4 Common Career Change Fears (and How to Overcome Them)


Last year, I wrote about the hindrance that fear plays in relation to career change. As fear remains the number one barrier preventing clients moving forward with their career change, I wanted to revisit the topic.

This article lists the common fears that clients present with when we first speak to discuss their career change. With each one, I’ve looked at ways to manage this fear, so that it doesn’t get in the way of changing into more fulfilling and enjoyable work.

Note that I've said 'manage' instead of 'overcome' here, because I don't believe we can rid ourselves of our fears. It's more realistic to notice them, manage them, and continue on our way.

1. Fear of Failure

In this instance, failure seems to relate to the possibility of changing career and finding out it’s no better than your current one. It might even be worse, less enjoyable - you might hate it even more. The fear that maybe the grass isn’t greener on the other side, that you might be moving out of the frying pan right into the fire.

How to manage this fear...

The trick is to move away from the notion that you can figure out if you’ll enjoy a new career by simply thinking about it. The only way to manage this fear, and reduce the risk of moving into something less suitable, is to try it out in some way. Get in there and find out what it’s like in real life. Start small with tasks that are low cost and don’t take long - conversations with people who do what you’re interested in doing, shadowing, informal work experience, short internships, volunteering, short courses - anything that gives you a real insight into whether you’d enjoy the work. This can really help reduce this fear, because over time, backed by evidence and experience, you feel more and more reassured that you’re moving into something that is a good fit for you.

The second tip is to accept that what you do next might not be the perfect answer to your current problems. It might take two or three moves before it feels like a good fit. But each step forward will help determine your next one. Without that first step, there’s no movement at all though. So, it’s about seeing each step as a learning opportunity about what works and doesn’t work for you, and tailoring your next move off the back of that.

2. Fear of What Others Think

Clients often worry what others will think if they ‘give up’ on their current career. There’s a fear that others might see it as some sort of failure. I’m not sure where it comes from (British stiff upper lip, perhaps!), but we seem to put pressure on ourselves to make things work at all costs, even when it’s not what we really want. We don’t want to be seen as ‘giving up’ on something, especially if we’ve put a lot of work into it (and perhaps our parents have helped us get there in some way). There’s also a fear of what people might think if the career change is into something with less (perceived) status and stability. We worry that parents, friends, and/or partners might be disappointed, judge our choices, lack understanding, and be unsupportive.

How to manage this fear...

"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do." - Eleanor Roosevelt. Boom. That’s the mind shift required right there. We expend so much energy worrying what others think, and, in the nicest possible way, they really don’t care what we do. Your parents, your friends, your family…they just want you to be happy. They might have their opinions, but that’s all they are - opinions, not facts (stemming from their own fears, beliefs, and upbringing, which are nothing to do with you). They might make a fuss temporarily (because, well, see fear number 4) but you can handle that. 9 times out of 10, how parents respond in the long run is with support and care.

Also, put yourself in their shoes. If a friend (or one of your children in time) came to you and said they wanted to change career, what would you think? I imagine it would be something along the lines of, “good for them” or “oh, I wish I had the courage to do that.” Give other people the credit they deserve - most people are supportive and just want what’s best for you. Why assume anything less?

3. Fear of Missing Out

Intertwined with a fear of failure - choosing the wrong career and it not working out - is the additional fear of missing out. With a society full of millions of job options and career paths, it’s overwhelming to choose just one of these to focus a career change on. How the hell do you decide? We fear that we’ll make a choice and might miss out on the career we ‘should have’ chosen. What if that other option would be even better than the one we chose to go with?

How to manage this fear...

Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, gives a great method of managing this fear. He suggests shifting from a Maximiser mindset (where we continually strive to attain and achieve more) to a Satisficers mindset. The latter is about being content with having just enough, which is seen as much more attainable than constantly striving for the ‘best’, which is rarely achieved (mainly because the ‘best’ is subjective and ever-changing). So, in relation to career change, it can be helpful to move away from an obsession about choosing the ‘best’ choice, and be comfortable that the career you’re considering ticks just enough boxes to be a 'good enough' fit for you. It's not sexy, and it won't feed capitalism, but it's super helpful if we want to be content in life.

Also, it can be helpful to also recognise that there is no one perfect job for an individual. I don’t believe we are born to have just one specific career, and that we just need to figure out what we’re destined to be and then we’ll be happy. I don’t think human nature (or the human mind) works like that. Try to acknowledge that there will be a handful of careers that you would be equally happy in. And, if you commit to one, there’s always time to try others across a lifetime too! You might be working till you’re 75 so there’s loads of time.

You might have spotted a reoccurring word in all of the above fears, which points to the last fear on the list….

4. Fear of Uncertainty

Might, might, might….All the fears above involve a concern about something that might or might not happen. With a career change (and life), there are no guarantees. There will always be some risk involved. And our brains hate that. They’re designed to keep us safe and survive as a species. Risks and perceived threats to our wellbeing don’t go down too well with our brains. We struggle with uncertainty, and any change that involves some is hard to put into action.

How to manage this fear...

The only way to make something feel more certain is to step into action. As Susan Jeffers quite rightly called her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. By taking small steps forward, we realise that there’s little to fear from uncertainty. In fact, if we move forward, take small risks, and the world doesn’t end, we realise we can cope. This then helps reassure ourselves that we can manage the next step, too, and on it goes.

Susan Jeffers also wrote a book called Embracing Uncertainty, the main premise of which is to acknowledge that we have a choice as to how to see uncertainty. We can see it as a threat, or as a learning opportunity. We can attach to the idea that everything must work out (not helpful or realistic, as life is full of curve balls), or we can hope and wonder what will happen (much less attached to outcomes, and therefore a less stressful approach to life), safe in the knowledge that we can cope whatever the outcome. By accepting that nothing is certain in life, we can embrace uncertainty and see it as the norm, presenting possibility and opportunity in every curve ball that life throws. We’ll be OK, whatever happens.

Whilst this list might not be exhaustive, I hope it's helpful to acknowledge that we all have fears when it comes to our careers. With support, and a few tips and shifts in perspective along the way, we can work at not letting them get in the way of our goals.

I work through a lot of the above fears (and others - there are often many!) with clients throughout the career change programme that I offer. If your fears are keeping you stuck and preventing you from moving into more enjoyable, fulfilling work, please do get in touch and we can discuss how my coaching programme can support you in overcoming your fears and making the career change you so long for.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.