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Dinesh, one of my clients, told me how he is struggling to define what he wants to do in the next 20 years or so before retiring. He has a successful career, manages a high performing team, and things are going well for him at work and in life. And yet, there is an emptiness, a sense of ‘is this what I want to do for the next ten or twenty years?’ And ‘if this is not what I will do, then what will I do? Do I need to learn new skills?’
His doubts were almost exactly the same ones I had a few years ago. I started to question how I was spending my time and energy, what was the impact I was creating, what did I want to leave behind. As I searched for answers, I started a transformation that has been happening in stages since 2018.
It was then that I learned that there is something called mid-career crisis when I read this article in the Harvard Business Review. Similar to mid-life crisis, this one happens around halfway of our working years, usually after we have been working for 20-25 years.
During the first half (or act) of our career we are in an intense learning mode. We are grasping our subject matter, company culture and politics, leadership skills, and so on. For most, our personal lives at that moment are not as complicated and we seem to have a lot of time and energy to dedicate to our careers.
Time goes by and we start our own families, we get promoted at work and have more responsibilities. We begin to manage others both at work and at home. And we do not seem to have the same energy anymore. So now we start to question if what we are doing is what we want to do until we retire. Add the pandemic to the mix, and many people are making these questions much earlier than the mid-career point.
How come suddenly we ‘wake up’ and realize that maybe what we are doing is not exactly what we want to do? The simple answer is that our priorities, purpose, and mission in life change. This could result in a misalignment between our purpose and meaning and that of the organization or group for whom we work.
How can we start to realign our personal purpose and meaning to that of our careers?
1) What would you do if you did not have to work to earn a living?
I used to think about this answer as a specific position or type of job such as having my own business or doing volunteer work. It took me years to discover that I could combine several activities regardless of if they formed a known ‘job description’.
When I asked Dinesh this question, he was very clear on the answer: he would work for a non for profit that directly helped homeless people fulfill various needs.
2) What aspects of your current job and/or company do you like the most?
To answer this question, we want to increase our awareness of what we are doing throughout the day, week, month.
Do you really enjoy meeting external clients? How much do you love hearing about a problem you can actually solve or at least help solving? Or maybe you lose track of time when you are talking with one of your direct reports about their career development. Or you volunteered to be part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives at your company.
When I started to outline the different activities I highly enjoy, I came up with writing, talking to my colleagues about career development, reading about leadership and emotional intelligence, and connecting different pieces of information to come up with a solution, project plan, methodology, etc.
In general, similar to many of you, I love learning, problem-solving, and overcoming challenges. This is probably the reason why we stick longer than necessary with a difficult situation in the hope of making it better.
3) Bring the future to the present
Dinesh’s answer to question #1 was something he was thinking to do either if he won the lottery or once he retired, twenty or so years from now.
If you already have a solid answer to question #1, think about ways to start working towards that purpose now with what you have. It does not matter if it is tiny, little, medium, or big.
If you work for a big company, consider using the different platforms they have for employees to contribute.
This week I took the train-the-trainer workshop for #IamRemarkable, a Google initiative empowering women and other underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond. It turns out that two female Google employees were the ones who came up with the idea and launched the movement, first for Google employees, and then for everyone else. They started where they were with what they had.
You do not have to wait until retirement, and definitely not for the lotto, to start fulfilling your purpose.
4) Craft your job
Job crafting is proactive behavior that employees use when they feel that changes in their job are necessary (Petrou et al., 2012).
As you shape answers to questions 1 and 2, start creating, and doing, more of the things you love even if they are not officially part of your job description. This article from Psychology Today outlines three types of job crafting: task, relationship, and cognitive crafting.
Because I have always been passionate about leadership, in my last job I offered short trainings on certain skills that could help people at all levels. I did one on writing awesome self-assessments and another one on enhancing communication to obtain agreement and move towards a solution. I also started a peer coaching group at work to support each other navigate the transition from mid to senior level leaders.
Talking to people in your network will also give you other perspectives and ideas on the potential gaps you could help close.
“We spend far too much of our lives at work to have it be in opposition to the person we desire to be.” – Scott Hammerle, Lessons from the Castle
Going through a mid-career crisis is a blessing in disguise because it makes us pause and question. The answers to the questions and the transformation do not come or happen overnight. It is a path of discovery and can only be overcome by going through.
Of course, you could choose to remain where you are and take no different action at this time. Unfortunately, the questions and the misalignment will not go away. They may dim for a period of time while you focus on other priorities. Once those concerns are addressed, they will come back in full force.
I invite you to start addressing some of these questions, to pay attention to your preferences and flow, and to start taking action now, even if it is a tiny micro step. Doing so will increase your sense of purpose and meaning as well as your confidence. As a result, you will trust the process and not become obsessed with outcomes: all experiences are part of the plan and are valuable.
What are some of your answers to these questions? What action will you take this week? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.
My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership positions by creating awareness, increasing emotional intelligence, and unveiling the tools and choices available to them, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.
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