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Psychology : Applied

Unlocking the Secrets of Transformative Career Change Part 2: Ditching the conventional path.

Aaron and Nathalie behind the scenes
Aaron and Nathalie behind the scenes

What happens when you find yourself well on the path to achieving what you’ve set out to, only to find that once you’re there it still feels eerily unsatisfying? This complaint is among the main features of what we understand as the midlife crisis. Such a crisis is often experienced as having accomplished most of one’s hopes “on paper” while at the same time feeling like something important still has not happened. When it feels like this it may not matter how highly accomplished you are on paper, you still nonetheless feel as if there is a void inside.


The reasons behind this experience are myriad and very individual. Some examples include:


  • Having chosen a career that was never really a good fit.

  • The career was a good fit but you grew in a different direction.

  • Professional choices have plateaued, but you need more challenge.

  • It’s not about the career but about your relationship to it.

  • You’ve become institutionalised.

  • You’ve become accustomed to the security of the known and are averse to inviting the risks that come with change.

These are just a few of the possibilities. You may identify with some of these, or something entirely different. You will have to look deeply into your own experience to find what may be happening in your individual case.


When it comes to the contexts and conditions of our lives that appear to make us unhappy, there are generally only three options: accept it, change it, or get out of the way.


Time To Show Up Logo

How we answer for ourselves whether we can accept it, change it, or get out of the way is a complex endeavour! These are the sorts of issues that Nathalie Nahai and I look into in our new podcast Time To Show Up. Over the next few weeks I’ll be digging into the specific themes that emerged in our conversations with our guests who have tread this road before to draw out what worked for them, in the hope it will shed light on your own professional journeys.

In Part One of this How To Show Up series of posts I laid out some of the contextual issues in which we are all embedded. Going forward, we’ll be looking at how our individual guests worked within their contexts, and the challenges and opportunities that were present there. On the surface there may not seem to be a whole lot in common between our first two guests, psychologist and psychedelics researcher Dr. Roz Watts and best-selling novelist SJ Watson, but in digging beneath the surface we unconvered some surprisingly resonant themes.


From Academia to Psychedelics:


Dr. Ros Watts, is a clinical psychologist and researcher, renowned for her groundbreaking work in psychedelic therapy, particularly with psilocybin-assisted treatments. Dr. Watts led the pioneering psilocybin research program at Imperial College London, and has co-authored papers exploring the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and featured in various podcasts and interviews discussing the transformative impact of psychedelic experiences. She later become the founder of ACER an integration community designed for connecting to the self, others, and the natural world.

What resonated for me about Roz’s journey was the moment that the originally aspired for academic life ended up being so unsatisfactory for her. The same thing happened to me. For many of us who are academically inclined, the aspiration of working in the hallowed halls of a university is a dream held for many many years. However, when many of us arrive there, our idealisation is burst. It’s not at all a universal thing, but many of us find that universities are just like other large organisations – pathologically institutionalising!


Pernicious Institutionalisation:


Academia can be a stultifying experience, especially for those with a creative resolve that often pushes against the generally inflexible systems embedded there. While these structures may speak to some and support their work, for others it can feel quite deadening (and the word on the street is that it’s getting worse). The trouble is, there’s a strong sunk cost in getting oneself there. We worked hard for our advanced degrees and positions. These positions are often relatively safe (though getting less safe) and the pensions are good (though less good), so there are a lot of things that keep us there even if our spirit longs to be elsewhere.


Dr. Watt’s story will be familiar to many, even those not in academia. That’s because the ambivalence that gets provoked between the pull to stay and the pull to go can be so strong. Sometimes it is the push factors, those things that really make the current system too unpleasant to remain, win out (that’s what happened to me). However, the risks of letting go of that sunk cost and taking the risk to do something different can be enormous. Managing that ambivalence and why those risks are important become very clear in Roz’s interview.


Resolving the conflict is then, only the beginning of the story. Once that decision is made, the challenge of a new life begins – which is where we go with Roz’s story.


From a Successful NHS Career to Becoming a Best-Selling Novelist:


They say that we all have a novel in us, but very few of us actually move to write it – and those who do rarely have them published. The secret writers in us make resolutions to awaken early, to write so many words a day, and to find an agent – but these resolutions rarely take. So how did it happen that SJ Watson not only wrote the thing – but was surprised to find it become a best-seller that was made into a Hollywood film?

Steve had everything going for him, a successful career as an audiologist in the NHS with a clear career progression track in front of him. Unlike Roz (and myself) his career wasn’t making him unhappy, it’s just that he had a creative project that was yearning to be made. Unlike most of us, he was able to hear that voice and make it happen. The stunning success was a total surprise to him, and continues to be to this very day.


Imposter Syndrome Writ Large:


Steve shared with us the varied voices that encouraged him to get the work done – and they were not all the pleasant sound of the muse. Steve was also motivated by a heavier burden lodged in the desire to prove himself as worthy due to being told otherwise so often by his father. He was so transparent and vulnerable with us, sharing that even when the evidence was in front of him about the sheer magnitude of his success, he nonetheless continued to doubt himself. It was as sure a case of imposter syndrome as we’ve seen.


SJ Watson’s interview begged the philosophical question of what success actually is? How do we measure it when objective measures of success don’t meet our expectations of ourselves?


Though we address many of these issues in a later interview with Oliver Burkeman, Steve’s frank openness about his frank disbelief in his own success is illuminating, and so familiar to us all. It also goes to show how important it is that we shouldn’t just identify what it is we want to achieve, but our relationship to those achievements and ourselves that is so important.


Our Personal Creative Expression in Work is a Part of Life!


For these reasons and more it is so important to approach our working lives as an important part of our personal expression. Failure to do this well enough is a source of unhappiness for many of us. It goes without saying, as I’ve mentioned previously, that the overall context (capitalism, resources, inequity, etc.) offers severe limitations to opportunities many of us have to embody positive change in our working lives. In short, some of us have more freedom and resources to do so than others. Yet all of us are confronted with the same problem of how to best live in within these limitations.


This is what Time To Show Up is all about, and why Nathalie and I have devoted so much time to understand how we can all learn to better thrive and flourish in our professional lives. This podcast is freely available to all via the links below and we hope you’ll listen and learn.

Unlocking the Secrets of Transformative Career Change:

For those of you who want to take an extra step and get the guidance and support to make the changes you want to make in your professional life, we are running a Transform Your Career Bootcamp as part of membership of our online community. You can try it out for two weeks free. If you use the code AARONSBLOG at registration we’ll throw your first month in for free too.

We know that unlocking the secrets of transformative career change can be a risky endeavour, so we made this first step risk free. So why not?


In the meantime, subscribe below to hear more about each of our interviews and what we’ve learned. Next up, Alison Coward, author of Workshop Culture and Lisa Marchiano, co-host of This Jungian Life and author of The Vital Spark. Both books available at a discount to members at our bookshop.




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