Career Shifts, Confidence & Fear
How do we know what we want to do with our career? When should we be making a change? How do we figure out what we need and what’s most important to us? We sipped coffee with Professional Development Coach, Amy Saltsman, to discuss career shifts, finding confidence, and facing fear. *Helpful tools, tips and resources included!*
Hi Amy! How did you come to be a Professional Coach?
Before I became a coach, I began my career in marketing. I’d decided that was what I needed to do and pigeon-holed myself into that plane. But I was never happy. There were times when it was good, or I liked the project I was working on, but at the end of the day I’d come home, mentally and physically exhausted, and often crying (I worked in fashion and fashion people can be notoriously difficult, to say the least).
I started to question what I was doing. I was hesitant to start over: I’d worked so far to get where I am, how could I possibly begin again? But when I stopped to think about that statement that I was repeating over and over to myself, I started to question it. What am I actually working towards? Yes, I’d checked off all the boxes on this imaginary list of what success looked like, but I was miserable.
When I thought five or ten years in the future, I could see I’d have all these boxes checked, but I’d still feel like this. I knew I had to make a change. Getting another job in marketing wasn’t going to change anything. I had to really think about what I liked to do and what I got excited about. I started by looking at what I liked about my current job. There had to be a reason I’d done it for 10 years! If I hated every part of it, I wouldn’t have carried on.
The things I loved most were the people I met and the connections I made. I studied psychology in undergrad, so I thought “Okay! It’s about people, connections, and interactions.” I started there and began exploring. I talked to people who did different psychology, mental health, personal development, or personal growth work. The easy solution I saw was to go back to school and become a therapist. But going back to school for five years was a really big commitment, and that was scary for me too. I’d be investing in a gamble. I spoke to more people and learned that yes, the answer may be going back to school, but first I needed to ask myself what I wanted to learn. What was the purpose? What was the end goal? I didn’t know if I wanted to be a therapist, so why would I start applying for a therapy program? It didn’t make sense.
Through my informational interview process, I was put in touch with a life coach. Something lit up in me when I found out what coaching was. I’d been in therapy on and off for much of my life, and I felt that there was always something missing: you have these deep insights into why you make the decisions you make, but then what? How do you create action from those insights? How do you use those actions to form the life you want? That changed everything for me. I immediately put all my energy into meeting different coaches, asking what they did and what it looked like.
From there, I figured out what program I was going to do and ended up in a program meant for professionals (I was working the whole time I did it). I got a new job when I was about to start the program, and made my limitations and priorities very clear to them before I accepted the role. If I didn’t think the job would give me the space to focus on the program as much as I wanted to, I wouldn’t have taken it. It’s something I learned from coaching: there’s so much power in being very clear about what you need, and making decisions from that place is easier because you know what you want and how to support it.
Right before I started the coaching program I got engaged, so I was planning a wedding, working, and going to school. It all culminated in this: I finished my program, one week later I got married, I left for my honeymoon, I got back two weeks later, I quit my job the next day, and then I started my own business. At the time it felt natural—it was just what I had to do. Looking back I think “Oh my god! I changed the course of my life in a month!”
What does success mean to you?
Success is self-defined. I’ve come to learn that. Checking off those boxes in my previous job was someone else’s version of success. Now I feel successful on my own terms. I get to plan my own schedule. I get to work when I want to and not when I don’t. I get to design my own lifestyle. To me, that freedom is a success. I probably work more now than before, but I do it on my own terms. Freedom is one of my core values and is something I need to have in my life. Some people feel very excited by what they do, but they know they don’t have the freedom to make the decisions, and they’re okay with that. It comes down to want your life to look like, not what you think you want your life to look like, or what you think other people want your life to look like. You have to build a life you want to live. I had to learn what I was willing to let go of in order to create my own success.
If we want to make a career change, how we can move confidently into the inevitable fear?
Feeling fear is totally normal, and in fact, sometimes it’s necessary to indicate danger. What happens after we sense danger—real or imagined—is often out of our control. Our sympathetic nervous system activates and our fight or flight reflex kicks in. This is super important if you’re walking home by yourself at night and a little voice in the back of your head says ”grab your keys” or “hop in a taxi” (ladies, you know what I’m talking about), but that fear reflex is often not based in reality and our bodies don’t know it. Our systems are hard-wired to keep us safe at all costs. This means we often don’t like being out of our comfort zone, and we don’t like change. So, what do you do? I often ask my clients: “What is pulling rank?” We can feel dissonance and discomfort when our needs are in conflict; eventually we have to make a choice or we will remain stuck. I help my clients determine what they need in that moment. From there we can determine what other needs might have to take a step back or be reprioritized for the time being. Often, this means asking our need for safety (aka our fears) to take a back seat while we prioritize our need for change or growth.
When I was quitting the safety of my marketing job, I was terrified. I wasn’t going to get that paycheck every two weeks. I didn’t know exactly what my future looked like. I couldn’t plan for it. I knew I could look at it as having unlimited earning potential and flexibility, but I was still scared. Fear was pulling rank and I was exhausted by it. I knew I wanted to make a change but my decisions were all coming from fear.
Fear can show up in many ways. For me there were two big ones: financial security and judgement i.e. not having enough money to survive and not being accepted by my friends/family/community. The latter was particularly challenging for me because I’m driven by connection. It wasn’t until I stepped back and looked at the big picture that I realized my desire to fit in and be liked was driving my decisions and costing me a happy, fulfilling career. This insight gave me the power to change how I made decisions. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that my fear disappeared, it just meant that every day I would take action (however big or small) despite the fear.
So my advice is to look at where your decisions are coming from and what the cost of those decisions are. Is your desire to be liked and to fit in reason enough to not ask for the promotion you deserve? Is your fear of financial ruin worth not going back to school or starting the company you’ve been journaling about for years? Also, be honest with yourself. If right now, you really need to focus on self-care and time to tend to yourself, awesome! Maybe admitting this to yourself will allow you to feel less guilty about putting your side hustle on hold for the time being.
Can you elaborate with some examples?
Using the idea of pulling rank is an easy way to wrap your head around things. If you’re scared to quit your job, I don’t blame you—it’s hard to sit in the unknown. I knew that I was leaving my job because I wanted to do this other thing. But there’s never a script. I have a friend who just quit her job and doesn’t have anything lined up. You’re always told that’s a no-go. But for her, she’s so emotionally drained that there’s no way she could move into another role from where she was. There’s too much turmoil. She knew she had to get some headspace. She was hesitant to quit, but in asking what was pulling rank, the answer was that she really needed to do something different, and that means making this hard decision, even though it may not be what society wants.
How can we do this on our own?
It’s often not so straightforward. When trying to figure out what’s pulling rank, it’s not choosing between one “good” thing and one “bad” one. For me, I wanted acceptance and career fulfillment, both of these things are desirable, but at that moment in time, one was the cost of the other and it was having negative effects on my life. Maybe you want acceptance, security, room to grow? These things aren’t bad things to want, but if you are feeling conflict, it might be worth looking at what needs to take priority right now. It also doesn’t mean it has to take priority forever. You can make one decision now, do it, and then a month from now, you’ll decide something else is pulling rank, and re-prioritize from there.
What are some common pitfalls you see that fear causes?
People feel like if they make one decision, it needs to be the decision for the rest of their life. I think this often comes back to the idea of wanting to be accepted. You want to fit in and you want people to see you in a certain way. I believe the underlying fear here is that when you deviate from the “norm” people have to readjust their view of you, and you might not “fit in” the same way anymore. This can be really paralyzing, making us feel sick about every decision we make, weighing the potential fallout for every move. When we try to control how the world sees us, we don’t have room to try new things or learn something new because that decision might look like an outlier. But what if you could look at it differently? What if this decision isn’t an outlier but instead, it’s a decision that makes sense to you in that moment? Can you image all the things you’d learn about if you saw it that way? You can change your mind again later. That’s okay, too!
I also find a lot of my clients struggle with wanting to be perfect. I work with my clients on the difference between good and perfect. I’ll ask: “Do you know anyone who’s perfect?” No. Because nobody is. You can do a lot of different things with that—why would you want to be perfect? People do things that are really interesting, which not everyone agrees with all the time, and that’s okay. Everything and everyone has to have an element of uniqueness to stand out.
Another common pitfall is wanting to be liked. If you want everyone to like you, ask yourself why. To be a unique person, it’s a fact that not everyone’s going to like you. We tend to focus too much on getting the approval we need so we can feel good about our place in society. I found this really hard—I’d done a 180 in my career and was concerned about what my friends were going to think of me, and how they were going to categorize me in their brain as this “new” person. There are some people in my life that don’t really understand what I do now, and they don’t really care either. It’s too much for them to shift the perspective they had of me. I had to come to terms with that, and trust that that’s okay. Maybe those people won’t ask me how my new work is going, and that’s okay too. The people who are interested will ask, and those who aren’t, won’t. I think that coming to terms with that was honestly one of the hardest parts of my career transition. I had to let go of needing to be accepted, and trust in my own excitement about what I was doing.
Where do you suggest we start?
I often tell people to look for the thing they’re naturally inclined to do, not the thing they’re forcing themself to do.
For fear of sounding too broad, start with some honest soul-searching to discover what it is you truly want to do and why. What is that underlying mission or passion (I use that word hesitantly because I think it’s become a band-aid word)? Nobody has one passion. People have things that they care about because those things align with their values. You can have a lot of core passions and there are a lot of things you can do.
Make some lists: What are you most excited about right now and why? What do you love about your current job? What do you love to do with your free time? What are your core values? What needs do you have right now that are being met (and how are they being met?)? And what needs do you have that are unmet? *A fun idea would be to ask a friend to read your unmet needs aloud to you and do word association as a way to discover how the need could be met.* Pay attention to overlaps in these lists. See what words, ideas, activities, people etc. stick out. It’s a great place to start.
Working with a skilled coach can be really helpful at this stage too because we are trained to help you discover your path and be your partner as you take the steps to build the career and life you desire.
Building confidence is a key step in overcoming fear. So, once you have an idea of a direction (or a few directions you could go), try different things out to start to build your confidence. Try finding other people that do that thing and imagine yourself doing it too (build vicarious confidence—if others can do it, so can I). Or, look for evidence in your world that you’ve already done something similar to the thing you want to do, which can prove to yourself that you can do this as well (building evidence-based confidence).
*I want to make an important note here that patience is key throughout this. I know from my own experience that it is frustrating beyond belief to realize you want to make a change but have no idea what that change should be. Or how infuriating it can be to figure out what you want to do and yet it feels so far out of reach that it seems impossible. Patience is key. It allows you the space to go at your own pace, take small actions, and build as you go. You cannot build on successes you don’t acknowledge. It’s important to acknowledge how big each step is, and to celebrate your patience by remembering that you’re exactly where you need to be.
Are there any other tools you recommend?
Overcoming fear seems to be a theme to our conversation today. It makes me think of a challenge I love to give my clients. It’s called the 21 fears challenge. Here’s how you play: make a list of 21 things you’re afraid to do. To be clear, it’s not 21 things you’re afraid of i.e. it’s not “I’m afraid of cats.” It’s “I’m afraid to pet a cat.” It can be anything you’re afraid to do, from every aspect of your life i.e. I’m afraid to speak up in a meeting I’m afraid to cook dinner for my boyfriend, etc. Go through that list with a friend and identify a couple of things that are stretching you outside your confidence zone, anywhere from 2-5 things, and commit to doing them in a set amount of time, maybe 2 weeks or a month. Try not to pick the outlier that’s going to totally freak you out, I promise you, it’ll have the opposite effect you’re going for and you won’t end up doing them. The goal here is to prove to yourself that you can do it and it won’t kill you. You might even learn that it wasn’t so bad! Building this courage can help you find the confidence needed so that when it comes time to do the bigger thing, it’s less scary. Making transformational change in your life isn’t an overnight process, it’s about making process goals, rather than just a big end goal.
How can we make sure we’re forging our own path rather than emulating someone else’s?
This is one of the hardest parts. How do I not compare myself to other people? My mind often goes down the path of “Oh, if only I’d been a coach for longer.” “Why am I not where that person is?”
My best advice is to work with a coach yourself! It’s different for everybody. I work with my own coach on that. I’ve learned that I need to continue to tell myself that I’m exactly where I need to be right now, and that other person is exactly where they need to be. My journey can only be mine because there’s only one of me. And while maybe I won’t do the thing that they’re doing, which I wish I was doing, I will do something else. We’re all in our own heads. We don’t know if people are looking at us and saying “If only!” All I can keep doing is those process goals.
I try to do something every day that I’m proud of. As long as I feel that I’m doing something to learn and better myself, then I can let go of what other people are doing. It’s different for everybody. For me, a new idea, a new thought, that simple notion of education, even if it’s one small idea, can totally change my perspective on how I feel about what other people are doing.
We get really stuck in our beliefs. “I believe that someone is doing something better than me.” “I believe that person is doing something I can’t do because they’re doing it.” I try to challenge those beliefs with my clients. What’s another way you can look at it? Maybe you don’t actually want to do that thing. You could do a different version of it. You could connect with them and see if they want to partner on something else. If you can change the way you see the world, your world changes. All you have to do is change one thought, and everything can be different. Yes, it’s easier said than done. Working with a coach will help you, because a coach can show you where to dig in to that different idea, or that different mindset. But the best start is just to say, what’s another way I can view this?
Where do you recommend we find a coach?
There are lots of resources out there to find a coach. You can ask friends if they have recommendations, you can go to the International Coach Federation website, you can ask your HR if they offer coaching as a benefit and if so, do they have a list of coaches they recommend. (Shameless plug alert!) I am a coach, you can get in touch with me! I think fit is really important so I’m also happy to offer referrals and recommendations of other coaches too. My contact information is here.
As a special bonus for She’s Not Sorry readers, I’m happy to offer three of you a complimentary 90-minute session with me. Use this article as a referral on my website and I’ll honor the offer to the first three people who get in touch!
What are you not sorry for?
I’m not sorry for starting over. I needed to make a change. I was living my life for what other people thought it should look like, and now I invite joy into my life everyday. I was really unhappy and now I’m happy. I’m not sorry for that.