Changing Careers? Zigzag Your Way Into New Territory! The Real Story of a Career Changer and Renaissance Woman

Career changers and renaissance folks alike always ask me: “How do I change paths without having to begin at the bottom all over again?”

Annoyingly, as with most things careers related; it depends.

Clearly, if you want to become a doctor, you’ll have to go to med school and start from scratch. A lawyer: back to law school, my friend.

But in most fields, there isn’t just one ticket to enter. Even though your preferred field asks for a specific educational background, chances are you may be able to bypass that.

Meet Maria

Last week I spoke with Maria, who is also a “renaissance woman,” meaning she loves variety and is one of those people trying to fit a million passions into one lifetime.

She majored in computer science and started her career in technology; coding, programming, etc.

Several years into her first job, her employer facilitated a lunch hour volunteer program through which Maria got to teach career-related workshops to young adults.

It wasn’t long before working with people had become Maria’s main interest.

Maria also volunteered trough Chicago Cares, which connects volunteers to 200+ opportunities in various areas ( They offer one-time volunteer opportunities. No weekly or monthly commitment. She joined field trips with seniors, did art activities with children, helped create resumes for homeless adults, tutored in the lab, helped prepare food that was being donated to an event, and helped serve meals at a Salvation’s Army.

Tip: Chicago Cares is a great way to test out non-profit or social services work for anyone living in the Chicago area. Some other cities have similar programs (i.e.: www.

From Science to Social Services

When the company she worked for folded two years later, she saw it as an opportunity to pursue her new passion.

Her goal: moving into social services – without the ‘right’ academic background. Make that: without a ‘remotely related’ academic background!

Maria was very organized about her transition. She even leveraged her analytical abilities that she used in her technology career (in which, btw, she flourished) to plan the next chapter.

She considered her options, talked to people, and saved up her money.

A few months later, she landed a training position at a for-profit university that specializes in technology. Maria trained homeless and at-risk adults (18 – 60+ yrs old) in soft skills and hard skills needed in the workplace.

Here, she leveraged her technology background and volunteer experience with young adults.

How did she get this job?

Networking without realizing she was doing it! She sort of sheepishly mentioned her plans to a college friend over dinner. His wife happened to know someone who was looking for a trainer.

Within two years, she had become the director of training; she managed the entire career development department and she even created a new workforce center.

Another Change of Direction

After another few years, Maria was getting restless again and shifted to a non-profit function in higher education – working with college students and alumni on career development.

Here are some pointers you can take away from Maria’s story if you want to pull off a similar transition:

Put It Out There

  • Share your story, ask for help, and do some soul searching to make sure your desire for change comes from positive motivation to want to do something new, not from wanting to escape something old.It’s important to talk with others about your dreams. Not just to get the mental and moral support, but also because when you do, you’re apt to receive valuable input. People may have ideas you hadn’t thought of, or connections you weren’t aware of – just as in Maria’s example. And, as Barbara Sher says “isolation is a dream killer.” So get it out into the world – even if it seems an unattainable goal to you right now! Others can help you realize your dream.

Use a Phased Approach

  • If your new field or position is quite a stretch and you’re sure you can’t enter it directly, do a phased approach – just like Maria did.

Look at your transition as a multi-step plan. First into the area that offers you the easiest entry. Once you’re in; get some experience under your belt, acquire some new skills along the way, and then move on to the area you really want to be in.

Volunteering or doing an internship is often a successful entryway into a new field. This may require a financial step back, so plan ahead, or do this on a part-time basis, if at all possible.

Zigzag Into New Territory

  • Not keen on starting all over again? You don’t have to! As Maria put it; renaissance folks should take a “zig-zag” approach to their career. Each time you move on to the next field, you may have to take a small step back, but not all the way to entry level the way someone fresh out of college would. Then you’ll work your way up again, zig-zagging your way through different careers.

How do you do this? By leveraging your experience and skill set and quickly acquiring new abilities. Figuring out how to promote your transferable skills and experience (on your resume, in conversations and interviews) will take some effort. If needed, work with a career coach.

Then there’s this nice side effect of being a renaissance person; you’re probably very passionate about your new professional focus and you’re quick to learn new skills. Don’t underestimate your passion; people notice it and are drawn to it.

More often than not, the combination of transferrable skills, the ability to quickly learn new ones, and noticeable passion for this new field will get you there.


  1. Excellent Post!!! We all have talents we are born with, things as children we yearn to dream of doing “one day”, this is the opportunity to make that “one day” a “someday” and use our God given skills, natural abilities and interests and begin a career with passion and love…..Everyone needs to be reminded how to do this in this economy. Thank you,


    Comment by Marty Hermes — February 25, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  2. I’ve been “putting it out there” for over a year and have nothing to show for my efforts. For the 1 in a thousand that gets her/his happy ending there are a lot of us still struggling and not seeing any results at all.

    I’m following my passion but hitting brick wall after brick wall.

    Comment by Lisa — February 25, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  3. Great post and so reassuring (and even calming) for those of us who are multi-careered. I have changed industries and functions multiple times and never had to go back to the beginning. Perhaps it was because of some misplaced confidence but once you get into the job, renaissance personalities can always figure it out.

    Comment by katherine moody — February 25, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

  4. Thanks Marty – I’m glad you liked it!

    Just curious: What are your passions?

    Comment by careerbranches — February 25, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

  5. Hi Lisa,

    I’m sorry to hear about your frustration!

    You don’t describe what your passion in and what you’ve tried, or what you encounter exactly, but I do know that about 9 out of 10 people I encounter think they know how to carry out a successful job search but in reality they don’t.

    Sometimes it’s a simple step they’re missing or it could be their entire approach.

    Career changes are always more tricky than a “regular” job search within the same field, so that adds to the complexity.

    Yet, it really can be done. That is why I’ll be posting a whole series of interviews I’m having with other “renaissance folks” so I can share their strategies and tips.

    I’d love to give you some specific feedback, but again, I don’t know any specifics about your situation. And that’s assuming you are looking for advice! If you are, feel free to elaborate. Maybe I – or one of my readers – will be able to give you some helpful pointers.

    Comment by careerbranches — February 25, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  6. Thanks Katherine!

    I think that’s very true about renaissance personalities: we tend to be quick studies. : )

    And yes, confidence never hurts, of course. Misplaced or not.

    Comment by careerbranches — February 25, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  7. My passions: Creative writing and blogging,networking solutions for crisis, the future of our elderly,painting,and meeting new people and LISTENING AND HEARING their stories. Planting seeds as you do of where to go, who to meet and what natural talents we each have and have problems seeing….enjoying everyday and each moment, one at a time!

    I am grateful you asked. I think your blog will enhance the lives of many folks, thank you for putting yourself out there in cyberspace.

    Marty aka Twofish13

    Comment by Marty Hermes — February 26, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  8. Thanks for sharing this story.

    It’s very inspiring to read success stories, especially when there is so much negativity/drama out there in the world. Great to see that happy things happen to good, positive people.

    I’m still soul searching myself.

    Comment by Felice Lam — March 1, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

  9. Marty: Thank you for your kind words. What a wonderful collection of passions! Now I’m curious what you’re currently doing career wise! : ) – if you’re comfortable divulging publicly..

    Comment by careerbranches — March 3, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  10. Hi Felice,

    I agree! We can all find examples of failures and challenges, but why not focus on overcoming those and the resulting success stories?

    There aren’t too many real-life examples to identify with for those of us renaissance folks who leave the beaten path.

    That’s also why I decided to put a book together full of inspiring stories of renaissance men and women. I’m working on that as we speak.

    How’s the soul searching coming along?

    : )

    Comment by careerbranches — March 3, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  11. This is a good post, which features worthwhile information. If you invest your time in reading this, article it really worth it. This article starts in a perfect way. The author has full grip on the topic through out the article. I like the way in which writer has ended his article. It is not a regular useless post in which even writer is not sure that what exactly he wants to say.

    Comment by eBook Reader — March 30, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

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