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My Career Change Story

Posted April 11, 2017 by

We’re talking about spring-cleaning this month at Inside8, and what could be more sweeping than making a career change? A lot of people think about changing careers as a way to find greater personal fulfillment, so I decided to share my story to hopefully inspire them.

I’ll talk about why I did it, how I prepared, the important first steps that created the right foundation, the roadblocks, and the ongoing sources of inspiration that kept me going when all seemed lost. It’s important to remember that with something as big as career change, things don’t always work out according to plan.

Why Change Careers

We often read about people who are forced to change careers because of a layoff or other major life event out of their control. Warner Burke, one of my professors at Columbia University and a distinguished organizational psychologist, likes to call these shifts “perturbations.”

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: There was no such perturbation in my life. In fact, I had a great career. I had been a successful entrepreneur and had just completed work on one of the most challenging and rewarding assignments of my career.

My point is that change doesn’t always have to come from a negative place. You can just be a person seeking more from life. And it doesn’t have to be a selfish pursuit. Instead it often involves doing something that benefits others because you’ve reached a point in life where you finally have a strong sense of who you are and what makes you happy.

Earning Credentials

The initial step in my career change was acquiring the credentials to pull it off.

My first career was in strategic communications. It gave me a lot of experience in understanding human motivations and their importance in our behavior and decision-making. But I had no professional credentials in psychology, which was my interest.

I found a master’s program in organizational psychology and change management at Columbia University. I could meet its requirements and, better yet, afford the tuition and New York City living expenses.

I’m sure it sounds like fun going back to school and having NYC as the backdrop. And it was.

But it was also challenging because, for the first time in a while, I had to be vulnerable and open to new learning. I had spent a career, beginning in my late 20s, being “the expert.” It can be a jarring transition going from expert to student—and that’s something every career changer should know.

What you should also know is that letting it happen can be invigorating and energizing. For me, it was about being free to think differently. There’s a joy to that and those happy feelings convinced me that I didn’t have to be who I used to be, and could still become who I might have been.

Clearing Mental Space

While school was fun and engaging, it also was taxing. It was a psychology program, and if you’re into the learning, it affects you. This was especially true at Columbia because I found their program to be focused on deficit-based psychology. That means it’s about fixing you and teaching you how to fix others. There was a brief segment on positive psychology, but not enough to make an impact.

I find the deficit-based approach toxic. First, you take a lot of tests that identify your characteristics and traits, and strengths and weaknesses. The work is supposed to be about leaning into your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses, but human nature causes many people to obsess over the weaknesses, or just not deal with it at all. That’s a miserable way to live and it risks sanding away some of what makes you unique.

By the time I graduated, my psyche needed a good scrubbing, so I turned to meditation.

There’s a common misperception about meditation—a lot of folks think it’s about intensely focusing on the issues in your life. Not so. Meditation is about letting go of attachments so we can more clearly access our inner wisdom and act on our true potential.

It’s almost impossible to describe how meditation works and its benefits. You have to do it to truly understand. But I knew I was making progress when I could sit with a negative feeling and experience profound sadness, but as an observer. Eventually the negative feeling leaves, along with the attachment to it.

Learning meditation was a turning point in my career change story. Not only did it give me the mental space to figure out a future direction, but it also helped establish the positive psychology foundation that would anchor my new venture.

Here’s what happened: My yoga and meditation teacher, Nina, taught me how to let go of attachments without allowing me to become attached to her. She could have guided me through a regular meditation practice, but instead felt it was more important that I learn the techniques so I could do them for myself.

I contrasted my teacher’s approach to that of many deficit-based psychology practitioners. She provided me with a self-sufficient way to change my life, without any judgment. Deficit-based psychology makes absolute judgments and breeds dependence because you can never fully overcome your weaknesses.

From that experience, I knew that whatever I did with my psychology credentials, I wanted to help people find their own power.

The lesson for every career changer is to have clarity of purpose. It will sustain you through what can be a difficult transitional period. How you come to it is up to you. I happened to find meditation, and its lessons greatly influenced the direction of my new career.

First Steps to A New Career

I decided to start a new entrepreneurial venture. It was a difficult decision because I had done it before and it is hard. But I didn’t see another realistic option. I wasn’t going to be the new young rising star at a consultancy like McKinsey; in fact, I didn’t have enough direct experience for any significant change-management job.

Given my disdain for the state of personality testing, I decided to create a new kind of personality assessment. The new test would identify human motivations—the drivers of our behavior and decision-making—and deliver real insight, not just a bunch of characteristics and traits. It would show people how we’re all deeply connected through common motivations, thereby pointing the way to more fulfilling relationships.

Just as important, the new test would help people understand their own deep needs. Those needs are called intrinsic motivations and studies have shown that satisfying your intrinsic motivations leads to greater fulfillment, engagement, creativity and commitment in life and work.

Because of the mental clarity I gained from meditation, creating the test was relatively easy. The process of invention took a few months, and then we spent about a year demonstrating and refining the product in various group, corporate and sport settings.

The next part took a couple of years, and that’s where knowing my purpose and connecting with like-minded people kept me going.

Involving Others

In my blog posts I write a lot about how we should run our own race and not let other people limit our potential with their opinions. However, if you want to get something done, it’s good to engage with talented people who identify with your sense of purpose because it’s also theirs. They’re not following you; they’re fulfilling their own motivational needs along with you.

Inside8 came to be because there’s a small, very skilled group of people who intuitively understand the importance of motivations in daily life and we want to help others be fulfilled. Some of these people I’ve known a long time and they’ve been there from the beginning. They encouraged me to leverage the opportunity of going to Columbia University. Others I met along the way, and I knew we were on the right path because those chance meetings developed into meaningful connections.

I’d like to talk about each of these people and how they’ve contributed to make Inside8 a reality, but that is another post. This post is about career change, and the insight is how our group found the motivational connection and bonded over the bigger cause.

Those kinds of relationships can help sustain a career change. For example, we ran into some problems, like everyone said we would. We were waylaid at times, but never stopped. We learned from our mistakes and kept elevating our game. The most important thing we learned was to put aside our personal preferences and listen to the needs of the audiences we hoped would embrace the test.

A New Beginning

According to the Inside8 test, I’m a Primal Originator®. That means a lot of things, but one of them is that my creativity is best used in service to others. Inside8 is the perfect expression of my deepest motivational values and beliefs—and represents the ideal career change for me.

What is your career change story? We hope you’ll share. Take the test, join our forum, share your experiences and help others write their story.


Sean M

Sean Murphy is the founder of Inside8®. He has an M.A. in organizational psychology from Columbia University.

All stories by: Sean M

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