It’s scary to change careers

One year ago was my first day at Exec. I was so, so nervous. Walking into the office building, walking into the elevator, pressing the 7th floor – it was scary. Somehow I had convinced these smart people to give me a job. And somehow I got a job as a designer with basically no experience and no design education.

But I had done it and now I had to deliver. I didn’t know if I could deliver. But I also knew I could – it was this weird mix of blind faith and insecurity. I walked out of the elevator and thought, walk in as if you deserve this job and you are the best designer in the world. Go in, play it cool. They decided to hire you after seeing your work and it’s irrelevant how inexperienced you are.

Before I joined Exec, I was a project manager at Microsoft Excel. Two years into this job, I wasn’t happy. It was easy to blame my dissatisfaction on the company. Blame it on politics. Blame it on senior management. It was hard to realize the problem was not just Microsoft, but the career I chose.

The moment you realize your career is not right for you sucks. Maybe at first you genuinely enjoyed it. Maybe for a while you were only convincing yourself you enjoyed it. But the moment you finally admit to yourself – this job is not what I want to be doing – that’s scary. Did you waste all those years studying the wrong major? Did you go 100k in debt to get an education in the wrong thing?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. If not project management… then what? I’d always thought I knew what I wanted, and not knowing was the worst part. I felt lost and purposeless. It took a few months to figure out what I wanted to do next. I decided to become a designer, but I had no design skills. I thought about going back to school for design, but the time and money commitment was too big a risk for a career choice I wasn’t totally sure of.

So I taught myself – everyday I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design. Super talented people go to RISD for 4 years and learn design properly. I hacked together my piecemeal design education in 6 months – there was no way I was ready to become a designer. But I was so ready to leave Microsoft. So I started the job search and got rejected a few times. Then I got the job at Exec.

The first few weeks were rough. Everyday I sat in front of my computer trying my damnedest and thinking it wasn’t good enough. But everyday I got a little bit better. Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot, made stuff I’m proud of, and gained a lot of confidence in my job. But I still have plenty of insecurities. The gap between me and the incredibly talented designers seems insurmountable at times, but everyday I close that gap just a little bit.

I enjoy design and I’ll probably do it for quite some time, but I doubt it will be my last career. I want to get better not just as a designer – but as a writer, a programmer, a marketer, a musician, a dancer. I see incredibly talented people around me in all these areas. They make me feel insecure about my own abilities but they also show me what’s possible. They’re a constant reminder of what is worth working for.

–Update: If you’re ready to commit to working towards your new career every day, you may be interested in a motivational experiment I’m running: 100.

(Comic by SMBC)


  • Hehe, funny but so true! We have so much time to learn and try new things yet so little time to be wasting it. Never get stuck in the past, instead learn and move on to newer and more exciting opportunities.
    Thx, loved this post :)

  • To get a job in todays market without a degree would be harder then if you had a degree. Even degree applicants are having a tough time getting hired because of the steep competition and because the companies now want the applicant to know 2 jobs in one like graphic and web design , sometimes even programming to have a basic design job. If your a naturally gifted designer then you shouldn’t have a tough time finding a job or freelancing, but for people who want to learn design you should learn from others at a school. And yes you will be paying back the loan for a while but if you love to design you shouldn’t have a hard time doing something like freelancing, owning your own business , or finding a J-O-B!

  • Where do you get energy for your ideas? I know one guy with probably same amount of energy, but he’s tall and big! : )

  • Dang, I turn 32 in about 5 days. Hopefully I haven’t pissed away my 3 opportunities to be good at something. Well I would like to think I am “okay” in everything, but who knows!

  • Hey Karen,
    A friend sent me this post. As I read it, I grew incredibly excited; funnily enough, the same thing happened to me (although not in design, but in copywriting)! I wrote about it here:
    For me, it was the only way I could make sense of it all for my friends and my family.
    I’m glad I’m not alone. I know how hard it must have been, yet so seamless at the same time. I’ve been a copywriter for a year now, and I never once regretted my choice. I hope you don’t either.
    Good luck!

  • Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to
    your website? My website is in the very same area of interest as yours
    and my visitors would genuinely benefit from a lot of the information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this alright with you. Regards!

  • Hi Karen,

    Just dropping in to say that I absolutely LOVE the article in Fast Company, and I’m glad that led me to your gem of a blog.

    This post is spot-on, and it echoes many things I’ve experienced with regards to my own “career search.” I entered college for one thing, graduated with a degree in something else, and then experienced MANY choice/training/practice twists and turns on my path to becoming a designer and craftsman. [And who says that’s it?] I really love the continuing ed component that you mention.

    I used to be embarrassed about about my career “fluidity,” but I am soooooo over that. Through the years I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that I have the skills and abilities that allow for fluidity of choice(s) to begin with.

    Again, love-love-love your blog, and kudos on the Fast Company feature.

  • Hello Karen

    I’m Ana from Spain, I just read your blog and you already inspired me to try to be a designer. I studied a completely different major, business administration and in the current economic situation it’s very difficult to find a job. So I started my own business, I took a web development course to do my business website and I really enjoy it, some friends told me that I should take more courses to be a professional, but I didn’t want to go back to college and spend many years studying again something completely new and different. You show me that is possible reach something that seems difficult just by yourself. Thank you for share your knowledge with everybody.

  • Scary, maybe for some people changing careers is scary, and I can certainly understand why. Unfortunately I wasn’t built with the normal career change fear receptors everyone else has… At last count this was how many lives I have used…

    1. Full Time Amateur Athlete (Judo) – 1986-1989
    2. USAF Avionics Technician 1989 -1993
    3. Post Flight Data Analysis/Computer Programmer 1993-1998
    4. Internet Service Provider 1994-2001
    5. High Performance Engine Management and Tuning 2001-2003
    6. Student 2004-2011
    7. Clinical Psychology 2011-Present

    You’re certainly not alone. You can really do just about anything you believe that you can do. I plan to use all eleven, and maybe a few that the rest of y’all ain’t using!


  • Oh, dear! You’ve told my story! But I haven’t figured out my happy end, yet… Though, I know that something has to change and it will be very soon. Thank you very much for the inspiration you’re giving to all we lost souls! Lots of hugs, sweetheart!

  • Man you are such an inspiration! I first read about how you learned to dance in a year (thanks, StumbleUpon!) then I got an e-mail from a LinkedIn group I’m in with several articles about getting and maintaining a job and your article on Fast Company’s site was one of them…I didn’t connect who you were until I got to the bottom where it said you learned to dance in a year and I immediately went to your website. I am currently undergoing a career change myself from marketing to fashion design. However, I am going back to school for a degree for it. I do plan to also teach myself in my spare time (I don’t have any right now, sadly as I’m working full time and schooling full time) in addition to my formal education but reading about your experiences of teaching yourself things you wanted in just a year is truly an inspiration to me. I’ve been struggling with how difficult this is and how I’d be able to switch my career but now I feel a lot better knowing someone did it simply on their own and without the additional formal education. Thank you for sharing your experiences!!!

  • Karen,

    Inspiration, big time. I’m so glad to read this, that you could do it, that I can, that each of us can. Your steps are similar to the steps made by giants like Elon Musk, whom work hard as twice as everybody else to climb their mountain. it’s not just designing, it’s off-course in any other field.

    Thanks a lot, and keep carry the word of self-teaching.

  • Hi Karen !!!

    I am 20 now and thinking a lot about my career and so on.
    Thank you a lot for the article !!! It showed me that I should not be afraid of mistakes, just try different things, change and see what I like most.


  • I quit my job at Adobe 3 months ago to start a business. I’m not even close to launch, but I knew that every day I spent at work, was a day wasted and I was getting late day by day in realizing my dreams.

    You’re lucky that it took you just two years out of college to realize what you wanted to do, it took me close to 7 years. That being said, I have no regrets and I’m happy that I’m working towards accomplishing something that I will be proud of, not just pushing myself through a 8 hours shift every day.

    Just like you, I’m learning design by myself, I felt stuck and was searching for advice when I found your blog post about teaching yourself design, it’s a great piece of advice, made me feel better.

    I’ve followed you on twitter, lets connect, @apsthind is my handle.


  • Great article and very inspiring! Just like you , I like to switch my career, feeling stuck and searching for advice. and your blog spot felt me inspirable. Thank you so much.

  • Wow! its so great article and very inspiring!
    Like you, I’m also learning design by myself from last 3 months and currently working in a IT company, but I am not setisfied with my job and profile. I have wasted my 2 years, but now it’s enough, I will try my best to give a new turn to my career.

  • I love this account of your push to redefine your life. For me the central idea is that you were so motivated to start something new that you taught yourself. You leveraged your motivation and avoided as you say, taking too much time and paying too much money to go back to school.

    Funny how motivation was able to fill in the gaps other people see as insurmountable chasms unless they do things the conventional way. The state of things between your ears…

    It’s disappointing when you hear an edge of defensiveness in responses from people when you relate a story like you share here, when you suggest that if they are unhappy professionally they might also be able to redirect theselves… I think seizing a better carrer for yourself is–not easy, but more achievable than ever, with all the resources we have online now, many of them free.

    As long as the right mindset is there as a foundation.

    Anyway, you truly inspire people by continuing to share your (ongoing) story, and I enjoyed it! —Tom

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