405: Overcoming Your Fear Of Others’ Expectations and Finding A Career That Fits

Jenny hated her job, but was afraid to look for a new role for fear of letting other people down, taking a step back in her career and losing the benefit of her education. Three years later, she landed her ideal role.



Jenny, Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies

Jenny is a PhD with a background in education and research science. She currently works for a university designing its science curriculum.

on this episode

Jenny was a research scientist who loved science but hated her job. She was afraid of disappointing others and giving up on all the hard work she’d done to advance in her career, which held her back from finding her ideal role.

She wanted to love her job, but she didn’t. She hated it. The realization broke Jenny’s heart and frightened her. She had changed careers before, from teaching to research science, but she didn’t want to change again.

It took Jenny three years to work through these fears and anxieties, but she did it and landed her ideal role. Check out this week’s episode to hear how she did it, and what she’s up to now!

What You’ll Learn

  • Learn how to overcome fear of disappointing others to pursue a role that fits you.
  • Discover how your strengths from your previous role create the platform to launch you into your next role.
  • Learn that moving into a new industry does not mean starting your career over.

Success Stories

"When I started I was afraid of making the wrong decision! My career was incredibly important to me and I didn't want to screw it up or waste time making a move I wouldn't enjoy! Scott helped me learn what my strengths are and what is most important to me… but more important than that I learned about what I can't stop doing that I have to have in my work to make me happy"

Rhushi Bhadkamkar, Senior Consultant, United States/Canada

I convinced myself for many years, that I was very lucky to have that job, and I would be crazy to leave it. I convinced myself that the team needed me even though I was miserable. And ultimately, it took me getting physically sick to realize I needed to leave! One of the biggest things that I learned out of the signature coaching was on designing my life. And this is another thing that I had really never, it had, I don't know, if it had never occurred to me. I just never believed it was possible until now.

Michael Fagone, Mortgage Loan Officer and Finance Executive, United States/Canada

All the stars aligned and I ended up finding the right thing at the right place at the right time, and it was you guys! Everything that you said was speaking to me and the things that you had done in the job that you had transitioned out of and into. Also how finding work that you love is your passion for people! Honestly, it was you Scott, I mean, the way that you talked about it, how passionate you were, I was like, there's no way he's gonna put out a faulty product. So I'm gonna try it, you know… I recommend you to all my friends, you know, even if they don't realize that they're looking for a new job, I'm like this is the first step, let's do this! Even if you maybe don't move out of this career. This is going to help!

Maggie Romanovich, Director of Learning and Development, United States/Canada

Scott Barlow: Welcome back to Happen To Your Career. I’m incredibly excited to be here. There is some behind the scenes, I wrote a note to our guest today saying I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for about a year and a half now. I’m excited we get to have this conversation today. We’ve gotten to tag along for her journey and it's been amazing how she has done it. It hasn’t been all ups and roses. It's been a rollercoaster ride and I’m so proud of how she has pushed through and taken steps. Welcome to the Happen To Your Career podcast Jenny, how are you?

Jenny: Great thanks. It's great to be here.

Scott Barlow: It's so good to have you here. I’ve been looking forward to this for awhile. There are so many things I want to talk about and we only have so much time to do so but let’s start with what you do now or what you will be doing because you are right on the cusp of making a big career change. You got a job offer not that long ago and making the change in a matter of months or weeks.

Jenny: Yes, sometime in the new year, it will be a new era. I’m really excited. It's been on my new year's wish list for about three years to find a new job. It's taken a while. I’ll be transitioning into a new role helping to develop a science and sustainability program at a university near where I live. I have a science background but I had been looking for opportunities to do more than science or something in addition to it. This job sounds like an incredible blend of different things and I’m really curious about it and excited to get started.

Scott Barlow: You are making the move to this role which I would say is quite a bit different than what you have been doing even though it leverages your experiences, knowledge, and education. Is that fair to say?

Jenny: Yes.

Scott Barlow: How do you describe what you are transitioning from? I think it’s huge.

Jenny: I had a pretty typical path as a scientist with a few added extras on the side. I’d love to talk more about the extras because they are significant but my basic biography I did an undergraduate degree in biology and then took a few years and taught a preschool science program and then went to graduate school for more science. Biology, ecology, conservation and got a Phd in that field and did a lot of outdoor research on mountain forest ecosystems and fire with many of the aspects of those topics and research I love. After finishing my Phd I worked both in the education realm and as a field biologist. I had a series of part-time jobs teaching college biology which were great adventures and learning experiences, but I realized about half way through graduate school that I didn’t want the traditional career of an academic professor. My dad was one and my grandfather was and several family members so I’d seen lots of examples of that path. I had been intrigued and thinking it’s in my genes and in my environment. The more I learned and experienced from the inside, as a student, I wasn’t sure it would be the perfect fit for me.

Scott Barlow: What caused you to think that? What are some of the elements you realized this isn’t for me for these reasons?

Jenny: I think it's an incredibly challenging and rewarding profession but its 24/7. I saw this with my dad. He was doing his own research and writing, advising students, teaching undergraduates. Our whole family life was filled with overflow and participation in his academic life. One thing he studied is Charles Darwin. My sisters and I grew up thinking of Charles Darwin as a really bad guy that took my dad away from the family a lot. We pictured him as a cartoon character villain. In college I started realizing that he was the opposite of a villain and many scientists hero. I secretly took my own classes in evolutionary biology and history and philosophy of science and realized he is not a villain. Any academic study can really take over someone's life and career.

Scott Barlow: He played the villain in your early movie.

Jenny: He was the reason dad could not come to sports days or picnics. Some of the graduate students had a cast of characters that were funny and friendly and role models but it was a big deal to be a professor. When I was studying with my own advisor in biology I realized he was working around the clock. His family would come to the research sites with us and joke that is how they got to see him. A lot of people juggle it all successfully including my dad and my advisor but I wasn’t sure I had the energy or commitment to a particular research field with the degree of passion these two had. I’m a generalist interested in a bunch of things but didn’t want to single mindedly pursue one research path. I found teaching to be demanding. I felt this strong obligation to students in the classes I taught. Even as a graduate student, research, and teaching assistant I had a lot of challenges prioritizing when do I grade papers and meet with students that are struggling versus when do I pursue my own research and write proposals and papers. My conclusion after testing it out is I’m not sure I could do this as a professor full time for the rest of my career.

Scott Barlow: So this didn’t line up with the lifestyle you desire at all from the very beginning, you had multiple examples of this. I’m curious what took place after you tested that out and realized it wasn’t great for you. Great for those who are more into it but you are more of a generalist. If I recall you identify as what Emilie Wapnick back in episode 173 calls a multipotentialite?

Jenny: Yes. The problem also with my science studies was I could not help adding other topics and roles on the side. In the grand scheme of things that type of approach is valuable to cover many disciplines or have a broader scope but in science it's more typical to be a specialist and its seen as more focused and productive and contributes more to the individual field. My advisor was often questioning me why are you working on the campus writing center with all these English majors. I found it fun, intriguing and enlightening. Why do you have so many side jobs? I think it's detracting from your forward progress. I’d say it's keeping me engaged and I love interacting across the whole campus. We had a little back and forth.

To answer your question my next step was to say I’m going to try and find a more pure research job or pure teaching job and see how those feel when I separate the components. That worked out and I learned a lot through those comparisons. I learned that I didn’t love teaching a lot of content or information maybe because of my generalist type of approach I love teaching the process of science and encouraging students of all ages to come up with their own questions hypotheses and investigations. I had several college teaching jobs that did this and they were really rewarding because I could see the spark of excitement and discovery in the students and how energized they we are to figure out they can do science and do it everyday and learn to do it systematically to find out new things and solve problems.

Scott Barlow: I’m curious what do you think was the difference for you after making the transition and having lots of these experiments along the way? What was the difference in terms of teaching on process versus teaching on specific information and what caused you to resonant so much with that? I’m guessing part of the reason they would light up is because of your involvement with that as well.

Jenny: I think I really do love, and I’ve learned through listening to a lot of the Happen To Your Career podcast, I love guiding and mentoring, facilitating. That is always part of good teaching but definitely in science there is this emphasis on transitioning information and facts. I feel like it involves a lot of memorizing and different skills than the process skills. I’m not sure why but maybe I just don’t have as strong of a memory as other people. When I taught those classes I would barely memorize the different types of plant tissue. I’d do it right before I taught the students and then try to get them to remember them using the same techniques I used. I know it's important to absorb the basic facts and information in any field but I’d feel like we were overloading the facts and memorizing and I would prefer the emphasis on the process of investigation and discovery and went toward that side of the spectrum.

Scott Barlow: That is interesting. Even when you were teaching those types of information. We talk on the podcast what you can’t stop doing and what shows up everywhere. Even when you are doing those information classes you are still saying here is how I taught myself here is the process. That is interesting.

Jenny: One of my most stressful experiences was teaching plant biology. I ended up having the students do all these types of experiments. Like let’s learn what plants need by growing a bunch of plants under different conditions rather than saying here are the 39 things, nutrients and conditions, that plants need. We did the experiments and now I’m thinking about it and a lot of it probably goes back to this fun interlude I had in college and after when I was a preschool teacher and realized that kids just want to investigate everything all the time. As we both know, we have little kids and they are the world's best investigators, scientists and engineers. That is how I operated in preschool and was encouraged there. A philosophy called emergent curriculum letting the kids drive the agenda and learning process rather than having them put together prepackaged arts and crafts led by the teacher. I hadn’t realized that but it's been a theme through a lot of my work. Maybe I was lucky to have the formative job experience early on. It clicked with me and I feel the most genuine learning is when the learner is driving the pace of the learning and it's not all about memorizing facts.

Scott Barlow: That is super interesting and I want to touch more on it later cause I’m curious how it helped you in the career change too. Before we get to that I’m interested in how you began to feel as you got into your most recent type of research and what caused you to think I should be pursuing something else.

Jenny: It’s connected with this theme. I went into science and research for two reasons. I genuinely love this process of investigation and discovery and the process of problem solving with science both in the simple cases of kids figuring out answers to their own questions or in my field it's been tackling the problems of sustainable resource management like forest, wildlife management. Using science to help the resource managers to identify the most and least effective strategies. I was and still am enthusiastic about that part. The second reason I stayed was to live up to the expectations of everyone who had guided me and helped me pursue this track.

Scott Barlow: What is an example?

Jenny: I didn’t want to let down my family, which is full of scientists and academics, my advisor, my professors, my peers, other women in science, particularly I felt like I needed to live up to the expectations to fulfill the investment I and they have made in this research track. What began to shift for me is I first realized when I was working with manager partners with problems to solve it wasn't purely this scientific data they needed to do their job but also connections with scientists and input that was more than numbers. The whole situation was much more complicated than it seems from the outside. Before I took the job that I have now with a federal research agency I thought there are these problems in the world with environmental resource management. Scientists will come to the table with the managers and will go off and design experiments to help with the problems and a couple years later we will bring the results back to that same table and hand them over and go away again. The managers will be able to take the results and implement them and everything will get better and the problems will be solved.

Scott Barlow: Whoa, it doesn’t work like that? You are killing my utopia bubble.

Jenny: It's still worth striving for that effective, clean model of how the world works but I feel like I was naive to think it would be that simple. The good news is that even though its complicated and the relationships and people dynamics and politics are highly involved that is part of the positive side in one sense. I’ve seen by developing strong relationships the scientists and managers can address very tricky problems by working together. The huge insight for me, in my science role in my home agency I was not rewarded in the metrics of contributing to complex problem solving efforts. I’m rewarded for the number of scientific papers I publish in journals on scientific results. The more I got involved in the people side of the equation and the relationships and collaboration the less time I was investing in completing and writing up and publishing results. The more complex the problems the harder it is to get clean scientific papers published out of it. I was against the checklist of performance I was evaluated by. I was not doing what was expected from my position and I was finding meaning in what I was doing but wishing I had a role where part of the purpose or point was investing in the relationships and collaborations and that it wasn’t seen as a distraction or delay.

Scott Barlow: You are doing all these things. You are starting to get meaning out of and feel good about and getting small snippets as you realize I enjoy these pieces you also had the sinking realization that the organization you are with doesn’t value those pieces. Removing right or wrong, every organization values different things, that didn't line up very clearly and became painfully clear with where you were. What prompted you to do something, what took place?

Jenny: There was this dawning realization that every year during the annual performance review discussions I was being questioned about the time I was spending in meetings and collaborative workshops and the investment I was making in the people side of the problem. That was a little awkward. I think as silly as it sounds I had a more personal epiphany through a book that someone else on the podcast mentioned recently. It was a decluttering your life type of book by Marie Kondo “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I read this book and it's quite practical, insightful and philosophical. I read it a few years ago right after the holidays and with our young kids our house was full of toys and stuff and I was thinking it's time to get organized but this author's approach is to guide people more broadly and question everything in their life like spouses, careers, any element and ask what about the elements is meaningful to me and what isn’t. And focusing on keeping what is meaningful and bring you joy and satisfaction and let go of the things that don’t give you meaning. It could be the outgrown barbie dolls on our floor that don’t get played with to the bigger things. What struck me was when I looked at all the books in the house, in particular mine, I had this insight that if I was in charge I would gratefully say goodbye to a lot of the science books that people have given me over the years. I’ve always accepted the books and been appreciative but I never felt compelled to read any of the science books. I feel strange admitting it but my husband would read them, friends would read them, my dad. I was never compelled to read them on the weekends and evenings because I did science 40+ hours a week. I had this feeling I don’t think I’m a proper scientist. What is wrong with me that I would want to give my science books away. And that really started me questioning the big picture of my future career.

Scott Barlow: One thing you said is very much a human tendency and a lot of us experience it. We go through something like that and question what is wrong with me? It’s nothing wrong with you in your particular situation or the next person but it's so interesting we as smart, capable human beings will question that we must be broken and its truly not the case and definitely not in your situation. I wanted to acknowledge that because I know you haven’t stayed there. What happened next after the realization I have all these books and I don’t want these and started feeling awkward and questioned yourself? What was next?

Jenny: A lot of self questioning and worrying and wondering what to do. Around the same time I had started volunteering at my kids school leading science activities and finding it fun and rewarding. It was taking me back to the days at the preschool with these amazing little science investigators. I was starting to think I love this process of sharing science fostering science even if I’m not a specialist or classic scientist. Maybe I should look at roles where I can teach or facilitate science not just with kids but with non-scientists or people that want to learn a bit more. I think I was realizing I’m good at bridging the gap not assuming that everyone wants or needs to understand or love science. I started looking more closely at institutions or agencies in between the worlds of science and education and real life. A couple job ads started to catch my eye in that arena. I put out, I think Scott the first time I contacted you I was responding to an ad for an informal science education position I was excited about. At the same time I didn’t want to blow my cover. I wasn’t ready to do a full job search where I would tap into my big network of connections and do informational interviews and get a sense of what is out they are that involves science but not pure science. I haven’t really done that. I think one of the challenges that may resonate with others is I could not let go of the sense that I should want my pure science job. It's a great, secure job and well respected. I’ve talked with many people over the years who would love to have the job I have. People will think I’m crazy if I start asking around widely about alternative career paths.

Scott Barlow: Let’s talk about that for a minute. We hear that all the time behind the scenes, emails we get, conversations we have everyday especially for professions like scientists, academic professors, doctors, lawyers, and particularly people who are high up in organizations like directors and CEOs. We hear it again and again because we are in that world. What was that like for you and how did you start unraveling it?

Jenny: I think one of the insights I had was something out of a popular psychology book about how there are some people in the world, and I realized I can acknowledge that I am one of them, that are unusually highly tuned into other people expectations. I know a lot of podcast guests have alluded to this and it's helpful. The particular book or framework is by Gretchen Rubin who studies happiness and habits and recently published a book about the four tendencies about how people respond to external and internal expectations. I’ve always envied people who are tuned into their own internal compass and expectations and goals. My tendency has been to do what other people expect or think is reasonable. It was comforting to read more that there are more people than me that share this orientation. You don’t have to beat yourself up and think you are weird or weak willed, etc. You can try to say given that I now recognize that I follow a lot of others expectations to the point of having a lot of experience and credentials in an arena that others thought was a good fit, I can now take a step back and say now I realize that isn’t the best long term fit and I want to gently disentangle from those external expectations and discover what my own internal drive is telling me. I went through this self questioning and analysis and it was significantly helped by all the material I absorbed by the Happen To Your Career podcast, blog, and courses and exercises you provided.

Scott Barlow: You’ve been through quite a few things with us. Career change bootcamp, coaching, a listener for a long time. You’ve been everywhere. One of my insights was its okay to ask for help and get help, and invest in it. It's a big deal to make a big transition. The thing I think was the biggest roadblock for me mentally and for others was this feeling of lack of confidence. First of all how could I have invested so many years in a career path that might not be a good fit. Why didn’t I realize this sooner. A lack of confidence of not performing perfectly in my job that isn’t a good fit. You and others said it makes some sense that we wouldn’t perform our best at a job that isn’t a great fit. Something about that daily undermining of confidence of I'm not doing what I’m supposed to be and good at what I’m supposed to be good at. It drains the confidence and it was hard to get over that barrier and have that energy and confidence to apply for better fitting jobs. Happen To Your Career and other support and resources were essential to me to build up confidence that had been draining away and get that energy back to be making new applications. I certainly had a few ups and downs with that. Some interviews and applications that didn’t go well.

Scott Barlow: Share how long you’ve been working on this journey.

Jenny: 3 1/2 full years since my first job application in a, I don't even know if I’ve talked to you much about that one, but a science focus role for a national nonprofit conservation organization which I think does amazing work and I really respect and admire. Because it was a blend of science and other roles I did the interview for that job wearing my science hat but the interview and application process was a lot broader than I realized. There was this moment I still have nightmares about. The big final interview with the big panel of people they switched from asking big science questions to asking what I was passionate about and I completely froze up. Now I know that isn’t such an unusual job interview question but it was the first time I had heard it. In the world of science interviews that had never come up. I’m also from England where people don’t tend to talk freely about passion. I started stammering and joking about how scientists weren't supposed to talk about passion nor were English people. I said the only thing I could admit to being passionate about was good coffee. Maybe you can relate to that but the interview panel wasn’t very amused. I floundered horribly and finally said a few things that weren’t related to coffee and recovered a little but realized after that I really needed to work more broadly on my skills, presentation, and applications. This wasn’t something that I could wing and succeed in making a big transition.

I’ve really benefited from all the resources and guidance I’ve found with your team and others and feel I should encourage others, like you always have, to not try to go it alone. And try to reach out for help and resources if needed. I realize that interviews can be handled much better with lots of practice and I really loved the episode where you interviewed a scientist with a Phd in biochemistry, Adarsh Pandit and he mentioned he had done like 30 interviews while trying to figure out his transition from science and research into another arena. That made me feel better that it takes practice and won’t happen spontaneously and organically.

Scott Barlow: I think, I wasn’t around for that particular time frame with that interview that give you nightmares but I think that had to happen in order to let the other events that followed. You might not have had all the realizations you have had or conducted the experiments. I wouldn’t wish the nightmares on anyone but I do wish that type of event that caused you to think about things differently. Many people need that wake up. You don’t have to but it does often take place before we take action and ask for help and begin to realize that it's a bigger deal and if I want this it’s how I have to go. We’ve been in contact for about 18 months and I’ve been so impressed with how you have stepped through this. First of all let’s think about what you have done, you’ve been immersed everyday in a situation where some of the things you are the best at and the things that make you happy aren’t rewarded in your environment. What most people don’t realize is what you realized that it chips away at your confidence. When it does that taking and having the wherewithal to recognize that and reach out for help is half the battle. Most people don’t. You went above and beyond and even though it's uncomfortable because you thought of yourself as a scientist and have these other people expectations you have progressed closer and closer where now you have this role that will leverage the fun things and what you are great at and at the same time leverage the experiences you have. That is so cool and not easy. It's taken a long time for you to make the journey but most people will never start or get the help or recognize its chipping away at confidence or have the commitment to do something. I am super proud of you and so appreciate you have allowed us to be there and help along the way.

Jenny: Thanks I really appreciate it and I think the experiences I’ve had hopefully are shared by others. It doesn’t have to be science that forms your identity. I’ve taken steps to broaden that identity. I haven’t let it go. My new role, I realized it was important for me to find a role where that training will be an asset. I’m thrilled I can use my people skills, relationship building skills, my guiding and mentoring and discovering and problem solving skills. I don’t think I would have clarified those as fully without all this great help along the way. Thanks again. It's been a fun process of discovery.

Scott Barlow: Fun mixed in with some challenges along the way to say the least. I’m super curious before we go, for other people that are in the place you were in 18 months ago where they have the realization it's not what I want to do forever they are looking at the type of change they want to make or need to make to get where they want to go and it's a big change because what you have done is a huge change. What advice would you give people in that place?

Jenny: Good question. To try and sum it up, trust your own instincts on what feels like a good fit for you and try not to stay too attached to that investment and identity that doesn’t feel like a good fit any longer. people do change and evolve and I keep reminding myself that new phases of our identities is what keeps life interesting and we can make a bigger difference in the world for the better if we allow those changes to happen rather than fighting them. It’s helped me to have some mantras or prepared answers to people for the question of why I might make the move. I think those will be different for everyone but it helps me practice them. Science is a great fit for many people and I love science but I think a better fit for me will be facilitating science with other partners, etc. I also think that it is daunting to look at one's whole life being reorganized by a new career choice but I love how your process and others emphasize that it is a holistic process of change and it shouldn’t be scary. It can be positive and exciting.

I wanted to quickly mention it turned out I had a friend in my neighborhood that gave me great insights close to the end of my journey and she complimented your approach. She had this perspective of telling me my strengths in everyday life. You emphasize that in the bootcamp to have your friends and family to tell you your strengths. I found that tough. It happened organically through conversations with a friend starting a career coaching business called Career Five. She was able to chat with me about strengths and say this is what I’ve seen you do in the neighborhood, school or birthday parties. Here is what I think you are good at. I would say to others take those sources of information and confidence wherever they show up and everything is relevant and keep the faith and keep your spirits up through adding everything into your week that you can that boosts that confidence and reminds you of all the things outside your not good fit job that make you and give you happiness, confidence, and rewards.

Scott Barlow: Very cool, I so appreciate you making the time. This has been a phenomenal conversation. There are so many other questions I wanted to ask that we haven't been able to dive into. Some huge takeaways for me in how to think about yourself differently and move through a big change particularly when you’ve steeped yourself into one perception in how your life looks and I think you’ve done a phenomenal job. I so appreciate you making the time Jenny.

Jenny: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.

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