Making Space to Reinvent Your Professional Self

mm Russ Finkelstein

I’ve just come back from a 10-day vacation in the woods, without a computer, or much connection to the outside world, and it’s been really good for me. I’m not going to say I loved the nature part, but nature and I have at least reached a temporary detente.

I gave myself lots of room on this trip to ponder life and work. I spent some time considering my transition from jobs over the years, and about the value of taking some time out, occasionally, to assess where I’m at, and where I want to be next, professionally. To ask myself both “who do I want to be in the world?” and “what’s getting in the way of making that happen?”

As children, we’re comfortable assuming a variety of different identities over the course of a few hours. From superheroes to firemen to bunnies, trying out different ways of being in the world is a joyful way of experiencing it. And it opens up countless new possibilities. It’s such a shame we lose that.

There are plenty of expected transitions to help us as we move towards adulthood, from changing schools to trying out different personal relationships, to even choosing what college we might like to attend. These allow us to assess where we’re at, where we want to be, and what kind of identity we might adopt as each new phase comes along.

When I was in my senior year at college, I remember a fellow senior in my graduating class standing up during our inaugural dorm meeting and telling us all: “Hi, everybody, I’m changing my name this year.” She had spent the summer leading up to the year thinking about it, and decided that she wanted to be seen and known differently.

It wasn’t such a big deal to us, but it mattered a great deal to her. She felt that this was the natural time and place to make such a pronouncement, and we more or less followed her request.

It isn’t just the ideological freedom of youth that allows us to consider new identities. It is also having the time.

As we embrace our adulthood these spaces, rites, and our availability of time, diminish. We simply have less space to consider the big goals and barriers in our lives. In America we are a less-vacationed lot, which is definitely a bad thing, because 70% of Americans are unhappy in their jobs, but rather afraid to step away and lose them. Time away from the familiar might allow us to consider our lives more: Why waste them, stuck in identities that don’t satisfy us?

Call me revolutionary, but I’d really like you to be happier. And I think you have the right to expect to enjoy, or at least get what you want from, your working life. Give yourself a couple of moments to consider what that might mean for you.

In adulthood, and by that, I mean, when we start earning money full-time, to support ourselves close-to-independently, we don’t start new school years or camps, have religious ceremonies that confer coming-of-age, or hit milestone birthdays quite so often. There are marriages, births and some passings, of course, but these tend to happen less frequently. And fewer of us are likely to make drastic changes, particularly in our careers, but also in our personal lives, as we age.

This lack of important moments means that making these changes is all the more incumbent on us. Ultimately, many of us would rather binge-watch the newest Netflix show (not that I’m in a position to be judging anyone for binge-watching Netflix, honestly) which will take us a set number of hours, rather than take on a task that may not have a neat conclusion, such as reinventing ourselves professionally. Seriously: Consider the choice for a moment. I know which way you’re leaning. Now, if I offered you a pint of ice cream to go with the time spent considering your professional reinvention? Would you at least think about it?

We can also be pretty unkind to ourselves when we make big changes as adults. I recall someone I know in her late twenties who moved from the city of her birth to her dream city. She ended up returning three months later and felt she had failed. She was embarrassed to tell her friends that she was back. I asked her what she would have thought had one of those friends come to her with a similar scenario. She said she would have applauded their courage to take the calculated risk. In our heads we often anticipate condemnation from others, rather that the more likely praise for our determination and intentional risk-taking.

There’s a sense that other people expect you to have clarified who you are and what you want, by a certain point. They expect that the cement has hardened in the mold, and that what remains should now be a fixed sculpture. There is almost a societal contract not to question these foundational elements of adulthood, once determined. In truth, we often say as we age how different our choices might have been with the knowledge we have now. If I knew what I did at 25 when I was 21, never mind at 30, 40 or 50, I would have done X so differently. Logically, that applies to our professional selves too.

I guess I’m a proponent of having fewer regrets and being less bound by fear, than the majority of us seem to be, professionally.

Most often, our adult professional reinventions happen in reaction to something negative, such as shifting budgets or priorities in your workplace or a personal issue in your relationship or family. That’s when we react and haul out our resume and start applying for things.

Ironically, however, these moments are the worst times to make decisions and reinvent our professional selves, when the poop just hit the fan. So when there’s less poop flying around, you might want to give more thought to how you might reinvent your career, and be a bit more intentional about it. Take a little more control and do so without the additional emotional heft.

That’s why we started Clearly Next—to start an open and supportive conversation about who we are and aspire to be. We’re trying to start a safe conversation about your professional doubts. We’re trying to create a supportive space to think about your work and how you might want to reinvent yourself. And we want you to go through that process alongside others who feel compelled to do the same.

Before you reinvent yourself, reach out to people in the fields you’d like to work in, and ask for their advice. Embrace transition as a healthy part of being a dynamic professional. You need not transition just for the sake of transitioning, nor should you remain where you are because you have been there for a while. Get clearer about what’s next. Only by knowing what you want can you get there! Remember, I’m your biggest cheerleader and believe that we have the power and ability to make change in our lives.

Hopefully, your reasons for making a change come along with a story that you are ready to tell the doubters. You can explain that you weren’t happy with your professional life, and decided to make some intentional changes. People tend to respect a thoughtful process, so try out your story with a friend so you feel confident in what you are sharing, but to quote Taylor Swift, “haters gonna hate.” So don’t give the doubters in your life too much power to control you.

Moving from being an investment banker to being a rodeo clown, for example, is likely to trigger a few questions about why you’re doing it and whether you’ve properly considered the risks. It can be okay for people to think those things and share their doubts about this change. It is scary to them. If you are making a change, shouldn’t they be questioning their path, too?

To those around you, such a reinvention might be quite striking. But it’s worth remembering that the new people you meet will see you, simply, as your newest self and you will be joining a new professional tribe that may be very eager to embrace you. They can offer up some of the support that you have been missing.

If you’ve really done the thinking about what you enjoy doing, and realize that you have to do something enjoyable with your days, then actually, it’s not a frightening thing to reinvent yourself professionally. If you’re a really thoughtful person, it might just be a case of asking: “how could I not do this?”

Now is a great time to start. Good luck!

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >