Sometimes finding meaning in your work or happiness in your career requires more than just getting a promotion. Sometimes you need to shift your mindset and step out of what’s familiar to find Career Clarity. Several TarcherPerigee authors have experienced this firsthand, and in this series, these authors describe their big leaps—how they did it, what they learned along the way, and the advice they have for others who are considering a major career shakeup.
Name: Barbara Oakley
Former Positions: Waitress, cleaning woman, Russian translator, private to captain in the US Army, radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, engineer, professor of engineering, author, public speaker.
Career Switch: I’ve had many career switches over the years! Probably my biggest switch has been from being a translator to becoming an engineer. I had always hated math and science while I was growing up, so making that switch was tough for me.
What prompted you to make the shift from your former career or field into your current one? I could see that many interesting jobs were going to be opening up in the years to come that would hinge on having a technical background.
What were the biggest concerns or fears you experienced when you made this decision? How did you overcome them?
I had no idea whether I could change my brain to become more math literate. Going back to the university at age 26 to try to retrain myself in math and technology was a very scary prospect. Probably the smartest thing I did, looking back on it now, was to start at a very low level of math—remedial high school algebra. This allowed me to gain my bearings and become comfortable with the material at a slow speed. I also took a smaller than usual course-load each semester during my first few years of engineering study. In this fashion, I was able to concentrate on the new subject-matter and truly master it before climbing higher.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently—or anything that you wish you’d known then that you know now?
If I’d known then what I know now about effective learning, I could have made things easier on myself. Giving practical insights about how to make these kinds of learning shifts is what my book A Mind for Numbers is all about.
What pieces of advice would you give to someone who is considering a major life or career change?
If you feel very nervous and unsure of yourself, it’s a good indicator that you’ll be successful. People who are too self-confident that they can make a significant career change are also often too cocky to listen to others. This makes it tough for them to make the deep-seated changes they need to make to be successful in their new career.
I should add that making the change that comes with accomplishing a life makeover may seem scary at first, but ultimately, it’s fantastically uplifting! There’s good evidence that all those new neural connections that come with your life changes can greatly benefit your mood.
Is there a book that you would recommend to those who are thinking about making a significant life/career shift—a book that either helped or inspired you?
I can’t help but recommend my book Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. It was written directly to help those who are thinking about a career change!
Barbara Oakley is the author of MINDSHIFT, available at these retailers: