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Why We Wind Up On The Wrong Career Path And What To Do About It

Valerie Young

By Valerie Young

This article originally appeared in Issue 214 of the Changing Course Newsletter.

You don’t have to look very far to find people who’re trapped in the wrong job or profession. Carpenters who should have been accountants. Accountants who should have been horticulturists. Horticulturists who should have opened an animal shelter.

Having worked with career changers for nearly a decade, I’ve found there are four reasons why people get, or stay, on the wrong career path. You’ll soon see that the obvious reason – money – didn’t make the list. That’s because, unless you are truly at the subsistence level, I find that money is all too often an excuse used to mask deeper issues. Let’s take a closer look at what some of those issues might be.

1. Listening to Your Head and not Your Heart

Billy Wilder once said, “Trust your instincts. Your mistakes might as well be your own instead of someone else’s.” Instinct speaks to us in many forms. Sometimes it’s an unsettling flutter in the solar plexus warning you that something isn’t quite right here. Other times instinct whispers encouragingly in your ear, “Go this way.” And sometimes instinct makes itself known as an unmistakable and heart-pounding, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I learned the hard way about ignoring these internal yellow, green, and red lights. It was 1993 and I was commuting 90 miles a day to my corporate job when a marketing job came up in a smaller company with half the commute. I had a good interview with the Vice President of Sales to whom the position reported.

He seemed like a decent enough guy, confident and amiable in that way people in sales often are. A week later we were on the phone negotiating my salary. When I tried to discuss a higher salary his whole demeanor abruptly changed. His voice took on a kind of annoyed edginess that teetered on rude.

A flag went up immediately. Instinct said, “There’s something not quite right about this guy.” After a sleepless night I did what a lot of people do when money or fear or both are involved: I let my rational mind shout down my wiser inner voice. “It’s still a great salary." “The benefits are good." “It’s so much closer to home." “He was probably just having a bad day.”

Of course my instincts were right. My new boss turned out to be an egotistical fist pounder who could be charming and rational one minute and a raging bull the next. This experience taught me a valuable but painful lesson about instinct. More often than not, the heart has a far more sophisticated early warning system than does the head.

2. Turning Other People’s Dreams into Your Own

Whenever I do a career consultation, my clients are assigned the task of putting together a list of things they love to do. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working with an engaging young engineer from Portland, Oregon named Manish. It was clear from the beginning that Manish was struggling to come up with his list. I think a lot of the problem had to do with the fact that he’s spent years living someone else’s dream. But I’ll let Manish tell you his story in his own words:

"When I was young and unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I asked my dad ‘What would be a good job to have when I grow up?’ He told me, ‘an engineer.’ I didn’t really know what an engineer did, but I figured I could do it. I made it a goal of mine to become an Engineer and made a point to take classes in school that would prepare me for this line of work.

I was enrolled in an engineering prep class in high school, and one day we got to visit a local universities engineering department. From that point on, I knew that the engineering field was not for me, but did not listen to my inner-voice and continued towards my goal. In fact, I found myself more curious about the people around me than anything else. I found myself almost distracted by everyday behavior and didn’t pay much attention to the engineering department tour. More on this interest of mine in a minute…

While in high school, I spent a lot of time with my older brother of 7 years in his garage working on, and mainly playing with, cars, motorcycles, boats, etc. Now I can’t remember if it was because of my lack of technical savvy or my continual rambling on about ‘psychological stuff,’ but my brother would interrupt me now and again by saying, ‘Are you sure you want to be an engineer? You should go into Psychology.’ I never took him serious, or anyone else who told me this, because I thought every other career was less than being an engineer. So without putting any thought to it, I continued towards my goal.

When I entered college and signed up for my engineering coursework, I was faced with the reality of engineering not being very interesting to me within the first term. To top it off, I wasn’t very good at it either. Still determined to achieve my goal, I told myself I can’t give up (so stubborn of me). So I ended up in a field similar to engineering called Safety Engineering or Occupational Health and Safety.

Safety had some technical stuff to it, but it also had some behavioral stuff to it. I thought I had hit the jackpot… but to make a long story short, I hadn’t. Safety was 10% fun and 90% not. I’ve been in the field for a little over six years now and I’m ready to make the jump. Funny thing is, my wife says that I’ve been talking about getting into school counseling or any other field since I started in my first job out of college. I wonder why I never listened to myself…until now :)"

Manish is certainly not alone in turning a deaf ear to one’s inner calling. Classrooms and professions are filled with people who are living someone else’s dreams. That’s because it’s not the major, or the job, or the career path itself that’s so hard to let go of. What’s hard to give up is other people’s approval – especially if they happen to be people you love and respect. Walking away from a career, even one you know deep inside is all wrong for you, means risking that esteem. As Manish is learning though, it’s never too late to start listening to the one person who knows more than anyone else about your true gifts and interests – you!

We’ve all received – and perhaps continue to receive – a lot of subtle, (and perhaps not so subtle) messages about what we should “be” work-wise. But outside pressure isn’t the only reason Manish and a lot of other people push on in dogged pursuit of a profession for which there is little real interest. That leads us to two more closely related reasons why otherwise intelligent people get and stay on the wrong career path.

3. Not Being Willing to Admit you Made a Mistake

As Manish’s story also demonstrates, the real pressure that keeps us on the wrong path is self-generated. At some point along the way, Manish shifted from fulfilling his father’s notion of the ideal profession to not wanting to give up on what had become a personal mission. Despite his brother’s attempts to point Manish toward the right road, he opted to continue on like a driver who stubbornly refuses to admit he’s lost.

The good news is Manish has wisely decided it’s time to pull over to ask for directions and is now heading toward his true gifts. The bad news is there are far too many other lost drivers on the highway of life who are still unwillingness to admit they’re going the wrong way.

Despite the occasional story about a physician who left to become a florist or an attorney turned singer, the overwhelming majority of unhappy people choose to stay miserably stuck largely out of pride. For a lot of people it’s a lot easier to keep that lousy job than to stand up and admit to the world that they zigged when they should have zagged.

4. Not Wanting to “Waste” the Degree

Then there are those who really did love their chosen career – at least in the beginning. But over time, they and their occupation, well, they just grew apart. If this sounds familiar, chances are what keeps you on the wrong path is, just like a relationship gone bad, it’s hard to walk away from a career into which you’ve put so much time and effort to say nothing of the financial investment.

Take my friend Donna. After earning her master’s degree in social work some fifteen years ago, she went into private practice as a family therapist. For the first five or so years, Donna got a lot of satisfaction out of helping others. For the last ten though, her work has felt more like a burden. So what keeps her there? It’s simple. Donna doesn’t want to “waste” the degree.

Now I know it’s not easy to turn your back on an established career, especially if it’s one that pays well, has some prestige associated with it, or required earning some kind of advanced degree. And yet, think about the logic here. If you identify with Donna’s dilemma what you’re really telling yourself is. “I’ve wasting the last 10 years of my life so I might as well throw away the next 20 as well. To hell with my true gifts, I’ve got more suffering to do"

John Powell once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” If you identify with any (or all) of the four reasons for getting and staying on the wrong career path, don’t waste time despairing. Instead learn and then act.

The fact of the matter is we all get lost from time to time. That’s life. The danger comes when we fail to heed the road signs and thus remain stuck in the breakdown lane. I have an abiding belief that everything in life happens for a reason. The key is to find the lessons.

Even my job with the boss from hell offered invaluable lessons and experiences. In addition to getting to travel the country, I learned in no uncertain terms to trust my instincts. That job was also just the catalyst I needed to make my final exit from the j-o-b world. And, as importantly, it introduced me to meet people who’ve been integral to helping me succeed as a solo entrepreneur.

What should you do if you find yourself on the wrong career path? We’ll, if you’re living with the consequences of having long ignored your better instincts, get a pen and paper, find some quiet space, and put your listening ears on. Then write down everything that little voice has been trying to tell you but this time without censor or rationalization.

If you’ve been living someone else’s dream, then take a good look at what’s really going on. Some questions you might want to ask yourself are: What does having other people’s approval or meeting someone else’s needs help me avoid or get? What price am I paying for this approval? Does the cost outweigh the benefits? If so, it’s time to start exploring your own dreams.

If you’re hanging on to a job or career because of all the time and money you’ve invested, then the first thing you’ll want to do is to let yourself get close to your fear. I’m not talking about the fear of letting the world know you made a mistake or financial angst. What I’m talking about is getting in touch with the one thing that should really scare the heck out of you – namely, never getting to experience what your life would be like if you pursued your true gifts and passions.

Once you’ve let that little reality sink in, sit down and write a “Dear John” letter to your past love. Tell your career that while it has been a good and faithful partner for some time that you have simply fallen out of love. It will understand. Then pick up a paintbrush, look into culinary school, or otherwise start courting your new love interests.

It’s easy to find yourself on the wrong career track. When that happens, the key is to stay alert for warning lights, watch for the signposts along the way, learn from those inevitable detours, ask for directions, and then start slowly inching your way onto that big expansive highway called Your Life! As George Bernard Shaw once observed, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing."

There are 18 comments. Add yours.

  1. Hi – I have been frustrated for about 95% of my career life. In college, I was interested in international relations (or so I thought) – I loved foreign languages and travel. No one chose my career – I chose it back then not realizing that somehow I got into an area that I’d grow out of. I went to grad school immediately after college for an MA in International Communications. The coursework was interesting but the degree was unmarketable. Long story short I had to do secretarial work for almost 3 years until I found something semi-related to my education. But, then, my work was always writing and researching and kind of academic. Very little interaction with people. I love to research and write brief, succinct pieces – but not academic type stuff. Over time I realized that my principal interests in life are spirituality, ancient wisdom, and the power of the mind for excellence in business and life. I am finishing up a beginner’s yoga book and I have a business mentor. But, everything is taking so long! Money is really my core reason for not leaving an absolutely boring job. I get paid well and have relatively low stress. I get along with my colleagues, have a flexible schedule and a great boss. But, I am dying emotionally every day I stay on my job. I try all kinds of strategies to keep in interesting but I can feel intense resistance. Just having to stay there until I can get my business slowly off the ground is so hard! Today, I worked at home. I could barely stay awake and I felt a loud inner voice saying it didn’t want to do this stuff anymore. So much of my work is academic and doesn’t really help anyone per se. I feel trapped! I need more hours in the day to get my business off the ground. I feel I am dying inside…

    • Ahlam

      Use the flexibility of your job to help you start your business. It’s hard at first but you have to resist the urge to drop the place that provides a roof over your head. At the very least until you can provide for yourself through your business. Very best of luck to you.

  2. Heather

    Very interesting. As a woman who had basic nursing training then married and had 4 children and worked a dairy farm with her husband, I am now at a crossroads. Wanting to follow my strong interest in holistic health and fitness and yet still being needed on the farm because of left field events. I am working off farm 3.30 till 11pm, 3 on and 3 off as a team leader at a rest home and love the contact with people and being able to make a difference to their lives. However, I feel so pulled as to how further my skills and develop myself when working so hard. It is 7 days a week on the farm. It is an interesting challenge to work through and I so enjoy the stimulation of sites like yours and others that feed the soul and encourage proactive and interesting ways of thinking. It’s just where to next? It’s also how to next, as to funding and my obligations.

  3. Excellent article. I could not agree more, because I was one of those people who let the job market and my parents dictate my career path. No longer. I will be celebrating my first full-time year as a self-employed person this December.

  4. Kay

    I have had those inner thoughts and feelings for several years now. Feelings that I should NOT be in sales. I’ve been selling something for over 18 years. I can’t stand it. I love talking to people and seeing what makes them tick, what motivates them. And I can’t even tell you how many times I come out of a sales call and think how much I enjoyed meeting that person or found them so strange or interesting, but really didn’t care a bit about selling them anything and had to remind myself that that was why I was there. I have friends who have told me over and over through the years that I would be a great counselor and am a great listener. I read tons of self help books, do yoga, love to listen to psychologist on the radio and TV. Do I need any more clues? I also have gotten in to nutrition and health and exercise. I have recently thought about going to school to get certified as a nutritionist/dietician. I thought it would be a great life to work for a food manufacture in marketing and product development as a dietician. I could talk with people, work with what motivates them and try to help them by helping a company make healthy food options, organic, all natural for all consumers. Do I sound crazy? Should I go to school now? I’ve always shyed away from going back to school and even trying to make it through Medical School, but the nutritionist sounds good to me. I do feel passionate about healthy foods and helping people understand what they do for your body. I dream about getting up every day and actually having a motivated feeling and a passion to want to go to work or to do what I do…that day. I currently dread my days and find myself always tired and wasting my time into the evening feeling like I’m in a comma and unable to pull myself out of the funk. I know I need to take the risk. The money is an issue and health insurance, yadda yadda yadda. I need a plan, I think. I will make some calls tomorrow to find out more about a program I can get into for dieticians. If anyone has any encouraging words, I’m listening. Thanks.

  5. bessam louis

    wow! this article is good. i believe this will spur up those who lack the courage to dream at least the could use some one else’s. valerie young, this is good

  6. bessam louis

    wow! this is a very good article. I believe this will be of help to those who lack the courage to have their own or who are afraid to have a dream bigger than them, at least they can use some one else’s. Valerie young did a good job in this article.

  7. Liz Klein

    Great article! I think one of the things Valerie reinforces and that people need to know is that — YES! — you can move forward towards the life of your dreams even if you are working long hours, or feeling trapped by your circumstances. Do not give into the fear (false evidence appearing real) that you are stuck. You will need to spend time nurturing your dreams and respecting yourself enough to take steps forward, but they can be small steps initially — trust me, the momentum will build. That’s why I joined Valerie’s coaching program – so I could move beyond assisting people with job searching to the deeper level of helping them identify their strengths, move beyond their current circumstances and design a new and improved life. If you’re looking for support and practical help to move forward towards a happier life that will work for you, send me an email at [email protected] and let’s connect.

  8. “…getting in touch with the one thing that should really scare the heck out of you –- namely, never getting to experience what your life would be like if you pursued your true gifts and passions.” love, Love, LOVE that, Valerie!

    The “how” (implementing those new income streams) can take some time, but every minute of every month is so very worth it… taking incremental steps to your fullest, widest, deepest Expression of yourself. I’m not talking about a job, a hobby or even a career. I’m talking about a Pulsing, Throbbing Life!

    I was recently asked, “What kind of work do you suggest for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)?”. Here’s my answer:

  9. Valerie once again you have provided wonderful content and food for thought and actions. I love that you always manages to hit the right nerve at the right time for us. I needed this article and it’s a good reminder to all of us that “WE CAN LIVE THE LIFE LOVE AND LOVE WHAT WE DO”. I was one of those that didn’t want to waste my degree, until I realized that wasting my degree wasn’t the problem, but letting my life go to waste was an even sadder thought!!! I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to not waste my life, help others, and do what I love doing.

    Thank you once again, for such a wonderful, thought provoking, and encouraging article….You’re the best!!!

  10. I can totally relate to all of this, especially Laura’s comment about being frustrated 95% of her career life. I had been studing coaching and business techniques, and became certified by Valerie as an Outside the Job Box Career Expert. But it wasn’t until I came to the realization that the only thing in my way was me that I finally left my corporate job and dove into full-time entrepreneurship. It is true that when you take the leap the bridge will appear, but until you make the decision ~ commit to doing whatever it takes to realize your dream ~ you’ll be wallowing in frustration. I heard a great quote in a workshop I recently was in that may resonate with some of you: “Most people are tiptoeing through their lives, hoping to make it safely to death.” That’s what we’re doing when we ignore all the messages that are telling us it’s time to play bigger and cling to the “security” of our jobs that are draining our energy and our spirits.

    To all of you who are longing to do what your heart calls you to do: if you want to do it you can – you just need to make the decision and say yes to the Universe. Where do you think that longing comes from? If you’re hearing the call, it’s because it’s here for you. You never desire something you can’t have, but you will have to change some things to get it.

    I like to use the analogy of the Invisible Fence. If you don’t know how it works, there’s a little beam that interacts with a device on a dog’s collar that gives a little shock when the dog gets too close to the beam. Most dogs learn to stop short of the beam to avoid the pain. But the dog that really wants to get to the other side learns that if you keep on running, the pain goes away once you’re through the beam. And you’re free! It’s simple, but it’s not always easy, and you have to want whatever is on the other side of that fence more than you want to avoid the pain of going after it.

    I’ll be launching a new teleclass program soon called “Play Your Own Game” that will address how to get to the heart of what you really want, awakening to the possibilities that are available to you, cultivating a mindset of abundance, transitioning from employee to entrepreneur and breaking through obstacles to achieve the life of your dreams. I invite you to join me for my preview call on September 22, “Playing Your Own Game: What Every Aspiring Entrepreneur MUST Know BEFORE Starting a Business.” The sign-up page for the call will be up soon at, but if you subscribe to my free e-zine at, you’ll be notified of the launch and will also receive a special subscriber discount on the full program. Or if you’re interested in 1:1 coaching, drop me a line at [email protected]

    Stop tiptoeing and start dancing! Life is beautiful when you’re playing your own game.

    To your inspired success!
    ~ Kate

  11. Irma D.

    This article did hit home. When I was looking at career options, my parents told me I could not enter into cosmetology school. My options were a community college or secretarial school. As a result, I have foundered for years, pursuing training in many fields. I always wanted to study psychology. I decided to register for a master’s program at 55 and start next week. I’ve been frustrated for many years, but none of my education has been a waste. It got me to this point, and I am now pursuing my passion!

  12. Great article, Valerie. I think another reason people end up working at a job they don’t like is that it is comfortable. They know what to expect. Even if they expect not to be happy. Sometimes you get stuck feeling like it isn’t possible to create a life you love. Allowing yourself to believe just a little bit at a time can make a grand difference!

  13. Wow! Lots of great comments and questions! Just the process of realizing you’re on the wrong path is an important step many people don’t even take. So congratulations.

    To all who are looking for advice and help specific to your own situation, I have two suggestions.

    One, there are dozens of trained Outside the Job Box Career Experts who are ready, willing and more than able to work with you one-to-one to help you discover ways to monitize your interests. Many have their bios up at

    Two, if you are not already a part of our wonderful member organization, The Changing Course Club, I encourage you to consider this very modest monthly investment in your dream of self-employment.

    A highlight of the club membership is the opportunity to be on the monthly Opportunity Hour calls with me. Every month 2-3 members get to be on the Idea Seat where I and other members offer very specific solutions to very specific challenges.

    There’s a lot more to the CC Club, but overall it is about being a part of a supportive community of other dreamer who are working to nudge one another’s dreams along. To learn more go to

    If neither of these options is the right fit for you, I encourage you to continue to use this blog to reach out and get and GIVE support to your fellow dreamers.

    Thanks for all the kind words about this week’s article. Your encouragement means a lot to me.

  14. Karen graham

    This article has helped me out with my situation a bit, I feel like I am stuck with the career I am passionate about. I am hard of hearing and I have a huge passion for working with animals in veterinary clinics and ever since I have graduated from Animal Care college I have had a hard time finding and keeping a job. I plan on going back to college for veterinary technician. I can only hopo to learn more and improve my skills. I feel as though for every job interview I have, I don’t end up getting the job because people simply don’t want to work with hard of hearing people. It really frustrates me. I am just seeking out to people on the net who are in the same situation as me. I know how hard it is and I know to not get high hopes for anything. Just have to learn to do your best and show people you are a perfect match for the selected career.

  15. yay google is my king helped me to find this outstanding web site ! .

  16. Ruth

    I need some advice, I am studying the 3rd year at an institute and need 2 and a half years to finish, most of the time, specially these last months I have disliked going there, my body is in the class, but my heart is not there, I don’t love what I study, really, I am sure it’s something I wouldn’t like to work for the rest of my life, I want to do something different, don’t know what exactly, this would be my first professional career, I chose to study there because of a family advice.Thank you for your help.

  17. This would be the ideal time Ruth to step back and re-assess. It may feel like starting over but there MAY be a way to somehow use what you’ve learned thus far. You might also want to look ahead at the kind of work your education is preparing you for and talk to people who are doing the MOST interesting things with your type of degree.

    That may renew your interest.

    If not, reflect on what you would enjoy doing. And don’t forget to consider the kind of life you want and the degree to which that new direction allows you to say travel or work from home or whatever it is that would make you happy.

    I hope this helps!



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