Are you thinking of making a career change at 40? Starting a new career at 40 feels like a huge risk — throwing away your degrees, experience, and earning power for something unknown.
But if you’ve emotionally checked out of your career, the thought is exhilarating. And like the process of how to find your purpose in life, the journey is not the same for everyone.
The question is, what are you going to do about it?
This guide walks you through what to do when you need a change. It covers everything from how to choose a new career, to transitioning without going broke.
Let’s jump into it.
Should you start a new career at 40?
At first glance, switching careers is simple:
Decide what you want to do, then go do it. If you don’t, it’s because you’re afraid.
Almost every day, I hear a client say, “I want to do this big scary thing, but I can’t — I’m not brave enough.”
Instead of going back to school, starting a business, switching careers, people stay stuck. To successfully change careers at forty, you have to believe you can.
But I don’t believe it’s just about bravery.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to leave your current situation, and that’s probably why you haven’t done it yet.
In reality, it’s complicated — especially if you don’t know what you want to do.
Career change at 40 is messy, non-linear, and not easy. This is a more accurate version of how it happens:
- Realize you’ve emotionally left the situation you’re in.
- Set your feet on a crooked path of self-discovery.
- Experiment with ideas and possible new selves.
- Craft and conduct even more experiments.
- Keep earning money while you craft a new working identity.
This is the winding path that eventually leads the diligent and courageous to a new career.
Some will take months or years to figure it out. The process is NOT for the weak and easily worn individual. However, the journey can be exciting, invigorating, and insightful.
Now that you know what you’re in for, you have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it.
There are a few ways of thinking about this:
- How painful is your current situation? Maybe it’s tolerable, and you just want something more. Maybe you hate it.
- Will you regret not trying? Later in life, your biggest regrets are likely to be things you didn’t do.
- What’s the potential upside? You can’t know the outcome, but you can imagine what it will feel like. To be excited about going to work, learning new things, and living with purpose.
Can you start a new career at 40?
There are plenty of legitimate concerns keeping people stuck. Of course, you should evaluate the risks before making any big moves.
But if you focus on reasons not to change, it gets harder and harder to take action. This could mean you need to learn how to improve focus.
If you really want to make a change, here’s why you shouldn’t let these common excuses stop you:
Reason 1: I have too many responsibilities to take a risk.
By age 40, most people have adult responsibilities. You may have children to support, mortgage payments, and a comfortable lifestyle to maintain. The stakes are high.
And there is always the risk of judgment when you make a big change. Yes, some people will say you are having a midlife crisis. Why don’t you buy a motorcycle and get on with it?
The good news is that you can explore a new career safely, without quitting your job and burning through your savings. It’s not all or nothing — that’s a career change myth.
This guide will show you a path to transition slowly and build confidence as you go.
Reason 2: I don’t know what I want to do.
This is a big one for many people — you hate what you’re doing, but don’t have a clue what to do next. You’re in your 40s, and still trying to answer, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
What is it, exactly, that you think you want? How do you define success for yourself?
Let me take the pressure off right here. If you’re like the vast majority of people, you won’t find a rewarding career in a single lightbulb moment. Nor will you find it by following your passion, whatever that means.
More often, people arrive at a new work identity after a series of explorations. And there are practical steps you can follow to get started.
This guide will show you how to uncover the clues that lead to a satisfying career.
Reason 3: I’ve invested too much in my profession to throw it away.
You’ve spent time in your career building up experience. You’ve worked hard to move up the ladder. In some careers, it’s common to still be paying student loans at 40.
What was it all for?
This is called the sunk cost fallacy and it’s a terrible way to make decisions.
Continuing to do something that makes you unhappy, simply because of prior investment, doesn’t make much sense.
In your new career, you bring with you all your past experiences and everything you’ve learned. These things make you who you are.
It may be hard to see it now, but your existing skills can be a huge asset as you explore new career ideas. For the next step in your journey to career change at 40, let’s see what career is best for you.
Best careers to start at 40
It would be nice if I could list a bunch of job titles here. But that’s not how it works.
There’s more to choosing a new career than picking something that sounds better than your current one.
At 40, you want to be sure you’re making the right choice. You can’t afford to invest blindly in another degree or another decade in the wrong career.
The perfect career for you will combine your passion, strengths, and purpose. Those things are hard to define, but you can start by brainstorming lots of ideas about:
- What excites you?
- What you might be good at?
- What your values are?
You would ask yourself similar questions if you wanted to know how to be a badass.
The steps in the next section will show you how to uncover these things and build a meaningful career, at any age.
How to change careers at 40
So you know it’s not going to be quick, and it’s not going to be easy. But having a plan makes all the difference.
When you follow these steps for switching careers at 40, you’ll move forward with confidence. You’ll maintain a sense of safety by taking calculated risks. And you’ll become so excited about your new career that nothing will hold you back.
Step 1: Decide you are no longer engaged
My guess is that you’ve already done this step, or very close to it. That’s why you’re reading this article, right?
However, there’s an important distinction to make here. You can be disengaged but undecided, and that means you’re not ready.
Before anything can change, you have to make a mental shift:
Unhappy at work ⇒ Wanting something different ⇒ Resolving to do something about it.
The day you shift from wishing to deciding is a momentous occasion. It marks the beginning of your transition. Only once you’ve made a decision to change, can you start making it happen.
So make it official — mark your calendar. Your career transition has begun. Not surprisingly, decisiveness is also one of the characteristics of a leader.
Step 2: Gather information
Discovering what you want to do with your life is like imagining different versions of yourself.
Although you can’t always see it, many possible selves already exist within you. Your job in this step is to start excavating them from:
- Limited thinking: Due to experience, faulty logic, or simply fear, you probably have some limiting beliefs telling you what you can and can’t do.
- Old identities: All the roles and responsibilities you’ve identified within your lifetime, start to define you, even when they no longer fit.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but self-discovery is best done with outside help. Obviously, you are the least objective person when it comes to evaluating yourself.
Start by identifying your strengths, social style, and values with assessments like DISC and Standout 2.0.
Next, survey people who know you well. Don’t ask them for career ideas — this is a time for digging into your qualities. Find out what people see in you, with questions like:
- Where have you seen me add value?
- What do you suppose are my greatest strengths?
- What do you sense I’m most passionate about?
- What do you think drives me?
If you’ve been unsure why your current position is so dissatisfying, this step can make it crystal clear.
For example, if your strengths aren’t being utilized, you feel ineffective. If your personal values are in opposition to your work, you feel conflicted or disengaged.
Armed with new insights about what makes you tick, it’s time to make a plan of action.
Step 3: Identify possibilities
You may not have a new career idea fixed in your mind yet, and you shouldn’t. If you settle on a trajectory now, you’re likely to be way off the mark.
Instead, make a plan to explore and experiment. Identify small, bite-sized adventures based on what you uncovered. Come up with as many ideas as you can.
Think you might be interested in molecular biology? Go sit in on a lecture. Get some books out of the library.
Want to see what it would be like to work with kids? Babysit your niece and nephew for a weekend. Volunteer in a classroom.
Passionate about clean energy? Research new technologies. Talk to entrepreneurs in the industry.
Just like the previous one, this step is really hard to do alone. You need to generate a bunch of ideas for micro-experiments and reach outside of what you know.
By including a network of friends, relatives, and colleagues, you can draw from a much larger pool of resources. Other people will have fresh ideas that you may never have thought of. They may have connections to help you get a foot in the door somewhere otherwise inaccessible.
You’ll know you’ve completed this step when you’ve crafted at least one experiment or adventure.
Step 4: Run your first experiment
It’s time to start your first experiment.
The danger in this phase is that experiments can run on indefinitely. Since you’re still working in your current career, it will be tough to find time and energy.
To avoid losing momentum, create your experiment as a project. A project needs to have a few things in place to be successful:
- A defined scope, to avoid becoming too big to manage.
- A defined goal, so you know when you’re done.
- A plan, to make sure you can complete it.
Once you’ve scheduled time and allocated resources, run the project. Give yourself a deadline and be clear on the desired outcome.
Take some time to rest when you’re finished, and reflect on what you learned.
Step 5: Run experiments and find ways to earn
This step is where you will spend the most time. You have to try lots of different things, and see which ones have potential.
For example, a common career change at 40 involves consulting or freelance work.
Here’s what a process of becoming a highly paid consultant could look like:
- Take on a single, manageable freelance gig as a side hustle.
- Realize your first gig didn’t pay much, but you love working for yourself.
- Find a different, better-paying freelance gig.
- Explore multiple streams of income — different clients, different markets, different types of work.
- Develop a relationship with one of your clients, who offers you a year-long full-time contract.
This is a single example, and it could go in a thousand different directions.
You could realize you hate the industry in you’re in, even as a consultant. You could decide to start a business instead and cycle through several business ideas before you find a profitable one.
Your job in this step is to follow where these experiments lead or go back to your ideas from the self-discovery phase in Step 2.
Devise new experiments, keep going, and find new ways to earn money.
Through experimenting, you will find work that is satisfying and has great earning potential.
Through your experiments, something magical happens. Doubt and uncertainty lose their grip. By diligently working through projects, you prove to yourself that you have the ability to do this.
Step 6: Add fuel to your experiments
For most people changing careers involves working part-time at building a new work identity. Meanwhile, they still earn a living with the old one.
I call this a “Bridge Experience.” This phase can be a patchwork of experiences and jobs, and it can take a long time. You may be tempted to give up and just go back to your old career.
Fortunately, there are ways to speed up the process and stay motivated when things get tough.
It’s incredibly hard to go through a major life transition on your own – and career change at 40 is a big one. You will get mired in self-doubt, lose perspective, and get discouraged.
Outside perspectives are essential. Enlist the support of role models, advisors, a career transition coach, and cheerleaders. Meet with these people often.
Choose your support team wisely — don’t include people who rely on your salary and stability. They mean well, but can’t be relied upon for impartial advice.
And the same goes for anyone who consistently offers negative comments, no matter how close your friendship. When you step out and start following the beat of your own drum, you will trigger naysayers. Their fear-based thinking and doomsday advice is not what you need right now.
Find new connections and experiences
The people who helped in your previous career won’t necessarily be the best guides in your new one. Reach out and make at least three to five new connections.
Visit with experts in other fields or other people in transition. Artists, scientists, entrepreneurs — anyone willing to think outside the box can be a great source of ideas and inspiration.
The same is true of new experiences. Taking trips, trying new hobbies, and joining groups that capture your imagination can open your mind to new possibilities. And sometimes, new adventures can spark new career ideas.
Make time for reflection
We miss our greatest opportunity when all we do is work and experiment.
During your experiments, you are receiving all kinds of evidence. During downtime, your brain processes all of this stuff — it takes time for realizations to sink in.
Give yourself time to walk, nap, or go on vacation. During idle time, new insights can appear. Be willing to forget what you know, and think things through.
Embrace career change at 40
After running both tracks for a while, you will arrive at the final step which MUST be taken:
Abandon your old way of work and embrace the new.
A year from now, if you want to be somewhere other than where you are, pick one thing from this article and get moving.