Your career path starts long before you even write your first CV.
At 14, you choose what we want to study for GCSE, then at 16 many choose A Levels followed by university, before working your way up the career ladder.
Of course, some take a different path to get there but working in your dream job usually takes years of preparation.
So what happens when you realise that everything you spent years working towards, investing years of your time and often thousands of pounds on training, just isn’t for you anymore?
Whether it happens not long after starting or your feelings change years into the role, walking away from a career can bring lots of feelings of shame and worries about disappointing others.
Careers expert Will Capper, the co-founder of job platform DirectlyApply, says: ‘This is actually a lot more common than you think. A dream career at the age of 16 might feel quite the opposite when you’re actually sat in that position at the age of 30.
‘For a number of jobs, 16 and 17-year-olds will need to start the foundations of those careers when choosing their A-Levels which is a huge commitment to make at such a young age with very little, to no experience of what the working world is like.
‘Assuming you start a career when you finish university at roughly age 21, should you decide to make a switch at 30, you are only nine years into your career. Which although seems like a long time, assuming you work until 70, it is only about 1/5 of your career.
‘What people should remember is there’s undoubtedly a lot of skills and experience that you can take from your current career into your new one and that will definitely help you to climb the ladder quicker.’
Naomi Mellor, 37, from Buckinghamshire, had dreamed of being a vet since the age of three. After five years at university, two years studying for another post-graduate qualification and 14 years working, she gave up her role working full-time in a veterinary practice.
She explains: ‘I had some brilliant experiences in my twenties working for a charity on an island in the South Pacific, and spending two years in Australia working there, but by my late twenties I realised that despite my hopes, working in full time veterinary practice was not everything I hoped it would be.
‘It took me a long time to come to terms with the shame of that, and admitting that my dream career perhaps wasn’t going to be my career for life was very hard to accept. I’d imagined I would run my own practice, be a James-Herriot-esque vet in the community and love it until I retired, but this wasn’t the case.’
It wasn’t a sudden change for Naomi, but rather a ‘gradual realisation’ which she thought about for years.
She adds: ‘There was never a point at which I thought “I hate my job” – on the contrary, I had some wonderful clients and some brilliant equine patients, and generally enjoyed my job despite the long hours, night and weekend work, and creeping compassion fatigue that accompanies most vets’ careers.
‘It was the realisation that they’re wasn’t scope for progression for me in the practice I’d worked at for five years, and that this was ‘it’. I was a competent, proficient vet with loyal clients and good communication skills, but I felt there was so much more out there for me.
‘Even if I started my own veterinary practice, a career as a general practitioner wasn’t going to sufficiently fulfil me for the remainder of my career. I’ve always had a lot of varied interests, and wanted to explore the options of alternative careers.’
She initially considered it five years after qualifying in 2012. She was persuaded to stay on, but it was always in the back of her mind.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the shame of that, and admitting that my dream career perhaps wasn’t going to be my career for life was very hard to accept
‘I was very close to applying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College, and was looking at jobs in the scientific media, but I’d just come out of a long relationship, moved continents twice and both my family and friends advised me to stick with what I knew for some ‘stability’,’ she says.
‘I think I knew at that time that one day I would leave veterinary practice, but it was another six years before I actually did.’
The main thing holding her back was shame, guilt and a fear of letting her parents down.
She said: ‘They’d worked so hard to support me through such a long education.
‘There was also a fear of leaving behind a career defined by others in society as ‘great’. It’s startling how many people, on meeting you, will say, “Oh, I really wanted to be a vet” or “Gosh, I’d LOVE to be a vet”, and it seemed churlish and ungrateful to leave behind a secure professional job.
‘The reality was that I also had no idea what else I wanted to do. When you’ve worked towards something for so long, when your career has defined you so utterly, and when your work and life are so blended, it’s hard to see what lies beyond that.’
In 2018, she started a podcast, which was a turning point. She now works part time in a regulatory veterinary role in equine sport, alongside running the International Women’s Podcast Awards, which she founded, and the The Skylark Collective, a global community of women in podcasting.
Despite her worries, her parents have been incredibly supportive of her new career.
Just because I’m no longer a vet in a traditional way, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed, it just means I’ve made different choices
She says: ‘It made me realise that my fear of judgement at admitting that this was no longer the right career path for me was all in my own head.
‘I can’t speak for my family but my perception is that initially they were a little worried at my lack of a full-time job, however once they saw I was making enough to get by from my part-time role and various freelance endeavours they were more comfortable.
‘They have been right behind me as I’ve launched The Skylark Collective and the International Women’s Podcast Awards – my mum in particular is very proud that I’m now a business owner and forging my own path.’
Now, Naomi says she has no regrets about walking away from her former job.
She says: ‘I will always be a vet – nobody can take away my degree and qualifications, and just because I’m no longer a vet in a traditional way, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed, it just means I’ve made different choices.
‘I love the variety – I might be at Royal Ascot one day, and interviewing a high-flying businesswoman the next. I love it.’
Others realise quite quickly that their chosen career isn’t for them, but the fear of disappointing others makes them hang on for a long time.
Helen Garlick, 63, from West Sussex, was a family lawyer for 35 years, following in her father’s footsteps – despite knowing before she’d even qualified that it wasn’t what she wanted.
She explains: ‘My dad was the first in his generation to go to university and went to Cambridge in the 1950s as a classics scholar. He really wanted me to be a solicitor like him and take over the family firm which he set up in Doncaster and Sheffield – GC Garlick & Co.
‘I qualified as a solicitor in the city of London in 1983 and continued my career as a family lawyer, writing six editions of the Which? Guide to Divorce, becoming a mediator and training lawyers as mediators and collaborative lawyers and becoming well known.
‘To be honest, I always felt that being a lawyer was not quite the right fit for me. Even when studying law as a degree at Bristol University, although I felt I could be good at the law if I tried, my heart wasn’t fully in it. It felt more of an act than the real me and that feeling was sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker.
‘When people would ask me at parties what I did, I wanted to avoid saying I was a lawyer and would even sometimes say I am a lawyer but I really want to write. My head told me I should be a lawyer, it was the career path my father had always wanted for me, but my heart longed to write.’
Aged 60, she finally stepped away to follow her true passion. Even though her dad passed away in 2014 – four years before she quit – she still worried about what he would have thought.
When people would ask me at parties what I did, I wanted to avoid saying I was a lawyer and would even sometimes say I am a lawyer but I really want to write
She says: ‘I should perhaps have left beforehand – but there was still something in the back of my head about how proud my dad was of me as a lawyer.
‘When I was three, my mum had asked me what I wanted to be when I was grown up and I said I wanted to be a writer. She said not to be so silly that writers don;t earn any money and I needed to be a solicitor like Daddy first. Duly programmed I lived my life.
‘Even though I was 60 when I finally left, I worried about whether or not I could make a living at writing (and I continued to train for a couple of years afterwards). My dad had died in 2014 and I still worried about whether he’d disapprove of my stepping away from the law after I’d worked so hard in it.’
Now 63, Helen published her first book No Place to Lie in February this year and says she has absolutely no regrets about finally giving up law.
For others, feelings towards a career can change because your own circumstances are different and it simply doesn’t work with the way your life is 20 years on from starting out.
Helen Baimbridge, 44, from Buckinghamshire, says she had ‘lived and breathed’ politics throughout her career, studying it at undergraduate level before going on to get a masters in social policy and a post grad diploma in communication.
She then spent 20 years working in political engagement, but two decades in, she realised it didn’t fulfil her anymore.
Now living with Crohn’s disease – a type of inflammatory bowel disease – and raising a family, she realised her job was just not what she wanted at that stage.
She says: ‘My health was suffering, my family was suffering and I wanted something different.
I didn’t want to be thought of as someone who couldn’t hack it. I didn’t change my LinkedIn profile until two weeks ago
‘It was between 18 months and two years between realising I wanted to leave and actually doing so. I held on because I knew redundancy was a possibility and that it would help fund retraining.’
Now running her own social media marketing business called TinCup Social, she has no regrets and says it has transformed her life – but admits she initially faced some shame around her choice.
‘I was really conscious of people judging me. I didn’t want to be thought of as someone who couldn’t hack it. I didn’t change my LinkedIn profile until two weeks ago.
‘The response has been entirely positive. I’ve been called brave and inspiring, which I don’t think I am but it’s definitely given my confidence a boost and made me want to forge ahead
‘I have no regerts. I’ve built a life that’s letting me do something fulfilling, spend time with my family and have improved health. There is no downside.’
Of course, as you get older, you can also find new passions.
Mandy Wong Oultram, 39, from Staffordshire, had dreamed of working in graphic and web design since she was young.
But after a legal battle over her house, she used the gym as stress relief and realised how much she enjoyed it.
When the problem was resolved, Mandy reflected on how she was enjoying fitness much more than her job and thought about making it her career.
She says: ‘When all I could think about was fitness and nutrition even when I was at work. I was no longer excited when new design briefs came in and found my working hours started to drag. I no longer felt challenged and everyday started to feel like Groundhog Day.’
I felt guilty because my parents had funded me through university and I had worked so hard to get to where I was
She spent 14 months considering the move before handing in her notice and stating her training.
She says: ‘There was a lot of uncertainty. Was it really what I wanted to do? What if I am making a mistake? What would my family think? Can I really make a living in my new career and will I even earn as much to be able to pay my bills?
‘I felt guilty because my parents had funded me through university and I had worked so hard to get to where I was.’
Although most of those around her weren’t sure about her decision, Mandy followed her gut and set up her own personal training business.
She says: ‘My family and friends were shocked but they went along with it because they felt I could return to design if things didn’t work out. Even now, four years later my mum still say to me when I’m having a tough day “maybe you should think about going back to design”.
‘Half of my colleagues had expected me to change careers because they could see my new passion was more than a hobby. The other half thought I was making a mistake.
‘Although everybody was supportive, few showed an interest in my new career. I felt like they wanted me to make the change so that I can see it was all a mistake.
‘I had self doubt especially at the beginning when I had very few clients. I’ve asked myself whether I’ve done the right thing. It wasn’t just the change of career that was hard, it was leaving behind the security of a regular income to set up my own business.
‘Apart from the self doubt, I have no regrets. My new career is very rewarding and I love what I do. The designer in me is still there as one of the things I love about my new career is that I am building a brand for me and not somebody else.’
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