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Is it always a bad thing to drift in your career?

Young businesswoman using a digital tablet while standing in front of windows in office
Sometimes, it’s only by 'drifting' in your career that you can work out what you want to do, what makes you happy and where your skills lie. Photo: Getty

Some people have a strong sense of direction when it comes to their careers. After leaving school or university, they know what they want to do, how to get there and the skills and experience they need. But for others, the path is less clear.

In 2019, a survey of 662 full time US workers by job site Indeed found nearly half had made a dramatic career shift, for example, from marketing to engineering, or from teaching to finance. And while it’s great to switch jobs to something you’re passionate about, it’s a lot harder if you’re not happy in your job, but don’t actually know what it is that you want to do.

As a result, you may find yourself drifting along in a series of jobs without a clear plan — which we are often told is a bad thing. But is this necessarily true?


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“Moving quickly from one job to another can open employees up to a variety of skills, as well as getting experience of working in different company cultures and under varying management styles,” says Emma Louise O'Brien, award winning career coach from Renovo.

“Those who move jobs more frequently are likely to flourish in a wide range of environments and can bring the experience of working in these different ways to a new role,” she adds. “They’re likely to have been exposed to many different ideas that they can then apply to future jobs.”

Taking new opportunities can also give people access to a wide network of potential employers or business partners, allowing them to work out which roles they enjoy and excel at. Moving jobs regularly can show that they are not afraid of change and are constantly motivated to progress.

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And sometimes, it’s only by “drifting” in your career that you can work out what you want to do, what makes you happy and where your skills lie. Even if you had a goal in mind at the start of your career, our interests and priorities change over time — so it’s normal to reconsider your options.

However, drifting along in your career does come with pitfalls. Without a rough plan, you may end up relying too heavily on “luck” to find the right job, or stuck in a rut at a company you hate with no idea how to get out.

Moving from job to job may also hinder your chances of getting a job you do want, O'Brien adds.

“Hiring new staff is an expensive and time-consuming process — if a job seeker’s record shows that they’re likely to move on again in little over a year or even less, the potential employer is likely to be reluctant to invest their resources in training and hiring them,” she says.

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“Although moving jobs frequently can keep your network fresh, any relationships made might be seen to be underdeveloped. This can be problematic if swapping industries, as professional relationships may not be as strong as those kept within the same industry and may be detrimental when referrals or references are needed.”

So if you’re lacking in direction, how can you work out what you want to do — or what you want from a job?

Visualise your future

O'Brien recommends using the varied experience you have gathered in your working career to generate new ideas about your career.

“Go back to the drawing board and clarify and refocus your priorities. Start creating mind maps to help you create a clear picture of what you want your life to look like,” she says.

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“This will help you identify and articulate what you want out of your career and what your priorities are. Ask yourself; What would my ideal job be if every job paid the same? What would I do if anything was possible?”

Reflect on each job you’ve done and the aspects you enjoyed, such as communicating with others, helping people or sticking to a set number of hours.

Identify your transferable skills

“A common concern for individuals looking for direction is working out what skills and experience they have that could be transferred over to a new chosen career path,” O’Brien says. “This is where moving jobs often can actually benefit you. Have a clear understanding about what you have to offer and what you could bring to a new career.”

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Take a look at job descriptions and look at the common skills and experiences businesses typically have or need. “Think about the skills you have enjoyed using and what aspects of your previous roles you have been good at,” O’Brien adds. “What personal qualities are transferable into other sectors or roles? And how does your work experience relate to other sectors?”

Use your network

You can also use the wide variety of people you’ve met during your employment to help you work out a plan. “Building and maintaining relationships and contacts that you already have to help you identify new work opportunities is a great way to make proactive progress” O’Brien advises.

“Talk to people whose careers inspire you about the roles that they do. Somebody may know somebody in an industry you’re interested in who they can introduce you to.”

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