Changing role or career? Are you an oil-tanker or a speedboat and why does that matter?

​I was once advised that changing career in mid-life is like turning around an oil tanker. In a mature economy there is little room for enthusiastic amateurs or people who are quite good at what they do for a living and companies are unlikely to invest in you. Quite apart from the fact that this ignores entrepreneurial, portfolio or 'lifestyle' careers, having changed career myself and advised many others I now see this advice for what it is- narrow and self-defeating. You do however need to understand yourself and your risk profile well. Here's my advice for speedboats and oil tankers alike.

Like Comment

If you consider yourself to be more of a speedboat than an oil tanker and quite capable of taking on the slings and arrows of the free market, that is a good attitude to take- and let’s face it you will need plenty of resilience and hutzpah to make it happen. However career change is more challenging than modifying your skill set and tweaking your qualifications. The bigger challenge is likely to be a psychological one; patterns of thought and behaviour become set over time and as Oscar Wilde pointed out, our very identity is shaped by what we do;

‘We become what we become by doing what we do’

Worst of all, we start to believe that we are not capable of changing. This kind of self- limiting assumption is something which I come across all the time. Many people struggle to find the commitment and the tools to make change. Fear often holds them back and finding the courage to overcome it is the first and biggest part of the challenge. Providing the vision and belief is often the next stage.

If you have been doing the same thing for a long time, the challenge maybe akin to turning around an oil tanker and it will take time to do that. Because your career is part of your identity and who you are, you need to be prepared to let that part of you go and that may be a frightening prospect. Issues of status, belonging, identity and self-worth are all at stake here and it will take courage and eventually a leap of faith to let these things go.

However, once you become committed to changing role, or to a more radical career change that is half of the battle. It is astonishing how much energy and resource you will be able to tap into once you have reached this level of resolve. From personal experience the process only starts when you have the qualifications and the badge and continues incrementally as you perform your new role and start to think of yourself differently over time. The bad news is that if you are an oil tanker, then the procrastination which probably held you back in the past may reassert itself, until you find the belief to think about yourself differently, and to fully inhabit your new career identity.

If you are more of a speedboat and are perhaps embarking on the change at an earlier point in your career, the good news is that it may take less time to make the change. The bad news is that you maybe a little too inclined to rush the change or make choices which are incremental, rather than addressing the fundamental problems which have caused you to become unhappy. There is a place for tactical change to address minor discomfort. The danger for speedboats is that they may be too pragmatic and seek tactical solutions to more deep rooted problems. If you are in this camp then please be aware that the quick fixes are rarely the lasting ones.

So whether you are an oil-tanker or a speedboat (or a frigate or something in between) you must above all be honest with yourself so that you can anticipate and address your own specific psychological challenges and the obstacles you are likely to face along the way. That sometimes requires the professional support of a coach and mentor, who can also help you with the what and the how of career or role change too. If you are inclined to rely on friends and family, consider this.

A dose of honesty and tough love go a long way and you may be more likely to get that from a professional coach or mentor. They will challenge you, and more importantly ask you questions which will lead you to reflect and challenge yourself more rigorously. If your narrative is based on scarcity, they will encourage you to think more positively about yourself, your attributes, potential and adaptability. They will improve the quality of your thinking and broaden your horizons without patronising you or judging your choices in any way.

You may end up doing something which is closely aligned to what you do today, or in a related field. This should not be a surprise because you will find greatest employability in areas which are closest to your sweet spot and where you add most value. The point is that whatever choices you make, it is best to make them from the inside-out based on what is best for you in a broader sense than you may have considered in the past.

One of the good things (and there are many) about mid-life is that you are less concerned about what others may think. Whatever stage you are at it is best to adopt this attitude if you are to make the right choices for you, rather than just paying the bills as so many of our forebears were constrained to do.

Finally, if the idea of taking risks leaves you wanting to dive for cover, you might want to counter this instinct by playing out in your mind what 'staying safe' really means?

If you would like impartial advice you can contact me via my email address and I will be sure to get back to you. e/

David Head

Coach and Mentor, Accelerating Experience

With twenty years experience in the search industry before becoming a coach, I combine highly personalised coaching and mentoring with broader commercial insight and perspective. I will help you to find your purpose, to thrive in your career and to change direction when this is what is needed. I will commit to helping you to achieve a state of flow by aligning values and purpose with what you do and how you do it. contact me via 07920 064056


Go to the profile of Diane Priestley
about 6 years ago
This is a really interesting and helpful article of personal relevance. I've had three major careers over 37 years. I started out as a newspaper journalist in my 20s, had a stint in politics as a local government elected councillor in my 30s and after that stress decided to study and qualify in psychology and counselling in my 40s! I did qualify and run a private practice for a few years in Australia but missed the creativity of writing and my profile in the media so returned to journalism! Now in my late 50s, I'm on the brink of another change - moving into the charity sector to work on humanitarian issues. However I know my first love, writing will remain central to my work. David, you're right when you say it's better to recognise your true talents and diversify into new fields while keeping the core of you, rather than making a radical change into something completely different that requires learning a whole new range of skills. A "new" career in midlife can be the culmination of your lifetime of experience. Since I was a teenager I wanted to be a folk singer-songwriter but that will never happen! I simply lack the talent and experience. That ship has long since sailed or was never launched! I think this unfulfilled part of me is called the "Lost Self". However I can enjoy the music of other talented performers while I get on with what I'm good at ... writing...on new subjects with a fresh twist!
Go to the profile of David Head
about 6 years ago
Thank you for your feedback Dianne and for sharing your story. I think that most people will need to be as adaptable as you have been and change career more than once in their lives. They will also need to shift between employment, self employment and portfolio careers in response to the fast changing world around them. I tell my daughters this the whole time and i can see their eyes rolling as I type this response.. :-)