How do career changes and life choices impact our future? Can we change the path that’s been set for us? And if so, where do we begin?
I wouldn't blame you if you thought this article is about change. In a sense, it is—it’s in the title, after all. But for me, this article is more about what remains constant.
If somebody were to ask me what hasn’t changed for me since my childhood, I would know the answer immediately: curiosity. My curiosity for the world was almost immediately evident from the day I was born. And it's the same way now (as is my ability to irritate people around me by showing it unashamedly).
People usually don't know what they like. My problem? I don’t know what I don’t like! I was an avid reader as a kid. I also liked cars and I knew everything about them. And I’d like to spend the whole day riding my bike. I liked animals and plants. Music, too. Writing? Definitely. Later, when I went to school, I liked mathematics. But the problem was that I also enjoyed physics. Geography, biology, philosophy, sociology, chemistry? Of course! I literally loved every single subject that I had at school.
I was unlucky enough to be, more or less, equally good at everything. So how does this kid choose what to study?
Making Important Life Choices
Ah, college—it was a tough choice. But I eventually settled on majoring in economics. I saw it as a stepping stone for building my future career and life. It's an important decision for a young adult to make. No, it's not even a decision. It's a choice. And a pretty important one!
In such a fateful moment, it's important to consult everybody you can. So I did. Namely, I spoke with my parents. We decided that economics would expose me to the best combination of subjects I liked, challenging studies, and the prospect of earning money.
Fast forward, and after two years of studying, I finally began my remaining two years of specializing in accounting. I was really happy with my choice and was looking forward to working after graduation. Our professors tried to direct us into one of the Big Four companies. They saw it as a brilliant start, with great possibilities for learning and future job opportunities. It sounded good to me, too!
Dream Job, or Job from Hell?
It sounded even better when I was, after a series of gruelling interviews, finally employed by one of the Big Four accounting firms.
I spent two and a half years there. I did learn a lot. But I worked a hell of a lot of overtime hours. Speaking of hell, this audit job was also boring as hell. And to be honest, I really sucked at it!
When I realized that, I was actually scared. Could it be that I had ruined my life by making the wrong choices? Should I have studied something else? What now? If this “perfect” job opportunity is something that I hate and am not good at, what should I do then? If the “best” job is so terrible, imagine how terrible other jobs must be!
The first sign that I was headed down the right path was the feeling of relief I got when I finally quit. And I didn't even have another job to back me up; I just quit right there and then. But it felt so good—amazing, in fact, to leave the job that I had for so long dreamed of.
Dreams are one thing, unfortunately. Reality is another.
The Beginning of Change
I was able to find another job soon enough. I got a position in risk management at one of the biggest banks in Croatia. I knew that I wanted to escape my auditing past and work more with numbers and less with people. This was one of the first decisions that would lead me to where I am now. And it was ten years ago! I didn't have a vision back then. And this change certainly wasn't planned—it just occurred by accident.
But just as I started to feel comfortable with all the new knowledge, numbers, and reports on this new job, my boss suddenly quit. And I was left all alone to generate all the reports. Well, not a problem! My boss had set up everything in Access. All I had to do was run several queries, do some changes manually in Excel, and that's it!
Oh, but how I wished that I never had to change anything in those queries. Opening Design view in Access seemed scary enough with all those tables, fields, and arrows. And the SQL view? Come on, you write some commands on a blank screen and then it gives you some data?! Don't be silly—that right there is some kind of sorcery.
However, despite my apprehension, I was forced to learn all of that. Once certain assumptions and data in the reports changed, someone had to adapt the queries. And that lucky someone was me.
So I started looking at all the queries, analyzing tables, connections, and lines of code. My first success came when I managed to adapt already existing code to include one more attribute. Very basic, right? But it was like climbing a mountain for me.
Soon enough, I started to create my own queries and write my own SQL code—I was becoming more independent on the job. And I realized that I actually knew how to work in Access.
From that point onward, things started to become boring for me again. Everything was automated—I changed and adapted everything I could. The only thing I was doing was running queries and sending data and reports to other people.
Revisiting my curiosity, I realized that I don't like doing repetitive jobs. I like to set up repetitive jobs for other people. Me? I like digging through data. The most exciting thing for me is when I have to think about how to come up with some data that is not directly available.
Off with the Training Wheels: Becoming a Database Designer
To keep my curiosity alive, I changed my job… again. I learned a lot by working with data and databases set up by other people. But now, it was time for me to build something from scratch all by myself. This is what attracted me to accept my new job as a database designer.
To my dismay, at first, there was nothing in place. Data was nonexistent or incomplete, scattered everywhere at my new company. And I had to build the whole reporting process for my department on my own. Yikes.
The only solution was to build my very own database, which would allow me to have all the data I needed. The first thing I did was visit all departments and talk to people. I was just trying to find out if there’s any data that I need, in any form. And if there is no data, can it be generated based on existing data or in some other way?
What I was doing was basically creating ER diagrams and designing my first database model, even though I didn't know that’s what I was doing. I was simply trying to find a way to deliver certain reports to my superiors.
I analyzed all the info I had and started to create connections between the various data. The first connections were in my head; later, they were formalized in SQL. My database was slowly growing and, finally, I was able to produce my first reports from it. That was fantastic—to create something that was previously nonexistent! To create something that was previously impossible! I really felt like some kind of magician.
OK, maybe an apprentice magician. But hey, still a magician!
I still had lots of things to do, and I enjoyed the work a lot. But I noticed the same thing as on my previous job: The more it consisted of simply running queries, the more I started to feel bored. At the same time, my good friend and colleague started to freelance as a database expert. He was and still is very successful at it. It sounded great to me, but I thought I didn't have enough knowledge and experience. It was a great idea, but surely for someone better than me.
My Last Step Towards Change
After three and a half years, I changed my job yet again and started working with debt collection agencies. My new job had the same challenges as the previous one: Everything had to be built from scratch. This time, I had more confidence because I’d already done that. However, the data was quite different, and this whole industry was quite new to me. I felt pretty anxious about it and wasn’t sure if I'd learn everything quickly enough.
What I didn't count on was the key ingredient: My experience. I had studied accounting and worked as an auditor. Later, I worked with both credit risk and market risk at leasing companies and banks. I also worked in the bank's restructuring department. With every new job, my financial knowledge had become less and less important. What had become more important was how good I am with data and databases in general.
Everything came together right there to decide my fate. I realized that my different experiences allowed me to connect the dots more quickly. No matter what industry you work in, the approach to data is more or less the same. Of course, there are differences and specific issues depending on the context. But if you know your way with data, you’ll learn everything else in no time.
Experience Is One Thing, Theory Another
I was lucky enough to have great colleagues around me. They motivated me to take a database administrator course, where I learned a lot about databases. And I also realized that I already knew many of these things from my work—I was just lacking theoretical knowledge. Basically, I was designing databases before I knew that’s what I was doing. I learned a lot more about SQL and its possibilities and realized that this is something I really like. It's something that fascinates me and that I’d like to learn more about.
Programming got me curious, too. It's really funny, actually—if someone had told me ten years ago that I'd be interested in databases and programming, I would have told them they were nuts. And I would’ve promptly fallen asleep at the mere mention of these “boring” topics.
On my new job, I was able to put everything I had learned to practice. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I took additional courses on SQL, databases, Python, and practically anything that I found useful on the job.
Eventually, when I realized that my job couldn’t offer me anything new, I knew it was time to become a freelancer and call myself a database designer (among other things). In a way, I always felt that working as an employee in a company somehow didn’t feel right. Because it led me to boredom too soon: getting up in the morning at the same time every day, doing repetitive tasks every day. Of course, I initially thought I was the problem. But over the years, I realized it’s the system—one that’s based mainly on external motivation (read: money) and moving up the social and professional hierarchies.
Neither of those motivate me at all. What motivates me is my personal development and gaining knowledge. Repetition is not the mother of all learning—it gives birth to boredom! The world of employment is changing, but employers aren’t keeping up. The research shows that two top motivators for Millenials are a sense of purpose and personal development. Trying to replace this with money and prestige no longer works—not in the long term, at least.
Considering that, it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people have turned to freelancing. The data shows that in the EU, the number of freelancers doubled between 2000 and 2014. In the USA, freelancers could represent half of the workforce by 2027.
I Really Did It—But How?
I’d come a long way from my humble beginnings as an accountant. Lots of things weren't planned. Many of my career changes happened because I was avoiding things I didn’t enjoy and trying to find things that I liked.
I proved to myself that it’s not only possible to change your path but also sometimes necessary, as was the case for me. Because of the way my brain works, it's impossible to predict what will keep me interested over the next ten years. And that was a really important thing for me: to accept my own way of doing things and going through life.
Some people really have only one thing that interests them. And it will stay the same way forever. I'm not like that—I feel frustrated when I'm doing only one thing. I’m not talking about multitasking, but rather about satisfying my various interests. Some people like to learn something and keep themselves happy by concentrating on a single nugget of knowledge. I like that, too, but only if it allows me to learn something more. The unknown keeps me more motivated than anything else.
I was also quite frustrated most of the time when I thought that a lack of formal knowledge automatically disqualified me from learning something. I (foolishly) believed that learning from my own experience is less valuable than attending lectures.
Don’t get me wrong—learning something from professors is great. It can give you immense knowledge and an advantage over other people. But learning isn’t just about lectures. Learning from experience gives you quite a different approach. And if you want theoretical knowledge, you're not just limited to universities. There are probably plenty of institutions near you that offer education for something you really enjoy, no matter your age and previous experience.
In a changing environment, what I had originally believed to be my weaknesses—lack of formal knowledge and the inability to settle for one pursuit—proved to be my strengths. Technology changes the world rapidly—often too quickly for schools to keep up. Maybe it’s not surprising that leading companies such as IBM and Apple are employing more and more people without a traditional four-year degree. Clearly, the landscape of employment is changing; our destiny is no longer entirely determined by our formal education.
Nowadays, there are also plenty of websites that offer courses, tutorials, materials, educational videos, and texts. Many of them are free. Even those that aren’t happen to be relatively inexpensive.
Yes, it's hard to decide to learn something new—something completely beyond your expertise. But it's hard because the whole educational system pushes us to choose one direction and commit ourselves to it for the rest of our life. People are not that one-dimensional. And it's actually very rare that someone truly only has one interest—especially today, when information and knowledge are more accessible than ever.
Don't be afraid to feed your curiosity. Learning is fundamentally about that. It doesn’t matter how, when, or how fast you gain knowledge. Whom are you competing with? Nobody except yourself, of course.
Am I Good Enough?
If you’re asking that, you probably are.
This question also held me back quite a lot. I was always comparing my knowledge with someone else's. Do I know more than that guy at work? I’d always idealize others and was too critical of myself, frequently taking my knowledge for granted. I thought of it as something static, something I always had and something that would remain the same forever.
Well, guess what? There will always be plenty of people who know more than you. But there will also be plenty of people who know less than you. And you will learn with time. Something that looks scary to you right now will be second nature for you tomorrow.
Knowing everything isn’t even the point—that’s actually fundamentally impossible. No matter how much you know, you will still have much more to learn. Rather, the point is to have enough knowledge to do what you want to do. That's why comparing yourself with others is pointless—no two people have the same aspirations in life.
My current knowledge is by no means perfect. I'm not the best in the world at what I do. And I don't want to be. I just want to learn and be better than I was. We're lucky to live in a world where knowledge is so readily accessible. And it becomes less and less important how you got that knowledge—what’s more important is simply having it.
It would be a pity not to use this chance to chart your own path, and instead to become a slave to other people’s expectations. So make as many career changes as you like, no matter how bad you think you’re going to ruin your future. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
If I could do it, anybody can.
Do You Have Your Own Career Change Story?
Have you ever made a career change? Or maybe you’ve had similar experiences in your personal and professional development. Did my story encourage you to take the first steps of your very own career change? I’d love to hear your story.