I’m always interested when clients tell me they want to change careers, or start their own business, or introduce a sweeping change in their workplace – especially when they expect to make this shift without a learning curve.

I recently had a client who was planning a total career overhaul, which seemed to me to be exactly what she needed to do (her present work environment was quite appalling). She had a plan of action and plenty of motivation (so far so good). But when I suggested that she might need to take an entry level position in her new field, while she learned on the job and did a couple of short courses, she was clearly taken aback. ‘I can’t afford a pay cut, and I’ve invested so much time getting where I am. I know I’ll show my talent in my new field, isn’t that enough?’

Er, no.

Why do we expect to become masters of the universe, without any practice or time spent?

You’d be horrified if your doctor was given a practising certificate just because he was motivated or talented, or the CEO of your super fund was unskilled (bad example, maybe?). But when it comes to second careers or taking up a musical instrument in our fifties, (or that fabulous new career path that we’ve suddenly realised is our true calling), we assume that because we have some life experience and one solid career behind us, the rest will be a given.

Er, no.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success develops a very convincing argument that the most successful people are successful not necessarily because they are more talented but because they practised more – 10,000 hours more. He devotes chapters to the lives of the Beatles, Bill Gates and others, to demonstrate that none of them had the ‘overnight’ success we might have thought.

Yes, life experience and time spent in the workforce will always help with general skills, attitudes and expectations, but for task-specific stuff, there are no real short cuts to excellence. The good news for we older workers is that we likely have our 10,000 hours in more than one field already, so we can leverage the transportable  elements of these when we make a shift. You may have 10,000 hours as an electrician, for example but this will probably also mean you have 10,000 hours as a small business owner, a customer relations expert, a workplace hazards master and more. So, really drill down into your experience and make a good list.

Joanna Maxwell


Signup to have my occasional newsletters delivered to your inbox