Am I Too Old To Switch Careers?

Does this story feel familiar? You once had your heart set on getting that perfectly-chosen degree, pursued what you thought was the perfect major for yourself…

Esther Lee
Esther Lee
Sep 25, 2017
Min Read

Does this story feel familiar?

You once had your heart set on getting that perfectly-chosen degree, pursued what you thought was the perfect major for yourself, and then landed what seemed like the perfect job, only to discover — either immediately or after several years — that your career didn’t bring you the joy or sense of fulfillment you thought it would. At times (okay, maybe often) you actually dread going to work, you feel stuck, and find yourself fantasizing about doing something else.

“But what else can I do?”

If you have reached this crossroads, you can probably relate to this story. It’s also likely that the thought of whether to change careers feels overwhelming, and it might, understandably, spark avoidance and procrastination on taking that next step.

As a former assistant professor in creative writing, I can definitely remember feeling paralyzed by the thought of leaving my profession of thirteen years and, in spite of having a “successful” career, longing to do something else—something more creative, with more freedom and better work-life balance, and a chance to make a more direct impact.  So I switched to a new career in tech about two years ago (and in my late 30s, I might add!).

When I began this journey, I had lots of worries and questions: Where do I start? Am I marketable in something else? What do I know about tech or digital skills? What relevant skills do I have? Ugh, am I too old to do be doing this? 

“Will I look like a job hopper?”

Well, during my parents’ generation, people commonly believed — and sometimes still do — that job stability was first and foremost, and that working at the same job for as long as possible (till you retire, or die, whichever came first) was the way to go. 

But now — thankfully — we’re beginning to understand how career changing is actually good for us and often better for businesses too. Take, for instance, The Guardian article, “Why we don't change jobs enough--and why we should,” which outlines why it’s often to our benefit to be a risk taker when it comes to changing careers more often in life.

On a related note, did you know that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people currently hold, on average, at least 12  jobs during their lifetime, and that this number is expected to grow?

The reasons why we change  jobs or careers can range from wanting greater fulfillment or better pay, to needing more interesting work or overall career advancement. However, as Liz Ryan argues in her Forbes article, “Ten Reasons Successful People Change Jobs More Often,” “career hopping” shouldn’t be stigmatized, but instead, it should be heralded!

According to Ryan, career changing (at least every 3–5 years) is particularly great “if you want to grow your flame high and advance as fast as possible in your career,” and that switching offers “new experiences, new challenges and [the] range of muscle-building activities you will naturally encounter by changing jobs.” 

Notably, Ryan is a career changer herself — former opera singer-turned-founder and CEO of Human Workplace, plus author of Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve

Sara, who started coding when she was 11, made the leap from a path towards engineering to design and now heads curriculum and mentorship for Designlab.

At first, making such a huge decision to change careers can feel daunting. But often if we just take the time to clarify our reasons for making a switch, things can feel a lot less monumental. Meet Sara, head of curriculum and mentorship for Designlab, who took the time to clarify her goals and motivations. These then offered the inspiration and determination to take the risk of changing career paths:

I sat down with myself and wrote things down — the pros and cons of every path I could take and all of a sudden things became way more clear. I thought about where I wanted to see myself when I was 85… and what was I proud of? What was my story? I wanted freedom and so I started working remotely and freelancing. Traveling and working from anywhere — that’s the best thing ever.

Pretty inspiring, right?

“What about ‘imposter syndrome’? Will I ever be as good as the others? When will I feel like I’ve ‘made it’?”

Kate, who heads Career Services for Designlab, recounts the early feelings of what’s commonly called “imposter syndrome” as she made the transition from being a major in Biology (and later Journalism) to Design, especially since she had never taken an art class before: 

No one woke up one day with a goal of being a rocket scientist and in the same day flew to space. Career changes and learning skills take time and patience. No one is a superstar designer when they start. You’ll probably have imposter syndrome, but in the end, you get to make choices for yourself. It’s all up to you. If I hadn’t have taken the plunge, I would’ve missed out on what I feel is my true calling in life.

Andrew drew on his PhD in Philosophy for a new career in design and content.

Andrew, who works on content and design at Designlab, empathizes with career changers and shares about how his skills transferred to his new career:

I'd been weighing up what I ‘really wanted to do’ for so long that, once I'd made the decision to switch from academia to design, it ended up being much less difficult than I'd imagined. I'd thought that academia would be worlds away from design, but I'm still using pretty much all the things I gained in my previous field: writing, project and time management, people skills, teamwork, research, critical thinking... it turns out that all these things are as crucial for designers as they are for academics. My advice to anyone considering a switch is to list out all your skills and just notice how many of them already prepare you for your new career.

“But will I lose my sense of purpose or identity if I change careers?”

A good place for us to start is to question why we place so much darn pressure on ourselves to pick a single pursuit in the first place, and why our identities are so wrapped up in “what we do” for a living.

In her TED Talk, “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” Emilie Wapnick argues that this framework of the “narrowly focused life” is super limiting, and that people can have multiple true callings — and more than one career too! 

Wapnick refers to people (like herself) who have many interests and creative pursuits as ‘multipotentialites’. She says that being one isn’t just an excuse for having more than one passion, but that being able to draw from an array of skills and experiences offers many advantages. For instance, multipotentialites access many points of intersection between ideas, which spurs the innovation to tackle multidimensional problems.

Multipotentialites are also very adaptable and successful with rapid learning—“[they] go hard,” she says, are less hesitant to try new things, and can become proficient quickly. That said, multipotentialites are “rarely starting from scratch” and bring a lot of transferable skills to the table. 

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a multipotentialite, the good news is that stretching yourself to try something new can be, ultimately, healthy for you and your career. While taking this risk may feel daunting at first, here’s an illuminating quote by innovator and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, about his own unexpected change in his career: 

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

“You mentioned ‘transferable skills’—which ones do I have that will be most meaningful for a new career? 

When I began my own career shift two years ago and started exploring opportunities in tech, I was completely out of my element—I was a reluctant user of the latest and most popular apps, barely used social media, and friends had laughed when I finally started texting a few years prior (at which time, one friend joked that even her grandmother knew how to text)!

I didn’t know it at first, but I soon realized that my skillsets from teaching—especially with verbal and written communication, leadership, project management, and the ability to adapt to changing environments and audiences—were highly valued skills that savvy employers in tech appreciated as I dipped my toe into a whole new field and industry. 

Oftentimes, the most transferable skills we have are the ones that have come with time, valuable experience, and hard knocks—yes, through trial and error. In other words, they’re usually skills that can’t be learned quickly or easily, so being adept in these career skills that will help us stay competitive are usually sought after when you change careers too!

So, it’s probably not surprising to learn what the 21st-Century economy will need most, according to an article in Fast Company, are more “polymaths” (remember Wapnick’s multipotentialites?)—people who are versed in more than one area and have multiple skills that they love using. In other words, writes the author Jeff Goins,

Don’t get stuck in a single pursuit—create a body of work… May you embrace multiple mediums and become your own version of a renaissance man or woman. It just might be the most satisfying thing you do. 

If you still need convincing, check out this list of professions and how their respective skills transfer to a new career.

As a History major, Will draws from both his tech and non-tech backgrounds.

Will, who manages Designlab’s partnerships and sales (and is a currently a UX Academy student), shares about how his skills in sales and research transfered to nonprofits in surprising ways:

My career has always been based in sales, but one of my first jobs outside of college was working as a fundraiser for a large national nonprofit, and while I had never been in nonprofits before, I still used every bit of my sales knowledge to build donor relationships and present the value of our mission. Especially in a startup environment, diversity of skills is so important. When a company is still growing, coming from a non-tech background can be one of your biggest assets. 

“But is a career change worth the risk? Will I be happy?”

While the notion of “happiness” in one’s career may feel relatively subjective, Benjamin Todd, CEO and co-founder of 80,000 Hours— an organization that helps people find meaningful, high-impact careers— offers career advice in his TEDx talk, “To find work you love, don't follow your passion.”

He says that, instead of focusing too much on identifying your passion and then assuming it correlates with success and a fulfilling career, we should take an alternative approach:

...instead of asking what our own interests and passions are, we should be focusing much more on what we can do for other people….get good at something that genuinely helps people and makes the world a better place….It’s more true to say that we should focus on doing what’s valuable and that will lead to passion and a fulfilling career.

That said, according to the Forbes article, “The Pursuit Of Happiness In The Workplace,” we spend, on average, about 90,000 hours at work during our lifetime. So if you’re finding that you’re not happy at work — however you define that for yourself — isn’t it worth taking the risk to prioritize your happiness by making a change?

Madi, Designlab’s own Director of Operations, gave this advice about taking risks to try something new and offered this inspiring quote from The Artist’s Way: 

Madi made the leap from handling lead generation for a freelancing app to managing business operations.

Question: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn how to play the piano? 
Answer: The same age you will be if you don’t.

Madi adds that “anyone who wants to do anything should think about it in this context.” As a parent, Madi also recommends looking at yourself from a loved one’s perspective, especially children or other people who look up to you, because this can help you stay focused on making the career change. “I want my kids to see me investing in myself and being open to taking risks, because that is what I want them to do.” 

“Am I too old to switch careers?”

Last but not least, let’s come to the title of this blog post.

If you still think you’re too old to switch careers, try telling that to Barbara Beskind, a product designer for IDEO, one of the leading design firms in the world.

She also happens to be 92 years old.

As a child growing up during the Great Depression, she was inventive and designed a hobby horse made from old tires. From there, she went on to enlist in the Army and worked as an occupational therapist for over four decades. Then, three years ago— you guessed it — she took a risk and changed her career! 

Beskind’s advice? “Embrace change, and design for it.”

Still think you’re too old to switch careers? Prove yourself wrong and try Design 101. Learn the fundamentals and work with a design mentor to get yourself ready for a new direction.

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Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.