I’ve always been jealous of people who decided what they wanted to be “when they grew up” at age four and proceeded to spend their entire career in that one field. Some people’s career paths are a straight trajectory upward. Mine is . . . not that simple. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I spent most of my twenties teaching social studies to low-income middle and high school students. I found purpose and joy in my job for years but eventually burned out. While I deeply valued the profession, I knew that staying in it was not the best decision for me. The question was how to move forward.
I’ve learned many lessons through my journey of career change. These are some of the most valuable:
1. Changing careers usually requires many small, intentional steps, not one giant leap.I often speak to teachers who want to transition into the talent development or training profession. Some are hopeful that they’ll apply for a great job in the field, interview, and all of a sudden find themselves in their chosen position. I suppose it has happened to someone, somewhere, but I can’t name anyone with that kind of good fortune. More often, it’s a gradual process—a series of small, persistent steps, each one getting the person closer to their goal.
After leaving the classroom, I took a job teaching at an online public high school, which led to another job supporting virtual learning programs for a government entity. That position entailed a lot of administrative tasks, tech support, and some limited instructional design. Through working there I determined that talent development was the field I wanted to commit to, but I still wasn’t qualified for the kind of position I really wanted.
Some people who are new to the field freelance to gain experience in talent development or training. I wasn’t even qualified for most of these short-term opportunities at first, so I did pro-bono projects to hone my skills, giving new meaning to freelancing. After building a solid foundation, I earned a short-term contract position designing e-learning. At the end of that contract, the company hired me full-time to work in instructional design and learning technologies.
2. Formal and informal learning are worthwhile investments.The more I learned about talent development, the more I realized I had a lot to learn. I knew I’d advance slowly (or not at all) without furthering my education. I decided to get my master’s in organizational performance and workplace learning from Boise State University. The program was rigorous, online, and flexible; the degree provided a solid foundation in theory and research as well as opportunities for more real-world experience. While the degree was a huge step toward my success, I also took advantage of development opportunities through professional associations such as the Association for Talent Development (ATD). I read books and blogs and learned as much as I could from more experienced people. Deliberately focusing time, effort, and financial investment in my development was crucial.
3. Networking is absolutely worth the effort.Networking can be difficult, especially for teachers who often aren’t accustomed to it. Add a hefty dose of introversion in my case and the thought of it churned my stomach. I avoided it altogether at first but gradually started to take some initiative to build my network. The more people I knew, the more I was convinced that networking was not just a supplement to my career transition but critical to my progression.
I found a local ATD chapter, signed up for an event, and started introducing myself to people. I did the same with several other groups and organizations. Since that time, the people in my network have taught, influenced, and encouraged me in ways I could never measure.
4. Balancing humility and confidence allows for growth.Moving from a place of experience, mastery, and leadership in teaching into an entry-level position in another field can be humbling. At first I felt like I was moving backward in my career, even though it eventually propelled me forward. An attitude of humility allowed me to learn from those around me who had been working in the field longer (even those who were younger). At the same time, it was important to be aware of the knowledge, skills, and experience I brought with me. While talent development is different from teaching, many skills are transferable. I tried to balance confidence in what I already knew with the humility to acknowledge what I still needed to learn. This balance allowed for the growth necessary for a successful transition.
Changing careers has been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Today, I have my own learning consulting business. I help my clients solve problems, help their people achieve more, and help their businesses to reach their goals. While my journey of professional growth continues, I can say that I truly love my job today—the purpose, the challenge, the passion, the problem-solving, and the creativity. I’m so glad I took a chance and changed direction, and I’m so grateful for the people who have helped me along the way.