Career transitions are hard, but these three essential tips, starting with identifying your skill sets, can make it much easier.

You may be reading this after making a decision to search for your next professional opportunity. Perhaps you have lost a job, or simply cannot ignore the nagging feeling that you are not doing your life's work. No matter what brought you here, I want you to know that there are three simple steps you can take right now that will move you powerfully in the direction of whatever is next for you. These ideas are inspired by Laura Berman Fortgang's book Now What? and my experience coaching clients through career transitions.

Acknowledge the loss.

Let us start with a bit of background. William Bridges, an author and a veteran business consultant, made a key distinction between change and transition. Change is factual and situational: something goes away and leaves a space that something else can fill. Transition is a psychological process that people go through to adapt to change.

Here is a good rule of thumb: change is fast, transition is slow.

Transition, whether professional or personal, has three phases: the ending, the neutral zone (gap), and the new beginning. Since discomfort of the ending and the gap is, well, uncomfortable, we naturally focus on getting to the other side as quickly as we can. In my experience, the strategy of powering through to your next job does not serve you. I understand that my invitation to sit with discomfort might sound counter-intuitive, but stay with me.

The reality is that when making a career change, you are experiencing a loss. You might be disappointed that a decision to take your current position did not turn out the way you had imagined it would. You may be emotionally hurt from having lost your job in a downsizing. You may be missing your reliable paychecks and feeling angry. All of that is valid. It is also extremely difficult to see possibilities from this place of disappointment, fear, anger, and confusion.

The benefit of acknowledging your loss is that it allows you to notice the upside. Whether you have come here willingly or have had a rug pulled out from under you, you get to decide what happens next. The sooner you can shift from “I am cornered” to “Here are my puzzle pieces, I wonder what I can build with them?” mindset, the sooner you can see the multitude of options in front of you.

So, acknowledge the loss first. It is essential to what we will do next.

Separate the gift from the box.

Now that you are clear on what you have lost, or are about to lose, you are ready to look at what you get to keep. I would like to ask you to think of yourself as a present.

There is packaging – a cardboard box, wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows. There is also a gift inside. The packaging represents the specifics of your previous jobs, your status, clothes, the money you made, and the positions you held. The gift is the real you: all the qualities, skills, experiences, and inspirations that will serve you for the rest of your life.

How can you tell them apart? If something can be taken away or given up, it is packaging.

Here is an example to illustrate the point. This one is near and dear to my heart because it is my own. Meet Natalia, age 31, figuring out what to do with her decade of CPA and consulting experience, a passion for cooking and making art, and a lifelong study of human potential.

Related: Changing Careers? 7 Details to Include on Your Resume

External package

Internal qualities

CPA license for 10 years

Clear thinker

Big 5 auditor in the financial services industry

Exceptional communicator

Controller at a large hospital

Deep listener

Consultant to California municipalities

Strategic view with good grasp of technical detail


Creativity, with a flair for language

Perceived as knowledgeable

Keen eye for opportunity and potential

Access to perks

Building relationships

Regular promotions. Manager.

Passion for adding value and being of service


Quick learner

So, do this for yourself now. What do you get to take with you into your next adventure? Make a list.

Related: What Kind of Job Candidate are You?

Leave the old box behind to find your skills and desires.

Now, list in hand, we have clarity on raw materials. Think of yourself as a child with a box of Lego blocks, or a contestant on The Iron Chef with a list of allowed ingredients. What will you make?

This is the step where you get to approach your own “ingredients” creatively. With the “gift” defined, let us explore some options for new packages!

Your task is to make a list of all new jobs, career paths, and professional roles you can think of, given what you know is true about who you are. There is only one condition: anything that makes it on the list must genuinely appeal to you. Just because you have done something before, or have the transferable skills to do it well, does not automatically make it an inspired new direction. Make the list as wide as you can. We want many options – there will be time to narrow down the field later.

The challenge of this step is staying open to possibility. Do not switch on your rational thinking. The part of your brain that protests “I don't have credentials for that!” or “How could I possibly keep my lifestyle doing this?” does not get to vote yet. We will get there later.

Staying with my earlier example, this is what Natalia's list looked like.

  • Food blogger

  • Management consultant

  • Forensic investigator

  • Executive coach

  • Teacher

  • Writer

  • Artist

  • Consignment store owner

  • Florist

  • Party planner

  • Professional organizer

  • Personal shopper

As you can see, my options were definitely wide. Narrowing down the list is a subject for another article, but you might be curious about what my direction turned out to be.

After much consideration, I decided that as much fun as owning a consignment store or being a personal shopper would be, my passion was not in clothes. I had the mind for technical detail that made me a great management consultant or investigator, but just because you are good at something does not make it your purpose. I felt that a common thread throughout my life has been the joy in helping people grow, and my desire to be of service. Coaching would give me an opportunity to do that. I could still use my technical skillsets, as well as my ability to see strategic options. I would also get to use my writing and artistic skills.

My next step? Enrolling in a coach training program.

In closing, I encourage you to complete these steps for yourself when making a career change. Take stock of your losses. Inventory what you are taking with you. Make an inspired list of possibilities. That way, we can walk through narrowing down the field next time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Click on the following links to access Part II (figuring out your next career move) and Part III (how money comes in during a career move).

Let TopResume help you write the next chapter of your career with our resume writing services.

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