When You Need A Career Change But Don’t Know What To Do

Feb 24, 2023


On your marks: how to think about career pathfinding

You know you want a career change but you don’t know what to do. There are many ways you might have landed here – maybe you’ve fallen out of love with your work, or maybe you never had it, and you fell into your career by accident, and somehow the years have gone by and now you want to take charge and forge your own path. Or perhaps it’s more urgent than that, and you can’t stand another day in your job. Whatever’s pushing you, the trouble is – nothing’s pulling you. Should you transfer your skills, or opt for retraining? Choosing a new career seems impossible because you just don’t know what job you want to shift into. YET.


Don't know what job you want? Choosing a new career is like a hurdles race. When you need a career change but don't know what to do, knowing your hurdles, such as doubts about retraining , is essential.


When you don’t know what to do, career change is a hurdles event. But all too often we think of these hurdles being things like lengthy retraining courses, affordability, or a lack of transferable skills. But when you don’t know what job you want, it can feel like you’re stuck in the blocks.

In this article, I’ll show you 3 ways to start running. And at the end, I’ll tell you the one crucial leap you have to take to choose a new career, whatever hurdles stand in your way.


1. Begin at the starting line

When we attempt to choose a new career by searching for vacancies or job titles, we’re trying to join the race near the end.


When you don't know what job you want, start at the beginning, not the end. Don't jump into retraining for a new career or a new role, even if you're desperate to choose a new career. Start with your underlying qualities and motivations.


Don’t beat yourself up about this: after all, it makes perfect sense, right? When you need to change career but don’t know what to do, you look at vacancies and job titles and retraining opportunities. Seems sensible. The trouble is – and I’m guessing you know this already – you can look at these options forever and still feel you don’t know what job you want.

The fact is, the problem is not that you lack job market information.

You could spend months or years scanning job sites, taking online career tests, investigating various retraining schemes and scrolling down endless lists of job titles, and still feel you don’t know what job you want to do next. Stop it.

What you’re lacking is information about you. To help you with this I’ve created a free ‘What Do I Want To Do?’ Questionnaire to kickstart your thinking. Download it below. 



But before you begin, there’s a twist: forget about ‘careers’ for now. Answer these questions without referring to a single job title or industry. Professional jargon is banned!

Now look over your answers. For now, forget about practicalities and limitations, and give yourself permission to brainstorm freely. Imagine there are no restrictions. What would you love to do?

It’s essential not to let limitations hold you back at this point, no matter how realistic they might be. Yes, you might have doubts about retraining, or financial limitations, but (a) you need to be sure they will prevent your career change, rather than limit it, and (b) your answers will hold important clues to the kind of thing that would make you happy, and provide a starting point for the right way of choosing a new career.



OK, even if you’re OK with the idea of retraining, you can’t be a fighter pilot now that you’re 45. But having allowed yourself to explore this dream, what might it tell you about what you want to do?

Is it adrenaline, operating machines, status and admiration, varied physical work, being outdoors, travelling, working in a disciplined environment? What realistic roles or industries could offer you some or all of these criteria?

Repeat this process until you have a shortlist of 3-5 ideas. They don’t have to be specific job titles at this stage – the task is to get your mind moving forwards.


2. Size up your hurdle

Now that you’re scrutinising yourself, take the opportunity to look even closer. Ask yourself this:

What is the main obstacle getting in the way of me choosing a new career?

There are far too many possible answers to this question for one article (watch this space), so here are 3 common hurdles we encounter when we don’t know what job we want, and 3 ways to leap over them.


Don't know what job you want? You might have limited career knowledge. Taking action such as volunteering or retraining can open your mind to new possibilities and make choosing a new career easier.


HURDLE 1: You have a 4-WALLS career

If you’ve ever thought, “There must be something else out there,” you almost certainly have a 4-walls career.

This occurs if you’ve always done the same kind of role, or never moved industry. You’re likely to have a highly developed skillset and admirable experience within your sector. But the disadvantage is that your experience has built four solid walls around you, and it can seem impossible to step outside them or even to know what lies beyond. So it’s perfectly understandable that, although you need a career change, you don’t know what do to with your life – after all, you’ve only ever done one kind of thing! You might catch occasional glimpses of the wider world through the windows, but you never see enough to know if it’s worth walking out the door.

Leap 1: Step outside

Poke your nose out. Go out on day release. The longer you stay inside doing no more than thinking, the longer your ideas will be limited to what you’ve always done. So whether this means a second job, retraining, occasional volunteering, or just starting a new hobby and making connections outside your existing network, start expanding your world – either physically or virtually. 


If you need a career change but don't know what to do, you might suffer from a lack of passion. And sometimes choosing a new career gets easier when we drop the passion pressure.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

HURDLE 2: (whisper it) You don’t have a career passion

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: passion = pressure.

We live in an age of passion – or that’s what society will have you believe. Most career coaches and self-help gurus will tell us we should all have passions. Or even worse, they just assume we all have them and are just bursting at the seams to break the dam and drown in fulfilment. Watch any TV talent show and try to find any contestant who hasn’t had an

“absolute passion!”

for singing / dancing / whatever since they were 3 months old.

Sure, some people are lucky enough to feel strongly about a certain cause or activity to call it a passion. And from there it’s a quick jump to knowing what job they want. If that’s you, fantastic, roll with it, or have a look elsewhere in this article for other ways to move forward. Alternatively, if you know you want to have a positive impact on the world and make a difference but don’t know exactly how, read this guide to the subject.

But that’s not all of us, and the pressure to have a passion and act on it is immense. We can feel deficient (or just plain dull) if we don’t have a passion we want to shout about.

Leap 2: Drop the label

Abandon your quest for a passion and just start doing more of the things you think you could enjoy.

After a while, you’ll find you enjoy some of them more than others, and some are more likely as a means of earning an income. This becomes less about choosing a new career, and more about letting your new career choose you. This is just a start, so go easy on yourself, and follow your nose.


Sometimes, you don't know what job you want because you want everything, but can't have it. Compromise is essential when choosing a new career

Photo by American Heritage Chocolate on Unsplash

HURDLE 3: You want to have your cake and eat it

This is a different problem. Here, you actually DO have a decent idea of what you want to do with your career from this point onwards, but you sense it would require too great a sacrifice or upheaval (salary, status, lifestyle, location, etc), so you don’t allow yourself to consider it. You stop trying, and convince yourself you don’t know what you want.

Leap 3: Get a dose of reality

You’re getting in your own way. Instead, force yourself to get your requirements down on paper, and make a detailed assessment of each potential compromise. What EXACTLY would it mean? Is it truly impossible, or are you just avoiding discomfort? What are you sacrificing by not giving this the consideration it deserves? What’s the worst that could happen if you chose to accept the compromises, and what’s the preferable outcome?

Take retraining as an example. Yes, it would take time and money. But how much, EXACTLY? Could you do it if you really wanted to? And if retraining isn’t an issue, how about salary – would a drop actually prevent you paying the bills? If so, could you change your bills? If not, what aspects of your current lifestyle might it be worth changing in order to achieve career fulfilment?

Even if your top choice isn’t workable, go back to the jet pilot questions. What other options offer some or all of the same factors?


3. Don’t run from the pain

Not knowing what job you want is hard. But even more generally than that, not knowing (about anything) is a difficult place to be. For most of us, our instinctive reaction is to rush for an answer as quickly as possible, to stamp out any trace of uncertainty. So when we need a career change but don’t know what to do, life feels hard, and we’re tempted to solve the problem instantly by jumping at the first opportunity. The trouble is, rushing for an answer almost always leads to the wrong one, and in a year or two, you’ll find yourself right back where you started.

So try to accept discomfort for a while longer. It’s hard, but most of us recognise that being out of our comfort zone can be extremely fruitful. It helps us grow and makes us wiser. This approach may not seem like it makes choosing a new career any easier – and no, it’s not easy – but it will make your choice better, more fulfilling and longer-lasting.


Not knowing what job you want can feel chaotic and disturbing. But choosing a new career gets easier the longer we spend productively in this state, before doing something like retraining for a new career

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


One of the key ways to make discomfort fruitful is to work with possibility, as opposed to certainty, or even likelihood. So you don’t know the answer for sure – so what? Do yourself a favour and put your grown-up hat on. Take some time to play with ideas and explore a shortlist of possibilities. Stand in front of the mirror (with said hat on) and tell yourself it’s OK not to know – for now.

Start to explore vague ideas by setting yourself actions. For example, let’s say you’re kind of interested in the idea of working for a charity, but you’re not sure it’s for you. Remember: at this stage, you’re not committing to anything. So your actions should feel fairly easy – they should be low-stakes, low-cost, and fast.


Retraining might be too much too soon. Take quick and easy actions to begin with to open up your possibilities.


So, at first, you might set yourself the action of speaking to someone in your network who works in this sector, or knows someone who does. Then, if you’re still keen, you might take it a bit further by volunteering occasionally for one or more charities that seem kind of interesting, but still without going too far down the road, such as investing in a long retraining programme (yet). Ultimately, before a complete change into this sector, you might consider changing your working patterns to take on two part-time roles to bridge your career change, or a stepping-stone role which combines some of the old with some of the new.

This approach is a gentle slope, not a leap – but it’s resilient. You will have confidence in the changes you make.


The finish line

You might be wondering which of these hurdles is your main barrier to career change. 

But if you look carefully, whichever hurdles are lined up ahead, there’s really only one way to leap over them: act, don’t just think.

And it makes sense, right? Put it this way: you don’t know what job you want next, and that’s keeping you stuck. But holding the question in your head has led you to a dead end. If you want to move forwards, you need to bring the question out of your head and into the real world.

So whether you make yourself sit down with a piece of paper and get specific about your needs and compromises, or you start changing your hours and doing new activities before jumping into a big commitment like retraining, the message is this:

When you need a career change but don’t know what to do, you need to make change happen.



Are you willing to spend 10 minutes on your career change?