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Why We Wind Up On The Wrong Career Path And What To Do About It

This article originally appeared on CareerBuilder.com.

You don’t have to look very far to find people who’re trapped in the wrong job or profession. Carpenters who should have been accountants. Accountants who should have been horticulturists. Horticulturists who should have opened an animal shelter.

Having worked with career changers for nearly a decade, I’ve found there are four reasons why people get, or stay, on the wrong career path. You’ll soon see that the obvious reason – money – didn’t make the list. That’s because, unless you are truly at the subsistence level, I find that money is all too often an excuse used to mask deeper issues. Let’s take a closer look at what some of those issues might be.

1. Listening to Your Head and not Your Heart

Billy Wilder once said, “Trust your instincts. Your mistakes might as well be your own instead of someone else’s.” Instinct speaks to us in many forms. Sometimes it’s an unsettling flutter in the solar plexus warning you that something isn’t quite right here. Other times instinct whispers encouragingly in your ear, “Go this way.” And sometimes instinct makes itself known as an unmistakable and heart-pounding, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I learned the hard way about ignoring these internal yellow, green, and red lights. It was 1993 and I was commuting 90 miles a day to my corporate job when a marketing job came up in a smaller company with half the commute. I had a good interview with the Vice President of Sales to whom the position reported.

He seemed like a decent enough guy, confident and amiable in that way people in sales often are. A week later we were on the phone negotiating my salary. When I tried to discuss a higher salary his whole demeanor abruptly changed. His voice took on a kind of annoyed edginess that teetered on rude.

A flag went up immediately. Instinct said, “There’s something not quite right about this guy.” After a sleepless night I did what a lot of people do when money or fear or both are involved: I let my rational mind shout down my wiser inner voice. “It’s still a great salary.” “The benefits are good.” “It’s so much closer to home.” “He was probably just having a bad day.”

Of course my instincts were right. My new boss turned out to be an egotistical fist pounder who could be charming and rational one minute and a raging bull the next. This experience taught me a valuable but painful lesson about instinct. More often than not, the heart has a far more sophisticated early warning system than does the head.

2. Turning Other People’s Dreams into Your Own

Whenever I do a career consultation my client’s are assigned the task of putting together a list of things they love to do. I recently had the pleasure of working with an engaging young engineer from Portland, Oregon named Manish. It was clear from the beginning that Manish was struggling to come up with his list. I think a lot of the problem had to do with the fact that he’s spent years living someone else’s dream. But I’ll let Manish tell you his story in his own words:

“When I was young and unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I asked my dad ‘What would be a good job to have when I grow up?’ He told me, ‘an engineer.’ I didn’t really know what an engineer did, but I figured I could do it. I made it a goal of mine to become an Engineer and made a point to take classes in school that would prepare me for this line of work.

I was enrolled in an engineering prep class in high school, and one day we got to visit a local universities engineering department. From that point on, I knew that the engineering field was not for me, but did not listen to my inner-voice and continued towards my goal. In fact, I found myself more curious about the people around me than anything else. I found myself almost distracted by everyday behavior and didn’t pay much attention to the engineering department tour. More on this interest of mine in a minute…

While in high school, I spent a lot of time with my older brother of 7 years in his garage working on, and mainly playing with, cars, motorcycles, boats, etc. Now I can’t remember if it was because of my lack of technical savvy or my continual rambling on about ‘psychological stuff,’ but my brother would interrupt me now and again by saying, ‘Are you sure you want to be an engineer? You should go into Psychology.’ I never took him serious, or anyone else who told me this, because I thought every other career was less than being an engineer. So without putting any thought to it, I continued towards my goal.

When I entered college and signed up for my engineering coursework, I was faced with the reality of engineering not being very interesting to me within the first term. To top it off, I wasn’t very good at it either. Still determined to achieve my goal, I told myself I can’t give up (so stubborn of me). So I ended up in a field similar to engineering called Safety Engineering or Occupational Health and Safety.

Safety had some technical stuff to it, but it also had some behavioral stuff to it. I thought I had hit the jackpot… but to make a long story short, I hadn’t. Safety was 10% fun and 90% not. I’ve been in the field for a little over six years now and I’m ready to make the jump. Funny thing is, my wife says that I’ve been talking about getting into school counseling or any other field since I started in my first job out of college. I wonder why I never listened to myself…until now :)”

Manish is certainly not alone in turning a deaf ear to one’s inner calling. Classrooms and professions are filled with people who are living someone else’s dreams. That’s because it’s not the major, or the job, or the career path itself that’s so hard to let go of. What’s hard to give up is other people’s approval – especially if they happen to be people you love and respect. Walking away from a career, even one you know deep inside is all wrong for you, means risking that esteem. As Manish is learning though, it’s never too late to start listening to the one person who knows more than anyone else about your true gifts and interests – you!

We’ve all received – and perhaps continue to receive – a lot of subtle, (and perhaps not so subtle) messages about what we should “be” work-wise. But outside pressure isn’t the only reason Manish and a lot of other people push on in dogged pursuit of a profession for which there is little real interest. That leads us to two more closely related reasons why otherwise intelligent people get and stay on the wrong career path.

3. Not Being Willing to Admit you Made a Mistake

As Manish’s story also demonstrates, the real pressure that keeps us on the wrong path is self-generated. At some point along the way, Manish shifted from fulfilling his father’s notion of the ideal profession to not wanting to give up on what had become a personal mission. Despite his brother’s attempts to point Manish toward the right road, he opted to continue on like a driver who stubbornly refuses to admit he’s lost.

The good news is Manish has wisely decided it’s time to pull over to ask for directions and is now heading toward his true gifts. The bad news is there are far too many other lost drivers on the highway of life who are still unwillingness to admit they’re going the wrong way.

Despite the occasional story about a physician who left to become a florist or an attorney turned singer, the overwhelming majority of unhappy people choose to stay miserably stuck largely out of pride. For a lot of people it’s a lot easier to keep that lousy job than to stand up and admit to the world that they zigged when they should have zagged.

4. Not Wanting to “Waste” the Degree

Then there are those who really did love their chosen career – at least in the beginning. But over time, they and their occupation, well, they just grew apart. If this sounds familiar, chances are what keeps you on the wrong path is, just like a relationship gone bad, it’s hard to walk away from a career into which you’ve put so much time and effort to say nothing of the financial investment.

Take my friend Donna. After earning her master’s degree in social work some fifteen years ago, she went into private practice as a family therapist. For the first five or so years Donna got a lot of satisfaction out of helping others. For the last ten though, her work has felt more like a burden. So what keeps her there? It’s simple. Donna doesn’t want to “waste” the degree.

Now I know it’s not easy to turn your back on an established career, especially if it’s one that pays well, has some prestige associated with it, or required earning some kind of advanced degree. And yet, think about the logic here. If you identify with Donna’s dilemma what you’re really telling yourself is. “I’ve wasting the last 10 years of my life so I might as well throw away the next 20 as well. To hell with my true gifts, I’ve got more suffering to do”

John Powell once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” If you identify with any (or all) of the four reasons for getting and staying on the wrong career path, don’t waste time despairing. Instead learn and then act.

The fact of the matter is we all get lost from time to time. That’s life. The danger comes when we fail to heed the road signs and thus remain stuck in the breakdown lane. I have an abiding belief that everything in life happens for a reason. The key is to find the lessons.

Even my job with the boss from hell offered invaluable lessons and experiences. In addition to getting to travel the country, I learned in no uncertain terms to trust my instincts. That job was also just the catalyst I needed to make my final exit from the j-o-b world. And, as importantly, it introduced me to meet people who’ve been integral to helping me succeed as a solo entrepreneur.

What should you do if you find yourself on the wrong career path? We’ll, if you’re living with the consequences of having long ignored your better instincts, get a pen and paper, find some quiet space, and put your listening ears on. Then write down everything that little voice has been trying to tell you but this time without censor or rationalization.

If you’ve been living someone else’s dream then take a good look at what’s really going on. Some questions you might want to ask yourself are: What does having other people’s approval or meeting someone else’s needs help me avoid or get? What price am I paying for this approval? Does the cost outweigh the benefits? If so, it’s time to start exploring your own dreams.

If you’re hanging onto a job or career because of all the time and money you’ve invested then the first thing you’ll want to do is to let yourself get close to your fear. I’m not talking about the fear of letting the world know you made a mistake or financial angst. What I’m talking about is getting in touch with the one thing that should really scare the heck out of you – namely, never getting to experience what your life would be like if you pursued your true gifts and passions.

Once you’ve let that little reality sink in, sit down and write a “Dear John” letter to your past love. Tell your career that while it has been a good and faithful partner for some time that you have simply fallen out of love. It will understand. Then pick up a paintbrush, look into culinary school, or otherwise start courting your new love interests.

It’s easy to find yourself on the wrong career track. When that happens, the key is to stay alert for warning lights, watch for the signposts along the way, learn from those inevitable detours, ask for directions, and then start slowly inching your way onto that big expansive highway called Your Life! As George Bernard Shaw once observed, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

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