A Career Divorce: The First 5 Steps

Once upon a time you went on a date and decided that you liked each other. You laughed at each other’s jokes, you found each other attractive, and your heart raced when you were going to get together, even at 8 or 9 am. You dressed up, made sure you put on your best face and so did your partner. But that was then and this is now. Time moves on and we can fall out of love, even with our jobs or careers.

People find careers in many different ways. At my daughter’s recent back to school morning at The Masters School, the middle school head, Doc, gave a wonderful speech about how we find ourselves on a career path through guidance and direction. He asked us to think about the conversations we each had with our parents about what we were going to be when we grew up, how we had visited colleges and ultimately how we found the careers we were now in. He talked about how our kids get to reinvent themselves every year at Masters as they grow to learn who they will be. I’m sure it was real for some parents in the room, but for me it was a fantasy that never happened. And it got me thinking.

I’ve worked in professional services for over 30 years. I started down the legal path because I had a dear friend in HS whose step-father was a partner at the prestigious law firm, Wachtell Lipton. At 16, I started working in their library. If Peter had been in advertising, I would have ended up on Madison Avenue. It taught me a ton of lessons, used skills I naturally had and I thought I wanted to go to law school. I transferred to Chicago, after a year at SUNY Albany, with a wonderful guy I was dating, but then he left abruptly while I stayed. Then at the wedding of close friends, before my last year at the University of Chicago, I sat next to Beth, a college friend of the groom. She was a litigation paralegal at Davis Polk, and although I interviewed heavily with investment banks and consulting firms, I ultimately ended up following her job path because it felt safe and familiar.

For me, happenstance and the people I met were the driving reasons I choose law. I liked the cerebral aspects and I liked being around suits but I didn’t become a lawyer. I instead found a rewarding career in legal marketing and recruiting and then I found a passion; being an entrepreneur in recruitment and marketing consulting and speaking about those areas gave me purpose. I fell into law firms, as many people fall into their roles but then decided, early on, to get out and go out on my own. But running a business is not for everyone.

As a recruiter, I’ve been an informal career coach for 20 years because I’ve always asked probing questions that help others assess their skills and what they enjoy. I’ve also been direct and honest about providing feedback and guidance, more so than many coaches are I’m told. I enjoy this role because my perspective as a recruiter and marketer, not as a former therapist, as many coaches are, adds huge value to my clients’ journeys. And the bottom line is I feel good helping people find their passions.

A few weeks ago, while talking with a divorced marketing colleague, it dawned on me, why can’t people get a Career Divorce? Not just a “gentle shift into something else separation,” but a “full-out, its time to move on I can’t live with the current role I’m in anymore adjustment.”

And then, as the universe sometimes does, I received a gift. The gift was while attending the 4A’s Talent@2030 Conference in New York. In listening to and then meeting Joe Burton, Founder of Whil Concepts, Inc. http://www.whil.com, it became clear to me that more people need to understand that real career change is possible. Whil’s mission is simple but so important. It’s to help everyone live healthier, happier and more engaged lives through an amazing digital platform of guided mindfulness meditation and awareness training. Joe has had a brilliant career as a C-level executive in consulting and advertising. He loved what he did, clearly added huge business and creative value to some of the largest ad agencies in the world, but after a series of personal life-changing events, he decided he needed to shift paths and he did. Long active in the digital and creative space, his professional shift was subtle as he started becoming active in technology roles and boards that were focused on both health & wellness education and mindfulness. And then in 2014 Whil was launched.

While Joe’s road includes some very sophisticated elements that not everyone will have accomplished in their current careers, his path to a new focus can be emulated. Everyone may get here in a different way. Some may choose mindfulness, some may need full-blown litigation, but however you arrive at the decision, a Career Divorce is an option if you aren’t enjoying yourself and want to find passion and satisfaction again, or for the first time.

The 5 Steps to a Planning a Career Divorce:

There are 5 basic steps that can set people on this path and I understand the number one reason why everyone says they don’t go and follow their bliss is money. But I have a different perspective, so hear me out.

The number one reason, I think, that people don’t follow their bliss is they don’t always know what truly makes them happy at work. They know what they went to school for, they know what they are good at, they know what other people see them as, they know what they like to do outside of work, but they don’t always know what makes them feel good professionally. Artists don’t have a choice – they are the exception to this rule and are compelled to live their calling – we should take their lead.

In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a seminal work called Flow. There are hundreds of books about finding your purpose or achieving self-help but, to me, this book on finding your own “optimal experience” is like Neo in The Matrix, it’s the one. His research provides wonderful data about being lost in the moment – even when that moment turns into hours, days or years. I ask everyone who is searching for his or her purpose to read this book. Another wonderful book, Working Identity in the personal reinvention space is by Herminia Ibarra. I agree with her assessment that we all possess a world of possibilities professionally.

With the hundreds of people I’ve worked with and thousands of careers I’ve observed, my conclusion is to become truly happy, a significant percentage of mid-career professionals need a Career Divorce if they want to feel fulfilled. Some have this forced upon them when being laid off, but a far better way is to acknowledge you need it before it happens. If you’ve got the sneaking suspicion you may need a Career Divorce of your own, here is a brief roadmap that I’ve seen work to make the process a true success.

1) The Flow of Work
If you don’t know, figure out where you are in flow. Assess why it gives you joy. Is it the creation, the structure, the connection to others, the results you create or the actual process? Analyze the hell out of what makes you lose track of time. And if you haven’t ever felt that in your job, ask yourself where have you ever felt this and what you were doing?

2) Venn Diagram of Jobs and Flow
Learn what the career options and salaries would be if you decided to reinvent yourself ala Doc at The Masters School. Consider what titles you are qualified for, even if they are a few steps behind where you are now. Talk to people who do what you are considering; research job titles on LinkedIn or on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, or perform job searches on job sites to see what some of these roles are and what they actually pay.

3) When Cheating is Okay
Become an expert while you are still married to your current career – the difference with this type of divorce is that it is not cheating. Take classes, join professional associations in the area you are considering, join boards, start networking with a new group of people in the area to which you aspire. Use LinkedIn to connect to people in this space, join relevant groups and follow influencers. Read everything you can about the new industry you wish to join. Yes it may take up what precious free time you have, but it will be worth it to be in love with your career.

4) Write Your New Story
Start creating your story about your reinvention. Make it authentic and compelling. Make it from the heart. Make it logical so people can see it was always there, it was just hiding. And then practice telling it, writing it and living with it. You will need to communicate what you are doing and why. This part seems simple, but it is hard and it is crucial.

5) A New Resume
Create a new resume that uses all of your past work and volunteer experiences in the context of your “aspirational” career. Make your resume a truly functional resume, but connect the dots so what you’ve done makes sense in relation to what you want to do. If you want to run a yacht charter business but have never sailed or dealt with clients, it might be a stretch. But if want to run a non-profit and although you’ve been a trader, you have tons of relevant not-for-profit volunteer experience and you can make a case where your financial and analytical skills are transferable, you will find the path easier.

Once you’ve accomplished these five steps, the next five, which will be published next month, are about starting to hunt for your next career.

Linda Orton is the Founder of The Unicorn Continuum. She has provided recruitment and marketing services for almost 20 years. She specializes in executive search and career coaching. She presents to the youth market and professionals on career development, social media and other topics. She is completing her first business book, How to Get a Career Divorce in Record Time and is also working on a screenplay. She can be reached at Linda@TheUnicornContinuum.com

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1 Comment

  • Like relationships, careers have ups and downs, trials and tribulations, comedy and tragedy. How do you know when to stay the course and when it’s really time. Tenacity is part of mindfullness, right?

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