changes in the unexpected, yet eye-opening, sequence I did.

Joseph Liu is a career change strategist. Hear inspiring stories of career reinvention on his Career Relaunch Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @JosephLiu_

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