The biggest obstacle to make a career transition is very often you, or to be more precise, your brain. Whether you arrive in transition by circumstances or choice, when you find yourself considering or navigating an unfamiliar territory and uncertainty cannot be resolved, you start feeling worried, you seek reassurance, you become hypervigilant and risk averse. In extreme cases, you feel anxious, depressed or both.
Your brain does not like change. In fact, your brain is not designed to help you change. The key aim of the brain is survival. Its protective mechanisms keep you alive and got you where you are today. The brain perceives uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity and unpredictability the same way as it would when it registers a threat of a lion in the savannah. The brain is a prediction machine. It constantly gets data from body sensations and movements, from lived experiences and expectations, from people and places. When the data become unreliable, the brain cannot predict what to do next. This is perceived as a threat to your survival. The stress system or fight, flight, freeze or fawn response is then activated by the amygdala which can be identified as part of the oldest brain evolution, called the reptilian brain. Its duty is to protect you from all kinds of harm. The amygdala constantly scans the environment for any harm or danger, using the stored information about past experiences as a filter.
You have inherited a brain that focuses on threats because that promotes survival. Your natural threat chemical alerts you to evidence of threat so you can act to relieve it. Cortisol, the stress chemical, creates a sense of urgency to help you relieve the threat. You have attached words to the cortisol feeling such as fear, anxiety, stress, panic, dread, suffering, unhappiness, pain, depending on the quantity and the context. Relieving a threat feels good, which wires the brain to repeat any behaviour that has previously relieved a sense of threat. A fight, flight, freeze or fawn action can relieve a threat.
The brain does not care about your happiness. In fact, the brain is innately wired for negativity, as it increases your chances of survival.
The brain runs on autopilot. It forms habits to be efficient.
The brain is focused on minimizing threats and maximizing rewards.
Knowing prevents rumination and allows you to plan. Not knowing triggers the brain to start running its predictive script by filling the gaps of missing information with past experiences and data.
It is key to know the dynamics that take place in the brain and work on your self-awareness if you want to get more effective results that can ultimately help you cope with any change more consciously and successfully.
As neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, “My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”
How can you then stop feeling stuck, lost and helpless in your career change and cross over to the other side? Let me show you a few things you can try.
Collect information from multiple sources. Your objective is to allow yourself to open up to a wide range of data, experiences and opinions so that the primitive part of your brain (or subconscious mind) does not make you rely on past information by default. This will lead you to create something new to rely that will expand your thinking and will help you unlearn certain mechanisms, dynamics or beliefs that were potentially not part of your own story.
Be curious and learn something new. You are not expected to know everything. In fact, you do not need and cannot know it all. Throughout your conversations with existing and new connections in some areas and or jobs that are possibly interesting for you, ask them what has made them successful and reflect at least of one ingredient of their success and see how you could make use of it or what you would need to do to make that ingredient yours. This will help you create new neural connections in the brain (remember that the brain is malleable!) and with practice you will build new pathways that can serve your purpose while you go through change.
Brainstorm. You do not need to be on your own. Whilst it is helpful to protect some space and time for reflection and for just allowing yourself to be, you do not have to go through this process entirely on your own. Find someone you can trust, someone who does not have an agenda for you (quite often the people close to you such as family and friends do have an agenda - maybe a genuine one because they care about you). You might want to talk with a colleague or former peer, a coach, someone who is in your desired role, a key decision maker within the organisation or industry of your interest, and do some brainstorming. Brainstorming allows you to think more freely, without fear of judgment. It encourages open and ongoing collaboration to help you solve problems and generate new ideas. It makes you feel more comfortable bouncing ideas off each other. This again will stop your brain from being on autopilot and rely on past experiences.
Quieten the critical voice inside. In the first seven years of your life, your brain has no consciousness and no rational reasoning. It records everything. Every initial and novel experience will be stored as “the right way” based on how the event was perceived for the first time. As explained, your brain uses this stored information for further decision making for similar situations in the future. The information “files” are called beliefs and rules. A stressful situation is caused because these early memories associate stress with the experience at hand. Many of these beliefs are no longer valid, however the brain has not undergone further development to know any better. One of the ways to challenge your beliefs or rules is through the power of language. Words do matter and shape your reality. Your subconscious mind interprets what it hears very literally. The words that come out of your mouth create your reality inside. To step back from the unhelpful echo chamber of your mind, use your name and the second-person "you" to refer to yourself or you can imagine advising a friend. Think about the language you would use, think about the advice you would give, and apply to yourself. Both strategies will help you engage your prefrontal cortex which is responsible for performing complex tasks, storing and retrieving memory, maintaining attention and focus, and smooth regulation of emotions. By doing so, you will interrupt the alarm system of the amygdala.
Practice visualisation. Visualise your best possible future self. It will give you the opportunity to explore a potential outcome and scenario. The brain would not spot the difference between the real and the imagined if you use your five senses. One of the ways you can start visualising is to picture yourself on a movie screen in front of you. Close your eyes and visualise yourself on the screen in your desired situation, complete with context. While you envision this setting, pay attention to what you see, what you hear, what you feel and maybe what you taste and what you smell. Engaging your five senses can intensify your experience very powerfully. Let the images you’re looking at get sharper and clearer. Turn up the volume and feel how you will feel in the future situation on the screen. By regularly repeating these visualization techniques, your brain will make new neural connections that prepare your desired situation in the future. This will create an energetic ripple effect that will bring the situation close to you.
Test and learn. Allow yourself to test out some of the ideas you are contemplating in your head. Play with them, discover, do. You will learn about yourself while testing new roles, projects, volunteering, moonlighting, etc. You will learn by testing concrete possibilities. Some of these experiments might be intentional, others are conducted by design, some are exploratory, others, confirmatory. Compare and contrast looking at a wide range of options before you start narrowing your search. By taking the first step and testing things out, your mind will follow, your brain will follow your body. Your brain did not evolve to think. It was actually the last thing!
These are just a few strategies you might want to adopt to make your subconscious mind effectively work for you and navigate the uncertainty of a career transition in ways that can also help you unlearn ineffective behaviours and be the change you want. Making a career change does not have to be tough. Yes, there will be times when you will experience a mix of unhelpful emotions, and that is ok. It is part of the journey. This does not mean that you are your emotions or your thoughts. You can change your narrative. You can rewrite your story by training your brain and telling it what to do.