The clever ways we resist career change
Three ways to shift an unsatisfying status quo
“So, tell me,” I ask. “What’s it like to wake up Monday morning? What do you feel?”
“The first thing that hits me is a wave of dread,” they say.
“I think about that planning meeting I have to run. The one where we tick through a project-tracking spreadsheet with cells of deadlines. We talk about the blockers and recap action items.
To be honest, it’s not a stressful meeting. I could lead it with my eyes closed. But my stomach gets tied up in knots.
Leading this group of team members, each one of them intently focused on their grid of tasks, reminds me of how little fulfillment it brings me.
I then open my Google Calendar and a second wave of dread hits me. I don’t look forward to most of those color-coded tiles. And I have five full days of them waiting for me.”
A thousand good reasons to stay the same
I’ve heard stories like this one from a lot of high achievers. If they were characters in a movie, we’d all be screaming, “Just quit your job already! Do something that makes you come alive! Don’t waste your life away!”
Yet their conclusion is usually to keep things exactly the same. After all, life has been this way for a while; the pain is dulled and chronic, not acute. Their workplace is draining but not abusive; their jobs lack passion but are not soul-sucking.
“It’s manageable though,” they say, quickly interrupting the monologue. “It’s not that bad. I’m lucky, all things considered. I just need to tweak some things, maybe find some breathing room on my calendar.” 
Last summer, I felt exactly this way. I had an inkling that I needed change. But my inner logician had other plans.
It walked up to the podium, dusted off its epistemology textbook, and cold-called on me to explain why I was dissatisfied with the status quo.
It exclaimed, “Do you know with full certainty that change is needed?”
“Well… maybe not complete certainty,” I stammered. “But something feels off...”
Before I had a chance to elaborate, my logician rattled off — with bravado, confidence, and eloquence — excellent arguments for why I needed to stay right where I was:
“You need to buckle down and grit your teeth through this experience to improve as a leader. If you leave now, how will you ever address your weaknesses?”
“You’re good at this job. You’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and money getting good at it. You get a lot of positive feedback from others; you’re having an impact. If you quit, you may not find another job out there that you’re good at.”
“Work can’t always be great. In every job, there are boring and painful parts.”
“You’re in a privileged position. You have a financially stable job during the pandemic. It’s entitled to expect anything more.”
“There are tons of people who’d love to trade places with you. You have the dream job that many thousands of people would do so much for.”
“It’s COVID, so of course everything feels awful. It’s not your work that’s the problem. The global pandemic is the confounding variable. Wouldn’t it be a shame to misattribute how you’re feeling and make a huge mistake you will eventually regret?”
“You’ve built an amazing, high growth career. Throwing it away and starting from scratch is economically irrational. Plus, imagine the pain you’d go through to build another career from the ground up. It’d be masochistic to pursue that.”
Damn. Those were good reasons. And they were soothing to hear. I was given well-formed, smart arguments to avoid taking a risk. I accepted them handily.
The real reason we keep our status quo
Our brains are impossibly clever at coming up with reasons not to change. While these reasons may contain some truth, they often mask a deeper objective.
The biggest — and perhaps highest stakes — reason we resist change is that it puts at risk our identities and self-views.
William Swann Jr., a social psychologist, developed and tested self-verification theory starting in the 1980s. This theory states that people hold self perceptions and are motivated to confirm their perceptions. We do this because our human brains seek certainty, predictability, and control. When other people confirm that we are who we believe we are, we feel a sense of order in the world.
The ways we seek this validation (both consciously and unconsciously) include:
Selective Interaction: We tend to interact with people who confirm our identities and keep our conversations short with people who don’t. For example:
If working in tech startups is prominently important to our identity, we might gravitate toward networking events and communities where we get to talk about our work, therefore receiving positive feedback from others and reinforcing this identity.
Similarly, we may feel out of place at a high school friend’s birthday party where no one works in or knows about tech. Perhaps we leave early because we’re not getting the same level of identity validation.
Identity Signaling: We signal our identities to others by dressing the part, talking the talk, and walking the walk of our assumed identities — thereby getting feedback from others that’s consistent with the way we believe we are. For example:
An individual who identifies with a subculture may wear brands and clothing that affiliates them with that subculture.
Similarly, someone who’s physically attractive but grew up with a less-than-stellar academic record may refer to themselves as “a little air-headed at times” and won’t hesitate to show up this way in their social mannerisms.
Compensatory Interaction: If we’re not getting sufficient feedback confirming our identity, we may overcompensate by stretching our interactions even further in the direction of this identity. For example:
An individual sees themselves as likeable and sociable. They meet a new colleague who appears stoic and distant during their first conversation. The individual hasn’t gotten confirmation of their likeability and therefore ups their charm and friendliness a few notches.
An interesting study by Swann and Hill showed that people who thought of themselves as dominant personalities received feedback suggesting that they weren’t, they compensated by acting even more dominantly. Similarly, those who rated themselves as passive/submissive acted even more so when someone suggested they were dominant.
We each hold multiple identities simultaneously, and they sit in a hierarchy. An identity that’s more important in a particular moment is said to be more salient. And we’ll put more effort into validating it.
We constantly adjust our behaviors to maintain congruence between how we see ourselves and the meaning we attach to our actions and how others respond to us.
Indeed, it’s a lot of work to adapt all the time. But to our unconscious minds, it’s a small price compared to the stress of not feeling sure of who we are. Not having a grounded sense of identity means we feel like a kite in a hurricane.
That’s why we clutch onto our work identities — even and especially as our spidey sense tells us something is off.
Shifting our career identities
When the idea of a career transition first entered my mind last summer, my actions showed the opposite.
Suddenly, I felt a rush of energy to speak on more panels in my current industry, connect with more product managers, and spend more energy proving that, in fact, I was the future Chief Product Officer everyone thought I was.
For many high achievers, career identities fuel self-esteem. Where we work and what we do at work are among our most salient identities.
We’ve come to rely on these identities for the basic human needs of safety, acceptance, and belonging. No wonder it’s so hard to change. No wonder our well-intentioned minds are so capable of creating reasons not to.
The good news: humans are abundantly capable of change. We can build new identities, shift existing ones, and let go of those which represent outdated programming.
If you have an inkling that a career refresh is needed—that there’s more energizing and fulfilling work for you out there— you can move through your own resistance to change.
First, find your higher identity.
As a high achiever, you may feel like your title, company, or career path is the pinnacle of your identity. It’s not. There are parts of you that are deeper and allow for more expansive opportunities.
Write an elevated identity statement. One that doesn’t start with “I’ve worked the past decade in product leadership roles at Companies A, B, and C.”
Go all the way back to college, high school, your childhood and unearth the identities that have remained dormant for years.
Look at the moments when you felt most alive — perhaps in past experiences, perhaps in where you love spending time outside of your job. If you won the lottery and never had to earn an income again, what’s the part of you that would persist and thrive?
Maybe you’re a creative spirit who communicates a unique perspective through music or art.
Or you’ve always loved being a teacher and counselor, starting with your first experience tutoring other students in high school.
Or you’re a committed leader who enables excellence in others and believes in them when they’re down, just like you do when you coach your kid’s Little League team.
Or a maker who feels most energized when problem solving and tinkering to make your vision a reality.
Or a passionate, principled advocate who gives voice to those who find it hard to speak up.
While our occupations are in flux, these are the more profound and steadier identities that allow us to maintain self esteem and worthiness. They give us the safety we need to try things outside our comfort zone. (To explore some higher identities, try the free Sparketype assessment.)
Second, start to shape new career identities through experimentation.
Read, talk to people who’ve pursued paths you’re curious about, tap online and in-person resources, and most importantly, take action to try on the identity for size.
A friend recently transitioned from tech to interior design. I admired her scrappiness and passion as she took an online course through the School of Visual Arts, found friends and family to be her first clients, and learned AutoCAD in her spare time. By running experiments and building her portfolio in the meantime, she began to mold a new identity, one that better reflected her passion.
Moving toward something that’s forming — even if the clay is still wet and on the wheel — feels less scary than choosing something completely unformed.
Third, explore these new possibilities with a supportive community.
When we’re considering a change, it’s natural to call up the mentors we’ve had for a long time and ask for advice. Most of the time, the person they’re advising is our status quo identity — the one they’ve known for ages.
A reader I spoke to is a talented product manager at a large technology company. When considering a transition to design, her PM mentors balked at the idea. “Designers are less influential,” they said. “They don’t make the important product and business decisions.”
Our status quo communities will almost always give us reasons to maintain our status quo — because that’s what they know how to justify. In giving well-meaning advice, they are also working to validate their own identities, just as William Swann Jr. observed.
Without abandoning our existing communities, we can try on new communities with people who embrace the change we want to explore. Only they can share with the skeptical, security-seeking parts of us what it’s like on the other side of a change, such that we give it a fair shot. Follow your curiosity and find communities that satisfy it.
Humans are exceptional at coming up with reasons not to change. And we are abundantly capable of change. Which we choose depends on our courage to notice our fears and self-protection tendencies, and to design a compelling vision that honors what matters to us.
After decades of attachment to external achievement, I’ve shaped new identities, refurbished in old ones, and designed a life that’s infinitely more congruent with my values. I now help others do the same as a professional coach. If you’re interested in working 1:1 with me, learn more at throughline.xyz. Or reply to this email and we can find time to chat :)
Love and health,
Thank you to Amber, Dani, Joel, Michael, Miranda, and the Foster community for providing feedback on the draft.
 If you’re reading this newsletter, it’s likely you can relate to this perspective. You might be on the cusp of a big change. You’re debating whether it’s the right choice. And your brain is inventing many creative excuses not to do it.
For others, it’s possible that you are in the right career. You just need to restore your mojo by returning to in-person work or shaking up your routine.
As with any advice, take this post with a grain of salt. I left a high-paying corporate job to pursue an alternative path. So of course my writing carries with it a few wisps of confirmation bias.
You know your situation best; let your intuition guide you down the best path for the life you want to live.
The quotes at the beginning are not from a specific person. They are a composite paraphrasing from recent conversations I’ve had with friends, coaching clients, and readers of The Reset. And, they reflect how I felt last year when considering a major career pivot.