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Career Development: It’s Not for Wimps


This article was originally posted by ASTD in honor of 2012 Career Week.

In honor of its annual Career Week, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) partnered with Bev Kaye and me to conduct a survey designed to surface a variety of career-related issues.

One dimension focused on collecting stories from members about the scariest but best career moves they’d ever made. This really captured the imaginations of those who responded but also those who’ve reviewed the findings since.

Although the sample size was relative small (less than 100 courageous professionals who share their experiences facing fear and trepidation to achieve something better), the results are powerful nonetheless.

A simple analysis of themes allows us to summarize key ideas from the data collected.

Changing field or industry 26%
Relocating 11%
Seeking further education 10%
Taking on a new role/responsibilities 10%
Changing sectors 7%
Going freelance or starting own business 7%
Leaving a job with no alternative employment 7%
Leaving a long-term position 6%
Taking a position with less pay, benefits or security 4%
Taking initiative with networking or interviews 4%
Turning down an opportunity 4%
Becoming a teacher 2%
Joining the military 2%
TOTAL 100%


Who would have guessed that changing one’s field or industry would be the top scariest move to make? Stunningly, it’s twice as scary as making a physical move, three times scarier than starting one’s own business and twelve times scarier than going to war!

In a recent interview, leadership expert Jack Zenger advised young professionals to choose their industry wisely because the vast majority will end up in the field they first selected. And, now we know that the source of the inertia may be fear.

But those who felt the fear – yet made the industry change anyway – were rewarded in a variety of ways, large and small.

Liberation and learning: Transitioning to a new industry creates a wide-open playing field. The absence of established mental models and ‘rules’ can allow us to approach learning in a new and unrestricted fashion.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know and that allowed me not to be intimidated and learn my way.”

Confidence: Doing something scary is one of the quickest way to build self-assurance and discover what we can do.

“It proved to me that there is more than one way to use your skills and experiences…”

Satisfaction and happiness: Playing it safe is comfortable. But working through the fear, trusting our instincts, and taking that leap can lead us toward a future we never dreamed possible.

“It turned out that L&D was my dream…”  “…[I] found a field that I absolutely love now.”

So, tell me your story. What scary career moves have you made and how did you benefit?


  1. I had a new boss join an organization that I had been working at for several years. His second week on the job, be asked each of his direct reports what role they would like to play in the organization, as he was considering an organizational structure change. As an experienced HR Generalist with a strong focus on internal talent development and L&D, I was open to any configuration, EXCEPT to head a RECRUITMENT function. I felt that role was a perpetual, tactical assignment lacking strategy,innovation, and a strong tie to the business. By the end of the week, he announced my new role – The VP of Recruitment. I assumed this was his way of having me leave to bring in his own team. It ended up being quite the contrary, it was his way of having a very straightforward career conversation with me about the need to get out of my comfort zone, and build new skills I would acquire to balance out my other credentials. It ended up being one of the very best moves I’ve ever made. It challenged me, stretched, and prepared me to ultimately run the entire HR function, but with even richer skills and a deep personal passion for the Recruitment Function. To this day, I’ve never had a role that allowed as much innovation, strategy and strong business impact. It took a lot of trust in a boss,virtually a stranger at that time, which of course was very scary, but once I got beyond the fear -his support and confidence and guidance in my role, me fueled tremendous personal growth that has stayed with me my whole career.

    • And the rest is history, Sharon! What a great story… and what a great boss. This paints a picture of someone who quickly got to know who you were, what you already had under your belt, what you were capable of, and what experiences you needed to move forward and toward your goals…. and then took bold action to help you do it/

      What also strikes me from your note (because I share this tendency) was your reaction: “I assumed this was his way of having me leave.” I wonder how frequently these sorts of bold and strategic moves are misinterpreted by employees? What a huge loss it would have been if you’d acted on that misunderstanding and left. But, that didn’t happen…. and thank goodness for the HR function and all of the people in your organization!

      Thanks for starting this conversation!


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