Maybe you’re no longer happy on your current path. Maybe you’re feeling drawn to something new and different. Whatever the reason, you’re thinking about changing careers. The thing is, you’re years (or decades!) into your career, having spent most of your 20s and 30s (or 40s, or more!) getting to this exact point.
So a complete change seems pretty scary, if not damn near impossible. Tell me if any of these thoughts sound familiar:
- I’ll never make enough money!
- What if I’m terrible at it?
- No one will want to hire someone my age.
- It’s just too late for me.
You’re not the first wannabe career changer to feel this way. But you don’t have to let those doubts and worries hold you back. I spoke with real career changers who made moves after 40 to get the inside scoop on how they overcame these six common fears and made successful pivots.
1. “I Can’t Leave Something I Know and Have Worked So Hard For”
It’s not just the quitting part that’s scary—people leave jobs all the time. It’s the idea of leaving behind something that’s (maybe) safe and reliable, and something that you’ve spent what feels like forever building and refining and perfecting.
Guy Parker, a 53-year old vendor manager at Opendoor who worked as a police officer for years before changing careers, had this exact fear. Even though he would come home every day knowing that his job wasn’t the right fit anymore and asking his wife if he should quit, actually taking that step didn’t happen for some time.
“I had invested 16 years of my life” in his career as a police officer, he explains. “It took a few years before I gathered the courage to make the change.”
Michele Westfahl, a registered nurse for over 15 years turned recruiter at Aurora Health Care, found the transition from a patient-focused role to a desk job daunting. “The biggest hurdle was leaving something you know that you’ve become an expert at to be new at something again,” she admits.
Face the Fear
Here’s the thing: Changing careers requires letting go of what you have in order to make space for what’s to come. It also requires you to redefine your identity in the professional world. That’s of course terrifying, and can often make you feel like you’re taking a step back or putting to waste years of effort and skill building.
But the alternative option—staying put—isn’t all that warm and fuzzy, either. For Parker, not making the switch meant continuing to be miserable at work. Westfahl, on the other hand, felt limited where she was: “I constantly saw friends that I would work with in the emergency department having growth opportunities, whether it be in leadership or going back to school and doing advanced practice degrees, but never really felt like that was my path,” she explains. “I grew as far as I could in my department, and accomplished all the things that I could accomplish there.”
2. “I’ll Have to Start From Scratch”
There’s no denying that trying to switch to a very different job or field comes with a steep learning curve.
Jed Lewin, a licensed associate real estate broker at Triplemint, knew he’d have a lot of catching up to do to break into real estate after being a lawyer for 15 years. There would be new technology to learn, new industry requirements to become familiar with, a new network to build up, and a new way of doing business to adjust to.
Despite being great with people after years of working as a bedside nurse, Westfahl was also pretty intimidated by the other requirements set before her in becoming a recruiter. “I don’t lead meetings or do PowerPoint presentations or write job proposals,” she remembers thinking to herself at the time. “And those were all expectations of a new career in the business world.”
Face the Fear
Certainly not everything you’ve built up until now will apply to your new career. The responsibilities of a lawyer and a broker, or a nurse and a recruiter, for example, are incredibly different. But a lot of your experience and skill set can be surprisingly relevant, even if the jobs themselves don’t seem anything alike.
Lewin believes that his transition wouldn’t have been possible without heavily leaning on the skills he’d built in his legal career—including being a good negotiator, managing client relationships, and understanding contracts. He also capitalized on his previous professional relationships to grow his customer base and network.
Westfahl found that the years she’d spent building relationships with patients, communicating with staff, and being immersed in the healthcare space appealed to her hiring team. “Because I’ve been in the industry [so] long, I’ve been exposed to so many different areas of the hospital where I can truly connect with different nurses about the types of environments that they’re looking at.”
But if you feel like you’re lacking in the transferable skills department, there are tons of options nowadays for getting up to speed in a new field, from online courses to classroom training to returnships—all of which can give you the confidence and resume boost you need to move forward.
3. “No One’s Going to Want to Hire Someone My Age”
OK, let’s say you know what you bring to the table—transferable skills and all—but you’re worried others won’t. More importantly, you’re scared that your age will make addressing this all the more difficult.
I won’t deny it—ageism exists in the workplace and in the job search, despite the fact that it’s illegal. “Within the western culture, we tend to equate vitality with youth,” says Muse career coach Jenny Foss, who frequently works with older job seekers. Older employees may get unfairly stereotyped as having low energy, being stuck in their ways, or not being “with it” when it comes to the latest technology. As a result, job seekers find themselves passed over for roles or worrying about finding a new job because of their age.
Face the Fear
Sadly, you can’t single-handedly defeat the cultural problem of age discrimination. But being strategic about how you sell yourself as a career changer can help you combat it in your own job search.
Figuring out your transferable skills is one part of the equation, for sure. But also think about all the experience you have as being incredibly valuable—even if it’s not obviously relevant.
Westfahl believes that her tenure and track record allowed her to bridge the gap between nursing and recruiting, even in the spots where her skills couldn’t. “Being honest and letting [the hiring managers] know that I’m a quick learner and I’m extremely dedicated helped,” she says. “and they could see that—I was in my same department for 16 years, [and a] very loyal employee.”
Hiring managers mostly want someone who can do the work and do it well, so the most important thing you can focus on is how you highlight your skills to match this new role—and how you prove that your not-so-linear career trajectory puts you at a distinct advantage over someone younger or on a more straightforward path.
And be honest with yourself: Who’s writing the narrative, the job market…or you? As Foss points out, it’s all too easy to tell yourself that age discrimination will make it impossible for you to move forward, rather than putting in the work to update your skills or elevator pitch—making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.“You decide you’re stuck, you stay stuck,” she explains.
4. “I Can’t Afford to Make a Change”
When you’ve achieved a certain level in your career, a career change isn’t just about giving up your vision of yourself as a professional—it can often mean giving up a sizeable paycheck, too. And at this age, that sacrifice may affect more than just you. Maybe you have a family to support, a mortgage to pay off, or other life obligations that require you to bring in a steady income.
Face the Fear
Having a plan in place can help combat the fear of running dry financially. How long do you want to give this new career a shot? What’s your metric for deciding whether or not you’re successful in this new career? Where will you go if things don’t pan out? Can you afford to not work, and for how long? These are all questions you should have answers to before taking the leap.
“I was very lucky. I was 41 when I made the switch. My wife was working for a big law firm and we had benefits through her employer,” says Lewin. With the safety net of insurance coverage and some money saved up, he figured he had six months to give being a broker a shot. “Even if I’m a total failure, we’re still going to eat,” he thought to himself.
“But I gave myself a time [limit],” he adds. “I didn’t want to go into debt to do this.” He decided that if he didn’t close a single deal in that six-month period, it wasn’t meant to be. Fortunately, he achieved what he set out to do.
For extra financial security, you may choose to keep one foot in your old career for a while—say, doing contract work in marketing while you try to land a sales job. That being said, don’t rely so heavily on your backup plan that you avoid giving your career change your all. Big changes like this take time, so you have to be patient and understand that you may need several months to get yourself in the groove.
“I was getting approached by recruiters all the time to take similar types of jobs—relationship manager jobs, assistant general counsel jobs, attorney jobs,” says Lewin. “But that wasn’t where my passion was anymore. I knew it would be a good paycheck, I knew it would be safe, and I knew it would be fine, but I wanted to live a life that I was designing... My wife and I both believed that it was worth taking the risk to find something that I could truly be passionate about.”
5. “What if I Regret It?”
It’s pretty common to worry about making the wrong career leap. What if you realize you’ve gone down a path even worse than the one you were on previously? What if you miss your old job and are unable to turn back around? What if you get halfway down the road only to discover you actually want to take a totally different route? Fear of making the wrong move can easily paralyze you from making any move.
Face the Fear
You’re inevitably going to make mistakes in your career—and you may even make a mistake in choosing your new path. But that certainly doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road for you.
Kelli Smith struggled to figure out exactly where she wanted to go at 44 after working for several years in cargo logistics, then as an English teacher and freelance corporate trainer abroad. She decided she had a passion for tech and took a web development course on Skillcrush, thinking she wanted to become a developer. However, she quickly learned that wasn’t what she actually wanted to do. She found herself back at square one, feeling defeated that she’d misstepped.
But her “mistake” proved to be a very smart move. Smith kept in contact with her Skillcrush instructors. “And at one point when I was talking to them, they said, ‘Don’t you have a customer support background from your logistics company? And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the part of the company I pretty much ran,’” she recalls.
She landed a job at Skillcrush as the head of customer support, and from there went on to become an operations manager. While she didn’t end up using the skills from her web development training, “the fact that I was willing to learn those opened those doors that got me to where I am,” she says.
You also have to remember that you won’t know whether it’s the right decision for you for some time. “If it’s blaringly obvious that it was the wrong decision, it might be best to course correct sooner rather than later, sure. But I’ve also seen people fail solely because they didn’t give something new enough time to ‘stick,’” explains Foss. “Most new things will feel uncomfortable or challenge you in ways that you’re not used to being challenged... And that’s totally normal, and will absolutely be a part of the journey into a new job or career, at any age.”
6. “What if I’m Terrible at It?”
It’s one thing to worry about not liking a new career. It’s terrifying to think that you might go after a job you want so badly, only to get it and realize you’re not even any good at it. Or that you can’t seem to fit into the new culture. Or that you’re always way behind your peers, despite your age and expertise.
Face the Fear
The truth is, you’re going to feel out of your element when you first make the switch.
“Just learning the way [my colleagues] speak and the types of things they want to hear was like being in a foreign country,” says Westfahl about having to attend meetings after working in a hospital for years. When Lewin started working in sales, he says, “I didn’t understand the jargon and I was scared that I was going to be trying to support a family doing something I’d never done before.” He adds that as a lawyer, “No matter how well or how poorly I performed in a given week, I was getting a paycheck. In real estate, that is not the case.”
But they gave themselves time to adjust without judgement, knowing that they were hard workers and dedicated learners.
“It’s scary to be new at something,” Westfahl admits. “I really like to know my craft and be good at it and not make any mistakes.” She says that for the first few months, she just observed others. “Then it came full circle after a year, where now I’m very confident in meetings,” she explains. “I was a very reserved, shy person. And now I’m a totally different person, and I love that.”
There’s no doubt you’ll struggle and mess up in those first few months of your new career. But remind yourself that while there’s a lot you don’t know—about the culture, about your role responsibilities, about industry lingo—there’s a lot you do know, as someone with years of experience in the workplace.
Lewin points out, “Every relationship I’ve ever built, every friendship and personal and professional connection I’ve ever made has been selling myself to someone else and having them buy it. And that’s what I do in real estate. I don’t sell apartments. I sell my knowledge, my expertise, and my help.”
He adds, “Believe that the skills and knowledge [and] experience you’ve built over the course of your career to this point has value and merit.” With this mindset, the adjustment period won’t seem so intimidating.
Pushing past your fears is hard, but it’s well worth it, all of these career changers say. In fact, making the switch gave each of them some sense of invincibility, in a way that’s both admirable and inspiring for anyone at any stage in their professional development. “If I did it in my mid-40s, I feel like anybody can do it,” Smith says about her pivot.
Westfahl adds, “I tested myself, I took a leap of faith, and it worked out it. Now I would not be scared if I saw something where I could build my career even further. I would feel more confident going into it than I ever have before, only because I did something that was so drastic.”
Photo of person on computer courtesy of Delmaine Donson/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author