Joseph Liu is a speaker, career change strategist, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast featuring stories of career reinvention.
As much as I don’t prefer my emotions, motivations or outlook to be driven by others, the people around me do have an impact on how I’m feeling about my circumstances and what I believe is possible for my future. Whenever I’ve gone through a major career change or life transition, I’ve found certain types of people to be especially helpful during these times of change.
When you’re under pressure to quickly land a new job or manage a whole new set of responsibilities once you land that job, being around the right people during this transition can make the difference between you feeling energized or deflated. The difference between you feeling empowered to explore something new or being content with the status quo. The difference between staying motivated when you feel like giving up or just throwing in the towel.
Here are the three people I’ve found to be especially indispensable during times of major career change.
1. Someone who’s doing the work you hope to do
The entrepreneur Jim Rohn famously said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I’ve found this to be true across all domains of my career—not only my actual work, but also my ways of working, my career lifestyle, and my approach to work-life balance. So I always try to surround myself with the people whom I admire, professionals deeply satisfied with their work, and individuals who are further along in their careers than I.
During every single successful career change I’ve made, I started my journey by connecting with people doing the work I had hoped to eventually do myself. For example, when I shifted from consulting to brand management during business school, I grabbed every opportunity to speak with brand managers working in a range of industries to see what resonated with me. When I moved from San Francisco to London, I first reached out to alumni, fellow marketers, and friends of friends living in London to understand how to make the move. These conversations not only provided me with a better sense of what I was getting into but also a realistic roadmap of what it would take to break into my target industry.
Mentors also offer a useful reality check on your aspirations. For example, when I was first thinking about pursuing a career in professional coaching, one successful career coach I connected with recommended I first invest significant time gaining some additional professional experience in the corporate world before leaping into coaching. That turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I received, and the experience I eventually gained as a corporate marketer has both informed my current work as a career change consultant and also reinforced my credibility.
2. A professional you admire with an unconventional career path
Your beliefs drive your actions. Most people I know who decide to make a career change do so because they believe their situation isn’t as good as it gets. They believe there must be a better way to make use of their talents and skills. They believe there’s still room to feel more fulfilled by their work.
However, one of the biggest challenges in making a career change is wondering whether these beliefs are normal. Whether a job should simply just be a job. Whether following a more linear, conventional career path would be smoother and more realistic. Whether you should just appreciate what you have already, especially when your colleagues seem to be satisfied with what they have—at least on the surface.
Everyone’s career path is unique. There’s no one “right” way to go about your career. With that said, the reality is that business and hiring conventions tend to favor candidates who have a more straightforward narrative that doesn’t take a lot of extra explaining. So if you’ve decided to step off the beaten path, connecting with people who have also taken unconventional steps in their careers can help remind you that what you’re seeking is possible. They can remind you that the difficulties you’re running into are completely normal because career change by its very nature is difficult.
Fellow career changers can provide you with the reassurance that you’re not alone, that what you’re doing is actually acceptable. And reassurance is sometimes all you need to help you get through the more challenging times during a transition when you feel like giving up.
3. A good friend who doesn’t work in your industry
Whenever I’ve made decisions to walk away from one career to pursue another, there always seem to be a lot of people within the industry I’m leaving behind who simply don’t understand what I’m doing.
For example, when I resigned from medical school to pursue business, I remember having conversations with fellow students and faculty explaining my motivations to leave medicine behind. Instead of receiving much-needed affirmations, I instead heard criticism after criticism of my decision that made me feel like I was crazy to walk away. When I thought about walking away from a successful career in marketing to start my own career consultancy, the vast majority of my industry colleagues seemed completely confused by my move.
Working in any environment for a significant period of time inevitably molds you to think a certain way, often in ways you don’t fully realize at the time. During the many years I worked as a brand marketer in the corporate world, I began to measure my success by the success of our marketing campaigns. I started to define my personal performance based on my annual performance reviews. I gauged my professional potential by how senior stakeholders saw my potential within the company.
We can all fall into the trap of being singularly focused on landing that next promotion, having a certain word in our job title, or achieving a certain salary we’ve defined as the threshold for success. I certainly have.
That’s why reconnecting with a good friend outside your industry who plays by a different set of rules can help you gain a fresh perspective on whether you’re focused on what truly matters to you.
I can think back to many conversations with good friends that helped reground me in my true aspirations. A college buddy reminded me I’d always been interested in human behavior when I was thinking about going into marketing, which is basically an industry focused on human behavior in the marketplace. A lifelong friend reminded me that I’ve always gravitated toward activities focused on helping people 1-on-1 when I was considering professional coaching.
A good friend can give you a fresh outside perspective, remind you of who you used to be when you were happier and more energized, and help you sense-check whether the move you’re considering is in line with the person you’ve always talked about becoming.
The right people can catalyze your change
Navigating a career change is a very personal journey, and as someone who’s not always great at putting my pride aside, I sometimes feel like I have to figure it all out on my own. I’m not someone who’s especially driven by other’s opinions anyway, so I have this tendency to look inward instead of outward during times of career confusion.
With that said, during transitional, confusing times in my career, when I’ve made a point to reach out to a few select individuals like those mentioned here, clarity often comes more quickly to me.
You have to be selective about whom you choose to involve though. More often than not, people with more conventional careers may critique you and make you question whether you’re doing the right thing. Even people like well-meaning family members who care a lot about you may influence you in ways that don’t serve your desired career agenda.
However, just one conversation with the right person can really help you become more confident in your path you’re considering. And this confidence can help you gain the courage needed to make a brave leap that sends your career in a much more rewarding direction when you need it most.