Would You “Survive” A Career Change?

My friend, a highly-paid financial professional, often complains about her job. She doesn’t like the long hours, the difficult people, the office politics, and so forth. Usually, I just sit and listen to her, because it feels like she’s more interested in a sympathetic ear than anything else. But one day, I couldn’t help but suggest that, if she really dislikes her job so much, she consider what she really wants in a career and possibly even make a change.

She looked at me incredulously. “I’m focused on surviving right now,” she said. “I don’t have time to think about what I ‘really want.’”

I’m surprised at how many times I’ve heard professionals with incomes well into the six figures worry about their “survival” in the event of a career change. Generally, I suspect most of them could handle at least a few months of their current expenses even with no income at all. Some, for various reasons, are genuinely living from paycheck to paycheck—they may have student loans they need to repay, or maybe they just racked up large expenses leading the “high-powered professional” life. But even they, if they had to, could probably reduce their expenses enough to eat and have a place to live if they had to live on a reduced income for a while.

Why, then, do highly-paid professionals often phrase their concerns about career change in terms of their “survival”? Actually, I think their use of that word is appropriate, because it speaks to deeper truths about the way we see our careers. When we say “but if I change careers, I won’t survive,” we’re not actually concerned about the survival of our physical bodies. We’re not worried that we’re going to starve or have nowhere warm to sleep. We’re worried about the survival of the identities we’ve created for ourselves in our minds.

It’s no secret that, in our society, we tend to closely identify with our occupations. When someone asks what you “do” or what you “are,” I’ll bet you usually respond with your job description—“I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an engineer,” and so forth. Often, when a person loses their job or retires, you’ll hear them say they feel like they’ve “lost part of themselves,” or that they aren’t sure what they’re “good for” anymore. The way we tend to perceive our careers, it’s as if they’re limbs or organs of our bodies, and removing them would endanger our lives.

We can also get attached to others seeing us in certain ways based on our jobs, and to the prestige and material things those jobs bestow on us. If we have high-paying careers, for instance, we start seeing “wealthy” as part of our identities. If we have demanding jobs, we identify with being “hard-driving” and “no-nonsense.” If we have jobs with exposure to the public, we identify with being glamorous or “high-profile.” And so on.

This way of thinking about our careers is common, but it’s also problematic. When we feel like our careers are who we are, we naturally become consumed with fear of losing, or performing badly in, our jobs. We wake up in the early hours of the morning worrying that we made a mistake on a project. We’re afraid of change and innovation in doing our jobs, because rocking the boat presents a risk we can’t afford to take. If you totally identify with your career, of course, this way of thinking is perfectly logical—if you are your career, losing or changing that career would mean your annihilation.

While money isn’t everything, it’s interesting that the people who are most financially successful in our society seem to be those who are least closely identified with their careers. These are the entrepreneurs and business owners, whose incomes are based on the profits and losses of their businesses rather than steady salaries. Owning a business requires you to be willing to take the risk that the business will fail. If you tend to completely identify with the occupation you’re in, you’ll perceive yourself as a failure if your business fails, and thus you’ll probably be afraid to start one in the first place.

What, then, do you do if you want to make a career change, but your current job feels so embedded in your identity that you’re afraid to take the next step? The answer is to understand that you are not your career, and that you don’t need to completely identify with your career to lead a fulfilling life, but I’m not going to simply tell you that. I want you to experience that fact firsthand, on a physical level.

What I’ll recommend may sound a little metaphysical, but bear with me a moment and see if it gets results. Find a place where you can sit alone in silence with your eyes closed. Once you’ve done this, focus your attention on your hands, and allow yourself to feel the sensations arising in them. Perhaps you feel a warmth, a tingling, a prickly sensation, or something else. When you’ve done this for a little while, gradually bring your attention up your arms, across your torso, up your neck and into your head, and then down into your legs and feet. Notice how each part of your body feels when you place your full attention on it.

After doing this exercise a few times, you’ll likely experience feelings of peace and aliveness in your body, as if your body were suffused with an inner glow. When you’re feeling this sensation, you’re experiencing what you are at the most basic level—what we might call “energy,” “consciousness” or “life.” This is the energy of which you, and all other life forms in the universe, are composed. You’ve been made of this energy for as long as you’ve existed. No matter what happens in your life—no matter what job you do, what you accomplish, who you love, and what you own—you will always be, at the deepest level, this energy.

We start identifying with our circumstances in the world—our jobs, relationships, cars, and so forth—when we lose touch with this energy. Life starts to seem pointless when we forget what we really are, and we grasp for things in the world to give it meaning. Thankfully, the energy that we are is always there for us to reconnect with, and to give us peace when our lives seem busy or stressful. When you’re truly connected with your life energy, you understand at a deep level that no career change can ever threaten your survival, and you find the fear of the unknown that restricted you fading away.