Career I Spent a Week Learning about Career Change

by Stacy Suaya | October 12, 2018

Last year, nearly half of all Americans were interested in a career change, and I was one of them.

I’d become fascinated with drought-resistant landscape architecture. I was working as a freelance writer but saw appealing promise in this emerging industry.

I stumbled upon the idea to “test drive” this new career path by taking a couple of classes at my local university. Later I would learn that this tactic is commonly recommended by career coaches, including Scott Anthony Barlow. In his podcast, Happen to Your Career, Barlow suggests experimenting with career change first rather than starting over.

I came across Barlow’s advice recently while I spent a week buckling down, gathering up every piece of info I could about how to successfully navigate a career change. Here's what I learned.

Pursue a passion

One of the key takeaways from my exploration seemed almost too romantic: do what you love. But I saw how it could really pay off. Take Cameron Barr, 33, a former corporate commodities broker from Los Angeles, CA. Ten years into the field, “I was really unhappy,” Barr says, despite earning what he considered a fantastic salary.

Barr began to flirt with the idea of shifting careers and exploring his passion for vintage watches by reading up on the timepiece business, and buying and selling watches in antique shops. After some exposure, he decided to quit his broker job and “put all his chips in” — which included withdrawing his 401(k) — to launch a new business. His leap led to what is now Craft and Tailored, a menswear accessories shop Barr owns.

“By resisting being your most authentic self because of fear, we are ensuring that we stay unhappy by default,” explains Barlow. Through Barr and Barlow's experiences, I learned that it's possible to do something that moves you for a living and be financially stable, too.

man in blue shirt with glasses and beard talk with his right hand in the air

Follow business trends

Recognizing and seizing on an economic opportunity, such as an emerging field, can also be a strong career-change driver. I learned that exploring reports by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great way to research what’s in demand.

But the indicators of what's promising in business could also come from elsewhere. David John Frenkil, 34, was in his first year as a lawyer representing energy investors when found himself repeatedly reading about solar energy needs in Africa. With his interest piqued, he wrote a business plan for a company he hoped to start — but then stuffed it in a drawer.

In October 2014, he visited Rwanda and saw the opportunity first-person. Six weeks later, Frenkil resigned from his Washington, DC, law firm, found investors in his network and built that company, which today supplies solar power to businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. He finds that the best part of his new job is the deep and meaningful relationships that he builds.

Consider your transferable skills

Barlow would say that Frenkil flexed his “transferable skills” — ones he's picked up over the years in previous jobs — in order to achieve something even greater. For example, when Frenkil was a lawyer, he learned how to structure transactions and negotiate agreements, and as a campaign manager, he experienced managing and motivating a team — all skills he needed for his new role.

As for me, my university degree was in graphic design; I had learned several transferable skills that could be applied to landscape architecture, such as sketching, using computer design programs and presenting my work professionally. Plus, because I graduated in a related field, some of my credits could have applied to a landscape design program.

Before you start taking on student debt or make other big moves, take stock of what you already know. "Almost 100% of people think they have to go back to school in order to change careers," says Barlow, "Most of the time, you don't."

Almost 100% of people think they have to go back to school in order to change careers. Most of the time, you don't.
End Quote

Determine career change risk

In addition to the "test drive" approach, Barlow preaches two other methods to mitigate risk: crunch every number possible, and talk with personal connections who are in the position you want to be in.

Moriah Rahamim, 25, did exactly this when she was considering whether to pivot from her career as a product manager in tech to a software engineer. First, she spoke to several connections that were already engineers. Rahamim then made a spreadsheet to calculate lost income, tuition costs, time spent interviewing and median salaries for the new field. Finally, she moved from New York City to San Francisco and went for it.

Of the outcome, Rahamim says “it has far exceeded my highest estimates.” After two months' worth of the interviewing, she had offers from several boldface companies and ended up settling in her top city: Seattle. Figuring out the best and worst case scenario can give you confidence and quash fears.

How to test out a new career

Here are a few ways you can dip a toe into a career change, without swimming in fear or debt:

Lend a hand

Offer to be a paid researcher or freelancer for the type of company you want to work for. For instance, if you want to be a copywriter, ask a friend if you can write blog posts for his or her company.

Leverage your relationships

Meet with friends or acquaintances in the field, or search job networking sites to find people in your field of interest, or look for a mutual connection and ask for an introduction. “Only one in five of the people we work with gets their job from a normal conventional channel like applying online or submitting a resume,” Barlow says.

Do your research

Use any pocket you have in your schedule to research — do a phone interview on your lunch break or read books and articles during your commute.

Get to class

Start with a single class to see if you actually like something. Barlow suggests online academies that offer single classes, and skill-sharing sites.

As for me, I took two classes and decided that landscape architecture wasn’t something I could see myself doing every day. It was a case in point for what’s great about “trying” a new career: you have the ability to opt out anytime. The experience even had other benefits: I cultivated a new interest and am happier than ever to be a writer.

woman with pony tail sitting with man with afro at a coffee shop table. They have two white mugs in front of them
Stacy Suaya

hopes to incorporate the landscaping knowledge she gained into an article one day. The Los Angeles, CA-based writer's work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, C Magazine and Robb Report.