A stressed man at work. (Courtesy)

"I know this isn't working for me. But do I stay, leave or do I change direction?"

When my mentor and career coach released her book on making career breakthroughs, she cited this as one of the most often asked questions from her clients.

Aafter the 9/11 attacks, Kathy Caprino found herself facing a particularly brutal layoff. The industry she was working in, in New York, was directly affected by the economic aftermath of the terrorist attacks and organisations were in a race to fix the bottom line.

So she did what we sometimes do when facing a markedly traumatising period in our careers, she swung in the opposite direction, switching from vice president of a large publishing house to a therapist.

Over the next decade, Kathy earned her second degree and practiced marriage and family therapy until she realized that the role of therapist was not for her.

The Science of Engagement


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According to research done by Gallup Inc., a data driven performance Management Company, only a third of Gen X (those born in the late 70s to early 80s) are engaged and excited at work.

The rest 'show up, get their paycheck and do the minimum required' Gallup's chief scientist, Jim Harter says. Furthermore, 20 per cent belong in the actively disengaged category.

Further research shows that compared to engaged employees, actively disengaged personnel of all ages are more likely to experience physical pain, higher levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) and are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression.

And while all generations may be unhappy at work, the closer they are to mid-life and the more educated they are, the more discontentment employees experience as they battle feeling trapped in their careers.

The Pendulum Effect

Stories of the banker who quit her 20-year-career to become a chef, a lawyer who left law practice to make furniture – these stories scream successful career shift. But according to research published by Kathy, a radical move may not always be the way to go.

When we undergo intensely scarring professional experiences – a hostile workplace, toxic bosses or a brutal layoff – our immediate reflex is to distance ourselves from anything that could remind us or that resembles our previous experience, a natural fight/flight response from our brain.

This is what was coined the 'Pendulum Effect'.

According to Hannes, an economist at the University of Zurich, as young people, we overestimate our future happiness, and are more likely to experience disappointment as we land in careers that we once thought were the stuff our dreams are made of. The key is to keep in mind that successful career shifts are less dramatic than our fantasies – certainly not the banker turned chef type.

What, then, comprises a successful career shift?

A sense of purpose

According to a 2016 survey by Copenhagen's Happiness Research Institute that interviewed 2,600 individuals from every sector and role, a sense of purpose was ranked as the number one source of professional contentment, followed by a far off second 'having a high quality manager'.

Finding meaning for mid-career professionals has in fact become so prevalent that both Harvard and Stanford launched programs to help people find their sweet spot – a challenging and rewarding career that allows professionals to feel like they are connected, contributing and making strides towards meaningful results.

Forget Linear

So you finally figured out where you want to go, how to get there, took the leap and hated it the minute you settled in. According to Herminia Ibarra, an INSEAD professor, most career transitions take about three years and it is rarely a linear path.

We take two steps forward, one step back and then we end up in a place that often surprises us. They key is in being open and willing to pivot as many times as we need to.

Furthermore, as opposed to 'planning and doing' he advocates for 'doing first'. Human beings are often poor predictors of what will make them happy – an exciting and happiness inducing role on paper could turn out to be the bane of your existence.

Ibarra therefore recommends experimenting – temporary assignments at work or in projects, advisory work or moonlighting to build up new skills and experiences to try a certain course of direction on for size before you jump in fully.

As Patty McCord, the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix has been heard to say 'If you think the grass is greener somewhere else, go munch on the grass at that other side of the fence.

Finding work you love is a fair amount of work. So, do the work'.