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How to Make a BIG Career Shift: Tips from a Social Worker Turned Stylist

Making a career shift is tough – there’s no doubt about that. But it can be done, and as we’ve learned, starting over is never really starting over.

Austin’s Laurel Kinney is familiar with the concept of career changes – she went from social worker to fashion stylist. Anyone looking to change careers, take note – today, Laurel shares what she learned from her experience, and how you can make the same change:

I moved to Austin in 2008 with a relatively new master of social work degree and got a job as a social worker at a hospice. My duties included driving to visit patients and families to provide support around the process of dying, weeks of carrying the 24/7 on-call pager, late-night visits to hysterical families who had just lost a loved one and an incredible amount of hours by myself in my car. Given the emotional toll of my work, it wasn’t long before I was daydreaming of my next career move on those long, lonely drives.

I thought, “I love helping people through these emotional crises, but I would really love to be more creative, and maybe a little less conscious of … oh, the inevitable fact of death.”

I struggled to figure out what I could do that would still feel rewarding and allow me to connect on some deeper level with people, but that was more creatively fulfilling. Somehow, I decided fashion was it and, through a friend, I met a woman named Michelle who owned a personal styling business. She told me that personal stylists help people connect who they are on the inside to what they wear on the outside. She had read the style blog I had started and hired me on the spot. What she did was either crazy, or lucky, or crazy lucky (for me).

Through personal styling, I realized I could help people see themselves differently via the clothes they put on. I watched as my (very patient) first clients came into themselves when they tried on a piece that captured their personality, fit correctly and didn’t take eons to discover.

Clothing is so powerful, and it’s amazing how a change in the way you dress can alter your confidence and the way other people see you. Of course, I knew FOR SURE that this was the career for me, but then the reality of completely starting over came into view, and it was pretty damn harsh at times. Here are five lessons I learned from making the drastic career shift from a traditional to non-traditional helping field.

1. Haters Gonna Hate.

If I had listened to certain family members, “friends” and the more insecure voice in my head, I might not have made personal styling my career. But because I was fully certain this was what I wanted, I had to ignore those who thought what I did was superficial and understand that there will always be people who do not value what I do. Some people can’t see joy associated with clothing, or it’s not a priority to them, and that is 100 percent OK. Dealing with doubters has trained me to see who my potential clients are and to stop wasting time on the rest.

2. Build Your Crew.

Once I left social work, I discovered that there is this whole OTHER world of people who DO share my values, don’t think it’s crazy that a pair of jeans can affect your mood and understand challenges around owning a new business. It was terrifying at first to reach out into this other world (especially since the fashion world in particular is rather intimidating) but once I did, I immediately felt my confidence rise. The support of the friends I met in the beginning stages of my business has been vital to my success (and still is). Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers — they may be the only people who actually “get it.”

3. Own It (And If You Can’t, Ask For Help).

For years I struggled with proudly proclaiming myself as a personal stylist, and sometimes I still do. I’m actually highly confident in my process, my one-on-one work with clients and the impact my work can make. But I was less sure about my business skills (social workers aren’t really known for their wealth-attraction), and that insecurity held me back from truly owning my work. Four years in, and about a year after going full-time, I reached out to a coach (DesignGood contributor Jen Spencer) to get support around clarifying my business goals, managing the direction of my career and building a stronger network to create a more predictable business. It was the best decision I could have made. Getting a skilled outside perspective was truly imperative to getting over the challenges that were holding me back from really growing in my career.

4. Make Marketing Your Bitch.

This one still bites me in the booty from time to time, and will probably always be a struggle. Marketing is a necessary constant, especially in a seasonal business like personal styling. When I’m busy, I don’t have time to daydream about strategy, but when it’s slow I freak out that I haven’t done enough to grow my client base. I have discovered that there’s a clear correlation between my enjoyment of any marketing approach and that approach’s outcome. I love taking photos, so I use Instagram as a tool every day. I enjoy writing (when I have time), so I put a lot of my heart into my direct email newsletters and blog posts. I don’t enjoy large networking extravaganzas, so I reach out to individuals to connect one-on-one. Being more comfortable helps me get my message across. Even if I am only reaching one person at a time, I believe that my message is stronger (and has more of a chance to ripple out).

5. Stay Inspired (Even If It Means Diversifying).

I haven’t had a grand plan for my career path, and that’s been just fine with me. I stay inspired by taking on new clients as often as possible and collaborating with others. I stumbled into uniform design/styling via the Four Seasons and have taken on several projects with my partner Chris Savittiere (of Mr & Mrs Sew it All). I mentor personal stylists all over the country through an online training program called The Paid Stylist. All of these separate-but-related endeavors keep me motivated, energized and busy doing the work I am certainly, stubbornly, meant to be doing.

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