November 2023 | 

Surviving a Career Change: A Pivot How-To

Surviving a Career Change: A Pivot How-To

Change is hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that many people would rather stay in a bad job than even consider quitting. Now that the so-called Great Resignation is over, with the number of quits in the U.S. back to nearly pre-pandemic levels, studies are revealing just how widespread the resistance to change really is: the Great Gloom refers to the steadily rising number of workers who detest their job — but aren’t leaving.

But some are braving the leap, and others are facing change involuntarily through downsizing or layoffs. Whether your career pivot is still in the contemplation stage or in the midst of an active search, research shows that there are four unique, predictable stages of transformation that can guide you through the pivot process.

In Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work (Mariner Books, 2023), Joanne Lipman describes the stages as: searching for new information, struggling to move from one way of living or working to an unfamiliar new path, hitting an impasse or taking a deliberate pause, and ultimately coming up with a solution for successfully navigating the transition. “If you are contemplating a major transition, or one has been imposed on you,” says the former editor-in-chief of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal, “you can find reassurance and guidance in understanding how this progression plays out.”

Lipman’s work shows that no matter what industry or role they are in, or why they need to pivot, those who successfully reinvent their career go through the following stages in very similar ways.

First Stage: Search

It’s challenging to accept that what once was working is not or soon will no longer be viable. In this first stage, it’s important to keep in mind that most transitions stem from a series of small, iterative steps in a new direction rather than one distinct leap from one path to another. When you accept and embrace the search stage, actively looking for a viable new way forward, you are willing to keep an open mind to various possibilities, even trying on what psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius termed “possible selves”: what you want to become, or could become, or even fear becoming.

You may imagine your future self as happier or more confident — or you may reenvision your life and career altogether. Conjuring these “possible selves” can help make them real and lead to meaningful change. Whether it’s young Ina Garten inviting her friends to home-cooked dinners long before leaving her White House job as a nuclear budget analyst to become the Barefoot Contessa, or economist Will Brown spending years gradually learning to mend cattle fences and care for cows on weekends before becoming a farmer, Lipman says, “every successful transition is actually an immeasurable number of often tiny, even imperceptible steps forward.”

Second Stage: Struggle

Transitions are challenging, and fighting them when they’re inevitable only makes them worse. This stage, when you leave behind your old identity but haven’t yet figured out a new one, can drag on for months or even years. Try to lean into the journey and acknowledge the inevitable struggle. That’s what happened when Ina Garten quit her White House job and bought a tiny specialty food business (a move she called “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done!”), and again after she sold the store and moved into “the most difficult year of my life,” before beginning yet another career as a cookbook author and host of a TV cooking show.

One way to embrace this stage is by creating a “CV of failure.” Because failure can be more instructive than success, laying out your misfires can help you assess whether you should soldier on or give up and redirect your efforts. Northwestern management professor Dashun Wang found that people who “just miss” a successful outcome early on — like competitive athletes who start out as fourth-place finishers — are more likely to excel later. This Nano Tool shares more ideas for mining your failures for valuable lessons that can help you embrace the struggle.

Third Stage: Stop

Whether it’s a walk, a nap, or a sabbatical, distracting yourself when you’re stuck is often the best way to solve a problem or come up with a new idea. Lipman explains, “Most of us double down and just work harder when we’re faced with a stubborn problem. Our inclination is to keep working on a challenge, even when we’ve exhausted ourselves, when we can’t figure out the answer. If we’re contemplating a major life change, it’s even worse, as we endlessly cogitate through sleepless nights. We’re like Boxer, the worker horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, repeating, ‘I will work harder!’ until we collapse. This is exactly the wrong approach.”

“The unconscious does an awful lot of heavy lifting when we aren’t paying attention,” Lipman continues. “Research across multiple fields has confirmed that taking a break may be the most important, yet most underrated, ingredient in coming up with new ideas and directions.” Sleeping and daydreaming are exactly how Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Elias Howe invented the sewing machine, and Paul McCartney wrote the most recorded song in history, “Yesterday.”

If you can’t take time off, Lipman suggests trying the “90-minute rule.” Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found that virtuoso violinists tend to focus on deliberate practice during 90-minute sessions, followed by a break. This pattern works beautifully for other pursuits as well. When you’re stuck on a challenge, try focusing completely on your work for ninety minutes. No emails, no checking your phone, no distractions. But at the end of ninety minutes, you must stop. It doesn’t matter what you do on your break, as long as you aren’t working. Then you return to your desk and repeat the process.

Stage Four: Solution

“Be open to the unexpected,” advises Lipman. “Where you go next may not be where you planned. People who have made the most extraordinary pivots often got there by following meandering and unexpected paths. When management professor Erik Dane asked people about epiphanies that led them to switch careers, they reported being ‘open to the possibility of being transformed.’ Keep an open mind as you work on your transformation.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the ongoing nature of change. Wherever you are now, the journey isn’t over. Lipman says she was especially inspired by people she interviewed who continue to reinvent themselves well past retirement age, like Paul Tasner, a San Francisco consumer products executive who was fired at age 64 and founded PulpWorks, which converts waste products into biodegradable packaging to replace toxic plastics. He’s still CEO of the company at age 75. Dr. Robert Zufall, a urologist who helped his wife discover a new use for wallpaper cleaner and coined its name (“Play-Doh”) set up a medical clinic for underserved immigrant residents after he retired, and still serves on the Zufall Community Health Center’s board of directors at age 96.

“We’re in the midst of historic upheaval,” says Lipman, “in the wake of a pandemic, political unrest, and economic uncertainty. As change accelerates, though, so does the urgency to understand how to navigate it. That’s why it’s instructive, and even reassuring, to understand these four common stages and learn how others have successfully managed to pivot.”