Are You “Throwing It All Away”?

I’m back today to explode yet another job transition myth: the fear that, if you change your career field, you’ll be “throwing away” all the skills, experience and goodwill you’ve built up in your current field. If you’re considering making a change, you’re likely hearing this concern from people in your life. I certainly heard plenty of it when I told people I was going to leave the legal profession and become a success coach and author. “Your law degree and all the skills you’ve built up will go to waste,” people told me. “You’ll have nothing to show for the years you spent as a lawyer.”

The idea that, now that I’ve made a career change, I’ve “wasted” or “have nothing to show for” the portion of my life I spent in my old job is frightening at first glance. However, for several reasons, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Take a look at the observations I make below and see if they assuage any of your fears about making the change you want.

First, my old job and my legal credentials give me credibility when I’m pursuing and dealing with coaching clients. It wouldn’t be believable for me to call myself a “success coach” if I hadn’t succeeded at something, i.e., law, before entering my present field.

Second, I’ve met potential clients through my law connections. Fortunately for me, attorneys as a group think about career changes often, and thus a number of them use my services.

Third, I was well-compensated in my old job, and I saved plenty of money. I used this money to fund my coaching business in its initial stages. If I hadn’t been a lawyer before, this financing wouldn’t have been available to me.

Fourth, being a lawyer greatly improved my writing. As an attorney, I had to churn out high-quality written work quickly. And, although the law can be complicated and murky, my writing style needed to be simple and precise. Today, I’m using that ability to write prolifically.

Fifth, lawyers need to be highly organized to be effective. They must keep detailed and accurate records, and be able to present facts and arguments in a structured fashion. Because I became an organized thinker as a lawyer, my clients today appreciate the logical, structured approach I bring to helping them achieve their goals.

Sixth, I built character in doing my old job. I became accustomed to working long hours, calmly accepting criticism and severe time pressure, dealing constructively with conflict, and so forth. The calm, focus and perseverance I developed as a lawyer will benefit me in anything I do.

As you can see, I’m still benefiting from many skills and character traits that I acquired in my old job and professional training. If you give serious thought to the skills and attributes likely to carry over from your current job into the career you want, I think you’ll come up with a similarly long list.

Why, then, are people often so negative and discouraging to someone contemplating a career change? At its root, I believe this negativity stems from people’s simple fear of risk-taking and the unknown. Of course, people won’t admit this is their real reason for discouraging you. Instead, they’ll usually offer three basic arguments for why you shouldn’t make the switch. None of these, however, holds water.

First, people—particularly those who have worked in 9-to-5 corporate jobs all their lives—tend to assume that, in any new career, you’ve got to start at the bottom of a large hierarchy and gradually work your way up. Thus, in their view, you’ll basically have to climb the same ladder from scratch all over again if you change careers.

If you’re starting your own business and will be the boss from the get-go, this argument clearly doesn’t apply to you. But suppose you’re thinking of entering a more conventional corporate job. Likely, your new employer will take your experience in your previous field into account. When lawyers I knew would leave their firms and go into investment banking or consulting, for instance, their new employers would consider their seniority and qualifications when determining their titles and salaries.

Second, if you have specialized training such as a law or accounting degree, people will say you’re throwing away the value of that training because you won’t be able to employ it in another field. However, as I pointed out, the character, organization, writing skills and contacts you acquired in your old job will likely be useful anywhere.

Third, people typically fear that, if you leave your old job, you’ll be perceived in the future as lacking the stamina to stay in a position for the long haul. The people who raised this concern in my case, I noticed, were unfamiliar with the job market I was in. In my experience, particularly if you’re a skilled professional, you’re expected to be mobile. For instance, most of the lawyers I know who have a few years of experience have successfully changed firms or switched fields at least once in their professional careers.

If you’re thinking of making a career change, don’t let exaggerated fears of “throwing it all away” deter you. You’ll take the most important things you gained from your old job—your skills and character—with you into your new field.