Why disruptive thinking is key to tackling mid-life career change

PERHAPS in your entire working life you’ve never undergone any type of personality profiling, needed to create a neat description of ‘workplace you’ for a professional networking website, or articulated what makes you stand out from the crowd in your industry. I’d be willing to bet that you might view such ‘introspection’ as a bit self-indulgent, not relevant to you or just a bit alien.

But ask yourself this if you’re facing significant work-life change in the next 12 months or have recently found yourself out of work: how can developing sharper self- awareness and better emotional intelligence ever be a waste of time? I think it helps us start to make conscious choices about how to spend our time, not just auto-pilot decisions. That means a bit of quality introspection.

Your work’s changed, but so have you

The reasons we took a particular path in our 20’s can be very different to the motivations for our choice of mid-life career or ‘role rethink.’ We should know and appreciate why this is. But I’ve met many people who approach a (sometimes enforced) work-change in their 40s and 50s without any consideration for how they may have changed themselves and how in mid-life they’re bringing a whole new offer to the employment table.

Anyone in Aberdeenshire who’s experienced oil-industry redundancy will recognise the urgent temptation to find a quick fix to keep the wolf from the door. Bills need paying, you need a sense of purpose and your dignity as a working member of the community plays a big part. According to a BBC report in September, the number of job losses in the UK oil and gas sector was worse than expected last year. Trade body Oil & Gas UK's annual report said 60,000 direct and indirect jobs were lost across the industry in 2016, more than the 40,000 it had predicted.

Aberdeen itself continues to face a long-term downturn in this industry, with another 5,500 jobs expected to be lost in the next decade.

If this is likely to affect you or someone close, there is some vital preparation to get on top of. Start asking the hard questions about what you have to contribute.

What you have to offer a future employer or what you might like to create as a business at mid-life is a lot more than the accumulation of skills, status or project-related achievements. Your unique approach to life, to solving problems and to handling other people gives you a perspective that no-else has. Your entire (edited to suit) story to date is your USP. The next step is being able to articulate how this might translate as employability in a business discussion or job interview. This phase means getting feedback and practical help from friends and colleagues and it could mean stepping out of your ‘I know myself perfectly well’ comfort zone and using the experience of professional development and career-change experts. It also means talking to financial planners for insight and guidance on how to make the best of potential new work-life scenarios.

If you don’t do all of those things, perhaps you’re not giving yourself the best chance.

Why is change so uncomfortable?

Fear of failure (whatever failure means – it’s very subjective!), financial responsibilities, fear of not meeting family expectations, fear of having to downsize, fear of the risk involved in chasing a new dream, fear of ‘getting it wrong’… I listen to these fears every month and I see how trapped people make themselves feel.

And that’s the key, they aren’t trapped, they just think they are. The thought of the transition is what scares us the most, not the actual change. Adapting to a new culture, having to fill a glaring skills gap or redefine our abilities and experience is daunting – but for those who commit to self-reflection and seek advice, it broadens options and opens up opportunities they didn’t know or think were possible.

The first step to overcoming feeling stuck or lost about work is to accept that you don’t have the answers and are open to support in finding them. In fact you DO have most of the answers to what you could do with the rest of your working life, you just need to know how to access them. The immediate challenge is to get clearer about the ‘package’ that is you: your skills, strengths, your life experience and knowing the kind of work you are drawn to and would suit you. Just because you’ve always worked in oil and gas, or always worked outdoors, or always worked in an office or always managed large projects and teams of people, it doesn’t mean that’s your only option for the next step of your working life.

The value of disruption
A new breed of creative workshops aimed at career-changers, designed to disrupt thinking and unpack what makes us unique as professionals is emerging. Regardless of your current industry or role, they offer a structure to help potential career-shifters understand better what makes them employable and the options open to them.

Eyes Wide Opened, a small coaching outfit focused on what goes into seeking fulfilling work, currently run Spring weekend courses in Aberdeen and London that have become a byword for transforming people’s view of themselves and their future direction. Taking time out in a totally different environment, with people outside your usual networks, can offer a surprisingly different perspective to reflect.

It can be tricky to navigate the question of what kind of work to do next, in particular when change is enforced at a time where a ‘risk’ (starting your own business, going into partnership, opting for an untested complete career shift) threatens financial stability. Stress, anxiety, feeling stuck or confused can cloud our judgement and present huge blocks to being creative about our lives and possible next steps.

This is where it helps to disrupt your thinking and bring awareness to why a fixed mindset (sticking to the familiar ways of doing things) will hold you back. We may not even be aware that we have a fixed way of looking at possibilities. Often we get “stuck” and refuse to see life through any other lens. We do the same things, follow the same routines….and yet expect different results.

Developing creative ways of thinking can be stifled if we don’t acknowledge that our ways of viewing a particular problem we are dealing with are fixed in our traditional (but never the only) way of seeing things. Elizabeth Gilbert, who writes on creativity, suggests that curiosity fuels creative thinking. In fact, curiosity has been found to be just as important as intelligence in order to succeed and navigate a complex world. Being curious about others and about what we might be able to contribute in a new environment enables us to lean into uncertainty with a positive attitude and opens our minds to new ideas, skills, and ways of solving problems.

Disruptive thinking is increasingly recognised within the business environment as an opening to innovation. We can bring this to our search for new mid-life work by flipping the question ‘what work is right for me?’ to focus instead on ‘what makes me unique?’ , understanding more about ourselves, on who we are, what drives us and what our story is. If we give ourselves permission to ask ‘what if…?’, even for a short while, we allow space for innovative solutions to emerge.

More of the same, or embrace the change?

It’s a new year, and for some it might look precarious on the employment front. But we don’t have to stay stuck, and we don’t have to feel stuck alone. If you’ve never spent time or energy investing in your future work-self, maybe now is the time.