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Often, starting over in a career means starting from scratch, with tasks you may have done many years earlier. ‘You need to have some tenacity,’ one midlife career changer observes. (istockphoto/Getty Images)
Often, starting over in a career means starting from scratch, with tasks you may have done many years earlier. ‘You need to have some tenacity,’ one midlife career changer observes. (istockphoto/Getty Images)

How to design your own midlife career change Add to ...

By middle age, you’ve been punching a clock long enough to know what work you love – and what jobs you’d do anything to avoid. Maybe one has morphed into the other, and the work you once enjoyed just doesn’t do it for you any more.

That’s not the bind it used to be: While earlier generations may have held only a few jobs over their lives, a Workopolis report from 2014 found that Canadians can expect to hold 15 jobs in their lifetimes. Change is the new normal.

Some people embrace it – 59 per cent of adults and 73 per cent of professionals in their 30s in the United States are interested in a career change, according to a 2015 survey out of the University of Phoenix School of Business.

The prospect of beginning anew can be daunting, but two former Apple employees want to help. Since 2010, Dave Evans, who led the design of Apple’s first mouse, and Bill Burnett, a former program manager at the tech giant, have taught a Stanford University class called Designing Your Life. Their main argument is that the path to happiness isn’t the old hippie adage to “follow your bliss,” but instead to “think like a designer” – learning to see problems from new angles, then testing out solutions collaboratively.

Related: Stuck in a rut? How to navigate a career change

Read more: Is a midlife career change a retirement killer?

It has become one of the most popular classes at the school, so popular that droves of middle-aged men and women have sought out Burnett and Evans for career advice.

There are still many doubters. “A lot of people have this dysfunctional belief that ‘Oh, wait a minute. I’m 40, it’s too late. I can’t change. I’ve got the house, I’ve got the kids, I’ve got the mortgage. Even if I want to change, I can’t,’ ” Burnett says.

Evans says it’s wrong to think their design-based solutions apply only to new graduates.

“It’s really for anybody who thinks the rest of their life is important to them and they haven’t got it all figured out yet,” Evans says. “That turns out to be just about everybody.”

The two put have put their philosophy into a new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Much of it concerns career satisfaction – for all ages. The key is following three core principles.

Reframe

Some people may begin by daydreaming about their ideal job, singular. Instead, Burnett and Evans say, try coming up with three different “Odyssey plans” of what your life could look like over the next five years – a time frame that’s long enough to make significant accomplishments but not so long that the commitment becomes too daunting. “Designers never come up with one right answer,” Evans says. “They come up with lots of ideas.”

Each plan should reflect a different journey for your life. The first should be centred on something already in mind, whether it’s advancing in your current job or pursuing the dream you’ve always had. The second plan is whatever you would do if the first plan was gone – if you had to make a living without that first option, what would you do?

Melanie Jantzie of Calgary found her career in technology sales was too stressful and not giving her enough time at home with her two children.

“I thought, let’s figure something out that I can do that is fulfilling to me and that I enjoy and that I’ll be challenged by but also allows me to be on point for the home,” she says.

Jantzie didn’t know exactly what else she might enjoy, so she enrolled in a financial planning course, largely because she found the subject interesting. “It was something that I had always done in the house anyways, and I had a business degree,” she says. “If I hated it, it was still going to be good knowledge for me to have personally.” That was six years ago. She has been a financial planner ever since.

For your third “Odyssey plan,” go for it – whatever it is you would do if money or your personal image were no object.

Evans offers one caveat: Once you make a final decision on a new career, commitment is essential. “When you make a choice, if you want that choice to work, you actually have to let go of the options you didn’t choose,” he says.

Prototype

In the design world, “prototyping” means building models to help understand a problem. When Burnett and Evans recommend a “prototype conversation,” what they really mean is network.

“Find somebody who is doing the thing you think might be interesting and before you commit yourself to doing it, talk to them,” Burnett says, adding that you should aim to have at least half a dozen of these kinds of talks.

That resonates for Susan Hess, who found herself trying to re-enter the work force at the age of 47 in 2014, after 14 years spent raising her family full-time. Her dusty résumé as a call centre manager hardly had phones ringing off the hook. Even worse were the words of a recruiter.

“They basically said I would have to start from the bottom again,” recalls Hess, who lives in Toronto.

Yet in a way, the news was liberating: Since she had to start from scratch, Hess decided to choose something she would love. She had imagined being a nurse since she was a child, and she had nurses in her ex-husband’s family, so she was familiar with the profession.

But that wasn’t the end of her research. One day, she overheard a woman at Starbucks talking about finding jobs for nurses. “I kind of nosed my way into it,” Hess recalls. A long conversation about going back to school to become a nurse ensued and this year, she will complete a diploma in nursing.

Her advice to those making a midlife career choice? “You need to have some tenacity and some courage,” she says.

Get moving

“A great way to get stuck is to think about it,” Evans says. He and Burnett advocate adopting a “bias to action,” designer-speak for prioritizing acting on a problem rather than simply pondering it.

Like most design processes, it needs to be incremental. Small steps could include volunteering for an organization in an interesting field, attending relevant conferences or shadowing someone in your desired profession, the authors say.

Often, those small steps can completely change a person’s mind. “We have students who want to be doctors and they go and shadow a doctor and they come back and go, ‘I don’t want to be a doctor. That’s nothing like what I thought it was,’ ” Evans says.

Bias to action helps to solve the problem most common to people who are considering changing careers: fear.

“There’s a real fear of failure, a fear of the unknown,” says Dianne Hunnam-Jones, a district president at recruitment firm Robert Half.

“They’re worried that they are going to be the partner who is dragging their feet. And [they worry], ‘Is it going to be that much different than what I’m in now? Am I just an unhappy person or is it anything to do with my job?’ ”

Many of the people Burnett and Evans see fret so much about change that they never actually begin to take whatever small steps might lead to not only a better job but a better life. “It’s just the fear of getting started,” Evans says.

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