6 ways to test new career paths

(photo by Håkan Dahlström via Flickr and Creative Commons)

How can you test out a new career path that will lead you to work that you enjoy more, that connects you more to others, and allows you to have the balance you seek between work, family, exercise, rest, self-renewal, community and other commitments?  Previously in this series on meaning, we wrote about how to find your path with intuition practices and skills and how poems can inspire us to follow our intuition and take healthy risks.  Here we explore ways you can experiment to find a path that might work better for you.  We’re assuming you either have a job but can’t stand it, or have already downshifted to give yourself more space for the next move.

The data on white collar workers who dislike their jobs is striking.  As Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath recently summarized from their survey data in collaboration with Harvard Business School, many people don’t like their jobs.  They mention that these data are consistent with a Gallup poll finding that seven of ten Americans aren’t engaged in their jobs.

Here we outline six approaches that may work for you to experiment with change in your career (see figure below).

Test New Career Change Hobby Path Framework McKee XY Culture
Six ways to test new career changes.

There are many ways to make changes.  As Julia Cameron said in, “Reflections on the Artist’s Way” (I’m paraphrasing), our minds tend to propose costs of change that seem so high that it’s not worth exploring the idea of change in the first place.

For instance, you might have an interest in an artistic hobby but feel burdened with thoughts of judgment and doubt, and tell yourself:  sculptors don’t make a living the way they did in the Renaissance.  Just give up and get back to your job.  No adult serious about a career focuses on sculpture these days.

See how the thoughts are extreme and seem to rule out the possibility of reasonable and incremental steps towards your heart’s desire, such as taking a class or evaluating the pros and cons of taking a few years to pursue graduate school in the arts?

But it doesn’t have to feel that way.  Here’s more about each of the six strategies, one or more of which you may find helpful and realistic in your own life to try.

Start a hobby or take a class

Make a list of some activities you’ve always wanted to do, or used to do, but no longer do.  What would you feel delighted to try?  Why not use some free time for getting this hobby back up to speed?  Try restarting with a friend, or by joining a class, so that you have some accountability.  Remember that when you start something new, you’re by definition going to have to work on new skills, and that means fumbling and awkwardness and more “failure” than you might experience in other areas of your life.  That’s to be expected.  Try to focus on the positive feelings you get from doing something you enjoy, and see how it influences other aspects of your life.

Research a career

What new job or jobs might appeal to you?  What are your talents?  What are you good at that (skills) you would enjoy doing more of?  What work environments generally appeal to you?  Here are some resources you might find helpful to explore further your talents and jobs that might suit you:

  1. Summary of aptitude tests
  2. Career quiz by the Princeton Review
  3. Carolyn Kalil’s True Colors Career assessment
  4. John Holland’s Self-Directed [career] Search

Like taking a class, researching a change could take you just a few hours a week.  Imagine if you watched a little less TV (or surfed the Internet less) and spent some time working on something that actually made you feel good — instead of drained, inadequate, or even depressed?

As with any habit change, you might create some way to encourage yourself – perhaps keep a log of each week that you work on exploring a new career, and make a colorful chart where you congratulate yourself on the fridge or a family white board for each day you spend moving towards something meaningful and exciting.  Trying picking a day and time, perhaps Tuesday nights after the kids are asleep, to research a more rewarding career.  (more on ways to make new career habits stick here from Charles Duhigg)

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Take a leave

Many jobs now offer the ability to take time off.  If you have a sense of what you might like to do, why not take a leave and pursue it full time for a while?  If you’re struggling to fit the new path in – for instance, constantly working late at night or early in the morning, or feeling some of your work-day obligations sliding – perhaps it’s time to take a clean break.  And you’ll have your original job to come back to, but you’ll be much wiser about how appealing a new career direction may be.

As one example, a friend took a year off from work to spend experimenting for two to three months periods.  In these, he plans to shadow people doing work he thinks he would really enjoy: teaching and nursing in different settings.  He already has kids and wants to make really sure he would like the day-to-day of a new path.  He’s gathering data and moving in the direction of his heart and his curiosity, and away from the nagging drag of a routine job that leaves him feeling tired and unfulfilled.

Go part-time

If you can go part-time and allow your new career direction to blossom, this can be a fruitful option.  You can keep your original job going, in a more limited capacity, while opening up time for a new venture, studying for a new degree or certification, or working on a new creative project or taking classes that would be difficult to squeeze in with a full-time job.

Unfortunately, this path is currently not for everyone, as you may have to forgo healthcare benefits through your employer and buy them outside, such as through the Affordable Care Act, and generally this means lower quality coverage, or more expensive coverage to the employee, or both.  But if your partner or spouse can add you to his or her benefits plan, and you feel this is the appropriate next step for you, then you should weigh the cons of staying full-time (there’s a good reason the benefits are referred to as the “golden handcuffs”) versus the benefits of opening up time during your work day to pursue a genuine passion.


This is certainly the most dramatic way to test out a new career, and perhaps the first one that comes to mind when you think of changing a career.  There can be a powerful, grass-is-greener allure to changing your work situation whole hog.  But I would encourage you to explore the above, more gradual ways first, with a few exceptions.  As one wise older man once advised me, “Try making incremental changes in your life first.  There can be an alluring appeal to making dramatic changes, but you may find a lot of benefit from small changes.”

What kinds of small changes might you consider while staying employed with your current employer, other than the above strategies?  We’ll write about these in more length in a future article, but they can include:  (1) switching to a different boss, (2) switching to a different regional office location, (3) working with different internal clients or team members, (4) taking on different types of work that test you in new ways, or speak more to your talents and strengths.

When does quitting really make sense?  One is if your day job is atrocious, and you would be better off by leaving the work.  But you still need to think through the practical consequences of resigning, especially if you have children or other dependents.

Another reason is if you’ve already done some of the other steps above – perhaps you have a very clear idea of what you want to do, or taking a leave is not available at your job – and you conclude that your current day job is holding you back.  In that case, by all means, pull the cord with full responsibility and knowing that you are going to take care of your loved ones.  As long as the practical elements are worked out to a fair degree, you can also leave knowing that when you move towards finding a job you really like, you’ll generally get less tired, and thus bring more good vibes back home to your family or loved ones.  In short, you’ll like your work more, and people will like being around you more.

Read some other sources of encouragement

Books that can encourage you and suggest additional exercises that can help in the above approaches include Julia Cameron’s, “The Artist’s Way”, and Sir Ken Robinson’s, “Finding Your Element”.  You might also like, “What Color is Your Parachute?” (Bolles), “Is Your Genius At Work?” (Richards), and “Now, Discover Your Strengths” (Buckingham, Clifton).

How I tested out new career paths

In my working life, how did I go from an aspiring MD/PhD student, to a management consultant at McKinsey, to working at Google, to working full-time in health care, to working part-time, split between the arts (writing my first literary novel) and health care?  (I say “working life” because many other transitions occurred along the dimensions of self-understanding, relationships, family, and fatherhood!).

I’ll share a few of my experiences that led to my arriving, only in hindsight, at the framework summarized in the above figure.  I quit my job at Google once I realized I wanted to be working more in health care and art, and felt that I couldn’t do that on the side with the demands of a “full time plus” job.  I didn’t want to wait until some miracle arrived like earning tons of cash so that I could retire early – and how could I depend on all that? (I was hired after the IPO).  I liked a lot about working there, and I served out internal rotations on health-focused products, but ultimately felt I couldn’t meet my artistic and business desires by staying there.

To be fair to those around me who might have supported me more, I also didn’t know enough of what I yet wanted to do.  I was long on ideas and confusion, and short on focus.  It was more like, not more of this, rather than knowing exactly what I did want to do.  It took me two or three years of ongoing reflection before I could clarify my priorities.

After a stint of thinking I’d become a full-time, independent research scientist (e.g., examples of grants for diagnosis and treatment of malaria I drafted here), I later found a job at a health care company that was full time, but less intense, and so I had just enough free time to test out one hobby at a time.  By then, I had been meditating and writing for a few years, and had boiled my highest career interests down to:  (1) returning to professional music (I had been a professional saxophonist, reed player, bandleader, and arranger), (2) teaching, or (3) writing.

I started with music and got my sax chops back into shape.  I joined an Oakland-based hip hop group, The Getback, and we played a few venues in the Bay Area including Yoshi’s in San Francisco.  But after a while, I felt somehow that my music “ship had sailed.”  I still loved music very much, and I currently play guitar, drums, and sing with my family and in a local group, but the idea of becoming a professional again no longer appealed to me.  Part of it was the idea that family was on the horizon, and I wanted to be around for my children.  I also felt that I could handle emotional and intellectual topics through writing that were difficult for me to grasp through music.  But importantly, the gut feeling was all about writing, and still to this day I can’t explain that.  I did explore teaching by applying to Teach for America and speaking to a few friends who had served in TFA.

But writing was what I felt the most genuine and sustained excitement about, as well as a tremendous amount of fear.  What right did I have, my overly-critical mind would nag in the early years, focusing on writing when I had no degree in writing and had focused almost exclusively on math, science, and medicine for the last ten years of my professional life?

But I plunged on, if motivated only by the sadness I would feel after I stopped writing for extended periods of time.  These would be brought on either by deep self-doubts, or the harried nature of my life (we had recently welcomed my first daughter to the world, and my day job at times got very hectic).

By contrast, I would often feel energized, alive, engaged, and confident after writing only for thirty minutes.  And even if I wrote words that barely seemed to conjure a single coherent thought or scene.  I was lucky to have advice from some writing teachers who suggested techniques to get words on paper and to sidestep the “inner critic” in my mind (more on that in a future article about ways to start and stick with a writing practice).

I took a few intensive writing courses through a local university (UC Berkeley), and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I decided that writing was something I loved, but I would also need much time to work on building up the skills.  I wasn’t ready to subject myself yet to the pressure of making a living full time with writing.  What if my heart led me to material that I wanted to create, but no one wanted to buy?  Or that it would take a long time to sell, like a novel?

After seeing the example of a few colleagues in my department, I decided to go part-time in my day job.  It worked out for a number of reasons.  I had solid working relationships with many people at the company and so there was a high level of trust that, if I was working on a project – “part time” or “full time” – I would get the job done, no questions asked.  I pitched it to any skeptics that I simply worked on other things in my down time, instead of taking on twice as many projects.

I had planned to earn less than as a full-time employee, but it turned out I actually earned a little more even when I worked half-time.  I was able to get on my wife’s benefits plan, which I know not everyone is able to do, and my hourly pay went up as a compensation for losing retirement, health care, and other benefits.

I was also surprised by the fact that I actually liked the health care work more when I wasn’t a full time employee.  Suddenly I didn’t have to keep a façade or play some game of pretending I really wanted to be CEO one day (I never did!).  I found myself more interested in the problems we were solving. I was also honoring my heart’s desire to write, and that probably spilled into other aspects of my life.

How you discover insights about yourself can be dramatic and rapid, or can evolve over months or years, like it did for me.  Whatever your path, I’d encourage you to stick with the things that intrigue you, and let the other things fall away whenever you are practically able to do so.  It’s also important to avoid people who generally dispense only criticism and negative judgments.  Even if they have helpful practical suggestions, I find it’s easier when your self-confidence is just reawakening to prioritize getting input from practically-minded but also kind and compassionate friends.

I hope you find the above strategies helpful in your own life, and please share your comments below.

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4 thoughts on “6 ways to test new career paths

Add yours

  1. Thanks for this post, Andrew–it speaks to a couple of themes which I use in my own meditation and writing–“Work” and “Time.”
    Growing up as I did on a ranch in the Sonoran Desert, there was no real differentiation between work/job and the rest of life; ranching was simultaneously job, profession, and vocation. I’ve sought to capture the Gestalt of this in my fiction.
    Time is an intesting aspect of my life. See this discussion/review in “The New Yorker” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/26/no-time). Agri-culture, if lived with intention, somewhat erases the time memory from our neural net. This is very pronounced in Aboriginal cultures worldwide, what need have hunter-gatherers for a clock? And, it’s the way I grew up, with one foot in each culture. Men and women have vastly different identities in indigenous cultures, and we are both somewhat lost in the cultural Chernobyl that is much of America; yet, vestiges remain, and by writing, we irrigate them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much Steve for your comment! Yes, the whole idea of framing some activities as “work” and others as “not work” is just a conceptual construct. (as an aside, “work-life” balance is curious — what is work, if it’s not part of “life”?). Unfortunately it seems our culture has evolved so that there is a felt reality to a job or “work” being different from what you do otherwise — e.g., spend time with family, be with people you want to be with, etc.

    Rather, most white collar work (speaking generally about any office job) takes you away from your home, your family, and often, your genuine passions.

    I’m grateful that due to computer technology, it is now possible more than ever to do an “office” job while working from home. While this is not possible for many types of jobs yet, it certainly takes off the stress of needing to commute, and it’s easier to have uninterrupted periods of work.

    I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon when camping at locations where there is no cell signal, no wifi, and when we specifically aim to avoid talking about work unless we really need to (e.g., perhaps someone in the family has a major job-related decision that’s weighing heavily on their minds). But we try to avoid work as a topic of idle chatter, if we can. As a result, without even a watch (since we don’t wear watches and leave the phones in the car or tent), we start to tune into our own rhythms of energy, hunger, and sleep, as well as our children’s, and we become more attuned to the nature around us: the position of the sun, the afternoon winds, the morning and evening rhythms of the birds, and so on. (I wrote a little more about this recently here — https://xycultr.com/2014/07/31/kids-nature-screens-poems/).

    Your comment prompted me to reflect on some writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I was reading recently. Here’s an excerpt that speaks to your comments and our reflections on the topics of work, life, and meaning:

    “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would
    put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature
    is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us
    interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us
    inquire, to what end is nature?”

    (Source: “Nature” / “Introduction” http://www.emersoncentral.com/introduc.htm)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It is so true! The Internet has opened up vast new opportunities to people wanting to improve their careers. Particularly those who find themselves home bound. In the past distance education was expensive because of the high cost of text books and of associate postal expenses. Today with most of the learning material online, people from all sort of social and economic backgrounds have access to knowledge and qualifications. This post is not only inspiring, but also offers new pathways for improvement. So “Every day in every way we can become better and better”.

    Best regards



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