The average person in the U.S. will change jobs 12 times during their life. That figure is even higher for Gen Z. This was measured before the pandemic. The COVID crisis exacerbated career mobility by prompting a large number of people to reconsider their work prospects which led to a great resignation. While this may sound concerning, it’s part of the natural process of economic and skills readjustment in which labor markets reorganize to reduce the gap between supply and demand of talent to better match people’s abilities and interests to available jobs.
Amidst ongoing uncertainty on the future landscape of work and careers, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, confused, and perplexed. But here’s some good news: There is a well-established and practical science around the forces that enable and accelerate success, irrespective of the context and circumstances. This research may help you assess potential opportunities for changes, as well as your own readiness and potential to leverage them.
Here’s what we know about what enables successful career changes:
- Your job satisfaction is more likely to increase through meaning and purpose than job prestige. Perhaps this is why engagement levels have been low and stagnant for decades: people pick careers based on pay, glamour, and status, but it’s a sense of meaning, belonging, and genuine interest and motivation that drive both engagement and performance at work.
- Your career satisfaction and success will tend to improve with age if you are self-employed or an entrepreneur. Many people transition from full-time employment to self-employment or entrepreneurial careers, often after being disappointed with their employer (or boss).
- Your success is largely dependent on your adaptability. This, in turn, is a function of being curious, confident, concerned about improving, and able to control the changes. Luckily, adaptable people are more likely to seek career changes to begin with, which means that people tend to self-select into new careers, just like in any area of life people tend to seek out activities and experiences that are congruent with their personality. So, curious people are more eager to explore new career horizons, which in turn further amplifies their curiosity. So, being curious will make you more adaptable, and if you are not very curious about alternative career paths then you should probably stay where you are.
- Who you know is often more important than what you know so find the right mentor. Ideally, someone with experience in your new career destination. This will often require having a diverse network of mentors, and the ability to persuade someone to not just advise and coach you, but also champion you—someone who makes you their protégé. Much of the career success literature focuses on personal attributes (e.g., expertise, intelligence, EQ, grit, etc.), but this seemingly heroic and individualistic bias is at odds with a basic fact about real-world career success.
- You are more likely to regret not changing than changing careers. People are less likely to regret changing jobs than changing relationships, which suggests that the average person stays on the job longer than they should. It is somewhat ironic that we always tell people to be more resilient at work, when in fact the solution to people’s job problems may not be to develop a stoic and tough mindset that allows them to put up with unpleasant or masochistic levels of adversity, but find a more rewarding and enjoyable career instead. Yes, resilience has a dark side.
- Thinking big, breaking with the past, and truly reinventing yourself, are more likely to pay off as strategies than following conventional and predictable transitions. In that sense, you may as well “go big or go home.” Career changes are a chance to pivot, restart, and venture into the unknown. They are more than a natural progression or transition into the next phase of your career. Allow yourself to be passionately bold and to experiment, learn, and change.
Finally, remember that nobody knows whether a career change will work—not even you. The only way to find out is to try. And even then, it may not be entirely clear whether you did the right thing. This means there will be uncertainty and ambivalence, which renders any conviction you may have—now or later—somewhat delusional.
So be as rational, pragmatic, and calculating as you can be, but remember this isn’t rocket science, it’s human life. Embracing the inevitable element of human serendipity, irrationality, and luck, may increase your openness and elevate your mindset for the future. A perfect plan may not be as good as a pleasant surprise.