Is your brain working against your big dreams? Why making a career transition is so hard.

Is your brain working against your big dreams? Why making a career transition is so hard.

The way our brains are wired can make it difficult to cope with periods of uncertainty during transition. This psychological tension between what we know and what we are moving towards is uncomfortable, but if we truly want to make a change we have to accept it as an inevitable phase to navigate. 

Key takeaways

  • Being in limbo or extended period of uncertainty can be difficult to tolerate  
  • Our neuroscience is often the reason some people get stuck instead of adapting and changing. 
  • It’s a normal human experience, and with practical actions you can successfully navigate change.  

Anyone who’s ever been through a career change knows it’s hard. It’s hard for reasons that are deeply wired in neuroscience and psychology.

For everyone that has significantly changed their career, to the untrained observer they may have done a course and changed jobs. Maybe this was adapting to one of life’s trigger events or recognising a growing period of dissatisfaction. But the reality of any change is these people have moved through a cycle of change, to a stage where they are ready to take action. They invested time and energy into exploring themselves and testing ideas. 

This period of exploration can take two months or two years. It is a time we can feel quite lost, being in-between where we were and where we are going. However, we may not knowwhat that is or how to get there, or that we’re going to be okay. 

This experience describes the ‘liminal state’ – often known as a state of limbo. A liminal state goes against our natural instinct to seek predictability and can lead to anxiety. 

I’ve seen many people struggle with this uncertainty. In an attempt to remove the discomfort of not knowing, people may do one of two things. The first option is to stick with the status quo – ‘better the devil you know’ –  old pearls of wisdom don’t always have our best interests at heart. Or option 2, jump at the first opportunity that is in any way different to the current situation. 

These choices are trying to resolve the uncertainty, the lack of significance, loss of identity, or just the ‘stillness’ of their lives when they are used to being busy. 

It’s important to recognise everyone is slightly different, as people have different levels of tolerance for limbo. As I’ve written before, many people dream of change, but not everyone makes it happen. If you have been dreaming of more, but never seem to make it happen, maybe it’s brain wiring that’s actually holding you back.

The role of the amygdala

An aspect of our brains to be aware of is, as humans our natural instinct is to take action when moving towards pleasure or reward, or moving away from pain.

Neuroscientist Dr Kay Tye says the roots of this are deep within our brain – specifically, the amygdala, which often is referred to in relation to fear, but also relates to positive emotions like excitement and motivation. 

When we are craving a career change, our amygdala will usually only start taking action when an unpleasant event happens or when we get introduced to a new idea that gets us excited. 

Be aware, the emotional impact of a new experience that got our brain fired up in the first place will start to wane over the time it takes for change to happen. If you’ve had a niggling idea that sticks around but you haven’t really explored it, you may need to feed it new information and experiences to truly test it. 

How to circumvent your natural wiring

If you can relate to wanting to change, but it feels too uncomfortable and uncertain, remember it’s a normal human experience. It’s about recognising those feelings and finding a way through, rather than opting out entirely. 

Give it time.  Positive change takes time and often longer than we’d like. One of the biggest comments I hear from people looking for their next role is ‘I never thought it would take this long’. So be prepared for it to take longer than you hope, and before you jump on an opportunity ask yourself why it’s the right one. 

Have an interim plan while you explore. If you’re not in a role that allows the time and space to explore, consider all the ways you could create financial security with your current skillset, eg. consulting or contracting.  

Avoid setting a hard deadline. Goals are great but when we set a hard deadline, we are setting an expectation that may be impossible to control. This can set us up for failure or apply pressure to make decisions.

Find ways to keep your brain excited and motivated. To stimulate motivation, keep your amygdala firing by giving it new experiences, new conversations, new ideas. Seek people, experiences and conversations that are outside your normal sphere of influence.

Outcomes are more likely with a plan. Set yourself tasks like meeting up with a friend or mentor to explore ideas, research an industry or course. New information will fire up your motivation and make progress at the same time. Crossing off ideas is also progress. 

Create a story that you’re happy to tell. next time someone asks you what you’re doing, instead of feeling shame or uncertain, say “I’m exploring the next 10 years of my life”. 

When it comes to making career change for the better, remember the old pearl of wisdom that ‘good things take time’. 

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.