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Career Reinvention Rules of the Road

Jessica Rao,|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 15 Aug 2011 | 10:07 AM ET

Thinking about scrapping it all to start a goat cheese farm in Maine? Even if you just want to switch jobs at your company, career change can be daunting.

Whether you’ve been laid off or you crave more satisfaction, looking for a position doing something you’ve never done before invariably comes with second-guessing: No one will give me a chance. I’m too old. I’ve done this forever. I can’t do anything else.

Bottom line: Reinvention is not for the faint of heart, but with work and a tweak to your mindset it’s possible. Here’s how.

Clerkenwell | Getty Images

The Evolving You

For starters, you’re not alone. People reinvent all the time. The average person born in the latter years of the baby boom held 11 jobs from age 18 to 44, according to the Labor Department.

That’s not to say they all turned their lives upside-down — the bureau doesn’t have data on how many went from banker to farmer, for example. The fact remains it’s no small number, and most of those boomers are still facing a decade or more in the workforce.

“In today’s world, you can no longer identify with a particular role. You have to start to think of yourself as a constellation of skills and talents,” says the author of The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy, Pamela Mitchell.

However, when selling yourself to the hiring manager, you’ll need to reframe your background using the language of your new industry.

“It’s like moving to a foreign country. If you don’t learn how to operate, you’re going to stick out like the foreigner that you are,” Mitchell adds.

The Right Targets

If you’ve been reaching out and haven’t gotten a bite yet, you could be fishing in the wrong pond. You’ve got to go where employers will value the talents you bring. This could mean nixing big companies in favor of entrepreneurial firms or startups.

But what if you need a change but you’re not sure what direction to go in? The place to begin is with yourself, says Talent Management at Adecco Group North America SVP Kathy Kane. “You need to examine what your competencies are and what kind of expertise you have, the total package that you bring to the table.”

“Locate your passion,” says Persephone Zill, Business Counselor at the Women’s Enterprise Development Center in White Plains, N.Y.

To do so, she recommends paying attention to things you instinctively know how to do, those you do well, or would do whether you were getting paid or not.

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Prep Work

Besides introspection, Kane says research and networking are critical. Professional development groups are good for this.

“Sometimes people join all kinds of associations or go to meetings just for the purpose of networking," she says. " I equate this to speed dating. It’s more effective to talk to friends who are in different fields.

When you find someone in your desired position who is willing to talk, don’t forget to ask the downside questions, reminds Mitchell.

Find out about the day to day because a lot of career unhappiness comes from the conflict between the life a career delivers and the life that you want to be living. For example, if you love to be on the road, you’d never be happy in a job that requires you to be in the same place everyday.

Tune Up

Back To Work - A CNBC Special Report
Back To Work - A CNBC Special Report

Don’t be surprised if you need to fill in gaps in your knowledge and expertise.

You may need a course. In this case, there are no shortage of classes, workshops and webinars. A lot of prestigious colleges and universities are also offering free online content, adds Kane. Sometimes you can do a pro bono project so you have a win in that area.

“Reinvention is a process of adding to your tool box,” says Mitchell.

Kane admits that most jumps do not entail 100 percent reinvention. It’s easier to change jobs within your company or switch industries but stay in the same function.

“That said, I’ve seen plenty of people who have been in business operational roles become the chief HR officer, because they have exhibited very strong people management skills,” she says. "It is possible."

Entrepreneurial Option

For some, the entrepreneurial route can be the way to go. Many people who have had trouble finding full-time jobs are offering their services to companies as consultants, where they exist and get paid as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Here, you work with one client for a period and then they move on to another.

However, if you’re thinking about starting a business doing something brand new, you need to explore and evaluate your idea as well as the industry.

“Some people come to entrepreneurship because they want to make a million dollars or they don’t want to work for someone else. Those are the wrong reasons,” said Zill.

You have to have a product or service for which there is a need in the market place but is also in line with your interests and talents.

If this all scares you too much, start with a mini-reinvention.

“You can reinvent yourself within the same job. It doesn’t always mean leaving your life behind and doing something completely different," says Mitchell.

A lot of it is about getting more creative about what you are doing and trying to pull in different things.

The good news: Once you understand the skill, you can take yourself anywhere. If you are not perpetually reinventing and building your personal brand, you are not setting yourself up for career success in the near or long term.