Singing a new tune: Revamping your career path

August 19, 2011 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A self-styled “mother of reinvention,” singer Madonna has constantly changed her wardrobe, performance style and music to stay ahead of the curve. But look a little closer and she is still an entertainer selling sex.

From Spice Girls singer to fashion designer, Victoria Beckham is another famously touted career re-inventor. But actually she has been a clothes horse from the time she was young, and simply used her celebrity status and interest in fashion to turn what was always a hobby into a business.

Neither of these so-called career re-inventors really reinvented herself. Rather, in their different ways, they both renewed themselves by building on things that were already part of who they are. Madonna repackaged herself again and again, while Ms. Beckham reoriented her skills to capitalize on a passion.

Both celebrities offer a lesson for those who have strong desires to reinvent themselves. It’s a desire that rears itself especially at this time of the year when workers return from vacation and are confronted with the same old assignments, petty office politics and feelings that they are working too hard for too little. They imagine more glamorous lives with greater appreciation, recognition and money, a better boss and more interesting work. In essence, they want to transform their lives into something completely new and shiny.

But that is not do-able. Instead, they should think more like Madonna and Ms. Beckham, who provide models not for reinvention, but for successful career renewal.

Madonna’s method: Reconfigure, repackage

When people think about changing careers, what often comes to mind is making a radical transformation. But just as Madonna did not stray far from what she already knew, it is much easier for a teacher, for example, to become an educational publishing representative, applying skills already in her repertoire, than to become, say, a doctor.

A radical transformation is expensive. It typically requires a significant investment in schooling which, especially for older workers, usually does not pay off in terms of the costs of lost income and educational expenses. When you start out all over again, it is often at the bottom of the ladder, because previous workplace or management experience is usually not recognized..

The alternative is to think of yourself as having a portfolio of skills and experiences. You can liberate significant opportunities by reconfiguring the mix of skills and abilities to use more of some, and less of others, in new and different ways.

Take, for example, a litigation lawyer I know who hated her work, especially the adversarial relationships. What she wanted was to connect with people in a more nurturing way and to help them grow. Building on that, and her understanding of the legal profession, she became a career coach working with female lawyers who want to make a career shift. Just as Madonna is still a performer no matter what her outfit or music style, the lawyer is still connected to her profession, albeit in a different manner.

The first step to make this kind of change is to drill down and identify your skills and talents. How can you apply them in new ways?

Think of your skills as Lego pieces that can be reworked into new shapes. Your job and job title are simply vehicles through which you express a wide range of capabilities.

Victoria’s secret: Reconnect with your passion

As children, many of us had dreams about what we would do professionally. But as adults, we drifted away from them or were pulled in different directions.

For example, a shutterbug enthusiast I know always thought he would be a photographer when he grew up. His family put pressure on him to get “a real job with a real profession” so, like his father, he became an accountant. But he never put down his camera. At mid-life, he asked himself whether accounting was what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life or whether he could finally put his passion to work.

At that point, he was relatively financially secure, but he was also realistic. He knew it would take time to establish himself. So he started slowly, moonlighting on weekends, photographing weddings of friends’ children, until he had assembled enough of a client base to become a full-time photographer.

One of the most promising ways to rejuvenate a tired career, especially for older workers, is to reconnect with earlier desires and return to the path not taken, as Ms. Beckham did with the fashion industry several years after the Spice Girls ended. That path can be the career that was not pursued, as in the case of the photographer, or it can be something that provides a metaphor for an underlying desire.

For example, one of my clients, a human resources director, organized neighbourhood plays as a child. Her dream was to become an actor on Broadway. When I asked what that dream represented, she said: “Being in front of people, and touching them in some way.” She ultimately became a professional public speaker.

So let your younger self inspire you. What fantasies did you have then about your future? What desires did you give up, and why? Use the answers as clues to return to the path not taken.

You may not be able to reinvent yourself, but you can renew your career and find meaning and purpose by embracing the self you abandoned.

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