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I hear this all the time: you want to make a professional pivot to work that feels more fulfilling, but you are afraid of what others will think.

See if any of these internal talk tracks sound familiar:

  • I am too old to go back to school
  • People will be disappointed in me if I go in a new direction 
  • The optics of the move won’t look right on my resume / LinkedIn
  • I won’t be able to come back from this if I make a mistake and/or don’t like it
  • No one else I know is making a move like this
  • People I care about have advised me against doing this

Heavy stuff, yes? It’s so easy to let our fears of what others may think dissuade us. 

Recently, I worked with Laurie to find her way forward into a new professional chapter. Astutely, she noticed her resistance to going for what she really wanted for her next move. When we probed deeper, it became clear that she was afraid people would think less of her if she chose the type of role that truly appealed to her. It wasn’t as elevated as others would expect, and left her feeling like she would be letting other people down by “not living up to her potential.”

The result was a sense of ‘stuckness’, and a fear of moving forward. This inhibited making contact with people in positions of influence in her network to help attract and land the type of work she wanted to be doing. 

What should I do? She asked me. Thinking about it, I observed two tracks that professionals typically take forward from this crossroads:

Either, they: 

  1. do the expected thing, taking the path that feels next in line and where the optics feel good, reaching for the next rung on the ladder so that others can see that they are reaching their potential, OR 
  2. they get quiet, listen to their inner voice calling for something different, reassure themselves that it doesn’t matter what others think, and go forward on the path to their heart’s desire

Neither path is the right one! The trick is to figure out which is the right one for you, for now. There may be times when you may pick the first path and others when you pick the second. Whichever path you take, however, has implications for how to navigate.

If you pick option #1 and pursue the expected thing, that requires you to put on your big girl/boy pants and advocate for yourself because it typically involves moving up to a position of larger scope and responsibility. It requires you to clearly articulate your value in a way that is commensurate with the scale of the role you are walking into. You also need to either incorporate some of your heart’s desire into the path you take or else find a way to quell that longing outside of work, as the feelings don’t just dissipate.

If you pick option #2 and take the less traveled path towards your heart’s desire, you need to keep regrounding yourself in what you truly want to maintain the courage to continue down your chosen road. Since you are making a different choice than what is expected, you may find yourself having to explain and re-explain to others what you are planning and your rationale. This requires staying centered on your North Star. 

More and more, I’m finding that people are opting for path #2. In an effort to make their life feel well-lived through the lens of their career, they are choosing to follow a path of delight and/or meaning, crafting a pivot that leads them closer to what they truly want for their lives, rather than waiting for a post-50 (or post-60) second career opportunity down the line. The time is now, these people seem to be saying; we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

If you want to optimize for delight and meaning, know that in my experience, there is ALWAYS a way to productively and positively message such a deliberate move so that others in your orbit understand and are happy and supportive for you. The most important ingredient is being clear and convicted.

Laurie is now considering moving her family to another part of the country within the next year. She cares very much about what is going on in politics and government, and wants time to make a difference there. Her spouse has a challenging job right now and she wants to be the steady one for the kids in this season. So, for her, the most appealing role is not at the top of the ladder, but rather the right-hand person of a C-level leader where she can use her skills to make a difference with minimal effort spent on the aspects of leading. She can build her repertoire of accomplishments scaling a company by working alongside senior leaders, and later parlay that experience in the direction of her choosing, when she is ready. She doesn’t have to take the C-level role right now for herself, since that doesn’t fit with her personal priorities.

If you find yourself on that same precipice, consider which direction makes sense for you now. Engage your thinking mind as well as your heart and gut/intuition. Regardless of the direction you head, know that you will have future chances at similar crossroads where you can make either a similar choice, or head in a new direction.

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