There’s a good chance you’re stuck in a career that’s not rewarding or satisfying, where you’re just punching the clock for a paycheck. I don’t mean that as anything personal, but more than 70% of workers feel that way and a third want a new job (and you’re reading this article) so it’s a safe bet.

It’s also a safe bet that you don’t have any idea how to make things better. Career skills are almost never taught in school or at work, and most job hunting sites and recruiters just want to move you into the same job at a different company rather than helping you think about something better (and don’t even ask if they want to help you build a plan to get something different). It makes sense, that’s how they get paid. Our take on recruiters is here.

But as coaches, our goals are different — we help you manage and own your career, so you can control your own success and happiness. We talk to a lot of people who are stuck just like you, and we know the real reasons it happens. Here are five of the top reasons it happens. The first two are the biggies.

1. You don’t know how to plan your career

Almost nobody knows how to tell if a certain career will make them happy, or even how to get the information to start thinking about it. And even fewer know how to change careers successfully. As far as work unhappiness goes, the lack of career education is an epidemic.

Take Leigh, who I talked to recently (not her real name). Leigh is an office manager and wanted to start a business as a recruiter. This was a surprise since Leigh didn’t seem like a “beat the pavement to find clients” kind of person. I asked if she had talked to recruiters or done research to get a full picture of what recruiters spend their time doing. In other words, did she really understand what was involved with recruiting? While this might seem obvious, I’m still shocked at how many people base their career choice on little more than “heard it at the water cooler” information or “saw it on TV” biases.

But you can do better — a lot better. Much information is available on different careers, and networking, research and experimentation can give you a very good idea of what a career is actually like. And we know a great deal about what characteristics of a career and job make people happy.

Even if you know where you want to go, few people know how to execute a successful career shift. You won’t get a job in your new career based on desire alone. Developing a solid plan to understand your needs and to build the knowledge, skills and network you need to change careers is critical.

Through coaching and managing many people, I’ve found that the vast majority lack either or both a solid understanding of where they want to go in their careers and a well-conceived plan to get there. But a plan and the accountability it brings are absolutely essential to effective career change.

Coaches know this well — it turns out we know a lot about helping people find careers that they love. Career coaching and counseling has been going on for more than 80 years and a great deal of research shows coaching works to help people understand what careers will make them happy. Learn how to plan your career and do it right.

2. You dream but don’t act

This is the #1 problem and it’s not even close (if you’re wondering, I list it as #2 because it wouldn’t make sense without reading #1). And the result is too much thinking, not enough doing. But seeing what you like (and building skills for a new career), are all about doing.

Rather than try to convince you of this, I’ll leave it to Shonda Rhimes, who’s much better with words than I:

[People] tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big…

I think that’s crap.

I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.

The dreamers. They stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly…

Maybe you write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good… And that is what everyone says you should be doing. Right? I mean, that’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?


Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.

So, Lesson One, I guess is: Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just … do.

Dartmouth commencement speech (do yourself a favor, read the whole thing).

Turns out, she’s exactly right about careers. Many people get trapped in the myth that they need to know what career they want before starting to work on their career at all, but this is exactly backwards. Only by taking action can you see what you like and don’t like. Only by acting can you build the skills and experiences necessary for a different career. The most important part of learning what you love and building a path to achieving it is acting. Start now, keep going even when it seems futile, and figure out later what worked.

3. You’re too pessimistic

How you think about yourself and your chances to succeed has a major impact on what you decide to do (bold steps or not), how long you stick with it (especially important in light of #2 above) and how successful you’ll be.

Priya (not her real name), described this when she said “the good things make me feel good for a second but when something goes wrong, I can’t stop thinking about it.” And thinking about it killed her motivation, led to a spiral of “nobody in my new career would ever hire someone like me”, and created, in her words, a “crisis” in her career exploration. Priya’s story is common. At a career workshop at Stanford, participants discussed their main concerns about career shifts. They were accomplished, mid-career professionals, yet more than three-fourths mentioned things like “can I do it” or “am I smart enough”. Few things derail more career efforts than our “inner critic”.

Fortunately, pessimism can be overcome — it can be unlearned or defused. Techniques help people learn how to judge the effect and meaning of failure better, and how to limit the impact of challenges and roadblocks. One view on how to do this comes from Martin Seligman, the influential psychologist, in his book Learned Optimism. A core part of coaching is helping people have perspective on their successes and failures, to provide a neutral viewpoint to offset their own, overly critical view. We spend much time overcoming pessimism and helping people appreciate their successes.

4. You outsource your happiness

Far too many people think their company will plan their careers, and will help them find jobs that they’ll like or that at least will provide better opportunity. But the vast majority of managers and companies don’t do this at all. And recruiters aren’t the answer either, as we discussed above.

With the death of traditional career paths, so goes the kind of traditional professional development previous generations enjoyed. You can no longer count on employer-sponsored training to enhance your communication skills or expand your technical know-how. The expectation for even junior employees is that you can do the job you’ve been hired to do upon arrival or that you’ll learn so quickly you’ll be up to speed within weeks. Whether you want to learn a new skill or simply be better at the job you were hired to do, it’s now your job to train and invest in yourself. Companies don’t want to invest in you, in part because you’re not likely to commit years and years of your life to working there — you will have many different jobs in your lifetime. There used to be a long-term pact between employee and employer that guaranteed lifetime employment in exchange for lifelong loyalty; this pact has been replaced by a performance-based, short-term contract that’s perpetually up for renewal by both sides. You can look to your family or friends, but they’ll tell you who you are, not who you need to be. All these people can help you, but they can’t tell you how to be happy. You need to do that yourself.

Reed Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career

You can always talk to family and friends, but they’ll usually tell you who you are, not who you should be. And they’re often caught up in keeping you the same (it’s hard to change, and it’s painful to have people around us change when we’re stuck), especially if your salary, status or job benefits them. And often it does — how many parents prefer a daughter who’s a doctor or lawyer instead of an electrician?

Nobody owns your career, and nobody cares about your success and happiness like you do. If you want it done right, only you can manage your career, and you need to take control of your future.

But of course, family and friends are important to you. Our advice isn’t to ignore them — how could that be a good idea if your goal is happiness? You can’t pretend they don’t exist, but for you to be happy — your ultimate goal — you likely need to include them in your career journey (or at least overcome their concerns).

5. You don’t know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em

As noted above, getting going and staying going is the hardest part of career change. Pessimism, self-doubt, unsupportive family, time obligations and so on all conspire to keep us stuck. It’s far too easy to fall back into old routines and not to keep up with the work we need to put into our career happiness. Some thoughts on failure are here.

You have to find ways to keep going. A support team or group of others going through change (or, of course, a coach), are great ways to be motivated. In a non-scientific study we performed, 100% of respondents said one of the main benefits of coaching is having support and accountability to keep with their plan.

Not far behind was dealing with the emotional roller coaster of change — it’s hard to be a novice again in a new career path, a journey that has more bumps in the road than we expected. Finding a way to overcome these destructive emotions is critical. Here are some tips.

Career growth doesn’t come down to a burst of energy followed by glorious success. Like most things, it’s sometimes a slog, finding 30 minutes three times a week when you’re tired. Finding a way to ensure that commitment is essential for getting unstuck.

What does it mean?

Finding career happiness isn’t always easy — our economy is not set up to reward happiness, and businesses and schools don’t encourage it. But it can change your life. You can do it, with enough work. I hope these tips start you on a path to a career that you find rewarding, satisfying, fun and lucrative.

CareerWave is an online career and business coaching service that is transforming coaching with highly effective coaching that is available anywhere and is much more affordable than a traditional coach. Our coaches help clients find careers and companies they love and develop the skills necessary to get them. To learn more about our coaching services, contact us at or visit us at