If you are experiencing the mid-career crisis, you are not alone. In 2004, Blanchflower and Oswald (and the Gallup organization in 2008) studied psychological well-being as it relates to age. What they found is a u-curve, with well-being bottoming out around age 50 and then increasing to its peak when people reach their 80’s. A similar study on career satisfaction found a similar curve: career well-being seems to bottom out around age 40.
Reasons for the Curve
Early in one’s career, options are endless. In Grade 12, I distinctly remember deciding to take physics, chemistry, and calculus, even though I hated all of them, just to “keep my options open”. I also remember graduating from university and being told by an omniscient 26-year-old to, “Choose your first job wisely. It will determine your whole career.” I ended up selling pest control door to door. But that’s another story.
The fear of missing out is exacerbated today when we see how many people frequently change jobs and careers over the course of their work life. The temptation is to do the same, but changing too often can prevent us from achieving the valuable depth of expertise that comes with practice. Inevitably some doors must be closed as a career progresses. Yet, when one makes a choice, there can be a sense of regret or loss about the path not chosen.
The 9-to-5 job where work has an obvious end and children’s school plays are never missed might appear very attractive to the leader or manager working 70 hours a week trying to build a business. This is true even if building a business also means having month-long family vacations that would never be possible on that 9-to-5 salary. We usually look back with rose coloured glasses and imagine the best that would have come from walking through the other door: bags of money, beautiful people, and unlimited trips to the chocolate buffet. In the real world, it’s project after project, meeting after meeting. Our regrets about the past can bleed into the present but they may not be realistic.
But What Do I Do?
Before making a career change, look at what you do have instead of what you are missing out on. Almost everyone experiences a sense of loss about the road not travelled. But focusing on the positive aspects of your current situation may lead to greater satisfaction than dwelling on the alternative paths.
And if it was a mistake? Or a bad situation like a layoff or market downturn was forced upon you? Again, when you think about how your life has progressed since then it is important to focus on what good came from that loss. Would you be producing the work you are now or mentoring the people around you if that event did not occur?
Being a generalist feels safer but being an expert is where the path to excellence lies. Closing doors is a tough, adulting move but one that will eventually lead to greater well-being.
Corporations are generally not helpful in this quest for career satisfaction. In many industries, even the best technical experts are not given the recognition, compensation, or status that a mediocre manager receives. This results in people aspiring to management positions that they are neither suited for, nor interested in, all in pursuit of “career advancement”. This can lead to a plethora of mid-level managers that do not enjoy their jobs and aren’t particularly skilled at managing people, longing for the good old days when they “just worked”.
5 Tips to Get Excited Again
- Shift your mindset: Recognize that feeling a sense of loss is not just common to most career-oriented people, but also helpful in recognizing what you do have. There may be a lot you don’t like but how valuable is your work? How are you helping others?
- Neutralize bad things: Bad things happen, but they’re rarely all bad. Once you have processed the bad – a terrible boss, a layoff – you can often see some good. The ability to neutralize events can change your perspective, even slightly.
- Discover worthwhile activities: So much time in mid-career (and mid-life) is taken up with what we have to do (parents, kids, projects). What about what you want to do? Can you make room for that? Consider how much space you have for the activities that will make a significant positive change in your life.
- Focus on the process: Are you too focused on outcomes? This can make the present feel empty – you’re either wanting to finish the project or itching to start the next one. Not all activities need to have that structure. You could seek out some projects that never end – increasing your knowledge, building your company, raising a human. You can have what you want right now by just doing those things. Borrow from mindfulness meditation and focus on being in the moment rather than anxiously waiting for results.
- Build on your strengths: Strengths are not just things you are good at; they are also things that energize you. If your expertise drains you of energy it may not be a strength (and could be a curse). Take a week to examine the activities you perform and identify your strengths. Then structure your work to do more of those things and do them more often.
The work-life crisis is almost inevitable when you’re in the daily grind. Try these practices and if they don’t work, maybe it’s time to change careers. If you do make that change, these strategies will still be useful in the new path you’ve chosen.
And if all else fails remember…the bottom is 40 years old. It’s all up from there!
Bellrock is a change management firm that specializes in implementation and getting results. If you enjoyed this article, consider sharing it with your networks.